Published May 23, 2007
Why do people see campus “political correctness” so differently? Conservatives know it’s a problem. Even some on the Left recognize that the campus marketplace of ideas has been replaced by a monopoly (and they’re fine with that). Others of good will don’t quite know what to make of the many highly publicized “anecdotes” about campus P.C. Are these merely isolated incidents, or symptoms of a pervasive problem? One of the virtues of Indoctrinate U, Evan Coyne Maloney’s powerful new documentary, is that it helps us answer the “isolated anecdote” argument — both intellectually, and at a gut level.
Indoctrinate U explores the Kafkaesque nightmares that befall students and professors who run up against the P.C. behemoth: A woman with two brothers — one an adopted Guatemalan orphan — writes a letter to her school paper saying she wouldn’t want to see one brother favored over the other because of skin color. A professor questions the fairness of a panel on which all seven speakers favor reparations for slavery. A representative of the College Republicans posts a flier at the campus multi-cultural center advertising a lecture by a conservative black speaker. A student writes a column complaining that the school’s “issues committee” invites only left-leaning speakers to campus. A professor is accidentally revealed to be a Republican. A student from Kuwait writes an essay praising the role of the United States in world affairs. Everyone knows that such actions fly in the face of campus orthodoxy, yet few will be prepared for the enormity of the punishment these nonconformists face.
I don’t want to give these remarkable stories away, but a couple themes are worth mentioning. Threats of sensitivity training and psychiatric referrals stand out as a particularly sinister administrative tactic. And “tactic” is the right word. It’s apparent that in a number of cases, universities aren’t looking for a fair investigation or resolution of these conflicts, but are intentionally intimidating conservative students and professors as a way of forcing them to conform or quit. What you can’t help but see — and feel — after watching Indoctrinate U is that these incredibly disproportionate public ordeals send out powerful messages to anyone on campus unwilling to toe the college’s political line.
At one level, Maloney overcomes the “isolated anecdote” charge by graphically conveying the results of various studies of campus political bias. Over the past few years, these empirical studies have shifted the balance in our public debate over campus political correctness, and Maloney does a great job of bringing it all across visually. Yet the real power of this film lies in those “nightmare” cases. By showing the faces and bringing us the words of the individuals involved — and by describing the battles themselves in some detail — Maloney allows us to see that many P.C. “anecdotes” are anything but isolated.
For an analogy, think about our debates over the threat of terrorism. Some folks claim that the threat of Islamist terror is “overblown.” After all, only a few thousand Americans were killed on 9/11, and we’ve seen very few domestic terror incidents since then. The other day, I attended a conference where a professor of Islamic studies emphasized that the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was only a single, isolated incident.
Yet the killing of Van Gogh rightly electrified a nation. It sent key politicians into hiding and exile, and has probably contributed to the recent uptick in emigration from the Netherlands. That single political murder was an act of intimidation, and clearly it has gotten results. Europeans and Americans are far more reluctant to criticize Islam than Christianity. All this goes back to the original “isolated incident:” the death sentence against Salman Rushdie. Rushdie is still alive, so it would be easy to dismiss his case as an overblown and isolated incident. Yet the Rushdie case has had a twenty-year chilling effect on anyone thinking of generating reform within Islam.
Terrorist incidents are designed to send intimidating messages that reach far beyond the individuals involved. Campus P.C. nightmares work much the same way. (Obviously, campus P.C. is not on a par with terrorist murder, although Maloney’s film does include one death threat.) What makes the “isolated incidents” of campus P.C. particularly intimidating is that, shortly after a dispute begins, the traditionalist is often opposed, not merely by a left-leaning student or professor, but by the university administration. And when administrators take up the multiculturalist cause and put pressure on non-conforming conservatives, the message that resistance is dangerous goes out loud and clear. For example, the refusal of Yale’s administration to act against thefts of conservative newspapers sends a message that resonates far beyond that single, “isolated” case.
At one point in Indoctrinate U, we meet Greg Lukianoff, a lawyer for FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), an organization that handles many controversies over campus free-speech. After explaining that he himself is politically liberal, Lukianoff notes that few “mainstream Democrats” recognize or believe just how pervasive and extreme violations of free speech on campus really are. Lukianoff adds that he himself didn’t understand how bad the situation was until he began to work for FIRE. I suspect this is because liberals and conservatives see the relatively few cases of campus P.C. that get serious national attention in totally different ways. Liberals dismiss these cases as isolated and extreme anecdotes. Conservatives, on the other hand, take those same cases as the highly public threats they are.
Again, what’s critical in so many of these incidents is the way college administrations and faculties effectively take the multiculturalist side. If not for that, we could perhaps dismiss some of these incidents as unfortunate excesses by over-enthusiastic students. Yet on campus, “the law” (meaning the power of the faculty and administration) is on the multiculturalists’ side, and it’s this to which Maloney repeatedly draws our attention. For all his clever visual use of statistical studies, the real power of Maloney’s film lies in its revelation of the broader significance of “isolated” P.C. “anecdotes.” It’s really a question of making a public example of someone, so as to silence a target group. I guess it takes a movie to bring across the amazing, campus-wide power of even a single expertly conducted case of P.C. intimidation.
There’s much more to say about Indoctrinate U, but I’ll simply note here that, for conservatives, this movie has a superabundance of star power. We get appearances by Glenn Reynolds, and Dan Pipes. John McWhorter and K. C. Johnson provide very smart commentary. Martin Kramer has important things to say about the influence of Saudi money, and there are still more “stars” on camera. If you care about campus P.C., you’re going to want to see this film. (To see a trailer, go here. To sign a list that could bring Indoctrinate U to a theater near you, go here.) When the film is over, you’ll feel in the pit of your stomach what the unfortunates on screen already know: what’s happened to them is actually a threat being leveled at you.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.