WHEN I was at Brown University in the mid-1980s, students were just starting to wield the words ``politically correct'' - PC, for short. Half-funny and half-serious, this borrowing from Chairman Mao was used to rebuke people whose views didn't reflect up-to-the-minute ideas about the equality of races, cultures, and sexes. But saying something ``wasn't PC'' was a wry rebuke. Now this phrase is wrapped up in a debate, both on and off campuses like Brown. Conservative culture critics contend that a leftist ethic - advocated by former 1960s ideologues - dominates intellectual life at some colleges, choking off free exchange.
President Bush, in a speech last month, stoked the conservative critique of collegiate intellectual life by saying that PC leads to ``censorship'' and ``inquisition.'' Yale president Benno C. Schmidt Jr. says it causes ``suppression.''
Having been at Brown for the birth of PC, more or less, I went back recently to Providence to see how things had changed. I went looking for the victims of PC, the censored and the suppressed. But I didn't find many.
Vernon Silver, a senior who used to be executive editor of the Brown Daily Herald, is a practiced critic of the PC sensibility. Mr. Silver seemed a little wary behind his gold wire-rimmed glasses, but he gave me a few examples of the PC dynamic in action.
He remembers students warily anticipating a discussion of one philosopher's less-than-liberated views on women's rights because of the ire the ideas might provoke among classroom feminists. Whenever the proverbial ``issues of race, class, and gender'' come up, he explains, backs stiffen. In this case, the class was ``waiting for the first person to say `girl.'''
In discussing a novel with a homosexual character, Silver suggests, ``cheerleaders, football players, and people from the Midwest ... will just shut up.'' They won't risk being called ``homophobic'' for wanting to discuss whether, for instance, homosexuality might be deviant behavior.
But Silver concedes that the philosopher's views were ultimately discussed, though it took someone ``with guts'' to raise the issues.
Roger Henkle, an English professor, says homosexuality is an ``articulable'' subject these days, and adds that it's ``quite easy'' to discuss whether or not it's a form of deviance.
I also encountered other white, male students who were less voluble on the subject of PC. ``I don't want to talk about that [stuff],'' said one.
A SENIOR majoring in computer science couldn't think of any examples of PC affecting him. Unless, he said, you count on having to say ``woman'' instead of ``girl.'' Larry Uhlman, a junior, said students should work toward greater tolerance of different kinds of people. But, he added, ``it doesn't help me if I feel that I already have to be that way.''
I left Providence thinking that PC makes people uncomfortable, but doesn't stifle. It creates more complaining than injury.
The core of the PC sensibility remains true to what I knew. It makes one weigh the impact of one's words and the assumptions underlying them. To me it still seems reasonable. If your language is less prejudicial, even subtly, you are less prone to alienate others and more likely to smooth communication.
English professor Robert Scholes, who is seen as a proponent of the PC sensibility, says that it's the product of a ``puritannical, self-righteous minority.'' But that doesn't mean students are censored or oppressed by it, he says. To the white males who feel inhibited, Professor Scholes offers: ``Welcome to the club, guys.'' The expression of women and minorities has been inhibited for centuries, he says: ``Adjustments are always painful.''
But the PC of old was loaded with humor and irony. I'm sorry it's not funny anymore.