Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An open letter to The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan on political correctness

Dear Ms. Flanagan,

As a UC Berkeley student and a longtime reader of The Atlantic, I was very interested to hear what you had to say on Real Time with Bill Maher regarding political correctness on college campuses. I hoped to hear you provide a nuanced analysis of some of the reasons many students ask for trigger warnings and seek to identify microaggressions. I was disappointed to instead hear you launch into an ad hominem attack questioning the intellectual capabilities of college students. “When kids come to college, they are by definition ignorant. They don’t know anything yet!” you said blithely, going on to describe us again as “poor kids who don’t know anything yet” before saying “the whole system is now being run by these kids.”

In 2010, I gave a TED Talk entitled “What adults can learn from kids,” and went on to speak at conferences around the world about the need for increased student voice in education (particularly K-12 education reform). This need exists because unfortunately, students do not generally have much of a say in the vast majority of schools—and yes, I’m including colleges in that estimation. At UC Berkeley, we were not even invited to the meeting where UC Regents raised our tuition—without taking the time to hear the concerns of students. California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom openly criticized that action when he addressed my political science class last semester. A system where students like me slept on the cold ground of an on-campus building, Wheeler Hall, over the course of several nights simply to make our voices heard in protest over these tuition hikes is not a “whole system being run by these kids.” 

Mario Savio, a leader of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement.

It’s unfortunate, too, because the level of awareness and connection among my peers is unprecedented. Although our weapons of protest have certainly evolved since the days of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement, I would argue that a higher percentage of students is taking action on causes we care about now than ever. Thanks in large part to the democratizing power of the internet we grew up with, students my age have founded technology education non-profits, started popular magazines, done ground-breaking research, and fostered greater awareness about racial justice. Although we are certainly imperfect when it comes to our attitudes on a variety of social issues, we are more tolerant than our parents’ generation; according to Pew, young people continue to be the strongest proponents of same-sex marriage, with even 61% of young Republicans in support.

Your supposition in the face of all this that we are “poor kids who don’t know anything yet” makes me wonder what sorts of attitudes you would like us to learn instead. You said that college students are “the inheritors of 30 years of identity politics, and that’s part of the problem…that means that instead of saying we all have general principles by which we seek to live, that we’ll stand up…for the feminist cause, for the racial or ethnic cause.” Of course I support working toward general principles of empathy, kindness, equality, and justice. But our genders, races, and ethnicities may preclude some of us from receiving those things. You can find a testament to this in the stories of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, or the 35 women and the empty chair on the New York Magazine cover. Choosing to act in the name of unity and ignore the disparities that stem from our differences precludes us from creating a just, kind society. That’s why it’s Black Lives Matter and not All Lives Matter, why it’s feminism and not egalitarianism. Dismissing identity relies on the wishful belief that our identities don’t matter. But until African-American boys aren’t cautioned from an early age to behave a certain way around law enforcement, and until mothers like mine don’t tell their young daughters such words of advice as “Always choose being raped if the alternative is being killed,” our identities do matter, very much. 

You discuss microaggressions as the invention of privileged young people who aren’t paying attention to bigger problems. In actuality, the term “microaggression” was not coined by a privileged group of students; it was the psychiatrist and Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce who first used the term in an academic setting. Pierce wrote in 1974, “These [racial] assaults to black dignity and black hope are incessant and cumulative. Any single one may be gross. In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to blacks by whites in this sort of gratuitous neverending way. These offenses are microaggressions. Almost all black-white racial interactions are characterized by white put-downs, done in automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion. These mini disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to blacks that has pervasive effect to the stability and peace of this world.” This language is more radical in its estimation of long-term effects than most of the discussion around microaggressions on college campuses today. If you want to criticize microaggression theory, you should be spending your time not lambasting “privileged and pampered” kids but rather challenging a respected professor who has spent decades researching racism and its effects. I can understand, of course, that this may be a harder fight to pick.

The year I started at Berkeley, everyone on campus received the book Freedom’s Orator, about Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio. Enthralled, I read all 544 pages. So it was with great interest that I noticed your mention of Savio in your Atlantic piece, “That’s Not Funny”: “frat boys and other campus punksters regularly flout the thought police by staging events along elaborately racist themes, events that, while patently vile, are beginning to constitute the free-speech movement of our time. The closest you’re going to get to Mario Savio—sick at heart about the operation of the machine and willing to throw himself upon its gears and levers—is less the campus president of Human Rights Watch than the moron over at Phi Sigma Kappa who plans the Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos mixer.” This statement implies that fraternity brothers acting in racist ways is a recent and modern phenomenon, when in truth, as the Washington Post points out in its thoroughly-researched article “The Long, Fraught Racial History of American Fraternities,” fraternities have been flying Confederate flags, banning non-white students from rushing, and worse for decades. Don’t fool yourself: belittling minorities by dressing up as stereotypes or popularizing slogans like “No means yes, yes means anal” (as members of DKE chanted at Yale, and Texas Tech fraternity brothers wrote on a banner) doesn’t make you edgy or cool or an activist. It makes you an a**hole. A**holes are not the unintended spawn of political correctness; they’re the offspring of cultures and families who don’t challenge themselves to analyze race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and inequalities in our society.

Challenging ourselves, and providing better education about inequality, is a lasting way to address racism, sexism, and classism among students. Someday, maybe we will have an America where students learn more nuanced perspectives on history and culture than our traditional Eurocentric diet, where we have open and honest conversations about race and gender and sexuality in our classrooms, and where people learn to respect each other before anyone ever has to call them out. Right now, in many parts of the country, we go to school with people who (roughly) look like us and talk like us and whose parents make the same amount of money as our parents. You claim that college students are being self-infantilizing in our quickness to be sensitive to members of other races or cultures, but it is the kind of insulation we grow up with in our K-12 educational experiences that provides the real infantilization. 

You have helped to propagate the false dichotomy between freedom of speech and sensitivity; the truth that I’ve experienced in my life so far is that creating environments of respect engenders more openness and free speech. College student KellyNoel Waldorf wrote an article about “coming out” as poor at Duke, aptly describing how difficult it is to reveal identities that we may not share with the majority of our peers. If your friends toss around disparaging jokes about "welfare queens," are you really going to reveal that you spent a year on state-subsidized healthcare? If your fraternity brothers, who yell homophobic epithets and laugh at anti-gay slurs with impunity, demean your sexual orientation, can you really talk about being gay? 

Speech may be free for them, but not you. 

And we are losing out on having important conversations because of it. If you seek to defend free speech, try putting yourself in the shoes of those people who society often silences. Many people argue that we are coddling ourselves, and that our bubbles of liberal sensitivity make us unprepared for the world after college. To that, I’d say that we create what we want to see in our societies in our schools. And I surely hope that you want your sons to live in a world where we are just and kind, sensitive and free.


Adora Svitak
UC Berkeley Class of 2018


  1. Michael Meeropol6:07 AM

    I am a 72 year old retired professor -- one of those "tenured radicals" that the right wing loves to hate and beat up on --- I truly appreciated your letter. I was quite disturbed by the ATLANTIC article in large part because I thought the anecdotes probably were not as they were described. I am VERY GLAD to see someone speak up and try (and I imagine it is difficult) to get some seriousness into the discussion. Thank you very much for trying.

    Sincerely, Michael Meeropol

  2. Anonymous6:52 AM

    It's not sensitivity but hysteria to make friendly questions like "Where are you from?" a crime. This question is a staple of small talk,a simple, classic way to get to know someone. It is ridiculous things like this that make adults concerned about the moral policing that is occurring at colleges. Hopefully someday you'll grow up and realize that there are actual real crises we are facing, like environmental degradation and cyber warfare.