Almost thirty-five years ago, comic strip artist Berkeley Breathed coined the term “offensensitivity” in his seminal series Bloom County. A small crowd around a bus stop begin pointing out everything that personally offended their sensibilities, including one character stating, “This comic offends my offensiveness!” in a fourth-wall break. After declaring in unison, “My gosh, life is offensive!” they run for the hills, as Opus the Penguin explains it with the coined term.
Unfortunately, offensensitivity has ceased being a joke, especially on college campuses. In some cases, students have run for the hills. In other cases, the police and administration have abdicated, leaving a vacuum for violence to fill. Either way, education has taken a back seat to political correctness that borders on indoctrination.
Over the last two months, the University of California at Berkeley has become the most dramatic example of this abdication. Two months ago, the invitation extended by a student group to Milo Yiannopoulos provoked a demonstration that demanded that the alt-right provocateur is stopped from attending the event because of his offensive views, according to some students on campus. It quickly became a riot , including vandalism and arson targeting nearby banks. Administrators at UC Berkeley canceled the event over safety concerns, a rather ignoble outcome for the launching pad of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.
Last week, however, the abdication got worse. When a group invited conservative firebrand and author Ann Coulter to speak, UC Berkeley’s administration didn’t even wait for the protest. They refused to allow the event to take place at all, even after Coulter agreed to several security demands, including a requirement that the venue remains secret until just before it began.
“It has nothing to do with anyone’s political views,” Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof insisted. “We believe in unqualified support to the First Amendment. But we also have an unqualified focus on the safety of our students.” For some reason, though, the safety of their students only comes into play when conservative speakers are invited to come to campus – as does their inability to secure that campus.
This bears striking similarities to an incident in March at Middlebury College when controversial sociologist Charles Murray spoke. The college had forced the event to change venues when campus activists offended by Murray’s writings threated to disrupt the speech, but that didn’t stop violence from erupting afterward. The crowd attacked both Murray and the faculty adviser who had moderated the event – and whom, ironically, strongly disagreed with Murray’s views. Professor Allison Stanger suffered a neck injury that required hospitalization; the students who rioted “faced no visible consequences for doing so,” according to Inside Higher Ed.
The problem of offensensitivity is not limited to the reception given to outside speakers. This week, an administrator at Clemson University proposed that the student-body government adopt a requirement for “intercultural competency” for its candidates. “What would it look like to have a standard for if you’re going to be elected as an officer, or hold a seat within CUSG,” Altheia Richardson wondered aloud, “that you must demonstrate that you have a certain level of intercultural competence, before you’re allowed to take that office or that seat?”
That attitude has damaged education itself on American campuses, Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain warned students in her final lecture. “You don’t belong on a college campus if you’re afraid of ideas,” the retiring educator pointed out in her speech, “Political Correctness and the Decline of American Universities.”
All of this agitation for “safe spaces” leaves students locked into their own pre-existing assumptions, rather than open to education. This extended adolescence results in a profound unreadiness for life outside the academic bubble where safe spaces don’t exist, and adults must deal with disagreement and debate.
That is the real tragedy of the “offensensitivity” epidemic on college campuses. Education takes a back seat to enforcement of an orthodoxy, usually abetted if not fully engaged by the schools themselves. Rather than open themselves to a broader range of views, arguments, data, and experiences, the demands of activists to shut down all views but their own becomes the opposite of an educational experience. It turns campuses into a form of activist monasteries, expelling heretics and punishing apostates that stray too far from the dogma of the progressive establishment.
The situation is not without its bright spots – even at Clemson. Fortunately, its students thought an “intercultural competency” requirement would look “awful.” Imposing that requirement “completely negates the idea of a democratic election,” one senator told Campus Reform, while another noted that it resembles “the kind of political totalitarianism that one sees in modern-day fascist and communist regimes.”
Indeed. That is the end stage of offensensitivity – or more accurately, the stage that its main purveyors seek all along. They do not want to compete in a marketplace of ideas but want to impose their ideas along with utter silence on any who disagree with them. By making all other agendas except theirs illegitimate and all discussion of them “offensive,” they usurp power that rightly belongs to individuals as well as the broader community.
If their ideas had merit, then they wouldn’t need to resort to fascism to impose them. And if the ideas that “offend” them had no merit, they wouldn’t need to keep people from discussing them. As Elizabeth Warren remarked to CNN’s Jake Tapper about the Berkeley meltdown and Ann Coulter, “Let her speak and just don’t show up if you don’t like it.” That sounds more like freedom than anything coming from America’s academic class.