Political correctness has evolved. Old-style PC was about avoiding blatantly racist or sexist language – and, for the most part, society made a good job of distinguishing between its reasonable and unreasonable demands.

The new PC, however, is more insidious. Its stronghold is academia, especially American academia, but its influence is spreading. It is highly elaborate, based on such concepts as ‘micro-aggressions’, ‘trigger warnings’ , ’safe spaces’ and, at the extreme, the idea that giving offence amounts to actual violence.

The phenomenon is analysed by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in a must-read essay for the Atlantic:

“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

Examples of statements deemed unacceptable include “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Quite apart from the chilling effect this has on academic freedom, Lukianoff and Haidt ask what it’s doing to its supposed beneficiaries:

“What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?”

It is true that many students, especially those from minority groups, have experienced discrimination – in some cases to a traumatic extent. However, shielding such individuals from anything that might trigger negative memories goes against well-researched psychological practice:

“Students who call for trigger warnings may be correct that some of their peers are harboring memories of trauma that could be reactivated by course readings. But they are wrong to try to prevent such reactivations. Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation… And they’d better get their habituation done in college, because the world beyond college will be far less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warnings and opt-outs.”

Far from helping students to deal with ideas and associations that might disturb them, the new PC is hyper-sensitising them. Indeed it can be seen as the very antithesis of cognitive behavioural therapy:

“No other form of psychotherapy has been shown to work for a broader range of problems. Studies have generally found that it is as effective as antidepressant drugs (such as Prozac) in the treatment of anxiety and depression.”

Instead of teaching young people how to think through the causes of mental distress and get them into perspective, the new PC does precisely the opposite:

“The recent collegiate trend of uncovering allegedly racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise discriminatory microaggressions doesn’t incidentally teach students to focus on small or accidental slights. Its purpose is to get students to focus on them and then relabel the people who have made such remarks as aggressors.”

This surely leaves them more not less vulnerable to the real bigots and bullies of this world.

I also wander whether the advocates of the new PC  have ever considered the effect it has on students from countries where free speech is suppressed. Imagine escaping from a police state where what you say is constantly monitored, where ‘wrong’ opinions are punished and where people are encouraged to inform on one another – only to find a parallel, though milder, system of thought-control taking root in our universities.

The PC brigade may be repeating the history of oppression more as farce than tragedy, but do they not realise just how offensive it is?

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