Yes, you read the headline right: watch the video here. At a town hall on college affordability, the president answered a question about political bias on college campuses by launching into a long disquisition on the importance of free and wide-ranging debate. And then he got specific:
One thing I do want to point out is it’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem—sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I was just talking to a friend of mine about this. You know, I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women, and I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say. That’s not the way we learn either.
This is a tremendous statement for the President to make. Political leaders can be most influential when they take on the more extreme elements of their own coalition, and no national political figure commands as much respect on the campus left as Barack Obama. While many liberal pundits have joined conservatives in condemning left-wing language policing, few Democratic politicians have spoken out against the perversion of liberalism taking root in the ivory tower. Perhaps the President’s statement will give cover to establishment figures in the party to say what many (hopefully) believe—that “trigger warnings” have no place in a liberal education, that asking where someone is from is not a “microaggression,” that political figures should be allowed to speak on college campuses without being shouted down, even if they are not leftists, that the campus crusaders are out of control.
There is, of course, a deep irony in President Obama’s decision to take a stand against campus P.C. seven years into his term. His administration has played a critical role in fomenting the movement, going all-in for the campus activists at every turn, and even using federal harassment laws to promulgate an unprecedented nationwide speech regulation (which it later walked back). Unlike its predecessor, President Obama’s Office for Civil Rights in Education has not taken any steps to protect what many of us consider to be a very important civil right—freedom of speech—and has actively waged war on its close cousin, due process. It would be nice to see the administration actually do something about this problem rather than just talk about it. (Hint: the University of California system, which is the largest recipient of federal research funding and is run by a former Obama administration official, is currently weighing an unconstitutional rule against expressing “intolerant” opinions on campus. Perhaps someone in the administration could speak up about that).
All that said, the President’s public, unambiguous and full-throated condemnation of the new wave of P.C. is quite welcome. Political correctness is more about culture than policy, and President Obama is better situated to affect the political culture in P.C. quarters than any other individual. Hopefully other liberal politicians have the spine to follow his lead—and back up their words with deeds.