Reader Michael Guarino comments:
I think the dynamic at play with a lot of these college outbursts is really complicated. First, there is inevitably a small group of radicalized students in most universities, simply because universities do provide an outlet for such radicalization – usually in cultural studies departments. More broadly, the humanities has been enslaved to the idea of doing politics with scholarship. It is a total conceit, as there is about as much a chance that an English professor’s publications are going to effect social change as there is of a calamitous asteroid strike. But that is how many of these subjects are framed, and many of these subjects are required for graduation, and many of their honors offerings (presumably the best classes to take in the department) really strut the ideology.
Second, administrations at major universities have acquiesced to student protests from the left since the 1960s, I think in large part in fear of the tremendous unrest in that day. So now whenever you see a crazy suggestion from college progressives, like gender-neutral housing options, a favorite from my college time, the administration will do whole bunch of hand-wringing to make them feel like their voices are heard, although often times the suggestions end up pigeon-holed.
Finally, there is some culpability on the right in all of this, because if you ever read a conservative college publication, a huge portion of it is trying to poke fun at leftist sensitivity. A commenter in a previous thread mentioned the incident when Tom Tancredo was shouted out of the room at UNC. I was there at the time, and there was truth to the claim that one of the main reasons he was there was to tick off liberals. The left definitely needs to stop glorifying having such a thin skin on cultural matters, but that does not mean the other side should provoke them.
Personally, I think the most dangerous element at play here is the politicization of scholarship, and the corollary tendency to evaluate ideas, truth-claims, and belief in them in moral terms rather than the straightforward categories of truth and falsehood. But I am also of the Wittgensteinian persuasion that cultural, as well as philosophical, problems are the result of self-inflicted confusion for the most part, so maybe I oversell the importance of the conceptual mistake being made.
Also, another reason why this particular incident is unfortunate is that the conversation around religion on college campuses is remarkably weak. Basically, only evangelical groups are willing to attempt it, and oftentimes it can become an opportunity for students and faculty to dredge up old grievances. I wonder if there is anything to be said here regarding the effect of removing religion as a moderating influence on colleges.
Lots of good stuff here. I’m especially interested in his observation about conservative campus groups. I understand the impulse to delight in ticking off the campus left. It can be a healthy impulse, insofar as needling the ultra-earnest, super-sanctimonious of any political or cultural persuasion can be a morally upbuilding act. Satire — because when done right, that’s what this sort of thing is — can be the most effective form of activism, because it serves to discredit one’s target by making people laugh at them. That said, it so rarely is done right.
Anyway, the problem with this from the contemporary right is that the would-be satirists may become as self-satisfied in their own mockery as their targets are. Irony is not a thing in and of itself, but is a parasitical attitude. I say that as someone who is chronically disposed toward an ironic stance. You may thoroughly discredit the opposition through irony, satire, sarcasm, and the like, but what do you propose in place of what they offer? The campus left is often so loony and sure of itself that the temptation to tease and even mock is irresistible. As Michael Guarino seems to understand, the problem is that the mocking right can become so fixed in its habits and convictions that it becomes as insular and self-satisfied as those it makes fun of.
The campus left, e.g., the Brown radicals in the latest incident, are so filled with a sense of their own rightness, and righteousness, that they cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with them in good faith. Therefore, they abandon the attempt to persuade through reason, instead adopting an emotional offensive — which, given the sensitivities and weaknesses of the kind of people who run college campuses, is often effective. But it only really works in the precious hothouse atmosphere of the campus; if it trains these leftists to believe that the politics of indignation and emotivism works in the real world, it will have actually hurt their possibility of effectiveness.
Similarly, the protests of right-wing mockers can be hugely satisfying at an emotional level, but if it trains them to think that the way to respond to political ideas and statements with which one disagrees is through emotional display, then it will ill-serve their cause. For one, it prevents them from doing the hard work of thinking about how the principles they espouse apply to new situations, and how these principles might be made to appeal to reasonable people on the other side, or in the middle. For another, it accustoms them to assuming that emotions are their own justification, and that if an emotional display has been made, one has done all one needs to do for the cause. This is how we get things like the recent Tea Party-led debacle on Capitol Hill, which ended up damaging the Tea Party and the Congressional Republicans.
College students will always be college students, and that means prone to unreason, emotionalism, and moralistic self-dramatizing. It seems to me that college administrators and faculty have the responsibility to educate young people away from this sort of thing, and insist that they learn the liberal habits of mind that instruct one to place primary importance on dispassionate reason in conducting public debate, as well as respect for one’s opponents, which includes allowing unpopular opinions to be heard. When faculty and administrators fail at this, they ultimately hurt themselves by undermining the cultural, indeed civilizational, basis that allows universities to exist in the first place.
Thoughts on Guarino’s remarks? Let’s hear them.