Caught in the Crossfire: Witnessing “Political Correctness” at Yale


A couple of weeks ago, I found out by accident through a share on Facebook that I was part of a team at the New York Times Chinese website that won the 2017 SOPA Awards for Excellence in Lifestyle Coverage. The Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) hands out one of the most prestigious journalism awards in Asia every year, and I’m very proud of my team of young writers who stood out from other professional publications with our series covering a wide range of issues regarding U.S.-China cultural differences.


My article was about the many controversies surrounding “political correctness” at Yale from fall 2015 to spring 2016. Those controversies included an email about offensive Halloween costumes, reactions to the expulsion of Yale’s basketball captain for alleged sexual assault, and the renaming of Yale’s Calhoun College.

Putting together the article—the longest I’ve ever written in Chinese—was a process of grasping the concept of “political correctness” in the United States. While the media framed the issue as “political correctness” versus “free speech,” I find “empathy” and “intent” more useful in positively contributing to this important conversation.


Empathy, in my view, is the fundamental ingredient of America’s supposedly inclusive “melting pot.” Without empathy, this country is merely a collection of segregated national and ethnic communities living next to one another.


The notion of empathy is simple. It starts with caring about people who are different from you, and all it asks of you is imagine yourself in the situation of the person who deserves your empathy. I’m glad Yale provided an environment for me to develop my empathy for those around me as those controversies unfolded in my junior year.


When my Arab-American friend at Yale told me how people doubted if he were a Yale student inside Yale’s campus and how the police once singled him out when he was with his non-Muslim friends, I was upset even after he already learned how to deal with these hassles with relative ease because my friend’s well-being mattered to me.


When I learned about racial profiling in psychology classes and heard about incidents involving police applying excessive force on African-Americans, I knew that although Asians are not often the victims of such practices, these are injustices in U.S. society that people should care about. I worry that my roommate, who is black, will be subject to the same prejudice when he happens to be in the driver’s seat or “fits the description” at the wrong moment.


Such worries are not unfounded. In January 2015, a police officer trained a gun on an African-American student right inside Yale’s campus simply because he “fit the description” of a burglar. The student’s father was the New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who soon wrote an op-ed questioning the rough policing methods that left his son shaken up.


I realize that when my Muslim and African-American friends at Yale go out into the “real world,” the first thing many people see in them is not their Yale education or their brilliance. Instead, they will be first judged by their looks and appearance and suffer injustices certain minority groups suffer on a daily basis.


“Political correctness” in the United States, unlike its Chinese counterpart that aims to serve the powerful, sets out to protect the disadvantaged from certain injustices in society. Therefore, if people exercise empathy, which everyone should, they will recognize the important role of “political correctness” in a society that values justice and equality.


However, the question of when and how to enforce “political correctness” still confuses me even after I observed the controversies at Yale. What’s often left undiscussed in liberal campus environments like Yale’s is the excesses of “political correctness” activism.


In my view, the danger of “political correctness” lies in a tendency to simplify the concept to slogans and develop knee-jerk reactions to sensitive “politically incorrect” opinions regardless of context. The main criterion for the judgment of any alleged offense against political correctness should be based on “intent.”


Of course, many incidents of political incorrectness aim to unfairly portray or discredit minority groups. But in many cases, people should be able to present basic facts and ask basic questions on sensitive topics.

For example, the first trigger of the whole discussion about minority students at Yale was what I still believe as an email without any malicious intent. After Yale sent out an email reminding students not to offend minority groups with their Halloween costumes in October 2015, the associate head of Yale’s Silliman College argued that Yale should not interfere with students’ choices of costumes in a long email to students in her college. She clearly stated that she did not endorse offensive costumes, but the email still sparked what became known as the “Halloween costume” controversy because “political correctness” is somewhat over-sensitive at Yale.


At the height of Yale students’ protest, the Yale Political Union hosted a debate on affirmative action, in which a professor showed data suggesting that in many cases, affirmative action hurt rather than helped minority students. Obviously, the professor was only participating in a debate and presenting her case with statistics and analysis, not planning a personal attack on minority students, yet many students raised their right fists in protest.


From the perspective of an outsider, I think I should have the right to ask questions on sensitive topics with good intentions without being accused of political incorrectness. Only by bringing up these topics can everyone develop a better understanding on important issues. Fortunately, although the excesses of “political correctness” were salient in media narratives, my minority friends at Yale were always patient enough to answer my “stupid questions,” adding to my understanding and respect for people from minority backgrounds.


Of course, “empathy” and “intent” add up to only a tiny part of a complicated debate surrounding “political correctness.” As I said in the last sentence of my article, let me take a page from Winston Churchill’s famous quote on democracy: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” to summarize my thoughts about political correctness – political correctness is the worst form of correctness, except for all the others.