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The University of Michigan's tolerance problem

The coin of the campus realm today is victimhood, grievance and offense

I once asked my late father if he had any experiences with anti-Semitism. There weren't many. Although that was probably in part because of his scoring methodology. The Irish kids who beat up the Jewish kids in his Bronx neighborhood didn't do so because they were anti-Semitic, but because "they had to fight somebody," as my dad put it. Today, such behavior would probably be called a hate crime.

So I suppose that's progress.

He did tell me that the first time someone said to him "Don't Jew me" was during his freshman year at the University of Michigan. He was more shocked than offended. He couldn't believe someone he was friends with could be so stupid.

Today we call such stupidity "insensitivity." Whether that counts as progress is an open question.

I visited my father's alma mater for the first time last week. The University of Michigan's chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom invited me to give a speech. A banner warning the "thought police" of my imminent arrival was torn down, presumably by the irony-impaired thought police.

The university has been in the news recently for such shenanigans and worse. For instance, student Omar Mahmood, a columnist for both the Michigan Daily and the conservative Michigan Review, was fired from the Daily for writing a parody piece for the Review about the oppression of the "left-handyd." In the piece, Mahmood's narrator takes a comment from a "white cis-gendered hetero upper-class man" as microaggression. "Behind his words I sensed a patronizing sneer, as if he expected me to be a spokespersyn for my whole race. He offered his hand to help me up, and I thought to myself how this might be a manifestation of the patriarchy patronizing me."

The humor-deficient editors of the Michigan Daily were not amused. They claimed the column had created a "hostile environment" because one of the editors felt "threatened" by Mahmood's mockery of microaggressions. He was ultimately fired. Later, Mahmood's dorm doorway was pelted with eggs and festooned with profanity-laced notes and, oddly, a picture of Satan.

The administration's efforts to find the perpetrators appear lackadaisical compared to O.J. Simpson's pursuit of the real killers. Of course, if Mahmood, a Muslim, had been attacked for something related to his religious faith, you can bet the administration would go to DEFCON 1.

That's because the University of Michigan wants to be an intolerance-free zone — so long as it's intolerance of things the community finds intolerable.

To that end, the school rolled out its Inclusive Language Campaign. It contains a list of taboo phrases that no one should use lest they give offense. The campaign is intended to be "educational, not regulatory," though some students report that they've been asked to sign a pledge vowing to avoid using such phrases as "ghetto," "that's so gay," "that's retarded" and "tranny."

Students are also told they shouldn't say things like "I want to die" — say, after doing badly on a test — because such language can "diminish the experience of those who have attempted or committed suicide." I would have thought those who have committed suicide would be immune to such concerns.

Also on the list is any effort to turn Jew into a verb. So, roughly 75 years after my dad was told by an idiot "Don't Jew me," the battle continues.

I have no problem with teaching students to have good manners. I'm less convinced that the PC priesthood is winning the war on intolerance. It's absolutely true that majorities owe minorities respect. What's lost is any appreciation of the fact that minorities owe majorities respect too. That's what Mahmood was getting at.

The coin of the campus realm today is victimhood, grievance and offense. An entirely well-intentioned — and syntactically accurate — use of the wrong word is an invitation to being called a racist, homophobe, sexist, etc. (and actual disagreement is tantamount to heresy). The burden of proof then falls on the accused, a burden that often can't be met absent reeducation. Intolerance is forbidden, save against anyone who dissents from a singular narrative. For the dissenters, intolerance is celebrated.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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