In 1993, a Penn first year, Eden Jacobowitz, yelled at a group of Black sorority sisters making noise outside of his dorm: “Shut up, you water buffalo! If you're looking for a party, there's a zoo a mile from here.”
While Jacobowitz claimed that “water buffalo” was an innocuous term in Hebrew, Penn investigated the incident as a violation of their newly minted racial harassment policies. Termed the “Water Buffalo Incident,” this night sparked national debate — Penn’s charges against Jacobowitz were seen as part of a sinister movement of “political correctness,” one promulgated by leftists and University elites which sought to fire professors, expel students, and publicly humiliate anyone who misspoke.
Nearly 30 years later, not much has changed: the moral panic that the virus of political correctness will escape from its breeding grounds on college campuses and target everyday people is a cornerstone of political discourse in the United States.
Earlier this year, a student at the University of Virginia published an article in the New York Times: “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.” She cites “strict ideological conformity” in universities, having to speak to professors about “complex ethical questions” in hushed voices, “as if someone might overhear.” Unsurprisingly, national controversy erupted after publication: Was self-censorship and intolerance really such a problem as the author claimed?
Just a few months later, Penn came into the spotlight again in a similar article from The Washington Post on self-censorship on our own campus. Both articles, however, never mentioned any actual retribution for the authors’ views beyond mild disagreement.
It’s unclear where exactly the phrase originated, but it was commonly used within New Left activist groups of the '70s to poke fun at anyone who fell victim to dogma. But gradually, the term political correctness was co-opted and weaponized by the right to become part of the nationwide moral outrage it is today.
In the '90s, discourse around political correctness exploded. A 1991 Times cover story warned of the “New Fascists”: ideological zealots, mostly liberal students and institutions of higher education that sought to suppress dissent and enforce conformity. Bush even warned in a speech of the “Orwellian crusades” carried out by pro-political correctness actors.
Later on, shock jocks like Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and even news outlets like the Daily Mail began running story after story about these thought police. They rallied against zero tolerance policies for hate speech, mourned the replacement of Native American mascots, and scorned gender-neutral bathrooms. These stories were typically grossly exaggerated and cartoonish, divorced from their context, or even entirely made up: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were banned for being racist, and the game of musical chairs was banned for promoting aggression and violence. “So this is what it’s come to, America,” writes a Fox News article on a Texas school apparently banning the colors red and green.
The political correctness movement has ultimately served to radicalize the right wing. And those who reject or resist the movement are deemed heroes, those ultimately “canceled” live on as martyrs.
“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals,’” Megyn Kelly asked former President Donald Trump during the first presidential debate in 2015. “You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.”
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump replied, to applause from the audience. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.”
This anti-political correctness movement became an important tool for the right, both to elucidate the supposed elitist hypocrisy of the left, and as an ideological shield to hide their own bigotry. As the right wing inspires outrage, especially around events on college campuses, they’ve been able to take concrete steps towards the same censorship and regulation they claim to be victims of.
Right-wing evangelical groups and politicians have worked to ban hundreds of books — mainly LGBTQ books — from schools. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill has worked to censor teachers from discussing any LGBTQ-related discussion, and a handful of teachers have already been fired. Nine states have passed legislation banning “critical race theory” and everything they believe falls under this vague moniker.
Numerous bills have been introduced that would withhold funding from public universities with hate speech codes. A bill recently passed through the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives that would remove public funding from the University of Pittsburgh if they continued to use fetal tissue from elective abortions in their research. Anything perceived as anti-American, whether it’s Marxism or just non-western education, has been targeted by right-wing ideologues.
The movement against political correctness goes far beyond people complaining on Twitter about safe spaces and pronouns. It’s a coordinated and well-financed movement between corporate-funded politicians, media conglomerate-funded talk shows, and billionaire-funded conservative think tanks.
It’s no mistake that this movement turned into a full-fledged moral panic — but the fearmongering around students becoming “crippled” by leftist indoctrination in America’s universities isn’t just something reserved for Carlson’s unhinged ramblings. It serves a very distinct ideological purpose, and it’s been materializing in our legislatures.
Especially within university settings, rejection of “PC culture” has been used as a scapegoat, allowing anyone to claim they’ve been victimized by the movement. Not only does this shut down debate and healthy dialogue, but it prevents progress by making people extremely defensive over the smallest disagreements. If we’re so paranoid about the potential of censorship and backlash, we just end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear is shutting down debate, not actual oppression.
To be fair, I do agree that universities are somewhat responsible for creating an environment not conducive to healthy debate — and students inclined to make ad hominem attacks against their classmates or shut down discussion once they disagree certainly do exist, but they are few and far between. And most importantly, they don’t hold any actual power over others. The idea that political correctness will come for you, threaten your livelihood, your education, and the ideal of liberty itself, is ridiculous. The fearmongering around political correctness is damaging healthy debate more than political correctness itself.
So many of the stories surrounding PC-ness and self-censorship in college usually amount to students getting into small class disagreements — and it fails to consider that self-censorship will occur in literally any intellectual exchange. Attendance or employment at a university often means being surrounded by people with left-leaning beliefs. This can certainly be alienating — but people pushing back against your opinions is not representative of fascistic oppression or culture of silence.
To conflate unhealthy dialogue among 20-year-olds with a new wave of fascism is an argument made in bad faith — but it’s also one that enforces right-wing goals and ideologies. As the nation panics about liberal college students and administrators threatening the very basis of free speech and liberty itself, know that there are institutional threats and right wing reactionary ideology that has found a convenient weapon within so-called “political correctness.”
TAJA MAZAJ is a College junior studying political science and English from Philadelphia. Her email is email@example.com.