Columnist

A friend whom I respect wrote today to ask why I bothered to columnize about a random campus dispute over tiny sombreros. One person’s political correctness is another person’s ethnic slur, he said.

He’s right: Whether sombreros are inherently offensive is debatable. One Mexican American student at Bowdoin wrote eloquently in the school paper about the hurt caused by the sombreros and tequila at the now-infamous “tequila party.” Other students, including some of Latin American heritage, expressed confusion about why tiny hats caused such a fuss and protested that the school’s response to them seemed arbitrarily punitive. Especially since the administration also sponsors an annual “Cold War” party, at which students wear stereotypical Slavic attire (including fur hats) and call themselves Stalin, arguably a school-sponsored act of “cultural appropriation.” In fact, the “Cold War” party and the “tequila party” both occurred the same night.

And that is the point: Questions such as “what counts as cultural appropriation, and under what circumstances?” deserve to be debated, probed, openly discussed, with an assumption of good faith among all parties to the discussion. They do not deserve to be settled via a disciplinary decision suddenly handed down from on high that will mar these students’ transcripts and potentially hurt their future employment. And that seems to be what happened here. Bowdoin’s administration pretended as if there were clear social norms that students should have known to abide by, even as the administration itself actively muddied those norms.

This controversy was a chance for a “teachable moment”; instead the students are being socially, politically and even residentially purged, without much chance to defend their actions or — should they ultimately be deemed indefensible — at least learn from them. Tied up in this campus controversy is a moral question, and also a pedagogical one.

More distressingly, when I spoke to Bowdoin students about these issues, many expressed concern about the seemingly unanimous public repudiation of the tequila partiers … and then in the same breath pleaded that I leave their names out of any public discussion, for fear of being labeled bigoted. I heard similar sentiments from self-described liberals, moderates and conservatives alike.

“I’m really afraid to have a discussion about it anymore with people here,” one student, a self-identified political moderate, told me, on condition that I not use the student’s name. “Getting labeled a racist, or a bigot, or intolerant or insulting toward other cultures, that can stick.”

People often say talk is cheap; on these campuses, students have learned, talk can be very, very expensive.

Claims of offense, witch hunts, a new and seemingly arbitrary litmus test of who is sufficiently dedicated to the cause or ideologically impure, chilling effects on public debate — this pattern is not unique to this institution, or even to colleges. And this worries me.

Liberal arts schools, and liberalism more generally, have a long tradition of debating and probing difficult issues, of questioning our most deeply held beliefs, and testing our principles. But I very much fear that the left is abandoning its traditional embrace of open discourse for fear of ever being on the “wrong” side of an issue, of inadvertently using the wrong noun or pronoun or suffix, or of not proving oneself sufficiently sensitive to perceived slights and marginalized groups, even when intentions are good and hearts are open. Fear of and intolerance for dissent will ultimately be bad for many of the causes liberals hold dear … and not only because those illiberal tendencies tend to breed more closet reactionaries, as seems to be happening right now at Bowdoin.