Generals are often accused of fighting the last war, of confronting every foe through the prism of earlier battles. Political polemicists, no less than military leaders, run the risk of conflating the past and present. Over the past few months, some of our sharpest liberal writers have been warning of a resurgent identity politics, a new political correctness that evokes earlier clashes. Many of these writers have been shaped by the political correctness fights of the 1990s — a tangle of arguments about the literary canon, speech codes, and multiculturalism. Indeed, many of the complaints about the new political correctness foreground ’90s campus conflagrations in which they played some small part — giving their writing a peculiarly antique tinge for arguments that are ostensibly about a twenty-first century perversion of popular culture.
In their description of the new political correctness, these writers point to what they see as a novel and pernicious development: notably, the spread of trigger warnings (advisory labels on syllabi and course outlines alerting students of material that might provoke painful memories) and safe spaces (specially designated locations for rape survivors or LGBT people, for example, to find comfort and community). On an immediate level, the critics raise the question of efficacy. “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma,” Jonathan Chait rightly notes in his essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” published earlier this year in New York magazine. “An analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.”