A History of Political Correctness: 20 Years After Penn’s “Water Buffalo” Incident

By May 1, 2013

by Sandy Hingston

Philadelphia Magazine


On a winter’s night 20 years ago, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who was working on an English paper heard a ruckus outside his dorm. A group of sorority sisters was singing, stomping and yelling, and he couldn’t concentrate. So he shouted out the window at them: “Shut up, you water buffalo!”

The young man, Eden Jacobowitz, was Jewish. The women he yelled at that night were black. He was subsequently accused of violating Penn’s policy against racial harassment. In the months that followed, what became known as “the Water Buffalo Incident” would threaten the confirmation of Penn’s then-president, Sheldon Hackney, as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; attract the attention of the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee; provide the world with a thorough gloss of the Hebrew word behema, which translates more or less to “ox of water” and is used in Israel, where Jacobowitz had lived and studied, to mean “thoughtless, rowdy person”; and be dissected, in such forums as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and theNew York Times, as the ultimate example of political correctness run amok. The women eventually dropped their complaint against Jacobowitz, stating that the media uproar prevented them from getting a fair hearing. He graduated, sued Penn, went to law school, and went into human resources. No one involved in the incident wants to talk about it today.

The international outrage over what happened to Jacobowitz should have stopped PC in its tracks. Instead, that outrage was swept aside by a rising tidal wave of people claiming offense over nonsense. In the decades since, PC has spiraled out of control, starting on college campuses and graduating into the real world, eventually splitting the nation into two sides, red and blue, that don’t speak to one another, despise each other, and don’t even bother to try to understand the other’s point of view.

That, anyway, is the argument made by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Philly-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (a.k.a. FIRE), in his new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. He posits that political correctness has hamstrung free speech, resulting in a society where citizens lack the “experience of uninhibited debate and casual provocation” that keeps minds open and dialogue flowing. People lose their jobs because of jokes and misinterpretations; they’re hung out to dry in public when they misspeak; they quake in fear of being accused of “disrespect.”

Those who dare question whether these offended parties have actually suffered harm are shouted down by the hurt-feelings “sensitivity” industry and social media and news organizations trolling for hits. And the costs of disagreeing with the PC guardians ratchet ever upward—costs that all of us pay

Penn’s water buffalo debacle marked the moment when a remark ceased to be assessed on its merits and instead became subject to the ears of the beholder. Jacobowitz’s epithet wasn’t racial, but the women shouting outside his window perceived it to be. The content no longer mattered; their reaction, their hurt feelings, did, and that’s what the administration acted on in charging the freshman with using a racial slur.

This didn’t go unnoticed. An American Lit prof at Duke University at the time warned that under such logic, language would “cease to have any communicative value.” Proof of this came soon enough in incidents—in Washington, D.C., at the University of Wisconsin, in North Carolina, and as recently as 2009 in California and 2011 in Florida­—in which the word “niggardly,” derived from a Scandinavian term and meaning “stingy,” resulted in resignations, reprimands, firings and at least one lawsuit. In the Wisconsin case, the student who complained about her Chaucer prof’s use of the word fumed that it continued even after she informed him that she was offended. She told the faculty senate, “It’s not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid.”

In the post-Buffalo world, as Lukianoff puts it, “Claiming to be offended is the ultimate trump card in any argument.” You hurt my feelings, and that makes you wrong. This is the process whereby TV anchor Jennifer Livingston became a cause célèbre for complaining she was “bullied” by a viewer who emailed to chide her for being obese. She retorted on the air: “You can call me fat and, yes, even obese on a doctor’s chart. … You don’t know me. … I am much more than a number on a scale.” All of which is true, but … was her pen pal bullying her? He’d concluded his email, “I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.” If Livingston hadn’t been so ready to jump on the victim wagon, she might have interpreted his words as a gentle remonstrance that she take better care of herself.

As if.

Why, in disagreements ranging from Chinese Tiger Moms to sequestration to boycotting Chick-fil-A, are we so ready to vilify those who criticize us? When I spoke with Lukianoff, he mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s theory, put forward in the speech “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” that we “sacralize” our own points of view, believing them to be particularly righteous and moral. “And that means we demonize the other side,” Lukianoff explained. “If you disagree with me, you’re a bad person.” We learn these habits, Lukianoff says, in school, where we’re taught that there are right ways and wrong ways to think.

What’s a wrong way to think? Ask Alex Watkins, who was suspended from second grade at his Colorado elementary school for hurling an imaginary grenade at an imaginary box to save the world from evil. Or, locally, the Penns Grove Middle School teacher who let a student make a “Wanted” poster for a runaway slave for a history lesson, and had a black activist complain. Or the Georgia college kid who was expelled after he protested his school president’s plan to build a parking garage. The student posted on Facebook that the project was a “memorial” parking garage; the president claimed this amounted to a violent threat to murder him. Really. In all three cases, anyone with a lick of sense would see an incident blown way out of proportion by people who … well, who want everybody to think the same way they do.

We all want that; it’s human nature to desire to be among like-minded companions, unless you make your living as a radio talk-show host. But we need disagreement, Lukianoff warns, if we are to learn and grow. Consider the “speech code” at Swarthmore College, which defines sexual harassment to include “unwelcome verbal or physical advances; persistent leers; sexual innuendoes, comments or jokes; the persistent use of irrelevant references or remarks to a person’s gender, sexuality or sexual orientation; sexist remarks about the target’s clothing or body; expressions using sex stereotypes whether or not they were made about or directed to the grievant and whether or not intended to insult or degrade … ” [emphasis mine]. Now imagine you’re a Swarthmore student taking, say, the course “Race, Gender and Environment.” Do you foresee classroom discussion being furthered by that code? Or perhaps you’re just a 19-year-old kid who’s kidding around. A fellow student who takes offense at something you say can haul you up in front of the disciplinary board whether or not you intended to insult him—because his feelings get hurt.

And you can bet there will be a phalanx of folks to help him cope with those feelings. A student at Penn who feels she’s been sexually harassed has, according to the student handbook, a choice of the following on-campus resources from which to seek “information and counseling”: the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs; the African-American Resource Center; the Penn Behavioral Health Employee Assistance Program; the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center; the Division of Human Resources of the Office of Labor Relations; the Office of the Ombudsman; the Division of Human Resources of the Office of Staff Relations; the Division of Public Safety, Special Services; Penn’s Women’s Center; Student Health Services; Counseling and Psychological Services; and the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life. Christ, no wonder the school costs $60,000 a year.

Yes, of course there are students, and citizens, who have genuine grievances. But we no longer distinguish between them and those claiming harm where none exists. And the price goes beyond money. “People think political correctness is a forgivable and harmless part of higher education, but it has real ramifications,” Lukianoff says. “It’s the source of bad intellectual and rhetorical habits. Students learn: It’s easy to join an ideological club, find professors who aren’t dangerous, not interact with anyone who disagrees with you. You stay in the echo chamber.”

In case you think what happens on college campuses doesn’t seep through to the culture at large, consider the City Controller’s Office at Philadelphia’s City Hall. After some birdbrain scrawled a lewd comment about an aide and his partner on a men’s-room stall, a dozen employees were grilled by a private investigator (cost to taxpayers: $7,746), then subjected to four hours of “Diversity & Sensitivity Training” on bullying and stereotyping (cost to taxpayers: $17,671). Did shelling out $25,000-plus for a sensitivity consultant accomplish anything that a stern “Hey, people, let’s not be idiots” wouldn’t have?

But sensitivity training has become a huge industry, commonplace on campuses, in the workplace and in government. In one ultra-fatuous example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent nearly $200,000 to have a trainer lead employees in repeating such ­farcical mantras as “The Pilgrims were illegal aliens” and “Thank you, white males,” as well as shouting, when prompted, “Bam!”

Sometimes, the costs of such “sensitivity” are more than just financial. Remember Major Nidal Hasan, who shot up Fort Hood in 2009? A report on the incident noted that an officer at the San Diego Field Office for the Joint Terrorism Task Force had informed headquarters in Washington, D.C., before the shootings that he thought Hasan should be asked about possible terrorist sympathies. The response from the D.C. office? It “doesn’t go out and interview every Muslim guy who visits extremist websites.” Besides, the San Diego office was told, the matter was “politically sensitive.” Not long afterward, dozens of soldiers were wounded and 13 were dead.

Not long ago, I had lunch with the headmistress and the PR director at a local private school that charges high-schoolers $30,000 a year. Over our meal, we discussed diversity at their school; they explained that they take great pains to guide their students into “acceptable” ways of thinking about the subject. “What’s ‘acceptable’?” I asked. The headmistress waved a hand: “Oh, you know. What people generally wouldn’t take offense at.” What, I asked, about minority opinions? Isn’t that what the First Amendment is all about—protecting speech that isn’t popular, or considered “acceptable”? She had no answer for that.

It’s no doubt true that you’ll have fewer hurt feelings at an institution of learning if everyone’s doing groupthink. Last year, the New York City school district provided companies preparing standardized tests for its students with a list of topics that would “probably” cause a test question to be “deemed unacceptable.” Just a few of these dozens of topics: dinosaurs and prehistoric times; evolution; geological history; expensive gifts, vacations and prizes; politics; movies; nuclear weapons; holidays; slavery; poverty; violence. And why are all these topics off-limits? Because, according to the school board, they might “evoke unpleasant emotions in the students” and create a “distraction” for them, thus affecting their scores. Fundamentalist children, for example, might be wounded by talk of evolution. Black children could be upset by a mention of slavery; poor children, by test questions concerning expensive gifts. As for politics, well, why would testing on that ever belong in a school?

You couldn’t make up a more absurd list of banned topics. It’s almost parody-proof, this antiseptic bubble we raise our children in: Don’t learn about anything controversial, don’t talk about anything controversial, don’t think about anything controversial. Stick to what’s acceptable. Gee, what habits do you suppose kids pick up from that?

Teachers I talk to say students today are less likely to challenge material presented to them than they used to be. Amanda Anderson, a Johns Hopkins English prof and author of the book The Way We Argue Now, has traced this to the hurt-feelings epidemic: “It’s as though there’s no distinction between the person and the argument, as though to criticize an argument would be injurious to the person.” And God knows we can’t have that.

“There’s a simple concept,” Lukianoff says, “behind the free flow of information: that it’s really valuable to hear what people think.” When you believe people have to be restrained from saying what they think, you become paranoid: “You start to believe people are worse than they are.” And once you do that, you see discrimination everywhere.

This is the process that creates “crusaders” against disrespect and insensitivity, Lukianoff says—romantic, irrational do-gooders ever alert for potential offenses. Take, for example, the reaction of a student at the University of Pennsylvania to a February Fresh Grocer ad circular. At the top of its first page was a banner reading FEBRUARY IS BLACK HISTORY MONTH. And beneath that was an advertisement for family chicken packs.

Which is racist. Because, you know. Black people and chicken.

So the student left a message on the Fresh Grocer Facebook page complaining that the juxtaposition was offensive. The store’s response? “Our intention is to celebrate Black History Month by acknowledging it on the front page of our ad where the message is most prominent and gains most visibility, which is the same location that we place similar holiday and memorial acknowledgements throughout the year.” This only fueled the complainant’s wrath; she told Penn’s student newspaper, “I don’t think they took it very seriously because their response had typos in it. … ” The paper, hard on the case, contacted Fresh Grocer’s corporate office and elicited a real apology. The student was gracious in victory, telling the paper, “I think it’s these very small things that reinforce cultural and racial stereotypes … ”

Actually? It’s these very small things that don’t matter, that inhibit our common discourse and clog our courts and drain our coffers, and that have a chilling effect on any actual progress toward eliminating prejudice. But I’m sorry if your feelings got hurt because chicken was on sale.

Earlier this year, the University of Colorado at Boulder announced that it intended to hire a “conservative-in-residence”—an in-house right-wing intellectual to serve as counterbalance to the campus’s general liberalism. The president of the school’s College Democrats told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he welcomed the addition: “It shows we are interested in all opinions, left or right.” It’s a start, though it’s hard to imagine, say, Bob Jones University teaching evolution.

Still, the venting of opposing opinions is vital to learning, not to mention to democracy. What gets lost in the noise raised by those claiming they’re offended is this: Put a lid on a boiling pot, and eventually that pot boils over. Publicly clamping down on people’s ability to say what they think is a lot like that pot. Have you looked at the online comments on Bob Huber’s cover story in the March issue of this magazine—“Being White in Philly”? Hate’s hate; driving it underground doesn’t make it go away. Forbidding mention or discussion of ideas that aren’t “generally accepted” doesn’t do anything to eliminate those ideas. Just ask the Inquisitors and Copernicus.

My generation, though, has been so wildly desperate to protect our kids from hurt or harm—and to prove our liberal bona fides—that we’ve pushed for hypersensitivity at every turn. Those same instincts undergird the war currently being waged, nationwide, against bullying. In her new book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Slate editor Emily Bazelon, who went to Germantown Friends, examines the ge­nuine harm caused by bu­llying—but she also defines it as much more than the o­ccasional snide remark. And she decries our current practice of jumping to the now-default conclusion that whenever a kid shoots up a school or attempts suicide, bullying’s to blame. In every case she examines in her book, the truth turns out to be far more nuanced and complicated than the headlines such tragedies spur.

We’ve turned into a “gotcha” society, ever on the alert for offenses that can be Facebooked and tweeted and turned into petitions and causes—that we can hitch our wagons to, so we can draw attention to ourselves. Are there words that are hateful, and hate-filled? Absolutely, and we should discourage their use. But what if instead of stirring up public drama when someone says something “unacceptable,” we gave one another the benefit of the doubt—or just sent a private email or note to the offending party?

I guess that wouldn’t scratch our itch.

The parts in Bazelon’s book that stuck with me weren’t about the students who were bullied. They were the parts where she wrote about the need for children to spend time among themselves without the oversight of adults, to not have parents always charge in and make things right—for kids to have the opportunity to fumble toward fixing things themselves. We can be vigilant without being vigilantes; we can care for one another and still disagree. We all need to stand down.

In the wake of a string of incidents of racial vandalism at ultra-liberal Oberlin College early this year, a student reported seeing someone dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes near the Afrikan Heritage House. Campus and local police charged in to investigate; the college president cancelled classes and activities; and students took part en masse in a teach-in, a “demonstration of solidarity,” and a “community convocation” on intolerance.

Police reported that while no Klan members were found, they did come across a woman wrapped in a blanket. They think the Klan sighting may have been a mistake.

We see what we look for. We could be looking for so much more.

View this article at Philadelphia Magazine.

Schools: University of Pennsylvania