I will never again use the term “political correctness.” Whatever rhetorical value the term may have once had is far more than offset by what has been unleashed in the name of resistance to it since the presidential election.
I have made no secret over the years of my conviction that the sensitivities of individuals or members of various group should not be permitted to chill free speech on college campuses. I have the scars to show for speaking out against overdoing the idea of microaggression, the regulation of Halloween costumes and the prosecution of students for taking part in sombrero parties – all of which have struck me as “political correctness” run amok.
But the events of the last week are giving me pause about that term and its usage and the complex issues underlying it. It’s not that I now think speech codes are wise or that we should stamp out microaggressions wherever they are perceived. Rather, my reaction is to the way President-elect Donald Trump has been heard during the campaign and the terrifying events his election has set off.
The widespread perception is something like this: Trump has vowed to ban Muslims from entering the country and to force deportation of Mexicans. He has ridiculed the disabled. He has accepted without criticism the enthusiastic support of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups that were previously on the fringes of society. He has invoked standard anti-Semitic tropes in his political advertising. And he has made clear that he believes grabbing and groping women is appropriate behavior.
Black students, gay students, Hispanic students, Muslim students, disabled students, female students – all of them now fear that the basic security and acceptance on which they relied is at risk. Help lines are flooded with calls. Those who seek to count hateful incidents report an upsurge. I cannot convince myself that that fear is irrational. Personal experience has brought home to me the pervasive change since the election. Painted swastikas have defaced the middle school that my twin daughters attended and the college another daughter now attends. At a different university where my daughter studies, all the black freshmen were sent emails with pictures depicting lynchings.
In the face of all this, the President-elect and his staff condemn those who march in protest over his election but as of yet have not forcefully condemned those overt acts of racism, sexism and bigotry the election has stimulated. They have allowed, without adequate response and rejection, the celebration of victory to metastasize into something dark and evil. It is surely wrong to hold the President-elect personally responsible for all the words and deeds of all who support him. Equally, the President-elect has a moral obligation to stand up for tolerance and against intolerance whatever its source.
The fight for academic freedom and for ideological diversity on college campuses should and will go on. But given what opposition to “political correctness” has licensed, it time to retire the term.
More importantly, democracy does not mean electrocracy. Winning an election does not entitle one to upend our basic values. The refusal to tolerate blatant racism, bigotry and misogyny are beyond compromise. The first obligation of anyone currently in a leadership position is not to find common ground with our new President-elect now that the ballots have been counted and the election is over. It is instead to once again make it possible for all who live in our country to feel safe.
Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard, is a former treasury secretary and director of the National Economic Council in the White House. He writes occasional posts on Wonkblog about issues of national and international economics and policymaking.