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(Re)Secularizing the University

I have unwittingly inserted myself [1] into an ongoing and intensifying maelstrom in which speakers are now routinely prevented from speaking by “anti-fascist,” black bloc activists, who overturn cars and set them on fire [2], pepper-spray speakers [3], and then, if speakers manage to reach the microphone, chant them down [4] with collective hecklers’ vetoes. At the same time, “social justice” activists and other students retreat to safe spaces [5]—replete with crayons, coloring books and therapy pets. Such safe spaces are meant to protect students, not from the alarming violence of their compeers, but from the supposedly triggering, injurious expression of those protested.

Becoming a lightning rod in this raging and confused storm was not a point on the career trajectory that I had envisioned for myself when I agreed to give an interview [6] to a reporter from NYU’s student newspaper. Nor does the figurative target plastered on my back by anti-fascists represent an enviable status symbol. Still, my personal and professional crisis has opened up a new research artery for me, and I have begun to examine some of the dearly-held beliefs, practices and apparatuses of the contemporary left—received opinions about viewpoint diversity and expression, the practices of shaming, the conviction that language itself can pose a real substantive threat to well-being, and the surveillance mechanisms [7] universities are instituting—to locate their likely provenance, and to begin tracing their genealogies.

Looking first at viewpoint diversity (or the lack thereof) I was led to reconsider one of the most salient arguments regarding the question of toleration, written by the Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse. In his essay “Repressive Tolerance [8],” included in the  slim anthology Against Pure Tolerance, Marcuse essentially argued that some expression is so intolerant to others as to be completely intolerable. “Pure tolerance” is unbearable in liberal society. Some speech and expression must be stopped, and the left is correct and even obliged to stop it. A similar though less illiberal position was developed by the philosopher Karl Popper. Could no-platforming be the legacy of this thinking?

 As my public statements should suggest, I think that Marcuse’s stance represents a slippery slope, establishing as it does a tribunal of censorship consisting of ideologically-charged activist milieus. It effectively means that illiberalism must be a characteristic of “liberal” society. This principally represents a contradiction and fails to consider the strong possibility that, sooner or later, the continually narrowing Overton window [9] will close on the speech of the very people who sought to bar the speech of others. In any case, one must wonder: just who is fit to be arbiter, and what makes them—and not others—the interpretative conscience of society, suited to ban expression they deplore? In our contemporary moment, the strange irony is that these arbiters aim to foreclose lines of inquiry they have never even directly encountered or considered. But if they had, the irony would be even greater. The arbiters have survived, so why wouldn’t others? Marcuse’s advocacy of social and legal intolerance toward supposed intolerance reproduces the very repression that he lamented and hoped to prevent. And one wonders just how he managed to arrive at such conclusions as early as 1965. Not that he was prescient; as a prominent communist theorist, had he already completely forgotten the McCarthy hearings?

Thinking of some of the other aspects of social justice ideology, I began looking for cognate elements in leftist history and theory. My search for plausible precursors to the privilege-checking and callout culture of social justice milieus led to post-1968 French feminists, who read Mao’s Little Red Book and imbibed a Maoist ethos, incorporating ideological purging elements of the Cultural Revolution, such as “struggle sessions” and “autocritique,” or self-criticism. In struggle sessions, the guilty party, accused of selfishness, ignorance, and the embrace of bourgeois ideology, was pilloried with verbal and often physical assaults by her comrades, until she broke down and confessed her characterological and ideological flaws, and then pledged self-reform, or faced imprisonment and possible death. Interestingly, the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” working group in my program of Liberal Studies at NYU undertook a strictly rhetorical version of this exercise when they condemned me and my views on PC culture [10]. Meanwhile, autocritique began with the guilty party, who subjected herself to brutal verbal self-inspection and derogation before the jury of her peers. Perhaps this was the sort of confession the Orwellian working group had in mind, instead of my eventual reply [11].

As for “safe spaces,” Moira Kenney in Mapping Gay L.A. traced the concept to gay and lesbian bars of the 1960s in Los Angeles and elsewhere, from which it made its way into feminist circles. As such, they became spaces free of men and patriarchal thought and expression. In colleges and universities, they serve to protect students and others from ideas deemed triggering or otherwise harmful. I have argued that in the context of higher education, safe spaces constitute a means of self-imposed cultural containment, not unlike that decried by Ralph Ellison [12], writing in reply to the socialist critic, Irving Howe [13], whom, he wrote, sought to consign him to a corked “jug” of cultural isolation not unlike that of the Jim Crow south.

Certainly, much of the social-justice arsenal and ethos has been inflected by intersectional feminism [14] and funneled through the bewildering vortex of postmodern theory, including poststructuralism [15] and deconstruction [16].  Intersectionality provides the architectural blueprint for the kind of “subaltern” status-seeking that we encounter in social-justice ideology and groups. Developed in the 1970s and ’80s, intersectionality seeks to describe how power intersects identities along various axes, including those of race, gender, sexuality, sexual preference, ability, and more. It aims to locate the articulations of power as it traverses various subordinated peoples in multifarious ways. Suggestive of a radical critique of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy—which its adherents take to be distinct but connected forms of domination—it complicates any sense of gender, sex, class, or race as homogenous wholes and it problematizes any hierarchy of one categorical determination over others. Yet in practice, intersectionality serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with one another. The upshot in political practice, as Christina Hoff Sommers argues [17], is an endless splitting of categories, with the members of each category vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status. Intersectionality is no doubt the source of what has been derogatorily referred to as “the Oppression Olympics” by unsympathetic observers, some of whom [18] may have once competed in the games themselves.

Poststructuralist theories of language including deconstruction, developed by Jacques Derrida, are foundational to the social-justice belief that language can either imprison or substantively injure those who encounter it. For Derrida, famously, there is nothing outside of the text [19]. Given their power to imprison and oppress, texts, including written and oral expressions, become weapons wielded consciously or unconsciously by aggressors. Thus, the likely source of both the microaggression and the trigger warning.

I have been accused of safe-space-seeking and microaggression-reporting in my self-defenses against social justice activists and their fellow travelers. My primary retort is that social-justice activists, with their notoriously vituperative, often outrageous pack-and-attack mentality, create a need for that which they demand. Before returning to my teaching this semester, I considered requesting a safe space, free from the hostility of colleagues. But I realized that the irony would be lost amid the accusations of hypocrisy.

While I have endured the shunning of most of my colleagues, the ejection from political groups, and the damnation of the left, I do have some support in academia and beyond. I am working with like-minded people to establish a consortium for challenging echo chambers and promoting the exchange of views to build consensus on fundamental principles. I have also turned to the advice of those working toward similar goals to develop cognate structures. One such ally is the NYU social psychologist and founder of Heterodox Academy [20], Jonathan Haidt.

In a recent conversation, Jonathan explained that we find ourselves in the midst of a new moral order that is emerging on many campuses and vying for members. The old discursive and behavioral rules no longer apply. He characterized this package of moral imperatives as equivalent, psychologically, to religious fundamentalism and suggested that its believers are passionately committed to their beliefs. Therefore, nothing I might say or write will change their minds. For those who belong to this new moral order, he continued, I am the equivalent of a devil. I had mistaken my interview in the student newspaper with acceptable criticism of institutions, yet my detractors regarded it as sacrilege. 

After this meeting, I hearkened back to my studies of nineteenth-century British Secularism, recalling the legal persecution and social opprobrium that the early Secularists endured at the hands of religious bigots, cowardly conformists, and state apparatuses. I have experienced nothing remotely comparable, though there was a clear analogy. In early twenty-first-century academia, replete with its attendant religious dogma, I was a new kind of secularist.

Yet there was a wrinkle in this comparison in the form of  the decisive split in the Secularist movement. I was vacillating between the two major Secularist camps: a conciliatory camp, like that of Secularism’s founder and coiner of the word, George Jacob Holyoake, and a more staunchly oppositional posture as adopted by Secularism’s bombastic, anti-clerical, Bible-bashing subsequent leader, Charles Bradlaugh.

Jonathan had suggested that I moderate my tone and use less incendiary, more academic, conditional language, the contemporary equivalent of Holyoake’s approach. I had celebrated Holyoake’s brand of Secularism in my book, Nineteenth-Century British Secularism [21], and elsewhere. Yet, amidst this twenty-first-century academic religiosity, I had been cast by opponents and even some allies in the position of a Bradlaugh. Which posture would I adopt, or did I no longer have a choice?

My answer is both. So, while this essay is the precursor to what will be more measured and scholarly writing on the topic, do not expect my Twitter pronouncements to become less strident any time soon.

Michael Rectenwald [22] is a Professor of Liberal Studies at New York University. He is the author of Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature [23] (2106), Academic Writing, Real World Topics [24] (2015), and editor of Global Secularisms in A Post-Secular Age [25] (2015). He has published essays on secularism in The British Journal for the History of Science, The International Philosophical Quarterly, and George Eliot in Context. He is currently working on a book on the genealogy and development of social justice activism.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "(Re)Secularizing the University"

#1 Comment By RudyM On March 14, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

Nice to see this here. I’ve been reading the Citizens for Legitimate Government site for a few years (I think it’s been that long), and I’ve been following the controversies in which you’ve recently become embroiled. I’m increasingly concerned about the SJW phenomenon, along with much of the academic left (or maybe just much of the left in general). Although traditionally I’ve thought of myself as some sort of liberal (sometimes veering left), lately I’ve found myself moving to the right on certain issues, enough so that I just consider myself some variety of independent. I work in as staff in an academic setting, and I have to admit, it feels a little incomfortable at times to diverge from the dominant political line (not that I have any real horror stories about that).

Looking forward to your book on this subject. Godspeed.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 14, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

The roots of this were first implemented during the 1960’s. It’s major success in the main was the AA conference in 1973.

Deconstruction is the name of the game. And like the 8’s, 70’s to this day. I suspect that the agenda here is lot less social than personal laxity and has little relevance towards justice.

If justice were the goal, they could, as the revolutionaries before them, head to the nearest inner city, rural courthouse or prison and do valuable work on behalf of people caught in the disparities. They march into the Appalachian mountains and serve the disenfranchised poor.

They are any number of issues on justice that could use the skill, intellect and energy. But to do so requires that one invade spaces that are less comfortable and certainly less safe than the Brandeis classroom room.

#3 Comment By John_M On March 14, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

Activism is part and parcel of democracy. I do not see it as part and parcel of education. Intellectual challenges that cause one to question your assumptions are part and parcel of education – and this means challenges from the right, left, and out field.

But activities related to activism very properly may be part of education – law students providing legal advice to poor clients are furthering their education and providing a social service – even if the opponents of these clients may seem them as activists and the school as supporting activism.

I learned, almost 50 years ago, that faculty could be very narrow minded and intolerant of differences in opinion / values. My younger daughter and son, who are in college now have observed that it is no different now. My daughter quickly realized that she would do best by choosing her courses with care to avoid the cultural missionaries. She majored in Civil Engineering, which made it easier – but she was still admonished for singing Tom Leher’s ‘National Brotherhood Week’ with some peers in a student center. My son’s course is more business combined with engineering, so his social science requirements are likely to be met with economics.

#4 Comment By Tyler On March 14, 2017 @ 6:14 pm

I want to get behind the free speech absolutist sentiment but I’m concerned about anti-Semitic, anti-Israel leftists who try to weaponize the ‘free speech’ card like Roger Garaudy and Steve Salaita. Should these individuals really be allowed a platform?There were also some cases of anti-Israel student groups in Fordham and other schools who were banned and then tried to cry foul and claim that their ‘free speech” was being suppressed. [26]
How do we promote academic freedom without letting the SJWs weaponize it? Some ideologies really do need to be shut down.

#5 Comment By Ron Leighton On March 14, 2017 @ 10:45 pm

Great work, Michael. Though I recognize the contribution you are making by bringing out the role of the left–Marcuse, Maoists, etc., and the post-everythings, I am myself trying to sort out what threads can be found which lead all the way back to the construction of whiteness, as per David Roediger. That seems to be the original identity politics, in the American context, and certainly brought a sort of intersectionality before it was cool.

#6 Comment By tamarque On March 15, 2017 @ 8:10 am

I recall the incredible fight over the ACLU defending the KKK for its civil right to free speech. The issue then, as now, is when does speech become action, action that is materially threatening to some people, hate based and murderous. This article ignores this and presents Marcuse in a red baiting way. Not very honest, IMHO.

I will agree that some speech needs to be suppressed. Very currently we have the result of not doing so, a man in the White House who ran a campaign based on hate, divisiveness and strong arm threats. He labeled every Black person a thug, doing so even to a Black businessman who delusionally attended a Trump rally in support of this man. Since Trump began his hateful spewing of racism and sexism, the number of hate crimes against people of color, Muslims, women and gay people has risen significantly and in a very short period of time.

What this author ignores is how such language is designed to fuel hate and anger and gives permission to those ‘speakers’ and their audience to act out. It is language that incites violence.

It it interesting that this author seems to equate being Black with being left, lumps them as one and implies they have no legitimate right to shut down speech that is designed to threaten their very ability to live, even on those very safe place campuses.

I also think, from years of experience in and around many movements, this author is trying to delegitimatize the need for groups of people to gather to discuss their own collective concerns such around racism and sexism or other identities that are NOT of the mainstream power base.

This author quite blindly ignores the reality that this is a white, male supremacist society meaning that is the group that holds the power. And when members of that group spew ideas that attack the realities of people who are in marginalized groups that is a direct and material threat. And it should be shut down, fast!

If you want to discuss standards that is fine. My standard is that when people who have power threaten those who don’t, they are practicing hate, are anti-democracy, anti-equal rights, and downright criminal.

#7 Comment By Ray Woodcock On March 15, 2017 @ 10:30 am

TAC — if your drawing intended to say “hearses,” you spelled it wrong, and you should have drawn it as a vehicle with a coffin in back. Likewise if you intended, rather, to allude to heterodox beliefs.

As for Rectenwald, I sympathize to some extent with his argument, but he overlooks the fact that courts can and do act as speech arbiters every day — as do the rest of us, with myriad labels, often poorly conceived and/or applied: e.g., “anti-semitic,” “uneducated” — or, in Rectenwald’s own diction, “illiberal,” “‘social justice'” (with scare quotes). His whole purpose is to gain support for effective albeit extralegal suppression of certain perspectives.

#8 Comment By Michael Rectenwald On March 15, 2017 @ 10:37 am

tamarque says: “I recall the incredible fight over the ACLU defending the KKK for its civil right to free speech. The issue then, as now, is when does speech become action, action that is materially threatening to some people, hate based and murderous. This article ignores this and presents Marcuse in a red baiting way. Not very honest, IMHO.”

Perhaps you are not aware but the Supreme Court has ruled on the issue, and speech becomes “action” — never. Not in the U.S. However, inciting incipient violence against others is not protected speech. Such speech is known as “fighting words,” and is not protected. But “hate speech” is protected speech in the U.S. I didn’t ignore “hate speech,” but for your information it is protected speech. I believe in the law of the land, not having activists deciding who cannot say what. That, as I wrote, represents a slippery slope that would have people like you deciding what is allowable and what is not. That is the path to totalitarianism.

“What this author ignores is how such language is designed to fuel hate and anger and gives permission to those ‘speakers’ and their audience to act out. It is language that incites violence.”

No, I assumed that my readers would know the Supreme Court rulings on the issue. In your case, I see that I was wrong.

“It it interesting that this author seems to equate being Black with being left, lumps them as one and implies they have no legitimate right to shut down speech that is designed to threaten their very ability to live, even on those very safe place campuses.”

See, this is precisely why we can’t have people like you, self-righteous activist types, determine who is allowed to say what. You can’t even comprehend what I wrote. I never even mentioned “Black” let alone equated being Black with being “left.” Where do you find that? It’s in your own mind, nowhere else. And no, people have no legitimate right to shut down speech on campus that they don’t approve of, merely because they don’t. Who are you to decide? Didn’t you read the article? Soon, your speech too will be excluded, once stepping on the slippery slope you’d consign us to.

“I also think, from years of experience in and around many movements, this author is trying to delegitimatize the need for groups of people to gather to discuss their own collective concerns such around racism and sexism or other identities that are NOT of the mainstream power base.”

I never said that at all. I said safe spaces were seriously misplaced in the university as places to escape expression that one disapproves of. I never said their use in other context was mistaken or should be discounted. In fact, such freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the Constitution. You. might try reading it sometime. Also, your first sentence is what represents an improper apposition. You say “I think from years of…, this author…” Technically, you’ve ascribed “years of experience…” to me, not yourself. I see where the root of your flawed reasoning lies. You don’t even know how language works.

“This author quite blindly ignores the reality that this is a white, male supremacist society meaning that is the group that holds the power. And when members of that group spew ideas that attack the realities of people who are in marginalized groups that is a direct and material threat. And it should be shut down, fast!”

No, I am not ignoring it; I am denying it. I don’t think “white supremacy” properly describes American society. This is a left-liberal ascription used to allow them to virtue signal as you are doing here, and to keep playing the caretaker of African Americans. It’s not your role, and in fact, your ilk has harmed them significantly with paternalism.

“If you want to discuss standards that is fine. My standard is that when people who have power threaten those who don’t, they are practicing hate, are anti-democracy, anti-equal rights, and downright criminal.”

Again, you imagine that you and your ilk are the arbiters of what speech should be permitted. Who said anything about talking “standards.” Get this through your head: your standards are not the standards for speech. And, your claim to be protecting people from “anti-democracy” is rich, given that you are claiming the right to “shut down [‘hate speech’], fast.” Not your right to do so. Sorry.

#9 Comment By Michael Rectenwald On March 15, 2017 @ 10:45 am

Ron, I don’t believe in “the construction of whiteness,” except as it has been constructed by academic leftists to find some original sin to hang on white people, despite the fact that such academic leftists, like Roedigger himself, are almost exclusively “white.” I don’t know what their guilt trip is but they are not going to lay it on me.

#10 Comment By RudyM On March 15, 2017 @ 11:57 am

Tyler, why on earth would anti-Israel/anti-Zionist speech be an exception to free speech? You are aboslutely right though: Zionists have been in the vanguard of trying to shut down free speech. And where Jewish issues are concerned in general, there has often been an erosion of free speech rights. Think of the outrageous Holocaust denial laws that exist in so many countries.

#11 Comment By The Autist Formerly Known as “KD” On March 15, 2017 @ 11:59 am

Take ’em down. It is all just a reactionary puppet show for faux-liberal global cartels anyways, who are more than happy to substitute the creation of an intersectional caste system for legitimate class struggle.

#12 Comment By RudyM On March 15, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

With the extraordinary amount of power Jews wield given their small numbers, they also must be granted special privileges not to be offended? Are you out of your mind?

#13 Comment By RudyM On March 15, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

“He labeled every Black person a thug, doing so even to a Black businessman who delusionally attended a Trump rally in support of this man.”

When did Trump label every black person a thug?

“Since Trump began his hateful spewing of racism and sexism, the number of hate crimes against people of color, Muslims, women and gay people has risen significantly and in a very short period of time.”

I see these claims bandied about but I don’t see much to back them up. There have certainly been a lot of hate hoaxes in recent days, however. Also, a lot of documented assaults on Trump supporters, or on random white people with Trump thrown in as an additional excuse for the attack.

#14 Comment By Ron Leighton On March 15, 2017 @ 11:08 pm

Michael, the construction of whiteness is not about laying a guilt trip. The point is, with this identity and intersectionality stuff we have seen it before. It was used to divide and control. During the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln said something apparently objectionable about Africans and a cry of “White men! White men!” arose from Douglas supporters. I’m guessing they did not invent the term on the spot.

#15 Comment By Michael Rectenwald On March 16, 2017 @ 8:30 pm

Ron, That’s not what “whiteness” studies are about today. They are not about investigating how race was used to divide workers but rather about informing working-class white students of their “privilege.” As such, they actually serve to divide, exactly as the emphasis on “blackness” did in the past.