Narcissistic Emotion and University Administration:
An Analysis of 'Political Correctness'


Howard S. Schwartz
Oakland University
Rochester, Michigan 48309-4401




In Emotion in Organizations, edited by Stephen Fineman. London: Sage, 1993.


I would like to gratefully acknowledge the help of Ann Penner Winston, Yiannis Gabriel, and Stephen Fineman on earlier drafts. I would also like to express my appreciation to the School of Business Administration at Oakland University for support of this research in the form of a Summer Research Fellowship.



Narcissistic Emotion and University Administration:
An Analysis of 'Political Correctness'

The term 'political correctness' entered public discourse in a New York Times article by Richard Bernstein (1990). Discussion was then taken up by a large number of periodicals representing a wide range of opinion and intellectual level. Thus, Time and Newsweek had cover stories, but so also did The New Republic, The Atlantic and the New York Review of Books. In almost all instances, the discussion was critical.

Bernstein described PC in the following way.

... there is a large body of belief in academia and elsewhere that a cluster of opinions about race, ecology, feminism, culture and foreign policy defines a kind of 'correct' attitude toward the problems of the world, a sort of unofficial ideology of the university....

Central to pc-ness, which has its roots in 1960's radicalism, is the view that Western society has for centuries been dominated by what is often called 'the white male power structure' or 'Patriarchical hegemony.' A related belief is that everybody but white heterosexual males has suffered some form of repression and been denied a cultural voice ... (Section 4:1)

And he adds:

But more than an earnest expression of belief, 'politically correct' has become a sarcastic jibe used by those, conservatives and classical liberals alike, to describe what they see as a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia. (4:4)

Reaction to the charge of 'political correctness' was not long in emerging. Central among the themes used by those charged with these questionable practices were that, in the first place, the charges were false -- that there had been no widespread infringement of free speech -- and second that the charge of political correctness was, itself, an attempt to silence debate. According to this view, the charge of PC came from those in the academy, and their confederates elsewhere in the power structure, whose power was being threatened by new forces, previously suppressed, who were now demanding their place in the institution's power structure.

Thus, at a conference at the University of Michigan held to 'dispel the myths associated with PC,' panelist Jon Weiner, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and contributing editor of The Nation, said:

They project a world that does not exist on the college campuses today.... Undergraduates at Irvine saw the Newsweek story, came to me and said, 'Gee do we have thought police on our campus?' (Zielinski, 1991: D2)

and Richard Campbell, a conference organizer and professor of communications at the University of Michigan said this:

There's a lot of exciting changes going on in the nature of the university and the nature of society ... Some people feel threatened by these changes. (Zielinski, 1991: D1)

Panelist Julianne Malveaux, a columnist and teacher of Afro-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, was more explicit. The attack on PC, she said, is 'the white males' last gasp.... PC is a code word for : They're taking over our campus.' (Bates, 1991: A7)

This theme was adumbrated in a document labeled 'Statement on the "Political Correctness" Controversy' which was 'issued by a special committee appointed by the president of the [American] Association [of University Professors]' and published in the AAUP magazine Academe, which begins:

In recent months, critics have accused American higher education of submitting to the alleged domination of exponents of 'political correctness.' Their assault has involved sloganeering, name calling, the irresponsible use of anecdotes, and not infrequently the assertion that 'political correctness' is the new McCarthyism that is chilling the climate of debate on campus and subjecting political dissenters to the threat of reprisal. For all its self-righteous verve, this attack has frequently been less than candid about its actual origin, which appears to lie in an only partly concealed animosity toward equal opportunity and its first effects of modestly increasing the participation of women and racial and cultural minorities on campus. (Gray, et al. 1991: 48)

But notice that the claim that the attack upon PC comes from morally dubious sources is inconsistent with the denial that PC exists. This point was made in a letter to Academe by Charles Fried, a professor of Jurisprudence at Harvard Law School. Commenting on the AAUP 'statement,' Fried said:

Rarely does a statement, which is wrong in its conclusions, impetus and effect, also carry its own refutation on its face. The statement by Professor Gray, Poston, Stern, and Strohm is such a rare example. Many decry the pressures on American campuses to conform to a standard leftist catechism. They complain that vague and undefined charges of race and gender 'insensitivity' are used to bully them into silence. Professor Gray, et al., respond to this complaint by explaining that the complainers are 'frequently less than candid about its actual [emphasis supplied] origin, which appears to lie in an only partly concealed animosity toward equal opportunity ....' Thus they carelessly give as clear an example as one would want of the very bullying which Gray et al. deny exists. (Fried, 1991: 10).

Or consider the way the University of Michigan conference, at which numerous panelists denied that PC exists, appeared to an observer:

We sat in auditoriums, facing lecturing teachers; most panels had a tame 'conservative' to be the butt of abuse. One night a Times reporter named Richard Bernstein played the goat. Poor doofus, when he tried to explain that the reviled Western intellectual traditions actually spawned the revolutionary movements, he came off sounding like James Brown's This Is A Man's World.

So how did scholars receive his arguments? The crowd turned into a hissing, booing mob, egged on by several panelists, including syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux, who rolled her eyes, snickered, made faces and barked 'bullshit' while others talked. Another panelist told the crowd, after mentioning Jeanne Kirkpatrick [1], 'You can hiss if you want to.' The crowd complied.

To which the author added:

Imagine yourself a college student in that auditorium, dependent on the moderator for a needed grade. Would you stand up to the hissing, booing mob, given sanction by the podium? Would you challenge the orthodoxy of a professor who boasts that his facts are unabashedly tilted? Would you take on campus radicals and risk being publicly labeled a racist?

Or would you shut up, get the grade and go on to your real major ... (Moss, 1991: 12C)

And yet, looking at the matter from the other point of view, even a cursory look at almost almst any American university faculty will disclose that most of its members are white males. And a search of the university bookstore will equally reveal that most of what is studied in these universities is the product of white males. Certainly the selection process which resulted in this level of representation represents a form of valuation. And would it not follow that it represents a form of devaluation for those whose services and works have not been selected? And if those who had been devalued felt and expressed a certain anger, who could be surprised?


At first glance, the argument over whether or not PC exists appears undecidable. We have here two points of view, each internally consistent, and each intelligently expressed by deeply committed people, convinced of the truth of what they are saying.They talk past each other from within conceptual frameworks that are not commensurable.

Within the postmodern framework the PC controversy appears as a clash between discourses or languages. Typically, nothing is thought to exist outside of language (Rorty, 1989; Derrida, 1974), which gives rise to an epistemological relativism. Within this context, choice comes to be seen as determined by rhetoric.

But putting the matter this way tends to remove the sting from the PC controversy, since it appears to rest the determination of the matter on the question of who can produce the most compelling metaphors (Rorty, 1989). But note that the interlocutor who 'rolled her eyes, snickered, made faces and barked 'bullshit' while others talked' was also using rhetoric, as was the 'hissing, booing mob.' And if the mob had threatened to burn down the houses of the anti-PC speakers, that, too could have been seen as a rhetorical move.

What needs to be seen is that such rhetorical moves would have been part of the university's administrative process, part of the way it organizes itself. As Foucault (1979) has argued, the questions of power and knowledge are inseparable from one another. What counts as knowledge, within a given culture, is a function of how power is manifested within the culture, and therefore of how that culture organizes itself. The PC controversy is a surrogate for the question of how the university should be run. And if one can grant that administration can be done well or badly, and that this is a different question than that of whose interest is served, one can see that there is something at stake here.

In the present chapter, I wish to explore some of the administrative consequences of the Political Correctness controversy, not from a linguistic, but from a psychodynamic point of view. As opposed to the linguistic differentiation, the psychodynamic difference between the PC and anti-PC frameworks may be seen as a difference in emotions. From this point of view, the sides of the controversy represent alternative paradigms for university administration, based on different emotional processes and structures.

To put the matter very simply, PC represents an expression of narcissistic processes within university administration. Narcissism is an emotional orientation in which others are seen as existing to love oneself, and not as persons in their own right with their own, independent, emotional agendas. PC represents an attempt to take certain groups and to organize university life in support of their narcissism. The aspects of university life which are under attack by PC represent institutional arrangements that recognize that there are independent others outside of anyone's experience who must be accepted as others; and whose independent existence must be given its place within the core of anyone's emotional life.

To put the matter in Freudian terms, PC represents the workings of the ego ideal, while the traditional university represents the workings of the superego. In the next section, I will briefly develop the psychologies of the ego ideal and the superego. Then I will show how they manifest themselves as the emotional bases for the opposing dynamics of PC and the traditional university.


In the beginning of psychological life, boundaries have not yet formed between the infant and the mother, and the infant's mother [2] is its world. The total devotion of the mother to the infant results in the infant experiencing itself as the center of a loving world. Freud (1957) refers to this experience as 'primary narcissism.' As time goes by, the infant is painfully alerted to the fact that the world does not lovingly revolve around it, and comes to feel isolated and helpless in the face of it. To escape from its helplessness, the child fantasizes a return to the original narcissistic state, to fusion with the mother who was the whole world, the maternal imago (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1986).

The fantasy of this return to the state of narcissistic fusion is referred to by Freud (1955) as the ego ideal. The ego ideal represents us as we would best like to be. We would be able to do exactly what we want and have it turn out to our benefit since the world would be structured around our desires. Thus, we could be free and spontaneous without having to worry about the consequences. The ego ideal pictures us as perfectly at home in the world, without anxiety, sure of ourselves, certain of the validity of our behavior, without doubt or marginality. On the individual level, we can see the ego ideal represented in the concept of success. On the collective level, the idea of a society manifesting the ego ideal lies behind our idea of utopia.

The problem is that, short of psychosis, the ego ideal never comes to be. In reality, we never get to be the center of a loving world. The world is, in fact, not our mother. It existed before we were born. And it will continue to exist after we are dead. Moreover, if we had never been born, it never would have missed us. Far from being the center of a loving world, we are always powerless and marginal in the face of a world that is deeply indifferent and dangerous to us.

But the ego ideal is not the powerful fantasy that it is because it has a basis in fact. Rather, it gains its power because we need it to defend ourselves against our very helplessness and marginality. Thus, an important task of culture comes to be, on the one hand, to maintain the fantasy of the ego ideal while, on the other hand, explaining why, at any given time for any given person, it has not come about. Within modern society the dominant cultural adaptation that has arisen to solve this problem involves the superego.

For Freud, the superego represents the internalization of external constraint to form obligation: the child undertakes to punish itself with guilt for behavior for which the father would otherwise have punished it. In this way the child learns the rules of morality that operate within its culture; why it must do what it does not want to do. It learns, for example, when it must inhibit its sexuality and aggression and what a fair day's work is. Indeed, it is only through this process that the child comes to make sense of the fact that it has to work in the first place.

Thus, the superego involves a fundamentally different relationship to others, and to external reality generally, than the narcissism of the ego ideal. It is premised on the recognition that others are others, and that they will reward me or punish me as an expression of their own agenda and not in accordance with mine. Under the ego ideal, I experience the external world as part of myself. Under the superego, I experience myself as being part of the external world.

In Freud's account of development, the child is constrained to become like the father, to do something useful and culturally valued; under the supposition that then the child can again become fused with the maternal imago (Schwartz, 1992). In other words, the adoption of the superego enables one to give up the ego ideal temporarily on the promise of being able to earn it later through the performance of one's adult role. The corollary of this, of course, is that if one has not attained the ego ideal it is because one has not done enough that is useful and one needs to do more. One can easily see the value of the superego by reflecting that it both generates culturally useful activity and, at the same time, preserves society from the distortion of reality and the sense of infinite entitlement that narcissism would otherwise generate.

Thus, modern society can be seen to involve an interaction of the ego ideal and the superego. The superego provides the basis both of positive achievement (Rothman, Lichter, and Lichter, 1992) and for the renunciation of immediate gratification. The ego ideal is represented both as a developmental emotional bedrock and as a promise of what will happen if one fulfills one's cultural obligations.

In our culture, the task of acting in accordance with the demands of the superego has traditionally been the role of the male, of the father, who had to act in the world to earn standing with the female, the mother (Schwartz, 1992). With regard to the children, the role of the father was to inculcate the superego by representing harsh external reality within the family so that, by identifying with him, they could learn to cope with it. At the same time, his role was to create a distance between the family and harsh reality so that the ego ideal could operate within the family. The female, by contrast, had the role of bringing up the children and giving them a sense of being the center of a loving world. In other words, the female was oriented toward maintaining the ego ideal for the children -- to give them a deep feeling that they were loved.


In order to understand PC one needs to recognize that in recent decades, the role of the father, the superego, has come to be repudiated. Taking its place has been the domination of the narcissistic psychology of the ego ideal.

It would go beyond the scope of this paper to give a full account of how this happened. Nonetheless, it seems beyond dispute that PC is a carry over from the radicalism of the Sixties (c.f. Kimball, 1990) and in order to get some sense of it, we need to make some sense of the psychodynamics of the time. In doing so, I rely on Todd Gitlin's (1987) excellent chronicle together with my own memory.

Children of affluence, growing up in the 50's, the people who were to become the radicals of the sixties had an uneasy relationship to the comfort of their surroundings. If they had identified with their fathers they could have felt comfortable in their comfort, since they could have felt that they, in their turn, would earn the abundance that their fathers had earned.

But as Gitlin shows, the times did not lead to identification with the fathers because the fathers were disdained (also see Keniston, 1965). Important books of the time, which Gitlin argues represented a powerful cultural trend, were The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Organization Man, and The Lonely Crowd. Such books presented an image of the father as one who had sold out, who had lost his freedom by adapting, and all for the purpose of material acquisition. This material acquisition did not seem worth the price to many young people. Hence, they refused identification with the father and retained the freedom he had lost. Still under his protection, they could live in the fantasy of the ego ideal, maintaining their sense of narcissistic omnipotence, which his superego had made possible.

But notice that this refusal to identify with the father made it difficult to form the superego and therefore gave these people no ground on which to feel entitled to their prosperity. Affluence was nice enough, but the guilt that came with the sense of being unentitled was mortifying. This was especially the case when they compared themselves with others who were not so prosperous: black people, working class people and, later on, people in the Third World. Out of this, during the early 60's, the nucleus of the group that would form the student movement attempted to reform the superego in a way that would serve as a new basis of entitlement without abandoning their freedom and without having to sustain the guilt of comparing themselves with those less well off.

This reformation was based on the role of the social reformer who championed the ideal of 'participatory democracy,' -- a form of organization that would be both efficient, in the sense of being able to raise everyone's level of prosperity, and non-hierarchical. This was the heart of what was called the New Left generally, and Students for a Democratic Society, specifically, as its organizational form [3].

It is very likely that had it not been for the Vietnam war, the impulse that went into the New Left would have had the salutary effect of increasing the level of democratic participation in society and in organizations. Brought into line with the limits imposed by reality, it would indeed have been a reformation of the superego and a real benefit to civilization. The problem with the Vietnam war, and with the awakening to the racial caste system which occured at the same time, is that it raised the level of guilt beyond what this reformulated superego could readily work off [4].

The predominant memory I have of that time, and Gitlin shows that this was characteristic of the student radicals of the time, was on the one hand, the belief in the absolute moral depravity of the American pursuit of the Vietnam war, and, on the other, of the terrible incapacity of the student movement to stop it. Children of affluence, unaccustomed to the idea that they could not get anything they wanted just by wanting it, the idea that they could not stop the war, even though it was dreadfully wrong, was incomprehensible and inadmissible. But there it was! The war was not only wrong, its continued conduct threatened their sense of omnipotence.

The mature response would have been for the students to accept their limitations and do what they could within the constraints set by the world. This would have been activity in accordance with the superego. But the alternative chosen by a good many people at that time was to abandon the superego and give free reign to the ego ideal. This involved abandoning the possibility of action in the real world, in exchange for striking a pose in a fantasy world. By identifying with revolutionary movements abroad, with black militants at home, with the historical figures of world revolution, all defined within a fantasy of The Revolution, young people could sustain their sense of importance. At the same time they could give themselves an enemy whose resistance would explain the difficulty of what they were doing. The only casualty in this was the sense of reality.

For, as Gitlin makes plain, this idea of an impending revolution in the United States was ridiculous. Any serious thought would show the absurdity of the idea. But the idea was an absolute imperative. Anything which called it into question was morally unacceptable. So, caught between the necessity to believe and the sobering influence of realistic appraisal, they abandoned realistic appraisal. Indeed, they stigmatized and scapegoated it. They came to feel directly threatened by realistic sense, and came to take it as their enemy. It was this realistic sense, insofar as it conflicted with the fantasy of the left, that formed the basis of political incorrectness. But the capacity to internalize real external demands is the basis of the superego. Thus, the enemy they set themselves up against was the superego itself. In what follows I would like to show how this dynamic plays itself out in the current PC conflict.


The Crime of White Maleness

Perhaps the central emotional thrust of political correctness is the vilification of white (i.e. European) males. It is also the point that most clearly shows the psychodynamics of the process.

Clearly enough, the assault upon the white males and the 'Patriarchy' is an assault against the father. It is a blanket vilification. As Richard Shweder, writing in The New York Times has observed, ' "white male," dead or alive, is now used as an accusation.... a slur.' Following with the usual thinking behind the charge, he says

The left relishes the usage. It thinks that white males have held center stage too long, that it's time for their victims. (1991: Section 4:15)

What is peculiar about this attack is that the grounds upon which the centrality of the white males rests is typically not mentioned. Thus, the edifice, not only of Western civilization, but increasingly the civilization of the whole world, was largely created by white males, certainly in disproportion to their numbers. Science, technology, law, economic institutions, indeed, the university itself ... one could go on, are predominately the products of white male invention and construction. The worth of these products is tacitly granted by those foes of white males who wish to be integrated into the leadership of those creations, for example business organizations, created by the oppressive white males. But there is never any credit given to the white males for their contribution, nor any gratitude or respect expressed.

The point I wish to make here is not that white males are entitled to some credit. Rather, I want to make a psychodynamic point by trying to understand the significance of the fact that, in the attack, the ground of entitlement is not mentioned. This reveals the difference between the psychology of the superego and the working of the ego ideal.

The superego operates with the currency of respect, not love. The superego presumes the freedom of the other and the voluntary nature of his or her actions. Within the psychology of the superego, when there is an accomplishment, an achievement, we presume that it is something that might not have happened, and that its occurence was the result of the fact that somebody did it. Respect arises from our belief that an individual did something which he or she might not have done. When Shweder speaks of 'center stage,' he is talking about the expression of this respect. The psychology of the superego, then, would assert against the claim of having had too much 'center stage,' 'They earned it.'

Against the claim 'They earned it,' within the psychology of the superego, may be asserted 'Their achievements were not that important,' or ' This other group deserves more credit,' or 'This other group was deprived of a fair opportunity to earn it,' or 'They didn't earn it, their ancestors did.' All of these are claims of equity, which may be seen as the way a balance is established between the demands of the superego and the entitlements of the ego ideal. When they are true, they operate as genuine grounds for legitimate grievance. There is, after all, such a thing as inequity. And it is an undeniable fact that numerous important contributions of members of such groups as African-Americans and women have often been overlooked.

What distinguishes political correctness from legitimate grievance, from considerations of equity, is the extent to which disputation over who is to be appreciated denies the validity of the claim of having done something to earn it altogether. The fact that the claim of earned entitlement is rarely mentioned, let alone denied, indicates that the psychology of the superego has been abandoned here.

What has taken its place is the exclusive psychology of the ego ideal. Within the psychology of the ego ideal one does not gain appreciation [5] through doing something, but by being who one is. The ego ideal operates with the currency, not of respect, but of love. Within the narcissistic world of the ego ideal, good things just happen as if by magic. When they happen to one, they happen naturally because one is so wonderful. They are themselves expressions of love. Earning appreciation through voluntary behavior does not enter into this.

The corollary of this is that, within the psycholgy of the ego ideal, if one does not feel loved, if one does not experience the ego ideal, this must be because somebody is bad, with hatred directed toward them as the result. But, as we know, one never gets to be the ego ideal. The ironic result is that the psychology of the ego ideal, which has love as its primary emotional core, gives rise to hatred as the result of its inevitable failure of fulfillment. The question is, where is this hatred to be directed. There are two possibilities: either one does not belong in the world of the ego ideal because of one's own badness. In this case one feels this hatred as shame. The alternative is that others are bad, in which case one feels humiliated and hates those whom one experiences as causing one's humiliation.

In the former case, it is important to reemphasize, if the superego is present, if achievement is valued, one can convert this shame into guilt and use it, not only as the basis of a drive to become good through achievement, but as a way of deferring the ego ideal. In this way one can deflate the shame or humiliation which would come from failure to attain it. But if the superego is itself devalued, one can easily understand how the latter case might evolve.

Here, the locus of causality for one's feeling of being unloved is directed outward and one experiences oneself as having been humiliated by those who appear to be valued. In this case, the claim that individuals have earned their respect through their achievement is not seen as a valid claim for positive valuation. Rather it is experienced as an insult, part of the dynamic of oppression which functions to deprive one of the love that should come to one naturally.

From this follows a culture of envy and resentment (Schoek, 1966). Within this culture, those who are experienced as having humiliated one are thought to be evil and one experiences rage and hatred against them. They have stolen the love that properly should come to oneself. The narcissistic fantasy that accompanies this is that if one destroys the forces of evil, then one will become the center of a loving world [6].

The result of these dynamics is to redefine the concept of what the university is all about and to reinterpret all of its processes. It turns the university into a setting for a Manichean[7] battle between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil, between Oppressors and Oppressed [8]. This redefinition has a number of aspects. In the next section, I will discuss a few of them.

Multiculturalism and The Inversion of Valuation

The shift from the psychology of the superego to that of the ego ideal has the effect of delegitimating achievement as a ground for appreciation. The concept of respect loses its meaning. The claim 'They earned it' comes to seem an expression of racism, sexism, or classism, depending upon who fares badly in the comparison. In a word, it becomes politically incorrect.

By disallowing the claim of earned entitlement, the politically correct devalue achievement as a basis for appreciation and substitute perceived deprivation. As I have said, the ego ideal does not operate within the calculus of respect, but of love. Appreciation in this world is seen as attaching not to the behavior, which one may have voluntary control over, but to the person him or herself.

Thus, the assertion of previous standards of appreciation, based on achievement come to seem as ways of taking appreciation away from those who truly need it. Thus, the traditional hierarchy of valuation within the university is inverted. The pride that previously marked the attainment of approved ends comes to seem as if it has been taken from someone else and deserving, therefore, of stigmatization.

An interesting aspect of this is the effect it has on achievement-oriented minority students:

... many black students seemed ill at ease with their own achievement -- as if it were somehow a betrayal of their race. Several admitted they had kept their high school grades secret in order to avoid charges that they were 'selling out.' One pre-med student described having to watch herself when she went home to Brooklyn: 'If I speak in complete sentences, my girlfriends accuse me of putting on airs.'... (Jacoby, 1991:29).

On the other hand, the previously unappreciated, those stigmatized, make their claim to appreciation based on their stigmatization. In this way, the nature of the university's process shifts entirely.

Within the psychology of the superego, the university is an arena of competition for respect based on achievement. Here the university functions as a father, who prepares students to achieve something in the world based upon the differential reward of good versus bad work. If the process is successful, the student internalizes this criticism of bad work, as part of the superego, and goes out into the world where he or she does good work based upon this internalization.

Under the psychology of the ego ideal, the meaning of the university becomes quite different. Here, the university functions as a mother. Or, rather, not as a mother but as the maternal imago -- the infant's fantasy of what the mother should be. The maternal imago -- I shall refer to her as the Mother -- does not differentiate among her children on the basis of their achievements. For the Mother, appreciation means, not respect, but love. She loves us perfectly exactly as we are. When life is not perfect for us, we call upon the Mother's love to make it so. Accordingly, it is through our suffering that we call upon her love. She understands our need for love in exactly the way we experience it, and therefore adopts our grievances and validates our resentments. She is our perfect ally in our struggle against those who have Oppressed us and made life less than perfect for us.

Within the logic of the ego ideal, as I have shown, it follows that the cause of the feeling of unappreciation must be that the Oppressors have stolen their appreciation from the Oppressed. They therefore need to be brought to account. The logic of this principle requires that the Oppressed be loved more in order to compensate, while the Oppressors deserve to be humiliated for their effrontery and their appreciation taken from them. Taken together, what this means is that those who feel unappreciated will be confirmed in their resentments and will be helped to take back the appreciation which has been stolen from them. Then they will feel appreciated and life will be perfect. This is the process that defines the politically correct university.

From this vantage point, we can understand why, instead of a competition for achievement, the students come to engage in a competition for sympathy and even pity. By showing that they have been victimized, oppressed, abused, devalued in the past, the students assert their claims to compensatory appreciation. From this we understand the development of the balkanization of student bodies into hyphenated groups proclaiming their history of oppression and grievance. The African-Americans have their history of slavery and discrimination. The Jews have the history of anti-semitism and the holocaust. The women have the history of rape and sexual harassment. The homosexuals have homophobia and gay bashing. The white males have a more difficult project, but it is far from hopeless. They can, for example, condemn their ancestors for depriving them of their purity, and in that way join the anti-Oppressor chorus with full fury. All of these, or course, are ways of expressing resentments and legitimating one's demands for appreciation.

Resentment, because of its narcissistic premise, is a bottomless pit. This explains the curious phenomenon that, at politically correct universities, the absence of serious racism or sexism, for example, does not appear to diminish the intensity of the struggle concerning them. This is suggested by a report on Oberlin College, written for The New Republic by Jacob Weisberg. Thus:

To see how obsessed the campus is, one only has to pick up an issue of The Oberlin Review. The news, letters, and editorial columns of every issue are full of accusations of racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, 'ableism,' and a host of other insensitivities abhorrent to the disciples of what might be called Oberlinism.


Oberlin has a long liberal pedigree. The college, which first enrolled blacks in 1835, was a stop on the underground railroad. Today it brags of its achievements in recruiting and retaining minority students and faculty. With the exception of the odd bit of bathroom graffiti, there is little of what anyone outside of a college campus would call racism. But in a perverse equation, perceived racism at Oberlin is inversely proportional to actual racism: the less students see, the harder they look....

Last spring two black women were asked to leave an outdoor table at a local bakery because they were eating food bought at a rival restaurant. They initiated a boycott, vowing to make life hell for the racist establishment. 'The ignorance, the audacity, the arrogance, and the racist attitude to do such a thing is what is horrifying to us,' one said in the letter to the Review. 'We have got to realize that it is not just the administration and all of the other top brass practicing bigotry. It's the everyday person perpetuating it.' (22-23)

The point here is that the Oppressed's ego ideal, never fulfilled, is defined by the Oppression directed against it. It only exists in a state of conflict with whatever it experiences as keeping it from fulfillment. In a way, it needs racism, or sexism, or the like in order to survive as an identity. In the absence of real racism, sexism, or other real assaults, it needs to project it. But, ultimately, what keeps our ego ideal from being fulfilled is reality itself. By projecting Oppression onto reality itself, narcissism manages to ensure its permanent continuity, for there is always plenty of reality to fulfill that purpose.

The Redefinition of the Purpose of the University

As I observed before, the whole nature of what constitutes knowledge changes in the politically correct university. Along with it go changes in the ideas of the transmission of this knowledge, in the form of teaching, and the creation of new knowledge, in the form of research and scholarship. From the study of intellectual and artistic achievements, characteristic of the superego, teaching becomes the furtherance of the struggle of Oppressors against Oppressed. Everything that is done is legitimated by reference to its function in this Manichean battle. The narcissistic premise here is that anything else serves the purpose of Oppression. As Eldridge Cleaver said it, 'If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.'

One consequence of this is the creation of whole programs and departments whose agendas and definitions subordinate traditional scholarship to overt political activity (Short and Iannone, 1992). Again, we get the whole range of multicultural curricular changes that have been widely reported, for example by D'Souza (1991).

In all of this, we find a disparagement of the idea of great works which is closely related to the disparagement of achievement I have already discussed. The very idea of great works comes to be seen as a technique of Oppression. This is perhaps the saddest element of the multicultural inversion. As D'Souza (1991) has pointed out, multiculturalism does not typically lead to an incorporation of great works from other cultures. Increasingly, it appears to mean an indiscriminate outpouring of material with no serious claim to distinction based only upon its cultural lineage. Thus, we have this:

'I couldn't have taught this class 10 years ago,' declares Stanford Prof. Kennell Jackson to an overflowing classroom on the first day of the spring quarter. 'But people don't look at me like I'm crazy anymore -- what history does has broadened considerably.' And Prof. Jackson is not exaggerating. 'Black Hair as Culture and History,' his ambitious new upper-level seminar, addresses how black hair 'has interacted with the black presence in this country -- how it has played a role in the evolution of black society.'...

If not for Prof. Jackson's earnestness, one might mistake the class for a parody of multiculturalism. The syllabus, handed out on the first day of class, includes such lectures as 'The Rise of the Afro' and 'Fade-O-Rama, Braiding and Dreadlocks.' According to this course outline, local hair stylists will visit for a week of discussions. Enrolled students will view the 1960's musical 'Hair,' read Willie L. Morrow's '400 Years Without a Comb,' and Dylan Jones's 'Haircults,' and study the lyrics of Michael Jackson's hit pop single 'Man in the Mirror.' (Sacks, 1992)

As I have said, the narcissistic premise upon which political correctness operates assumes that nothing exists outside of the struggle against Oppression. In this context, we can understand that everything the university does would be enlisted in the struggle. Here are some examples of the way the politically correct, writing in academic journals, redefine the teaching of composition:

All teaching supposes ideology; there simply is no value free pedagogy. For these reasons, my paradigm of composition is changing to one of critical literacy, a literacy of political consciousness and social action. (Laditka, 1990: 361)

And, in an award winning essay:

[The classroom in composition ought to be considered] a disruptive form of underlife, a forum which tries to undermine the nature of the institution and posit a different one in its place. (Brooke, 1987: 151)

A special element of the faculty's contribution to the transformation of the course of study is worth mentioning in its own right. This is the denial of reality. As we saw before, in the traditional family the father had the function of coping with external reality. This was the meaning of the superego. Thoroughly repudiating the superego and denigrating its works means that the necessity of coping with external reality must be denied and, indeed, with it must go the idea that there is an external reality that has to be coped with.

From this, we get the idea that each group may define reality however it sees fit, and that, indeed, groups have done so all along. Narcissism sees only in narcissism in others, not having the basis for understanding that anything else exists. Thus, denial of an objective reality is seen as politically correct because the assertion of an objective reality was merely a power ploy on the part of the politically dominant group to legitimate and make natural its dominance. From this, we get the fact that peculiar claims concerning history, for example, are not only asserted but taken seriously. This is perhaps most blatant in 'Afrocentric' thought. Thus, for example, a collection of essays called 'African-American Baseline Essays,' which was adopted by the public school system of Portland, Oregon, maintains according to C. Vann Woodward, that

Africa is the mother of Western civilization, that Egypt was a black African country and the source of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Africans also discovered America and named the waters they crossed the Ethiopian Ocean, long before Columbus. (Woodward, 1991: 42)

When a teacher in Portland, Richard C. Garrett, questioned such things, he was told 'You have your scholarship, we have ours.' (Garrett, 1992) [9]

More important, though, is the denial that the laws of the physical universe are not objective but represent, again, only the outlook of the white males. Thus:

[D]espite the deeply ingrained Western cultural belief in science's intrinsic progressiveness, science today serves primarily regressive social tendencies. [I]ts ways of constructing and conferring meanings are not only sexist but also racist, classist, and culturally coercive. (Harding, cited in Gross, 1991; emphasis added)

Counterpoised to this is an emerging 'feminist' science, based on a feminine communion with the object of study (Harding, 1986). We see in this communion the loss of boundaries between self and other characteristic of the maternal imago. What will be left of the technological capacity of the West if the laws of physics, for example, lose their special place among the universe of possible texts is anybody's guess.

Most widely publicized among the abuses of PC have been restrictions on speech. These have taken place in the classroom. For example, Stephen Thernstrom was pilloried for insensitivity for reading, in his course on race relations at Harvard University, from white plantation owners' journals (D'Souza, 1991). And Ian Macneil, a visiting professor, was denounced by the Harvard Women's Law Association, who repeated their denunciations in letters sent to other universities who might have considered hiring him. His crime consisted, in the first instance, of including in his case book, as an example of the legal 'battle of the forms,' a 'sexist' quote from Byron and then for being awkward in his response to the ensuing vilification. The quote:

A little she strove, and much repented,/

And whispering, 'I will ne'er consent' -- consented. (D'Souza, 1991: 197-198)

More widely publicized have been the proliferation of restrictive speech codes designed to combat 'hate speech.' Thus, the University of Michigan adopted a code that prohibited

any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status. (cited by D'Souza, 1991: 142)

Because of the obvious danger that such codes would, as they have been, declared in violation of the First Amendment, a great deal of effort has gone into crafting them so that they would prohibit what is offensive and preserve what is valuable. But such efforts would have to come to nought. They would have to be based on a formal distinction between types of speech. But the real issue for their politically correct authors was never what kind of speech is offensive, but whose speech is offensive.


A student newspaper funded by Vassar College termed black activist Anthony Grate, 'hypocrite of the month' for espousing anti-Semitic views while publicly denouncing bigotry on campus. In an acrimonious debate, Grate reportedly referred to 'dirty Jews' and added, 'I hate Jews.' Grate later apologized for his remarks. Meanwhile, outraged that the Spectator had dared to criticize a black person, the Vassar Student Association first attempted to ban the issue of the publication, and when that failed it withdrew it's $3,800 funding. The newspaper 'unnecessarily jeopardizes an educational community based on mutual understanding,' the VSA explained. (D'Souza, 1991: 10)

The point is, as I have argued, the whole purpose of the politically correct university is to idealize the Oppressed and demonize the Oppressors. This holds true of speech as well as anything else. Symbolic activity which feeds the narcissism of selected groups is not only protected but obligatory. Given the totalizing character of narcissism, anything that conflicts with it is forbidden. This is what the discourse of 'sensitivity' is all about. But put this baldly, it is hard to see how anyone except the most ideological could accept it. And that is the dilemma of those who want to write speech codes.

Finally, we may mention among the abuses of PC, programs designed to 'fight' racism, sexism, homophobia, and other offenses by 'sensitizing' individuals who do not have the right opinions or emotions. A good deal of emotional brutalization may often be seen in these programs. Remember that a failure to idealize the underappreciated groups is seen as a sign of racism or sexism, or whatever the underappreciated group is. These attitudes do not belong in the loving world of the maternal imago and cannot be allowed to persist at the university. The subjectivity that underlies them is seen as diseased or evil and any steps that eradicate it are seen as legitimate and worthwhile. The methodology here most powerfully involves the infliction of shame.

The Emotional Basis of Political Correctness

An example of this is offered by a student describing his experience at a mandatory 'Diversity Seminar,' given to incoming students at the University of Michigan.

One activity that particularly angered me was called 'Take a Stand.' An imaginary line was drawn down the center of the room. One side is the 'comfortable' side, the other is the 'uncomfortable' side. When the facilitator made a statement, we were to stand on whichever side of the room corresponded to our opinion of the statement. The farther away from the center one stood, the more comfortable or uncomfortable he was.

The first statement was 'Dating someone from another race.' I walked over to the uncomfortable side, and when I turned around, I found myself alone. I was simultaneously confused and embarrassed.

'You mean all of those people are comfortable with dating people of another race?' I asked the facilitator.

'Yes,' he replied.


'Would anyone like to comment on why they're standing where they're standing?' asked the facilitator. Not surprisingly, everybody's eyes were on me.

'Since you asked,' I said, 'one of the many reasons is that my parents would probably boot me right out of the house.' I didn't feel bad about saying this.

One member of the group said 'That's how your parents feel, but how do you feel?'

I feel that I was ostracized from the group because of my beliefs. (Boeskool, 1991)

The issue of shame enables us to turn to one of the more interesting questions about the PC controversy. How does political correctness get its power over its opposition? The stands taken as politically correct are often quite radical and have a great deal of opposition to them among more traditional elements of the university. But these traditional elements are often rapidly and decisively overcome. They often stand quite mute in fact. How does that happen?

In order to get some sense of this, we need first to look at the way face is maintained within society. As Goffman (1959, 1967) has shown us, society may be seen as being a very intricate drama, in which participants present claims for deference based upon a definition of themselves and the situation and others transact a drama in which those claims are maintained. Typically, he notes:

Each participant is allowed to establish the tentative official ruling regarding matters which are vital to him but not immediately important to others, e.g., the rationalizations and justifications by which he accounts for his past activity. In exchange for this courtesy he remains silent or non-committal on matters important to others but not immediately important to him. (1959: 9)

On the surface, then, we all grant due deference to each other. At least we typically grant each other sufficient deference to validate each others' characters and keep the drama moving. Underneath the surface, or backstage, so to speak, a vigorous process is at work seeking to ensure that the apparently spontaneous mutual celebration taking place on the surface comes off. And this backstage activity involves, on all of our parts, a deep understanding of the ways in which we have to play our roles and other people have to play theirs.

Thus, on the one hand, we stifle a yawn when a story someone is telling is boring to us, and we try very hard not to show that stifling a yawn is what we are doing. On the other hand, we avoid situations where we know that groups who are deferential to us in public may have reason to be discussing us more critically. In other words, we all know that we are playing roles and we have to know this in order for the roles we are playing to come off. But we have this knowledge privately, since the public display is not of the playing of the roles, but of the roles that are being played.

This means that social life is a kind of sleight-of-hand operation, in which we all both know, and don't know, about the performance that we, and others, are putting on. And we maintain this tenuous but necessary balance by asserting our own and accepting each others' privacy.

Political correctness works by denying the right to privacy. The premise of narcissism, after all, is that other people are not entitled to have independent minds. PC turns our private awareness of our inner feelings into a source of shame. To have to try to act in a politically correct manner is to be politically incorrect. As George Orwell put it in his book '1984,' 'A Party member is required to have not only the right opinions, but the right instincts.' (1949: 174) Thus, love of the Oppressed, not the display of love but love itself, is a criterion for one's own moral acceptability.

The alternative to that acceptability is to be the target of rage and scorn. The result of this is that individuals take their own deviation from the public demonstration as indicating that there is something wrong with them. Unable to dispel this impression by admitting their feelings, they each participate in the public ritual of agreement, leaving all the others to believe that there is something wrong with them for their own deviation. It is the apparent unanimity of the consensus so formed that maintains this apparent unanimity.

A classic experiment by Solomon Asch (1956) illustrates this dynamic. In that experiment, subjects were required to make the simple perceptual judgement of whether lines were the same or different lengths. But they were confronted with the question in a group situation in which the other members of the group had already unanimously made their judgments in an erroneous way. Unbeknownst to the subject, the other members of the group were confederates of the experimenter. The question was whether the real subject would contradict the clear evidence of his senses and go along with group, or whether he would go along with his senses and differ from the group. Strikingly, most of the subjects -- approximately three quarters -- conformed.

Thomas Scheff (1990), analyzing this experiment, argues that the response which occasioned the conformity, a response felt, incidentally, both by those who conformed and those who did not, was shame: 'the fear that they were suffering from a defect and that the study would disclose this defect.' (p.90)

Thus, he quotes Asch on the subjects who conformed:

They were dominated by their exclusion from the group which they took to be a reflection on themselves. Essentially they were unable to face a conflict which threatened, in some undefined way, to expose a deficiency in themselves. They were consequently trying to merge in the group in order not to feel peculiar. (Asch, 1956: 45; cited by Scheff, 1990: 90-91; emphasis added by Scheff)

The obvious point is that three quarters of Asch's subjects, in an experiment that meant nothing, failed to resist conformity because they feared it would reveal some undefined 'deficiency.' What could one expect in the tense political atmosphere of a university where the 'deficiency' that would be revealed would be, for example, one's racism, with all the connotations of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws that that charge brings with it?

The denigration of the father and his role leaves the individual, especially the male, in the terrible position of being stuck with the sense of unworthiness which the superego functioned to allow him to turn into guilt and discharge. And this unworthiness has to be contrasted with the evident purity claimed by the Oppressed. They are idealized and perfect.

In the narcissistic world of political correctness, guilt cannot be seen as being part of the natural limitation of being human. The game has changed. Guilt, which refers to behavior, is no longer the metric of morality. The metric of morality is shame, which attaches to the identity. Thus, the white male is stigmatized, not for what he does, but because of who he is -- a white male.

Guilt, because it is based upon actions which can be more and less good, is relative. Moreover, we can make reparations for our bad actions by doing something good. We do not have to be stuck with our guilt. Shame, by contrast, is absolute and irredeemable. It relates to us by virtue of who we are; and we are, and remain, who we are.

Within the psychology of shame, the only way people can claim worthiness is to project their unworthiness outward and attack it as part of the political correctness project. In that way they become politically correct. Those unwilling to go through this transformation typically internalize the rage of the politically correct in the form of depression, and that leaves them without the sense of authority that they need to resist political correctness.


Understanding the emotional basis of political correctness can go only so far in resisting it. The weakening of the traditional values of the university by shame and rage must have some positive corrective in the form of a sense of the worth of these values. Finding support for the traditional values of the university means finding the value of the father.

Recognizing the value of the father is difficult because it means recognizing our own limitation. The father's function is to reveal to us that the world does not revolve around us, that we are not its meaning. We naturally and inevitably hate him for it. But the sad fact is that the father is right, whether we like it or not. In the world, people appreciate us in accordance with whether we fulfill their needs, not in accordance with our needs to be loved. The traditional function of the university, expressing the meaning of the father, is to prepare us to live in that world. The father loves his children, but he knows that his actions toward them cannot be based on sentimentality.

When the university abandons the role of the father and adopts that of the maternal imago, it takes on a responsibility that its love cannot discharge. For the world the politically correct university attempts to create is an emotionally closed universe. It is based on the child's fantasy that the mother is the world. And she is not. There is no room for external reality in this world. And this means that she, and the children she raises, will find themselves at war with the external reality that certainly does exist. And this war will cause herself and her children greater and greater pain, not to mention the pain they cause in the world they go to war with. She does her children no good service by raising them in this way.


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[1]. A well-known conservative and, in the Reagan administration, US representative to the UN.

[2]. The logic of the paper requires only that motherhood and fatherhood are different roles. It requires no commitment to their usual biological differentiation.

[3]. Interestingly, as Gitlin observes, many of the early SDS members were the children of former radicals themselves. This was a part of the fathers with which they could identify.

[4]. It is worthwhile noting that there was an international dimension to the struggle against the Vietnam war. Thus, for example, Bertrand Russell organized an international tribunal to investigate charges of American war crimes (Gitlin: 268). European students, especially, came to see the Vietnam war as a struggle of the oppressed against capitalist imperialism. The major representative was the US, but the whole capitalist world was seen as implicated. 'All Power to the Imagination,' a slogan of the Paris rebellion of May 1968 (Gitlin: 241), illustrates well the psychological dynamics I describe here.

[5]. I use the term 'appreciation' to mean positive valuation, a concept which includes both love and respect.

[6]. Compare here the Marxist notion that all that needs to be done in order to create a perfect world is to knock off the capitalists. Along these lines, Post (1989) found, in a study of terrorists, that they believed that destroying the establishement would be destroying the source of evil, from which only good could result.

[7]. Manicheanism owes its origin to Mani, a Persian philosopher of the 3rd century A.D. Psychodynamically oriented readers will recognize Melanie Klein's (1975) concept of 'splitting' here.

[8]. There is, of course, such a thing as real oppression. But oppressors are not a mythic force of the sort that the psychology of the ego ideal projects. They are simply human beings who have let their narcissism run away with them. I will follow the convention here of referring to the mythic, Manichean projections with capital letters, leaving the lower case to refer to the real thing.

[9]. For a discussion of Afrocentric 'scholarship' see Lefkowitz (1992). This is from her account:

... several years ago I had a student who seemed to regard virtually everything I said about Socrates with hostility.... [H]er instructor in another course had told her that Socrates (as suggested by the flat nose in some portrait sculptures) was black. The instructor had also taught that classicists universally refuse to mention the African origins of Socrates because they do not want their students to know that the so-called legacy of ancient Greece was stolen from Egypt.


Because Socrates was an Athenian citizen, he must have had Athenian parents; and since foreigners couldn't become naturalized Athenian citizens, he must have come from the same ethnic background as every other Athenian.... It was as simple as that. (29-30)