Water-Buffaloed at Penn

For weeks, students at the University of Pennsylvania have been discussing the meaning of an obscure Hebrew word which translates as "water buffalo," a slang term used as a mild put-down. No, this isn't a course in linguistics. It's the latest outbreak of political correctness. The story began when an Israeli-born student, Eden Jacobowitz, had trouble studying one night because of a group of sorority women whooping it up outside. Jacobowitz shouted at them to cut the noise, calling them "water buffalos," the translation of a Hebrew term roughly equivalent to "dumb bell." But the sorority women were black, and campus authorities thought they detected racist overtones in the term. Before you could say "thought police," a controversy was born. Jacobowitz was charged with violating a campus speech code. Hearings were held; the ACLU has threatened a lawsuit; and Hillary Clinton, who gave the commencement speech at Penn last week, made pointed comments about the danger of suppressing free speech. I was in England when the story broke, and the Brits were puzzled by all the fuss. One bright young member of Parliament asked me to please explain what political correctness is all about. Is it really about tolerance? he asked. Or is it an attempt by the left to gain intellectual control? Good question. In the past I did think the PC movement was just a liberal attempt to promote tolerance and individual rights. But then I began to notice that only certain individual rights are protected. For example, in the water buffalo incident, university president Sheldon Hackney refused to get involved, even though an Orthodox Jewish student is obviously being used as a racial scapegoat. Yet Hackney has built a reputation for welcoming speakers on campus who twist traditional moral and religious sensibilities—people like Andres Serrano, with his paintings of a crucifix in a jar of urine, or Robert Mapplethorpe, with his homoerotic art. It seems all the talk of sensitivity and tolerance cuts one way only. Nor is this a tempest in a teapot. Sheldon Hackney is President Clinton's nominee to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities. His response gives us a clue to future national policy. The truth is that campus speech codes are not being used to teach common courtesy and civility. Would that they were. Instead, they're being used to identify victim groups that can be used to promote liberal political goals. Anyone who disagrees with the prevailing liberal position on minority rights or gay rights or feminism—no matter how principled the objections—can be pilloried as racist and sexist. That's exactly what happened just weeks ago on the same campus, when a column appeared in a student newspaper arguing against affirmative action. Now, you can be against affirmative action without being against blacks. But black students charged that the column was racially offensive and confiscated thousands of copies of the paper. A clear case of censorship. But Sheldon Hackney defended the black students' right to "air their grievances." I think my British friend was on to something. The PC movement is not about tolerance. It's a bid by liberals to control public debate. The language of rights is being used to intimidate anyone making principled objections to the liberal social agenda. And by controlling speech, universities are well on their way to controlling thought.


Chuck Colson


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