Times are tough for the “Politically Correct” (PC) movement on college campuses around the United States. In recent weeks, it has witnessed withering criticism — not only from the right, but also increasingly from the left. The cover story of The Atlantic’s September edition takes aim at “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Related Atlantic articles by Caitlin Flanagan and Conor Friedersdorf, as well as earlier pieces by Amanda Kerri in the Advocate and Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, have also pushed back against increasingly frequent campus practices such as “trigger warnings,” the banning of certain comedians and commencement speakers, and social media campaigns in reaction to any offenses — including the slightest of “microaggressions” — against identity politics.
Liberals rallying to defend free speech is a welcome development, but there is an irony in much of this anti-PC discourse to date. Critics chastise students for being thin-skinned and self-indulgent, yet focus solely on the self-interests of the students — not the wider world to which the students hold obligations. College students are being told that their emotional well-being and intellectual development are hurt, not advanced, by campus cultures of victimology and ideological uniformity — all of which is true enough. Missing from the critics’ argument, however, is the world-historical context in which the blessings of liberal democracy, especially the freedoms of speech and religion, are understood and appreciated for their rarity and fragility.
What of the student’s obligation to model and defend robust freedom for the sake of others? What of the millions of people around the world who do not enjoy even the most basic of liberties?
Two cheers, then, for President Obama, who recently spoke out against college “coddling” in a way that placed the political correctness issue in an international context. At a forum in Iowa, he told college-bound high school students:
I’ve heard of some college campuses, where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book, if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.
Furthermore, in reply to the suggestion that the government deny funding to “politically biased colleges,” President Obama said: “I guess that might work in the Soviet Union, but it doesn’t work here. That’s not who we are. That’s not what we’re about.”
The president was right to invoke America’s core identity as a liberal democracy — the kind of democracy that provides meaningful protections for liberties and has a high tolerance for political and religious dissent. However, I withhold a third cheer for the president, as the Soviet Union is a rather anachronistic foil.
A much more relevant international point of comparison is the contemporary global trend toward regulating speech deemed a risk to “public order.” While this phenomenon is driven largely by religious nationalism and fundamentalism, it also emerges in secular authoritarian regimes, and even in certain democracies beset by ideological secularism and weak understandings of pluralism.
The most worrisome manifestations of this trend are laws prohibiting “blasphemy” and the “defamation of religion.” Such laws are ostensibly intended to protect religious minorities and religion in general, but in practice, are often used for religious and political oppression. Dominant political and religious groups use these laws to ban and intimidate certain disfavored religious groups (for example, the Ahmadis, a minority sect of Islam), and as a means to manipulate mass opinion and bolster the legitimacy of ruling parties. Frequently, even a mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to catalyze mob violence.
The scope of the problem is vast. A study conducted last year by Human Rights First and Cardozo Law School found that 57 countries around the world, most in the Middle East and South Asia, have outlawed blasphemy, and a broader study by the Pew Research Center found that 94 countries have one or more laws against blasphemy, apostasy, or defamation. So the next time President Obama is asked about college coddling, he should use the opportunity to inspire students — and all of us — to model the American traditions of free speech, religious liberty, and responsible self-government. He should challenge us, not only to cease the sophomoric hyper-policing of speech domestically, but also to actively combat the numerous macroaggressions against free speech and religious freedom around the world today.