Stocker: Considering others’ experiences is an important part of learning


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

President Barack Obama’s recent remarks on “coddled” college students and elements of political correctness culture have received a great deal of attention.Analysis and discussion of President Obama’s remarks have appeared in a number of news sources, including Vox and The Atlantic, which published the “Coddling of the American Mind,” an article discussed in a recent Daily column.

There is one central problem with many of the articles on Obama’s remarks. Not once did Obama actually use the words “political correctness,” despite both articles from Vox and The Atlantic clearly conflating Obama’s remarks with the term. This may seem a minor point, but, by disagreeing with students’ attempts to block speakers with different views or opposition to reading books with demeaning language towards minorities or women, the President is not necessarily taking issue with students’ criticisms of, say, comedians’ offensive remarks.

Comedians are an interesting component of the “political correctness” debate. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry the Cable Guy and Chris Rock no longer perform stand-up on college campuses. No student groups banded together to exclude the three aforementioned comedians from college campuses. All three made that choice on their own. Seinfeld ceased performing on campuses in part because students challenged his use of the word “gay” as a derogative. It seems that Seinfeld is the one guilty of self-coddling. Rather than accept or respond to students’ criticism, Seinfeld lambasted their responses to his jokes as an example of “a creepy, PC thing” ruining his shows.

Obama said students who try to block speakers who disagree with them are effectively saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” Seinfeld, Rock and other campus-boycotting comedians are, in turn, refusing to perform at college campuses because they are too sensitive to listen to students’ criticisms. That, as Obama said, is “not the way we learn.”  

Although the misappropriation of Obama’s remarks in the defense of comedians like Seinfeld is certainly interesting, I have been most troubled by students and political commentators’ manipulation of the President’s words to justify their, and others’, offensive remarks. Obama said students should listen to, and engage with, people they disagree with. He also said students should read books that may use language deemed offensive by contemporary standards. Both are reasonable requests for college students. Engaging with people with different beliefs is a key component of developing arguments in favor of one’s own convictions. Reading historical books with racist, sexist, homophobic and other harmful or hateful messages are crucial to understanding, and then combatting, those negative forces.

What Obama did not do was give college students a free pass to make thoughtless, offensive remarks to their fellow students. A lack of malice should not exempt students from criticism. A little more thought prior to speaking is often all it takes to determine whether one’s speech is going to be offensive. Broad, generalized assumptions about any ethnic, racial, religious or other group are always offensive. Moralistic judgment of another person’s beliefs is often offensive. The sole exception to this rule is the condemnation of ideologies that are clearly and indisputably harmful to others, such as racism. When there is any ambiguity, moralistic judgment is best withheld. Note that “moralistic judgment” does not include questioning another’s ideas — even their morality —  but rather refers to the action of immediately condemning others’ ideas. Such statements are neither constructive nor beneficial to any sort of intellectual argument.

This leads directly into my second point: listening to others’ criticism of our speech is as much a part of learning as listening to others’ views. It is incredibly difficult for me, or any other white, heterosexual American male, to imagine what it is like to have one’s beliefs, actions or identity moralistically condemned by a fellow classmate. Society is structured to support our identity. Attacks on the American identity, masculinity or heterosexuality are absorbed by the overwhelming power of the United States’ culture. For minorities, especially those with identities routinely attacked by the U.S. media or political establishment, generalized assumptions about their identities are only reinforced by societal biases.

There is no “objective” measure of what constitutes offensive speech. What offends a person is the product of their individual life experiences, and attempting to reduce offensiveness down to some “objective” measure marginalizes the experiences of those most likely to be moralistically attacked. It is up to us students with the most secure identities to listen to the criticism of our fellow students. Discussing what constitutes offense will lead to discussions of experience and identity. Considering others’ experiences, and truly thinking before we speak, will undoubtedly give each and every one of us a greater understanding of ourselves, our fellow students and the forces in society at large. That, as Obama would almost certainly agree, is how we learn, whether as students or comedians.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the content a recent Daily column. The column discussed the recent Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Daily regrets the error.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.