The Dartmouth Observer

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Beyond "Political Correctness"

My big problem with the term "political correctness" is not that it refers to a non-existent phenomenon ("the avoidance of forms of expression or action that exclude, marginalize, or insult certain racial or cultural groups," according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary), but that it has long since degenerated -- thanks in the main to overzealous conservatives -- into a simplistic, catch-all explanation for all manner of complex phenomena, many of which cannot be ascribed merely to the machinations of the "PC Left" (another misleading term). Take as case studies Alan Dershowitz's and Roger Kimball's analyses of Larry Summers's resignation in the Boston Globe and New Criterion respectively. Both authors are absolutely convinced that Summers's fall had everything to do with his committing, to quote Dershowitz, the "cardinal sin against the academic hard left: He expressed politically incorrect views regarding gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and the military." Now it is true that Summers said and did several things considered un-PC in academia today (challenging Cornel West and Afro-American Studies by extension, expressing support for Israel and ROTC, suggesting that biology might explain the relative dearth of world-class female scientists). But to claim that political incorrectness was the sole factor behind his fall is really far too cushy and monocausal a theory to withstand serious scrutiny. As multiple commentators, including Peter Beinart and Matthew Yglesias, have pointed out, Summers was also professionally incorrect -- exceedingly, annoyingly so in the eyes of the Harvard faculty. He wanted tenured professors to teach undergraduate survey classes; he pushed out the popular Dean of the Faculty (Bill Kirby, a Dartmouth graduate by the way); he tried to centralize the entire University and decrease the power of the Arts and Sciences Faculty; and so on. Writing in TNR, Harvard Law Professor William Stuntz put it best:
Summers was brought down not because he was politically incorrect or bad at soothing academic egos, though those things contributed far more than they should have. The core problem is that he wanted to shake up the comfortable world of higher education. Most Americans think of universities as a bastion of the political left, and in one sense they are. But in a deeper sense, institutions like Harvard embody a particularly blind sort of conservatism: All change causes discomfort, and so must be resisted.
Conservatives should be able to identify with that last part; Dartmouth folk may find it instructive to compare the Summers case with that of erstwhile Dean of the Faculty (and soon-to-be erstwhile Dartmouth Professor) Michael Gazzaniga. The latter, as you'll recall, resigned as DoF after the faculty judged him to lack the "skills necessary to continue his job." Though the precise causes of his departure remain unclear to this day, political incorrectness doesn't appear to have had much to do with it at all. (He was on the President's Council of Bioethics, but he frequently disagreed with the conservatives he worked with.) Had he, for instance, done a Summers and commented provocatively on gender and neuroscience, the Dartmouth community at large would have heard about it, probably through some irate faculty member. It's far more plausible that Gazzaniga "merely" upset the faculty in non-ideological ways. My point here is that, contra what some conservatives seem to believe, liberal faculty care about more than just not having their political views challenged by either their Dean or their President. Those of us who've actually spent some time in the company of these professors will attest to this.