This Scourge of Offense-Taking Is Highly Offensive—To Context, Perspective and Discourse

By Brian Davis

There’s a disturbing trend spreading across America. All across the country, Americans have forgotten how to take a joke. With the rise of political correctness in our culture, every joke or comment is now a potential minefield of offense taken.

But it points to something larger than a lost sense of humor. It points to a lost sense of perspective. There’s little a person can say these days without someone voicing their righteous indignation, no matter the meaning or intention of the person who spoke. Many have responded by walking on eggshells. University professors have refrained from telling popular jokes or stories they traditionally shared with students over fear of backlash from students or their helicopter parents.

Expressing an unpopular opinion is especially fraught. Suggest that using gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze” is silly, and prepare to be excoriated as a bigot and blamed for the distress of transgendered individuals. Argue that a political candidate who happens to be female is a poor leader, and watch as you are labeled sexist, misogynist, or otherwise“hateful” toward female politicians.

There’s a clear loss of perspective here. The Yazidi and Christian women being targeted for genocide and sexual slavery in countries like Iraq would likely find it hyperbolic to use terms like “misogynist” and “bigot” to describe someone engaged in a reasoned critique of a female politician. And it’s easy to imagine that LGBT individuals being discriminated against, tortured or imprisoned by terrorist groups and theocratic governments in the Middle East and Africa would also be puzzled by this lack of perspective.    

While it is undoubtedly true that many members of both the political right and left in America are guilty of having thin skin, the far-left appear to lead the way in today’s discourse. So-called “social justice warriors” (SJW’s) are quick to call anyone who disagrees with their view of the world a racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe or xenophobe, among a host of other stigmatic terms.

Universities across the United States have become the epicenters for this kind of rejection of perspective, at the expense of their missions as institutions dedicated to learning and open discourse.  Outraged protesters at universities from Yale to Missouri  to  UC-Berkeley have attempted to suppress free speech in order to avoid hurting the feelings of marginalized students.    

At many colleges and universities, these same kinds of SJW’s have demanded “safe spaces” on their campuses, often for people of color and LGBT students. Never mind that the First Amendment of our Constitution protects the right to speak freely, even when others disagree with our speech, and that institutions of higher learning have historically been a safe space to do just that.

In one highly ironic scenario, pro-”safe space” protesters formed a human chain to block a campus bridge, forcing white students to take alternative routes to class. The protesters allowed students of color to pass through the chain, while one of them told a white student, “This is bigger than you. This is about whiteness.”

When the controversial Milo Yiannopoulous was scheduled to speak at UC-Berkeley earlier this year, masked anarchist thugs responded by smashing windows, starting fires and shooting off fireworks.  Film director Lexi Alexander took to Twitter to encourage protesters to punch those she arbitrarily labeled Nazis and supported setting fire to the campus. Buzzfeed’s Hannah Jewell also found humor in blazes being set on campus, while actress Sarah Silverman called on demonstrators to “join the resistance.”

While it is indeed true that the perpetrators were not progressives, large numbers of liberals nonetheless used social media to laud the punks from the sidelines. It is important to examine what the long term ramifications of such hateful rhetoric may be.

Five op-eds published in the school’s newspapers strongly applauded the violence. Student journalist Juan A. Prieto thanked the demonstrators and argued the violence ensured students would be safe on campus. Fellow journalist Nisa Dang made the asinine claim that those against the protests felt the way they did due to ‘white privilege.’  

That these commentators believe in discriminating against white and non-liberal students while advocating for rights for their groups is baffling. How do they expect to garner support for their cause while actively mistreating dissenters?  

Even university students in more conservative areas like the Deep South have complained that the presence of certain triggers, such as students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, pro-life or pro-choice displays or holding “College Republicans” signs made them feel “unsafe” on campus. Students like this should be at universities to be challenged by diverse perspectives, and not be sheltered from opinions that may challenge their beliefs.

Moreover, a number of social media users urged fellow detractors to assassinate President Donald Trump, who they have called a fascist and tyrant. Some members of the far-right made similar despicable comments following Barack Obama’s victory over senator John McCain in 2008. Assassination is certainly one way to avoid hearing the opposing candidate’s opinion.

As veteran journalist and educator Ron Martz noted at the time, Dr. Melissa Click, an assistant professor for the University Of Missouri Department of Communication was caught red-handed in her efforts to restrict students’ free speech in 2015. Click tried to stop students on campus who were attempting to talk with or take pictures of protesters at the University. What kind of message does it send when even professors in the Department of Communication go to great lengths to suppress free speech?  

The unfortunate reality is that many so-called activists are not in fact interested in learning why others believe the way they do, nor if those people are actually bigots. Instead, they regularly attempt to silence any person who dare disagrees with them (especially white men, conservatives and libertarians) by levying charges of racism or skin-color privilege.

As Martz has rightly noted, “False charges of racism are the last refuge of cowards and those who do not have the intellectual ability to engage in a rational discussion of the issues.”  Whether you are a person of color, white, Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc., you are not immune to criticism.

At a town hall in Des Moines, Iowa in 2015, Barack Obama himself spoke out against the troubling trend of suppressing free speech on college campuses. “I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either—that when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view,” the former President said.  

“Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say,” Obama said.

The words of those like Martz and Obama have clearly fallen on deaf ears.

The great irony of the plethora of criticisms hurled at countless individuals by SJW’s in the media, on the streets and at college campuses is that this sort of extremism has in fact aided the conservative candidates they so despise, including Trump, by alienating more moderate supporters of traditionally left-wing causes who have erred against the ever-changing standards of political correctness pushed by the radical wing of the Democratic party. As left-wing Jonathan Pie asked in the days following Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, “When has anyone ever been persuaded by being insulted or labeled?”

This trend is a scourge on our discourse and on our understanding of our own political and cultural history. The run-away outrage of campus protests has also extended to historical figures that have long since passed away. Many on the left have demanded the expunging of historical figures they subjectively deem to be racist from the halls of the institutions of higher learning that ought to be teaching about their legacies.

In fall of 2015, students at Princeton demanded the school remove the name of President Woodrow Wilson from the School of Public and International Affairs the school created to honor his time as president of the university and his service to the nation as U.S. President as well.

Such arguments demonstrate a clear lack of historical understanding. As Martz has said, “If we were to do this with all our history, we would have little history left… As I have told students to whom I have taught history, we have to try to understand the morals, ethics and principles of the people and the times we are studying and not be too judgmental based on present-day standards.”

Martz mentioned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt as examples. In a letter to Churchill, President Roosevelt said the following when referring to the Burmese people: “I wish you could put the whole bunch of them into a frying pan with a wall around it and let them stew in their own juice.”

Do these activists plan to remove statues or other depictions of Roosevelt for this racist quote? Will they demand that our 32nd President’s image be removed from the dime? Bigoted views held by American historical figures do not diminish their contributions to history.

This is not to say people should intentionally use hateful words to put others down. It is wrong to be cruel toward others and then hide behind the guise of fighting political correctness.

It is also not to say conservatives are innocent when it comes to being easily vexed. As a moderate conservative growing up in north Georgia can attest, there are plenty of ‘snowflakes’ on the right as well.

But those seeking sinister motive behind every comment will always be able to find a sense of outrage, and it is at the expense of discourse and perspective in this country and in the halls of its great educational institutions. And that, quite frankly, I find very offensive.