We've seen this movie before. An athlete or coach makes an incendiary comment, an elected official speaks unkindly about his or her fellow human beings, a rising star is extinguished by a careless mistake. Public outrage builds, people lose their jobs or are temporarily banished from public life, and we all move on.
But in the midst of it all, a common refrain is often uttered: America is becoming too "politically correct," too afraid to say what must be said, too weak to do what must be done. We shirk from saying what we really believe, the argument goes, because we fear the truth about our real beliefs and opinions of each other.
The recent firing of Rutgers University Coach Mike Rice and several of his colleagues, after video emerged showing Mr. Rice repeatedly berating his players and calling them "faggots" and "fairies" (among other things), is a perfect rendition of the usual dance we collectively do between political correctness and intolerable behavior. Indeed, Rice was ultimately fired, as was Athletic Director Tim Pernetti (albeit with a $1.2 million salary, an iPad, a car allowance, and other perks) after the public outcry became too great for Rutgers to manage.
But the incident has also left some people wondering if America has lost its mojo. Even NPR is concerned. After all, if basketball coaches can now be fired for saying hateful, vile things to their players, if the Associated Press can refuse to label actual human beings as "illegals," is America coming off its hinges?
At least as hate speech is concerned, no. After all, we are a nation that prides itself not only on our right to free speech, but on our right to equality. And if we accept that being equal is self-evident, and that equal treatment is a natural outcome of this fact, then isn't tolerating inequality in any form — whether in our laws, in our behavior, or in our speech — entirely un-American?
Sure, academic institutions like colleges and universities exist to promote the free expression of ideas, to encourage freedom of thought and debate. But it is also a place where people should feel safe — where even if ideas are hotly contested, no one deserves to be told by those in power that they are less-than, unwelcome, or unworthy.
Indeed, Rutgers need not look too far or think too hard to remind itself of what unwelcoming social environments can do. It was just two years ago that Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi tragically took his own life after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, repeatedly videotaped Tyler "making out with a dude." And in February of this year, Rutgers opened the Tyler Clementi Center in his honor, whose goals include "promot[ing] accepting social environments at school, at home, in church, and online."
One has to wonder how well Rutgers is living out this creed, but in all fairness, the Clementi Center never mentioned promoting accepting social environments on the basketball court. This may be worth looking into — assuming it would be politically correct.