I entered college in 1995, a year that marked high tide for the movement then known, for better or worse, as political correctness. My school, Cornell University, was the site of one of the 1960s’ most famous campus protests—a takeover of the student union by shotgun-toting members of the Afro-American Society in 1969.
That radical legacy survived, in diluted form, in the demonstrations that clogged our quads on a near-daily basis, demanding everything from more vegan options in our dining halls to the right of self-segregation for minority students who felt out of place in the mostly white freshman dorms. The film PCU, released a few months before my matriculation, satirized this campus environment. As a piece of social commentary, PCU was stupid, but its very crassness was a sort of manifesto for those who saw multicultural sensitivity as something forced on them by liberal elites.
My four years in college would see the rise of Fox News, the launch of Maxim magazine and the debuts of South Park and The Man Show on Comedy Central. By the time I graduated, the term PC was back to being an embarrassing epithet, a clay pigeon for the forces of reaction to blast away at.
The forces of reaction weren’t entirely wrong. Whether or not anyone ever used the phrase vertically challenged with a straight face, political correctness had a tendency toward unintentional self-parody. During the time it held sway, however, the movement had real force, because it knew its target: the Man. Activists would not tolerate an establishment of able-bodied white Christian heterosexual men defining the terms in which everyone else spoke and thought ever again.
Simplicity makes for strong messages, and when the Man was a monolith, protest was a simple binary: us vs. them. It was safe to assume the president of this college or that TV network was in league with the powers that be, because why else would he be there? Authority and information flowed in one direction, from the top down. Fire your rhetorical gun upward, however wildly, and you’d surely hit an enemy.
In 2015 much of that no longer holds true, and the Man is not what he used to be. The president of the United States is a black man with an Arabic middle name. The frontrunner to succeed him is a woman. The CEO of the world’s most valuable company, Apple’s Tim Cook, recently came out as gay. The editor of The New York Times is a black man who succeeded a woman. Straight white men still control far more than their share of Senate seats, corporate directorships and meaty dramatic roles, but their hegemony is no longer unchallenged.
Meanwhile, the shape of influence has changed. Thanks to the democratizing force of the internet and the amplifying effect of social media, playing fields have started to level. Tiny constituencies can now wield the kind of clout major political parties once monopolized.
Yet, as so often happens, the revolutionaries formerly united in struggle now find themselves falling out with one another in triumph. It turns out that when the Man starts to look more like the rest of us, everyone starts to look a little like the Man.
Call it PCTSD. Like the combat soldiers who return from the front lines with post-traumatic stress disorder, their brains unable to stand down from high alert, the culture warriors of the 1990s remain in constant fight-or-flight mode, spotting the enemy behind every parked car and potted plant, going full Rambo at the slightest provocation, real or imagined. Their weapons are tweets and hashtags, not bullets and grenades, but with the real foe in headlong retreat, the friendly fire casualties have been mounting.
Just ask Stephen Colbert. When, last year, he announced the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” it was his way of slamming Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for his lame attempt to justify the team’s historic facepalm of a name. The antiracism tilt of his joke was lost on activist Suey Park, who launched the #CancelColbert boycott and managed to make her hashtag a top trend on Twitter before the outrage cycle ran its course.
Or ask Lena Dunham. An outspoken voice on women’s issues since the start of her young career, the Girls creator disclosed, in her memoir, a sexual assault she suffered in college. She hoped to erase the stigma for fellow rape victims. Absurdly, critics cherry-picked out-of-context passages about her childhood sexual explorations from her book to label her an apologist for “rape culture.” Many black feminists endorsed the #DropDunham campaign, arguing her white privilege had protected her for too long.
Colbert and Dunham will be just fine, of course, but celebrities aren’t the only ones who find themselves in the crosshairs of would-be allies. The producers of 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman, a viral-video sensation that captures the shocking degree of sexual harassment directed at women in public, ended up having to apologize for “unintended racial bias” in their editing. Despite 39 million views on YouTube, the video’s original message was lost in a cacophony of competitive identity politics. That happens a lot these days. Black women accuse white women and gay men of “cultural appropriation” for borrowing slang such as basic bitch and dance moves such as twerking. Black social conservatives spar with gay-marriage activists over the civil rights mantle. Writing in Reason, the libertarian Shikha Dalmia notes the sneering attacks she absorbed from popular women’s blogs over her criticism of California’s controversial “affirmative consent” bill: “Accusing women of enjoying rape was something that men used to do to justify raping them. Now, apparently, it’s a club feminists use to clobber other feminists who disagree with them.” In this war of all against all, it becomes hard to distinguish legitimate claims of victimhood from spurious ones. When the progenitors of “Gamergate,” an adolescent campaign to deprive feminist critics of a voice in the video game industry, wanted to sell their boycott to corporate advertisers, they couched their cause in the language of the anti-bullying movement—and succeeded.
The internet is very good at two things: extracting bits of content out of their original context, and stitching together people into networks of affinity, be they freegans or white supremacists. For anyone who enjoys working up a righteous lather now and then—and that appears to be pretty much all of us—it has never been easier to find things to get outraged about, to find others who share our outrage and to vent it in a way that gets results. Calling someone a bigot or a rapist on Twitter is a lot easier than doing it face-to-face, especially when you’re the millionth person to do so.
But the more we spend our days online, talking to people who more or less agree with us, the more we’re picking vicious fights with people who share our deepest values. The Man may be dead, but the narcissism of small differences is alive and well. As that thing we used to call the Establishment continues to splinter into a million tiny mirrors reflecting our own faces back at us, the people who want to change it need to stop and think: Who’s the real enemy here?