SOON AFTER the war began, one student, who'd promised to talk to me about political correctness, said she was sorry, she couldn't fit me in. "Things could get crazy," she said. "This war is going to take a lot of my time." When I recalled her words to another student the next day, his mouth slid gradually into a sneer. "How PC," he said.

It's become fashionable to attack "PC" or "politically correct" college students. The national media routinely clobbers this generation of activists, calling them dogmatic and crazy. Columnists hoot at news of students boycotting the classics, insisting on "humankind" rather than "mankind" or decrying Shakespeare's "phallocentric" vision.

Things look different from the other side. The media, said one college senior I talked to, "has its little hook -- 'PC' -- and now it's all derision and parody. Now that campuses are heating up again they're trying to discount what's going on." And what's going on is a liberal ideology cluster -- popular on many campuses -- that prescribes "correct" attitudes toward race, sex, culture, education, ecology and politics. Black pride, for instance, is politically correct; war in the Middle East is not. An early American history course is politically correct only if it teaches that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and referred to Native Americans as wild savages. In an effort to abolish thewhite western male power structure, PC students call for diversifying curricula and attacking the status quo.

Perhaps "call for" is too gentle. According to its critics, PC style falls just short of fascism. Embrace their politics or face being branded a moral monster. "You either go along with the party line or get blasted," said a conservative student. "I've been called a racist I don't know how many times."

In light of this phenomenon, two questions come to mind: Why have kids raised in the Reagan '80s turned into radicals with the inclination and know-how to antagonize? And what is it about their goals and tactics that drives people to ridicule?

To answer these questions, I talked with students at two very different Southern universities: Duke, a private school whose avant garde English department is frequently featured in the national press; and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a state school with a more conservative curriculum.

I'd assumed that these students, rocked in the cradle of the '80s, had learned to be distrustful of political extremes -- the way the people I'd gone to college with in the early '80s were. My classmates never dreamed of dealing themselves into history by the messy, public means of activism. College was a place to learn how to make money, not barricades.

But these students -- who watched Watergate from their cribs, heard their parents talk about Woodstock and bounced on the knees of Marxist grandmothers -- were raised on a different ideology, something people even a few years older experienced as an almost alien phenomenon. "I grew up learning about all these ideas of justice and equality," said Duke senior Rick Shoop. "But I also saw I was in a system that hadn't adopted these ideas."

Other students told of similar reactions. "We grew up on 'Sesame Street,' " said Duke senior Julia Ehrhardt. "You know, Habla espanol, racial harmony on the playground. But you look and you see there are people who are hungry, who don't have any place to live." Tara Richardson, a women's activist at Duke, told me that one of her first memories was of the American Indian in the TV commercial, crying about the environment. "We just grew up and figured it out about Reagan's glorious America," another student said. "You wake up one day and smell the hypocrisy."

What many black students said they'd figured out is that equality comes only at the expense of one's own identity. Wearing a T-shirt with a black Bart Simpson and the caption "Free South Africa," University of North Carolina senior Dana Lumsden told me black students must ignore the message of assimilation. "What people are saying," he told me, "is, 'Let's all be European, even you black people: Dress like us, talk like us, forget about where you came from, forget about what happened to your people.' If that's what they mean by equality, I'm not interested." Another student was more blunt: "This 'melting pot,' " he said, "is a melting crock of {expletive}."

Fliers reading "I Hate Straights" and "Gays Bash Back" have appeared at Duke, where many gay and lesbian students now prefer to be called "queer" because, as one gay student told me, "conforming to the mainstream is psychologically damaging." At UNC, several sections of freshman composition are now classes in "Racism and Sexism"; in one such class, students are told to write a coming-out letter to their parents -- "just," said the teaching assistant, "to see how it feels." This winter, UNC students vandalized a controversial statue depicting a black student twirling a basketball, construed by many as racist -- a "tired-out stereotype," one student explained, "that people got sick of looking at."

After hearing about this sort of thing, you begin to realize what's different about PC -- and what exasperates people so. The tie-dyed student caricature (with "grubby knapsack") of the recent Newsweek cover may seem an icon of the '60s, but PC today is about something rather different -- and, to many people, more sinister. One PC student I talked to called it a "celebration of otherness. Another used less cheery terms: "The other way has been tried and didn't work," he said, grim-faced. "The Civil Rights Act got signed before I was even born, and I look around and wonder where my brothers and sisters are on this campus. I look around and I see white."

Such thinking seems to beg for ridicule, not to mention resentment. "Frankly," one Duke sophomore told me, "when I hear black students talking black power and every white student in the room is clapping and nodding, I wonder where I stand."

One Duke activist told me conservative students should examine their frustration at political correctness -- because that's what prompted the movement in the first place. "It's the reason we ask for women's studies and Afro-American studies," she said. "Because for years we've asked to have women and blacks represented in regular history classes and no one's listened."

If their movement is a product of conservatism, said PC students, so is the backlash. What's extreme, they argued, isn't liberalism on campus but the context in which it struggles. In one UNC dormitory last fall, campaign posters for U.S. senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt were marked over with "KKK" and "racism lives." During a gay-awareness day on Duke's campus a group of students set up a table with literature that warned male students not to find out their roommate was gay "the hard way."

Listening to stories about this kind of hate and harassment, you begin to see the rationale for the politics of difference; you begin to understand how the reactionary activism called political correctness is learned behavior. "Now they know how a lot of the world feels," UNC senior Matthew Stewart said of critics. "As a gay man I can go to 80 percent of the places in this country and get shot on sight. You have to understand where defensiveness and vehemence comes from -- it comes from the fact that people of color and women and gay people are under attack in this society."

In fact, you can see that despite declarations of a "different approach," PC is really just playing by the enemy's rules: PC's "celebration of otherness" amounts itself to a control game, a stratagem in which race or sexual preference become currency, a source of power. What makes you different is what makes you special, more deserving. Even the rules are the same, though they apply to different "differences." As one exasperated fraternity brother put it, "It's like you get less points if you're a straight white guy."

Duke junior and PC critic John Lutz put it this way: "To say that whites have been racist all along and in turn to accept black racism -- that's accepting a wrong; and two wrongs don't make a right." Others complain that black students can ask more from campus administrations, demand punishment for acts of racial insensitivity and criticize white students -- sometimes in language considered by many to be racist -- all with the support of white PC students.

Indeed, even adamant PC students have difficulty refuting the argument that assigning power by skin color can never be right. One Duke senior I spoke to suggested that much racial and sexual harassment on his campus results from whites striking out against what they see as their own dismissal.

PC students reply that they are not out to subjugate anyone. Duke sophomore Dena Paris remembers deciding not to declare her sexual preference during her freshman year because a soccer teammate was fond of saying "All dykes should be shot." Said Paris, "Now I call myself queer, "but I haven't forgotten how that felt and I don't want to make others feel it. You can't convert people from the outside." If a student is "truly PC," said Tara Richardson, "she would go after any offender of anyone's sensibilities."

Paris, Richardson and others agreed that accusations of PC bigotry should be taken seriously, but they argued that most of their critics do not take them seriously. Not surprisingly, many hated the label "politically correct" -- some to the point of asking me not to identify them that way. "It's belittling the problem," said Duke senior Rae Terry. "If you slap a label on it you're able to overlook the fact that there's a need for a new attitude on campus."

Among these students, there was an angry consensus that the term "PC" itself has become sport for anyone opposed to the ideology -- and an excuse not to pay attention to it. There were predictions that "politically correct" will take on the implications of "commie-pinko" in the '60s or, more recently, the milder "liberal." People have already shown, UNC senior Ann Ards said, that they'd rather respond to a stereotype of their own making than to issues. In this view, the critics continue to play the game -- with the old rules intact.

The day after the war began, I went to a peace demonstration on the Duke campus. The gathering was small; students were standing in bunches, talking about where they'd been when they heard the news. Watching them I wondered whether political correctness would ever assume the credibility of '60s activism. I kept thinking you have to have a Vietnam to bring people together that way and these students didn't have that, at least not yet.

Waiting, I looked around, trying to find (I later realized) the stereotypes. There were some sandals, some beads and -- no kidding -- a single pair of white go-go boots. There were also Reeboks and alligator handbags and Raybands. One student jingled the keys to her Audi as a Duke student, told the crowd, "There's been a "slow dying going on for a decade."

The words made me think that maybe I was wrong about the absence of a Vietnam War; perhaps the Reagan era filled the bill. In any event, I thought, college students across the country are reacting, and to craft a cliche in response to them is to miss something important. And I thought this: If there is something preposterous about the goals and tactics of PC students, there is also something worth listening to. Even their shortcomings -- the flaws in their argument -- tell us something about ourselves, about the game we've all taught them to play. PC students may be choosing different sides, but they know what scores points. They know what counts.

Melinda Ruley is a staff writer for the Independent, a weekly newspaper based in North Carolina's Research Triangle.