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On Political Correctness and History: A Case Study from a College Campus

by Amanda Ann Klein
Contributed op-ed originally published by the author at medium.com

Aycock Hall, on the campus of East Carolina University. Source: ecu.edu.

Aycock Hall, on the campus of East Carolina University. Source: ecu.edu.

On February 20th the Board of Trustees at East Carolina University, the North Carolina state university where I have worked for the last eight years, voted to change the name of Aycock Hall, a residence hall named after former North Carolina Governor Charles B. Aycock. Aycock was famously known as the “Education Governor” because he built hundreds of new schools and increased schoolteacher salaries during his term in office. His name appears on the buildings of many UNC campuses, including Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, and East Carolina University. Many K-12 public schools in North Carolina also bear his name.

In early 2014, East Carolina University students began to organize themselves in earnest to change the name of Aycock Hall due to Governor Aycock’s past as a leader of white supremacy, voter disenfranchisement, and aggressive racist rhetoric in public speeches of record. For example, part of Aycock’s gubernatorial campaign platform was to pass an amendment to ensure that African American voters in North Carolina were actively denied the right to vote. In a speech made on April 16th, 1900, just after Aycock was endorsed by the North Carolina Democratic party, he proudly told the gathered crowd that the amendment “was drawn with the deliberate purpose of depriving the negro of the right to vote, and of allowing every white man to retain that right.” He later bragged about this accomplishment in an address in 1903 to the North Carolina Society: “I am proud of my State…because there we have solved the negro problem which recently seems to have given you some trouble. We have taken him out of politics and have thereby [secured] good government under any party and laid foundations for the future development of both races.” In other words, Aycock not only believed his state was to be commended for successfully disenfranchising its own citizens, he also believed North Carolina’s tactics should serve as a model for other states and their voting policies. He wanted his model of suppression to spread.

Charles Aycock was Governor of North Carolina from 1901–1905

Charles Aycock was Governor of North Carolina from 1901–1905

There are many more quotes in which Aycock publicly expresses his beliefs in the supremacy of white people and the necessity of keeping the state’s African American population in check and out of the voting booths. Aycock was the consummate plantation daddy: paternalistic, interested in the physical welfare of those in his charge, but still, at the end of the day, a racist piece of shit. So it makes sense that ECU alumni and students would one day decide that Aycock’s legacy, albeit an integral part of our state’s history, should no longer be honored with a residence hall consecrated in his name.

In 2014 ECU responded to growing complaints by forming a 10-person ad hoc committee composed of faculty, staff, students and alumni to review whether the name should be changed and what precedent there was for the renaming of campus buildings on ECU’s campus. The committee voted on December 12th, 2014 to formally request a name change. Their report to the chancellor explains: “We believe the honoree’s reputation has changed substantially so that the continued use of that name dishonors the university’s standards and is contrary to the best interest of the university in that it prevents the university from fostering a ‘diverse community where intellectual freedom, scholarly discipline and the rigorous pursuit of knowledge thrive’ for students, staff and faculty, and does not reflect our intolerance of such racist actions.”

However, in between the ad hoc committee’s December vote and the Board of Trustee’s February 20th decision, East Carolina University’s campus found itself in the middle of a full-scale public debate over the issue of so-called “politically correct” speech. This conversation took place in numerous venues: on the pages of the city’s newspaper, on social media sites, and of course, in the campus newspaper’s widely read anonymous opinion page known as “Pirate Rants.” These rants, submitted anonymously by ECU students each week and selected for publication by the staff of the East Carolinian, tend to focus on banal concerns, such as bus service, drunken neighbors, campus gossip, and who was chewing too loudly in Biology lab. Occasionally though, students become embroiled in ideological debates tied to current events. The debate over Aycock Hall naturally dominated the Rants all of February.

For example, a Pirate Rant published on February 5th reads “Can we stop talking about Aycock now? Let’s just get things straight: The past is the past and you can’t change that. So get over it. The fact is that, today, students can visit and reside in that facility regardless of their skin color. And, times have changed since 1901. Stop living in the past!” And on February 12th another student wrote “Let’s just re-name all buildings with numbers. How PC is that?”

ECU students plastered the walls of various campus buildings with some of Aycock’s most damning quotes.

ECU students plastered the walls of various campus buildings with some of Aycock’s most damning quotes.

Throughout the week of February 16th, a week of record-breaking cold for eastern North Carolina, a coalition of student groups began what they termed a “Judgment Week ECU.” One day they covered bulletin boards around campus with flyers inscribed with some of Aycock’s most egregious quotes. Another day, students took over Twitter and the campus Yik Yak, flooding their feeds with news of the boycott. On the coldest nights of the week, they held an outdoor vigil to show their support. And on the 20th, an equally cold and icy morning, the students greeted the East Carolina University Board of Trustees, who would, later that morning, vote to change the name of Aycock Hall.

However, these acts of civil disobedience further enraged the anonymous Pirate Ranters, who wrote, on February 19th “Can we keep the politics and PC out of campus? It’s already caused a lot of problems in Washington. Can we not bring that crap on campus? It will make everyone’s lives so much better.” Of course, the very next rant was “Roses are red, weed is greener, I think about you when I touch my weiner,” so holding this venue to any standard of civil discourse is a fool’s errand.

***

It should be common sense that a group of students might like to protest their own college commencement ceremony at which the paid keynote speaker espouses critical, inflammatory critiques of their religious beliefs and it should be common sense that nonviolent, student-organized sit ins are a respectful, impactful way of demonstrating objections to broad university policies believed to be racist, to name two examples of “egregious” liberal behaviors outlined in Jonathan Chait’s clickbaiting thinkpiece about so-called “politically correct” speech. Chait writes, “At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach ‘trigger warnings’ to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate ‘microaggressions,’ or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.”

Chait’s January 27th piece once again ignited a public conversation over so-called “politically correct” speech.

Chait’s January 27th piece once again ignited a public conversation over so-called “politically correct” speech.

To Chait and so many others, liberals, in their quest to thought- and tone-police the world, artificially inflate “faintly unpleasant ideas” into “full-scale offenses.” But what Chait, those anonymous Pirate Ranters, and the other critics of liberal thought fail to recognize is the full-scale offensiveness of labeling America’s centuries-long history of maintaining and enacting systemic, structural, racist, sexist and homophobic practices as “faintly unpleasant ideas.” There is nothing faint about them.

When we study the history of people — the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the Stonewallers — pushing back at hegemonic discourse, which is academic speak for “the way the majority feels and therefore, runs society,” a discourse which is structured and maintained by their continued submission to the majority, we study a history of objections, a counter-pressure sometimes metaphoric, sometimes literal, and, all too often, deadly. Ridicule and beatings and rapes and lynchings are all part of a long string of consequences for those Americans who push back.

It’s easy to see why these clear markers of progress forward in human empathy and justice feel threatening; they mean things are changing and change is a little scary when you are happy with the way things are. That’s common sense. That’s also, of course, the very definition of an ideology — when the way things are become thought of as common sense and changes to the way things are are seen as threats rather than progress.

So what should we make of the Board of Trustees’ decision to change the name of Aycock Hall? One reader of the city newspaper, The Daily Reflector, seemed to feel that the decision to change the name is further indication of the way politically correct speech has forced people to erase or rewrite the past: “It’s a shame and a slippery slope to rename Aycock Hall. Charles Aycock, a leading and iconic figure of the Democratic Party may end up being the first in a long line of names to be abolished. If this uninformed group gets it’s way, whose to say they will not strip George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers from our history books, currency, and monuments? These men were products of their time. We cannot let this stand or allow this disgruntled group to re-write history.”

I suppose that’s one possible reading of the situation — that liberals have, to deploy Chait’s rhetoric, once again turned an unpleasant idea (old-timey racism!) into a full-scale offense. We have voted to rewrite the past, detractors argue, to suit the belief systems of the present. Chait wraps up his now much-read screed against the state of contemporary liberal activism with this ominous statement, “Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics.” It’s hard to read these words, and the words of outraged Pirate Ranters and citizens of my community, without a certain degree of irony. Because such statements lose sight of how and why the so-called “left-wing subculture” came into existence: through systematic racism, sexism, and homophobia. To complain of their (our) complaining is to punch someone in the face and then blame them for hurting your fist.

Perhaps we could also read the Board of Trustees’ unanimous decision as an acknowledgement that ideas and structures that were once common sense are no longer common sense. The demand to have his name removed acknowledges that Aycock’s position as a white supremacist and opponent of equal voting rights for all North Carolina citizens is a historical fact, one which we should learn about in our history books and local museums, but which we should not honor or enshrine on our campus.

The recurring complaint from conservative and liberals alike regarding the issue of so-called political correctness is rooted in the idea of limits. If students can change the name of a residence hall, what else might they do? What other changes will they demand? What else might they want? Where will it end? I suppose the differences in ideology rest on whether you see those questions as a threat or a promise. Every time we ask others to reconsider the way things are, common sense, or accepted practices, we are asking for humans to think of each other as human. We are asking for kindness and respect and tolerance. Where will these demands end? Hopefully they won’t.

Amanda Ann Klein is Associate Professor of Film Studies at East Carolina University. Check out her blog, Judgmental Observer.

The views presented are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Greenville Guardian, its staff or management.

We welcome other points of view. For more information, email the editor.

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Responses (2)

  1. John Collins says:

    I’m pretty sympathetic to the author’s case in support of the Aycock name change, but I do have two misgivings about this piece.

    One is that I think Jonathan Chait’s editorial is characterized in a very uncharitable way. He doesn’t say that centuries of racism, sexism and homophobia are the slightly unpleasant ideas that people are overreacting to. His examples, rather, are things like the idea that being a sex worker can be empowering, Bill Maher’s criticism of Islam, or that abortion kills human beings. I don’t see his piece as against liberals, either. He says, “And of course liberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every facet of American life.”

    My second concern is about the author’s reply to the generalization (rather than slippery slope) concern. If we remove the white supremacist Aycock’s name from buildings, will Washington and Jefferson’s names be next? While I think there is ample room to justify removing Aycock’s name while keeping Washington and Jefferson’s, the author’s reply seems to be that you can regard that possibility as a “threat or a promise,” suggesting that she would be happy to double-down. Does the author hope to re-name Washington, D.C. after people other than Washington and Columbus? If not, then I think the concern about how this generalizes deserves a more considered response.

    I emphasize here my points of disagreement, but I found the article compelling and thought-provoking.

  2. Randall Martoccia says:

    Most of us would have drawn a blank if asked in November about the achievements of C. B. Aycock. I went to a school named after one of his relatives, and I still couldn’t have told you anything about C. B. The name on building does not give any historical information. It’s absurd to say that protestors are out to erase history. They actually revived the history.

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