The Problem of Offense

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

Offense is a “psychological construct,” argued University of Nevada-Reno Adjunct Psychology Professor William O’Donohue at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conference on the politically-correct university. He noted that proponents of political correctness often do so in order to reduce offense, yet define political correctness so broadly and inconsistently as to encompass Aleutian Islanders while excluding the oft-persecuted Jews.

These inconsistencies inherent to politically-correct ideology require proponents to simultaneously uphold contradictory doctrines, argued George Mason University Professor Jeremy Mayer at the conference. “To be liberal on a college campus today and to be politically-correct, you have to believe two contradictory or silly things. One, that gender has no role in behavior except that which we construct…but second, you have to believe that homosexuality is entirely genetic, and there is no choice and no nurture…,” he said. Mayer, an expert in racial politics, added, “there’s also this belief that got Jim Watson in trouble, which is that all races are equal in IQ regardless of what the data shows. And if you question that on a college campus, you can lose your job as he did.”

The problems arising from political correctness requirements such as University speech codes stem not from discouraging students’ politically incorrect behavior, but the censorship inherent in officials’ attempts to punish this behavior. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a student’s rights advocacy group, gave Tufts University and Johns Hopkins University “Red Alert” status for a persistent record of “policies and/or practices that pose a particularly dangerous threat to basic freedoms.”

Johns Hopkins University earned its FIRE “Red Alert” rating by suspending Justin Park for an entire year after Park posted a racially-offensive Halloween invitation on Facebook. Following Park’s suspension, Johns Hopkins University President William R. Brody released a new civility code following the incident which stipulates that “rude, disrespectful behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated” (emphasis original). In President Brody’s December 2006 letter to the College, he defined civility as “not a program of fair treatment for this or that constituency but rather an underlying and fundamental commitment to showing respect for everybody,” and argues that the University is not violating free speech, but merely enforcing “common respect and decency….basic good manners.”

O’Donohue asserts that the two core assumptions of political correctness are that “certain activities, particularly language, give psychological offense to members of certain groups” and that “the psychological offense is such a magnitude or kind that it is impermissible and it’s justified to prohibit it and even punish those that give rise to this offense.” In other words, he believes that the current system encourages the punishment of offenders regardless of the degree of psychological damage caused by “offensive” comments.

In some cases, University codes of conduct equate the subjective harm caused by offensive speech with more observable physical attacks. Rutgers University’s “Policy Against Verbal Assault, Defamation, and Harassment,” relies on the New Jersey definition of harassment as “communication or communications anonymously or at extremely inconvenient hours…in any other manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm, or subjecting or threatening to subject another to striking, kicking, shoving or other offensive touching…or of repeatedly committed acts with purpose toalarm or seriously annoy any other person (emphasis added).”

Johns Hopkins University’s Anti-Harrassment policy defines harrassment as behavior that “interferes with an individual’s work or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment.” Such behavior includes “unwanted physical contact; use of epithets, inappropriate jokes, comments, or innuendos; obscene or harassing telephone calls, emails…or other forms of communication; and any conduct that may create a hostile working or academic environment. (emphasis added).” Under such circumstances, virtually any disagreeable behavior could be labeled harassment.

O’Donohue also questioned the psychological factors influencing whether particular individuals become offended. “It’s reasonable to look at the person making these claims. Not all women report that they’re offended by [Larry Summers’] speech. What differentiates the women who report being offended versus those who aren’t?,” he asked.

In some cases, O’Donohue argues, the offended party may have histrionic or narcissistic tendencies, or simply be thin-skinned. O’Donohue speculates, “Is [reporting offense] itself a political act? Are you fighting a political battle over here because you think you’ve got a ‘gotcha,’ that you can’t fight in some other realm?” “My recommendations are essentially to look at more research about these psychological dimensions and their assumptions and the harm being done, and how to figure it out on individual cases,” he said.

Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia