As an educator, a some-time college counselor, and the parent of college-age kids, I watch with great interest the various morality plays unfolding on college campuses—many of these on so-called “elite” college campuses. Between trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and the spread of awareness of sexual assault and harassment, students on college campuses these days are receiving a profound education in how words and actions can hurt others, an education nuanced far beyond the “sticks and stones,” “can’t say you can’t play,” and “no means no” lessons learned on playgrounds and in middle school sex ed classes.
I read about and appreciate these stories in the educational trade journals and occasionally the mainstream media. But it has occurred to me that young Americans who do not attend college, at least full time, or who do not live on college campuses are not being taught these lessons, nor are they living in communities in which their import and impact is felt on a minute-to-minute basis. The majority of young Americans, like the vast majority of their elders, do not live in a world where speech is circumscribed by worries related to micro-aggression or cultural appropriation or where each interaction is conditioned by a learned and heightened desire to not offend or frighten.
It is perhaps no wonder that the Trumps and trumpkins of our world are baffled and apparently offended by the niceties of what they sneeringly call “political correctness.” They see a special code of detailed and ever-evolving rules and principles that look to those not steeped in them like a kind of moral minuet—effete, elitist, a left-wing puritanism that looks down upon their every impulse to say or even think what they may say and think. That “p.c” might just stand first and foremost for heightened politeness and courtesy seems a foreign concept.
Yesterday I listened to moderately conservative Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam practically asphyxiate on his own words after he expressed in passing his preference for English as an “official” U. S. language on a public radio talk show. The liberal host judiciously left Beam to twist in the chilly wind of his own awareness of the disapproval this idea would meet from a public radio audience. Everyone got that the joke, or the onus, in this context was on Beam. But it was most assuredly a conclave—radio participants and listeners—of the educated and informed, responding to a sort of “First World” moral dilemma.
What do American college students deeply enmeshed in their controversies and conversations on sex, race, speech, and justice think when they consider the rest of their nation? Does their heightened moral awareness separate them even more from the generality of their fellow citizens? As an educated minority that is almost by definition an economically privileged minority, does their differential experience and awareness of racism and sexism and the meaning of these create yet another chasm of separation between them and the mass of the nation’s people?
Normally here I would call upon our K-12 schools to step up their educational efforts in these “nuanced” areas of political and cultural sensitivity, but it’s not entirely schools’ job and anyhow the audience here tends to be independent schools, already a self-separating “elite” (if you want to use that term) in itself. I think that the work must mostly be done by the media, both topical and pure entertainment versions, who could start by not treating issues like the renaming of college buildings, inadequate sentences for sexual assault, or the fall-out from the University of Chicago’s stance on trigger warnings et al. like the birth of a three-headed calf: exotic, rare, and with just enough of an ick factor to the general public to sell newspapers. The media could simply start asking and even reminding us when some things are really not okay to say and do.
In the meantime maybe colleges could add to their (often commendably self-imposed) tribulations in all this some education of their students on how to think about and respond to injustices and aggressions, micro and otherwise, in the world beyond their campuses. We cannot afford as a society to have any more ways in which a few people (who often look a lot like me and mine, I admit), the putatively “enlightened,” can permit themselves to look down upon and judge those who have less—be it money, power, privilege, education, or sensitivity.