The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education

John K. Wilson
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995
205 pp., $14.95 pb

Paul Trout

There is no question that the phrase "politically correct" has been used successfully to discredit a wide assortment of values, ideas, programs and attitudes embraced by the left, especially the academic left.

Not surprisingly, ever since the term started to draw blood in the early 90s, those who smarted from the nettlesome PC label have attempted to convince a dubious public that "political correctness" does not even exist, or is too negligible to deserve attention.

This is the thesis of The Myth of Political Correctness by John K. Wilson, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and editor of--as well as the main contributor to--Democratic Culture, the newsletter for Teachers for a Democratic Culture. By pulling together all the arguments and statistics that PC deniers have used to fend off the damaging charge of "political correctness," Wilson hopes to provide a "sustained rebuttal to the conservative attacks" (25). Sustained it is, but convincing it is not.

In Chapter 1, Wilson contends that "political correctness" is a big lie, concocted by conservatives funded by "right-wing foundations" and by "liberals and journalists who dislike the academic left" (2). By distorting, exaggerating, and then repeating ad nauseum a few anecdotes about so-called PC repression at some elite universities, these forces have conspired to create the "myth of political correctness," which has convinced a clueless American public that a "vast conspiracy" (4) "under the control of a secret cabal of leftist professors" now threatens the civil liberties of "conservative white males" (2-3).

In Chapter 2, Wilson pushes his argument farther: the real threat to academic freedom, he contends, does not come from PC but from CC--conservative correctness. According to Wilson, conservatives have exploited fear of "political correctness" to wage "culture war against radicals of all kinds" ( 118), fomenting a "backlash" against "anyone who advocates progressive ideas" (14). In subsequent chapters, Wilson examines widely trumpeted PC anecdotes about the canon, speech codes, sexual correctness, and reverse discrimination, arguing that "when closely examined," these cases simply "unravel" (xv). This is precisely what happens to Wilson's book.

But before I address the work's deficiencies, a few concessions are in order. There is no doubt that some PC stories have been distorted--and exaggerated--in the telling and the retelling. This is what happens when winning the culture war trumps scholarship and telling the truth. But sometimes inaccuracies do not signify conspiratorial propaganda (whether right or left) but writing to a deadline. Of course, when the facts are (finally) known, they should be objectively reported. If this bromide now sounds a bit quaint, it could be because academics on the Left have been so assiduous in Reconstructing such terms as truth, facts, and objectivity. It seems hypocritical and self-interested for one of them to now evoke the terms in self-defense.

Nevertheless, Wilson is to be commended for correcting the record in several cases, and for admonishing right-wing culture warriors to get the facts straight (for example, about the canon, which is not being trod to dust under the jackboots of multiculturalists, about the ballyhooed Thernstrom case, etc.) and to eschew the dehumanizing, demonizing rhetoric of which they are too fond ("liberal fascism," "stalags of state-subsidized sensitivity fascism," "liberal thought police." etc.).

To admit that some anecdotes have been exaggerated and distorted is not to admit, however, that the reaction to "political correctness" has also been excessive. Wilson contends, quite understandably, that the whole issue of alleged PC repression has been blown out of proportion. While this claim will appeal to those chafing from the term, it is a claim that is ultimately tendentious and vacuous, for it is unprovable. Who has the scales in which to weigh cultural concerns? How could a culture as pluralistic as ours agree on a standard that convincingly determines when cultural attention moves from being justified and reasonable to being "exaggerated" and "excessive"? Although Wilson has corrected the record here and there, he certainly has not discredited enough stories to support his argument that PC is some sort of mythic confection. By now there have been too many reports about too many incidents of coercion and intimidation for them all to be simply dismissed as invented or wildly exaggerated. Indeed, a number of these reports have appeared in centrist, and even liberal, periodicals (such as Mother Jones) and have provoked academics from across the political spectrum to speak out against them (more on this in a moment).

In Zealotry and Academic Freedom (1995), Neil Hamilton, a professor at the William Marshall School of Law, carefully and soberly recounts enough stories of PC zealotry to make the point that the coercive policies and practices endorsed by the academic left now constitute a more dangerous threat to academic freedom than any other wave of zealotry, including McCarthyism (143-145). And it is not just "conservatives" who understand the nature and source of this threat. Wilson is forced to acknowledge that many centrists, moderates, liberals, and even some Marxists, have also opposed PC (1). He accounts for this opposition by suggesting--insultingly--that they either were duped by conservative propaganda (156, 17), or were "alarmed" by radical attacks "on liberal ideas about rationality, free speech, and objectivity." He adds, "liberals were also concerned at the intolerance of leftists, who did not accept liberal notions about the marketplace of ideas" (24).

Does not this disconcertingly frank explanation concede precisely what Wilson denies--the existence of intolerant leftists who do not accept widespread and traditional notions about free speech and reason? It is this leftist assault on cherished liberal values that provoked, for example, the eminent historian C. Vann Woodward to articulate one of the most incisive definitions and critiques of "political correctness" yet written:

In the present crisis the attack on freedom comes from outside as well as inside and is led by minorities, that is, people who speak or claim to speak for groups of students and faculty.... In behalf of their cause and to protect feelings from offensive speech they have, as we shall see, proved themselves willing to silence speakers and professors, abuse standards of scholarship, curriculum, and admissions, and impose conformity or silent submission on the campus (in Beyond P.C. 31).

Many others who are not die-hard conservatives have also spoken out against the well meant but puritanical and coercive practices and policies to be found at too many of our best universities. If Wilson wants to brand these scholars with the dreaded label of "conservative," he is free to do so, but the ruse will console only die-hard PCers deeply into denial.

Wilson is even less convincing when he argues, provocatively, that "the greatest threat to freedom of expression in America" comes from conservative correctness (164). In a bid to make his case, Wilson must employ an exceedingly elastic definition of "conservative." For instance, under the heading "conservative correctness" Wilson lumps any restriction imposed by administrators (107, 12), any rule or act that upsets campus gays and lesbians--even when these occur at decidedly"liberal" campuses (46) or in the "most liberal" departments (43)--and every vile, bigoted act he can dig up, even when the identity and political beliefs of the perpetrator are unknown (31). Thus, when a male student sends a message to a female student in which he threatens to stalk her (41), this becomes, for Wilson, a case of conservative correctness! Given this sweeping definition, it is not surprising that Wilson thinks conservative correctness, like Chicken Man, is everywhere.

Not content with using a bloated definition of "conservative," Wilson also searches through a number of fourth-tier and sectarian campuses for anything that looks like "conservative correctness," finding his own alarming examples at such influential schools as the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, Messiah College, Campbell University, Bethel College, Nyack College, the College of Saint Scholastica, Viterbo College Millsaps College, and Ohlone College (2).

Granted, small regional and religious schools are rarely bastions of free thought for obvious reasons, and it is hypocritical, as Wilson contends, for conservatives to talk glowingly about the academic freedom at such places as Brigham Young University, Boston University, and Hillsdale College (135). I share Wilson's suspicion that the right's recently acquired commitment to academic freedom is not as permanent or even-handed as it claims, especially given the right's continuing willingness to ignore, palliate, or applaud violations of the academic freedom of leftist professors (10-11, 32, 57, 77, 135). The cases that Wilson manages to find at these schools proves that there is such a thing as right-wing PC, and he does well to remind us all that "intolerance is not a monopoly of the left" (55). But it is a telling revelation that Wilson chooses to express it this way.

For Wilson to make a plausible case that conservative correctness is now a greater threat to free speech and academic freedom than PC, he would have to draw examples from large secular universities, the same ones that have furnished so many alarming examples of Leftist coercion. The debate about PC has justifiably focused on these major universities because they educate so many students and establish precedents and set the pace for smaller and less influential campuses.

Why, then, does Wilson not draw examples of conservative correctness from such schools as Stanford, Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, Duke, etc? The answer is simply: they don't exist. As Neil Hamilton puts it, "the left so totally dominates departments of humanities and social sciences at elite universities that moderate and conservative faculty have almost no presence." Because "there are virtually no faculty members from the far right at universities or four-year colleges,...there exists no threat to academic freedom from the far right within the faculty itself" (101, also 106).

In his chapters on speech codes, sexual correctness, and affirmative action, Wilson tries to explain the extent to which certain features of the "progressive agenda" have been misunderstood or wilfully distorted. Although his treatments of these topics does not amount to a convincing case that there's no such thing as PC and it's a good thing, too, he does make some subtle distinctions that culture warriors on the right too often overlook. But even in these sections Wilson's arguments suffer from logical inconsistencies, elastic definitions, and the tendentious interpretation of evidence.

Those at the political extremes always see themselves as a beleaguered minority desperately contending with a hostile majority threatening to overwhelm them. This mindset may help explain Wilson's sincere but preposterous thesis. Far to the left, Wilson believes that he is fighting for his intellectual life in a country that, from his point of view, is overwhelmingly "conservative," where every institution, from elementary education to the military-industrial-political complex, is saturated with socially endorsed capitalist values. No wonder he is outraged that the "conservative" majority--despite owning everything else--won't let leftists at least control higher education as their last redoubt.

John Wilson is not only a precocious graduate student but an indefatigable and battle-tough combatant in the culture wars. This may have been his undoing. The flaws to be found in The Myth of Political Correctness illustrate the consequences of writing polemics before one has mastered the argumentative and intellectual skills and values of traditional academic research: "accuracy and thoroughness in the collection and use of evidence, reasonable assertion, impartiality in the determination of the weight of the evidence, careful analytical reasoning, and fairness in argument or controversy" (Hamilton, 93).

Those who esteem such skills will take little pleasure in the fact that The Myth of Political Correctness is such a shallow and ineffective endeavor to find--and face--the truth.


  1. Among the centrist-to-Marxist opponents of PC are such distinguished and influential scholars as: C. Vann Woodward, Nat Hentoff, Mortimer J. Adler, Todd Gitlin, Eugene D. Genovese, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Louis Menand, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, David Bromwich, Derek Bok, Nuretta Koertge, Stephen Carter, John Patrick Diggins, John Searle, Irving Howe, Edward W. Said, Shelby Steele, David Riesman, James David Barber, Nadine Strossen, Russell Jacoby, Susan Haack, Steven Marcus, Daphne Patai, Helen Vendler, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Irving Louis Horowitz, Alan Kors, Jacques Barzun, Edward O. Wilson, Donald Kagan, Julius Lester, Allan Dershowitz, Colin Diver, Benno Schmidt, etc.

  2. Wilson palliates a case of "political correctness" that even he says is legitimate by saying that the incident was not significant or worrisome because it occurred at "a small liberal Christian college, not a leading secular university." He conveniently overlooks the fact that his own evidence that "conservative correctness" is now sweeping the country is also drawn from the same kinds of schools: Marquette University, Gonzaga University, Bringham Young University, Idaho State University, Southwestern Michigan College, Pacific Luthern University, Saint John's University, Loyola Marymount University, Campbell University, Converse College, McKendree College, Elmira College, Jamestown College, Mount Vernon College, Stephen F. Austin State University, Ohio Northern University, Southwestern Theological Seminary Saint Martin's College, North Idaho College, Dallas Baptist University, Palm Beach Atlantic College, Wheaton College, and Montana Tech.

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