Walking on Eggshells- How Political Correctness is Changing the Campus Dynamic

Photo courtesy of naplesherald.com | Christine Lagarde was slated to speak at Smith commencement in 2014 but cancelled her appearance after student protests.

Photo courtesy of naplesherald.com | Christine Lagarde was slated to speak at Smith commencement in 2014 but cancelled her appearance after student protests.

Kira Barrett ’18
Contributing writer

The summer before I entered Smith as a first-year, I read that Christine Lagarde, the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund had decided not to speak at Commencement after student protests. I was confused. Lagarde is arguably the most influential woman in the financial world, excelling in what has always been a male-dominated field. How could students at a liberal arts college which prides itself on female empowerment and diversity be so opposed to hearing her speak?

That fall, I moved onto campus to begin my college career. During my first days at Smith, I witnessed countless conversations that consisted of one person telling the other that their opinion was wrong. The word “offensive” was almost always included in the reasoning. Within a few short weeks, members of my freshman class had quickly assimilated to this new way of non-thinking. They could soon detect a politically incorrect view and call the person out on their “mistake.” I began to voice my opinion less often to avoid being berated and judged by a community that claims to represent the free expression of ideas. I learned, along with every other student, to walk on eggshells for fear that I may say something “offensive.” That is the social norm here.

But to be offended by something is not a rational argument. To paraphrase British writer and actor Stephen Fry, being offended does not give a person certain rights or put them on a higher moral ground. It is nothing more than a complaint. Once we are armed with the response “I am offended by that,” there is no limit to how far that phrase can take us. One could be offended by nearly anything.

After growing accustomed to this mentality, I understood why Christine Lagarde’s presence on the Smith campus was so vehemently opposed. The students who were against her speaking were “offended” by her views and/or the past actions of the organization which she had recently been appointed to lead. I was angry, then sad. In attempting to combat intolerance, we have become intolerant ourselves. We should not only be embarrassed by our actions but also ashamed.

If as a community we continue to close ourselves off to other points of view, our education will be greatly diminished. I do not believe the sole reason we are here is to take tests, write essays and attend class. Arguably, the most important part of college is the ability to speak openly with others, discuss ideas, disagree, argue and be exposed to new ways of thinking and viewing the world. What is college for if not to challenge each other, and in doing so, to push ourselves to understand the world from somebody else’s perspective? What kind of learning environment are we creating for ourselves when our classes, our language and our views are constantly censored and rebuked? We are closing ourselves off to the world and to each other, and we need to stop.

So, what did we gain from driving Lagarde away? We were comforted and relieved that there was one less person who disagreed with us. We had “won” by plugging our ears and closing our eyes, just as we have done countless times with our own peers. However many faults we may believe another person has, whether they are the director of the International Monetary Fund or a fellow student, they deserve our full respect and attention.

The reality is that once we graduate, we walk away from this “safe space” into the real world. Daily we will encounter people who hold opinions that are different from ours. We should not be threatened by this but rather embrace it as an opportunity for us to meaningfully engage with our fellow human beings. In the real world, there are no trigger warnings.

I have two years remaining at Smith. My hope is that political correctness does not continue to stand in the way of our freedom of thought and speech, and that we may soon grow into a more open-minded and accepting community.

Some people who read this article will agree with me, and others will not. That’s okay. What’s important is that I was able to write it.

18 Comments

  1. William Harris, Brooklyn NY says:

    Recently it was the New Bedford MA whaling museum that drew me
    back after 40 years. My boys had loved it. The clip from a silent film
    shot on location vividly brought home the danger and courage needed
    –it was chilling. Today, this 10 minute clip no longer plays in a museum devoted largely to whale harvesting. Your fine article on Ms.
    Lagarde speaks to why.

  2. Michael Clark says:

    I could not agree more with Kira Barrett’s article and can assure her that she is accurately and lucidly highlighting a problem that afflicts both places of learning and legislatures around the world. Closing our ears closes our minds.
    Mike Clark, London, England

  3. Sadly, the writer is 100% correct. Speech on our campuses is no longer free, especially at Smith. This atmosphere where everyone is offended and no one can engage in a true exchange of ideas is one of the primary reasons I no longer support my alma mater.

  4. I come from Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia regularly lectured by the US on free speech, democracy, etc. Sadly, I enjoyed way more ‘freedom ‘ back there than here in the US. Talk about race. Talk about gender. Soon, someone would be ‘offended’. More ominously, someone on a car even threw a water bottle at me for wearing Che Guevara T-Shirt.

    In comparison, in my 20 years of living in Myanmar, I was never stopped from speaking to my mind, and that includes living under dictatorship. In my definition, Myanmar under military junta enjoyed more freedom’ than the US.

    • Then go the hell back if it’s that much better

      • a patriot says:

        Actually, George, I think Jessica, in her brief comment, has demonstrated more American founding father spirit than you; and thus, in a way, has earned her place here in the USA more than you. Liberty must be re-fought and re-earned by each generation, and Jessica has some healthy fight in her words.

  5. You have wisdom, perspective and self-awareness. Keep speaking against the prevailing tides that seek to limit all three.

  6. You go to Smith and you’re surprised at this?

  7. Finius Figglebottom says:

    I am so offended.

  8. You argument is wrong because it makes me upset – surely this is simply a fallacious appeal to emotion?

    • George Carlin always said that political correctness was fascism masquerading as manners. He’s vindicated more and more every year.
      Good for you for speaking up.

  9. Good for you for speaking up. Can’t stand the intolerance on the Left nowadays. They’re trying to turn everyone into conformist drones.

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  11. The proper response to, “I am offended by that,” is, “Why is that my problem?”

    Unfortunately, then the Administration steps in and plays its Hitler card.

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