Before we left for break, I was sitting in my common room of New South 3 with our two RAs and some fellow NS3ers. We weren’t really talking about anything of particular note, but a little way into the conversation the Office of the President sent out an email notifying the Georgetown community of the upcoming ceremony to rename Freedom and Remembrance Halls. This email sparked a quiet debate between a few friends, which — as I’ve found is often the case here at Georgetown — led to a full throttle, shouting-across-the-room debate about issues of political correctness and race.
I’d like to believe that I left the common room with my dignity, but I honestly wasn’t very proud of the anger that left my head and heart via my mouth. I am and always will be the first to admit when I’m unsure of my beliefs about a particular issue, but I did —and still do — feel confident that by responding to the concerns of the student body and renaming the buildings, Georgetown made the morally, socially and politically right decision. I believe it’s an abomination that buildings named after individuals who actively participated in an institution that is universally recognized as ethically despicable existed on our campus. By renaming the buildings, Georgetown made our campus more accepting and supportive of the African-American community, more firmly against remnants of racial discrimination and, quite frankly, more in tune with the 21st century.
Around this same time, a broader movement for racial and social equality swept, and continues to sweep, across college campuses around the country. I remember reading about the events that took place at University of Missouri, talking to my friends at Yale about what was happening there and hearing from my dad about the reforms that were proposed by student leaders at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he works.
Soon though, a counter movement that criticized many of the proposed reforms arose in large part on the basis that the efforts of university administrations to be politically correct stymie students’ right to free speech and ideological expression. Political commentators like Bill Maher, professors like Erika Christakis of Yale, writers like The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan and many others came out strongly against what is in their eyes an ever-increasingly timid culture of speech and ideas.
This issue has become particularly poignant in the midst of the Republican presidential race. Leading candidates, like Donald Trump, have not only slammed the Obama administration and other progressives for being politically correct — the biggest critique is of President Obama’s refusal to identify the Islamic State group as “radical Islam” — but have seemingly thrown any notion of political correctness out the door by, for example, proposing immigration policies which completely discriminate against entire groups of people.
If we put this counter movement on a spectrum, with Mr. Trump far to one side and supporters of Professor Christakis on the more moderate side, I believe that there is immense validity to the more moderate ideology.
When students start criticizing food in university cafeterias, as they have at Oberlin College, for being “culturally appropriative,” I think we’ve gone too far. We have, as the conservative movement claims, over scrutinized aspects of life that require artistic — in this case culinary — expression, freedom and autonomy. When we fire and gang up on employees for admittedly offensive jokes on Twitter, as we did to Justine Sacco, and ruin their lives without their knowledge, let alone their ability to explain themselves, we’ve gone too far.
The question then becomes, where is the line? What word, belief or joke is the point at which there must be consequences for individuals? How can we avoid what John Stewart Mill characterized as the “tyranny of the majority” whilst still respecting, loving and tolerating all people?
Frankly, I have no answer for where the line is; it’s completely subjective. What I think deserves repercussions changes from instance to instance — I think Georgetown was right to rename the buildings, but Oberlin would be wrong to reinvent its menu — and varies drastically from what any other given person thinks. In these kinds of situations, there is never an ultimate moral arbiter; instead, we must cultivate our own moral boundaries.
Doing so is difficult. People will be offended, frustrated and discouraged and may even give up entirely. But doing so is the only way to resolve these issues. Individuals, especially on college campuses, come from hugely disparate backgrounds and upbringings. And while a white student will never completely understand the background of a black peer, engaging in challenging individual and group dialogue can bring the two closer together. It may not be pretty — tears will be shed, fists will clench and voices will grow hoarse — but ultimately this alone will bring us closer to a balance of tolerance and expression.
Isaiah Fleming-Klink is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. His column Vanguard Voices appears every other Tuesday.