Philipp Oehmke, Spiegel Online
Few terms are as divisive in today’s United States as “political correctness.” A concept that was intended to create greater freedom in the country may instead have resulted in the opposite. It also helped strengthen the right wing.
It’s a Friday afternoon in Oberlin, Ohio, around one month before the country heads to the polls to elect Donald Trump as its next president. The final classes and lectures of the week have just ended, and a young woman comes walking by in bare feet with a hula hoop gyrating around her waist while others are performing what seems to be a rhythmic dance to the African music that’s playing. Two black students are rapping.
It’s the kind of scene that could easily play out on a beach full of backpack tourists, but this is unfolding at one of the country’s most expensive universities.
Many female students here have dyed their hair green or blue, they have piercings and their fashion sense seems inspired by “Girls” creator and millennial star Lena Dunham, who, of course, also studied here.
In such a setting, it seems almost inconceivable that this country could go on to elect Donald Trump as its president only a few weeks later. Yet pro-Trump country is just a few miles away. Oberlin is located in Ohio, one of the swing states that made Trump’s election possible. Drive five miles down College Road toward town, and you start seeing blue “Trump Pence 2016&Prime signs on people’s lawns.
Places like Oberlin are the breeding grounds of the leftist elite Trump’s people spoke so disparagingly of during the election campaign.
Only a few months earlier, a handful of students claimed they had been traumatized after someone used chalk to scrawl “Trump 2016&Prime on the walls of buildings and on sidewalks at Oberlin and at other liberal universities. It triggered protests on some campuses, with students demanding “safe spaces” where they would be spared from hearing or seeing the name of this “fascist, racist candidate.”
In the months prior to the election, “safe spaces” had been one of the most widely discussed terms at Oberlin. The concept has its roots in feminism and describes a physically and intellectually sheltered space that protects one from potentially insulting, injurious or traumatizing ideas or comments — a place, in short, that protects one from the world. When conservative philosopher and feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers was scheduled to give a speech at Oberlin last year, some students did not approve and claimed that Sommer’s views on feminism represented “microaggressions.”
When Sommers appeared anyway, leading some Oberlin students to create a “safe space” during the speech where, as one professor reported, “New Age music” was played to calm their nerves and ease their trauma. They could also “get massages and console themselves with stuffed animals.”
“Microaggressions” are the conceptual cousins of “safe spaces” — small remarks perceived by the victims to be objectionable. In addition, there are also “trigger warnings” — brief indicators placed before a text, image, film or work of art alerting the viewer or listener of the possibility that it could “trigger” memories of a traumatic experience or the recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a warning surely makes sense for people who have experienced war, who have fled their home country or who have otherwise been exposed to cruelty and violence.
But at Oberlin, one student complained to the university administration and requested a trigger warning for Sophocles’ “Antigone.” The student argued that the suicide scene in the play had triggered strong emotions in him and that he, as someone who had himself long been on suicide watch, should have been warned. In an article he wrote for the Oberlin Review, the student, Cyrus Eosphoros, compared a trigger warning to the list of ingredients on food items. “People should have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their minds,” he wrote. Eosphoros has since dropped out of the school.