3rd Wave Political Correctness, iGen, And The Neoliberal University

1) Coddled

“Coddled” is the latest easy buzzword for the current crop of college age students. With it comes a growing awareness of the extent to which iGen (Generation Z, the oldest of whom are 22-23) as well the last of the Millennials (the Generation Y cohort born in 1996) have been reared to think of the world beyond their homes, parents, and cellphones as a fundamentally dangerous place.

This is the assessment found in Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind. In it they focus on what they call “The Great Untruths” of life on today’s college campuses, particularly the elite and very expensive schools. They are: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” “Always trust your feelings,” and “Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

These are the values Haidt and Lukianoff claim are at the heart of political correctness culture whose present incarnation is the third wave since the early 1970s. The components of 3rd wave PC Culture that a well-informed person would be familiar with include microaggressions, identity politics, intersectionality, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and considerably less than libertarian support for the fullest possible range of free speech rights.

I suspect “3rd wave PC values” account for why students who began college in 2013 and after might, for instance, think that words are actually capable of violence:

“Language is mutable, and definitions change over time. But what we’ve witnessed in recent years—especially on campuses—is a profound form of concept creep that goes beyond mere language and labels. The ordinary challenges of life now are being reinvented as trauma, and words are conflated with violence. It is all part of our ongoing cultural embrace of the “untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker,” as illuminated by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind. Debates, lectures and even ordinary conversations now can be brought to an end when one party declares checkmate by asserting that this or that argument serves to “deny their humanity” or makes them feel “unsafe.”

As someone who has experienced nine of the 10 most studied Adverse Childhood Experiences, who lives with chronic physical pain from violence-inflicted injuries, who spends three hours a week with a therapist specializing in trauma, I can attest that such claims strike me as dangerous gibberish. Can words do damage? Of course. But the difference between words and violence is that mentally competent adults nearly always have a choice about how much damage words can inflict, whereas the damage caused by my father’s belt—like all physical abuse—didn’t rise or fall depending on my psychological state at the moment of impact.”

“Take It from Someone Who Has Suffered Real Physical Abuse: Words Aren’t Violence”| Quilette

It’s not a completely silly idea, but the thinking behind any claim that certain words are violence is defective. First, as the muddled result of loosening the meanings of certain kinds of words in order to affirm a cultural or political agenda “conflating words as violence” suffers from a lack of conceptual weight and doesn’t really mean anything. Second, any “words as violence” schema obscures and diminishes real physical violence as well as real structural or systemic violence. One can make an obvious argument for the reality of physical and structural violence, but the pain inflicted by words as discussed in the Quillete article isn’t “violence.” It’s abuse, which I is distinctly different.

Still, that “category mistake” has something to say to us about the differences between 2nd and 3rd wave political correctness.


2) Correctness

Having personally experienced 2nd wave political correctness in the late 1980s at one of the country’s most liberal universities, the first thing to say about 2nd wave PC is that back then we used “political correctness” and “politically correct” neither as pejoratives, nor as descriptions of a sinister political or cultural agenda. (The latter came along in the 90s when Pat Buchanan declared “culture war” and Dinesh D’souza became one of its generals.) Rather, we used these phrases ironically in the way that a jaded Maoist functionary would have. An example would be: “Hopefully it isn’t too politically correct of me to say that we should say ‘woman’ instead of ‘girl’.” The point of this kind of statement  was using typical Gen-Xer irony to check streaks of self-righteousness while also affirming that more inclusive language could be a good thing for society as a whole. Beyond this, the real tenor of campus activism in the late 80s was about South African divestment, Feminism, and multiculturalism, particularly the need for ethnic studies departments. However radical this agenda seemed to some back then, most people now would affirm at least some part of it.

Still, this is only half the story. In ways that weren’t true for 2nd wave PC, there’s an analysis of its 3rd wave that’s as much about economics as it is about culture and politics.

First, I have an uncle who went to one of the country’s finest public universities in the late 60s. He once told me that he paid more for parking tickets than tuition. Full freight tuition for my school in the late 80s was $15,000 before financial aid considerations. Had it only risen with inflation tuition would now be $34,000. Instead, full tuition at my alma mater is $71,000 before any financial aid considerations.

Second, from what I’ve observed PC culture and free speech debates on college campuses have shifted gear. They’re no longer about Gen-Xer egalitarianism. Through an era of skyrocketing tuition PC Culture now is unironically more about “correctness” and less about politics. By “correctness” I mean that PC culture seems more about corrections and transformations of campus atmosphere and culture than it is about political engagement in the marketplace of ideas. In this way “political correctness” now is more inwardly directed on the college community itself instead of towards solving problems in the larger world beyond four years of very expensive schooling.   

Within this shift is a distinct and qualitative difference between a Gen X and a Gen Z understanding of free speech.

Gen X was concerned with speech directed outwardly toward all of society because it wanted that Cold War, Reaganized era to change in ways that made more freedom and power possible for people who had previously been marginalized, ignored, and exploited. Gen Z has seemed more concerned with speech directed inwardly toward peers and administrators, and throughout campus spaces.

In “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Jean Twenge presents research suggesting that iGen is a radically different cohort, mostly because of the amount of time they spend looking at screens. Compared to previous generations they don’t drink as much, are less likely to date, have less sex, and are less likely to have driver’s licenses or jobs. They also spend more time with their parents. But they’re also more depressed and suicidal. Twenge argues that because of the amount of time occupied by phones and tablets, Gen Z has actually postponed the end of childhood such that “18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.” To this profile add Jonathan Haidt’s observation on Ezra Klein’s podcast recently that Gen Zers are more likely to take workplace problems to HR departments than work them one-on-one with co-workers.

From this profile one concludes that Gen Z is more adapted to its era than Gen X was to the late 70s, 80s, and 90s. Just what iGen is so well adapted to will be the subject of the rest of this discussion.  


3) Commodified

Not only is higher education considerably more expensive, higher education as an industry has become more industrial. Because of cuts in state funding many colleges and universities operate more like businesses than like institutions. Even private colleges and universities are now places where students are customers and education is a product. The college campus has been transformed into a boutique selling many product variations in order to attract as many customers as possible. As market actors customers who know they’ll likely overpay for crucial but intangible commodities and experiences also know they may be on the hook for up to six-figure debt. So we should expect these customers to make as many demands as they can on the providers of their services in order to maximize the value of the products they’re purchasing.

Further, customers will want and demand optimal experiences, amenities, and services. Of highest value is a certain kind of environment that looks like what they want the world to be. If customers don’t get the environments they’ve paid for (with such amenities as safe spaces, certain speakers dis-invited, fried chicken in the dining hall, etc.), or get an on-campus experience that isn’t optimal (not a very safe space, speech that upsets or offends them) they’ll express their displeasure as customers through a consumer revolt, or “protest.” Like any corporation with a duty to return shareholder value, the college or university will provide good customer service and placate their demands. With customers satisfied until the next “protest,” the university will turn this experience into marketing campaigns aimed at future customers. Otherwise, like a factory spilling waste into a stream, the university will see such incidents as externalities which it will absorb by raising tuition and fees for next year’s customers.

What I’ve just described may seem a cynical take of the neoliberalization of higher education, but it’s also starkly true and has been so for a long time:

“[David] Harvey and the other critics of neoliberalism explain that once neoliberal goals and priorities become embedded in a culture’s way of thinking, institutions that don’t regard themselves as neoliberal will nevertheless engage in practices that mime and extend neoliberal principles — privatization, untrammeled competition, the retreat from social engineering, the proliferation of markets. These are exactly the principles and practices these critics find in the 21st century university, where (according to Henry Giroux) the “historical legacy” of the university conceived “as a crucial public sphere” has given way to a university “that now narrates itself in terms that are more instrumental, commercial and practical.” (“Academic Unfreedom in America,” in Works and Days.)

This new narrative has been produced (and necessitated) by the withdrawal of the state from the funding of its so-called public universities. If the percentage of a state’s contribution to a college’s operating expenses falls from 80 to 10 and less (this has been the relentless trajectory of the past 40 years) and if, at the same time, demand for the “product” of higher education rises and the cost of delivering that product (the cost of supplies, personnel, information systems, maintenance, construction, insurance, security) skyrockets, a huge gap opens up that will have to be filled somehow.

Faced with this situation universities have responded by (1) raising tuition, in effect passing the burden of costs to the students who now become consumers and debt-holders rather than beneficiaries of enlightenment (2) entering into research partnerships with industry and thus courting the danger of turning the pursuit of truth into the pursuit of profits and (3) hiring a larger and larger number of short-term, part-time adjuncts who as members of a transient and disposable workforce are in no position to challenge the university’s practices or agitate for an academy more committed to the realization of democratic rather than monetary goals. In short , universities have embraced neoliberalism.”

“Neoliberalism And Higher Education” | The New York Times |Stanley Fish | 03/08/2009

If the demands made by students of a university are qualitatively similar to the demands made by the customers of a firm, and if those demands are more inwardly directed so that they “optimize customer experience” itself rather than challenge some social or environmental injustice, then we should consider that socialization within 3rd wave PC culture is substantially similar to socialization within corporate culture. Further, we should also consider that the inward direction of 3rd wave PC Culture is akin to the inwardness of corporate culture, particularly the sets of written and unwritten rules that govern how one performs within the corporate body.

One wonders if we’ve arrived at a point where this is the only thing college and college students can be.


Where are your hammers for these nails?

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IMAGE SOURCE: yale-university-1604158_1920 (CC0 Creative Commons)

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