Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Campus Wars Of Religion

The lives of others outside the sacred campus circle of the Woke and the Elect
Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 7.48.53 AM

There was an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend — an interview with Jonathan Haidt about the ideological hysteria on campuses today. Excerpts:

When a mob at Vermont’s Middlebury College shut down a speech by social scientist Charles Murray a few weeks ago, most of us saw it as another instance of campus illiberalism. Jonathan Haidt saw something more—a ritual carried out by adherents of what he calls a “new religion,” an auto-da-fé against a heretic for a violation of orthodoxy.

“The great majority of college students want to learn. They’re perfectly reasonable, and they’re uncomfortable with a lot of what’s going on,” Mr. Haidt, a psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, tells me during a recent visit to his office. “But on each campus there are some true believers who have reoriented their lives around the fight against evil.”

These believers are transforming the campus from a citadel of intellectual freedom into a holy space—where white privilege has replaced original sin, the transgressions of class and race and gender are confessed not to priests but to “the community,” victim groups are worshiped like gods, and the sinned-against are supplicated with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

The fundamentalists may be few, Mr. Haidt says, but they are “very intimidating” since they wield the threat of public shame. On some campuses, “they’ve been given the heckler’s veto, and are often granted it by an administration who won’t stand up to them either.”


The Berkeley episode Mr. Haidt mentions illustrates the Orwellian aspect of campus orthodoxy. A scheduled February appearance by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos prompted masked agitators to throw Molotov cocktails, smash windows, hurl rocks at police, and ultimately cause $100,000 worth of damage. The student newspaper ran an op-ed justifying the rioting under the headline “Violence helped ensure safety of students.” Read that twice.

Mr. Haidt can explain. Students like the op-ed author “are armed with a set of concepts and words that do not mean what you think they mean,” he says. “People older than 30 think that ‘violence’ generally involves some sort of physical threat or harm. But as students are using the word today, ‘violence’ is words that have a negative effect on members of the sacred victim groups. And so even silence can be violence.” It follows that if offensive speech is “violence,” then actual violence can be a form of self-defense.

Down the hall from Mr. Haidt’s office, I noticed a poster advertising a “bias response hotline” students can call “to report an experience of bias, discrimination or harassment.” I joke that NYU seems to have its own version of the morality police in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. “It’s like East Germany,” Mr. Haidt replies—with students, at least some of them, playing the part of the Stasi.

Haidt has a lot more to say in the piece about all of this — and below, he explains why it matters to our entire society:

If you’re not a student or professor, why should you care about snowflakes in their igloos? Because, Mr. Haidt argues, what happens on campus affects the “health of our nation.” Ideological and political homogeneity endangers the quality of social-science research, which informs public policy. “Understanding the impacts of immigration, understanding the causes of poverty—these are all absolutely vital,” he says. “If there’s an atmosphere of intimidation around politicized issues, it clearly influences the research.”

Today’s college students also are tomorrow’s leaders—and employees. Companies are already encountering problems with recent graduates unprepared for the challenges of the workplace. “Work requires a certain amount of toughness,” Mr. Haidt says. “Colleges that prepare students to expect a frictionless environment where there are bureaucratic procedures and adult authorities to rectify conflict are very poorly prepared for the workplace. So we can expect a lot more litigation in the coming few years.”

If you lean left—even if you adhere to the campus orthodoxy, or to certain elements of it—you might consider how the failure to respect pluralism puts your own convictions at risk of a backlash. “People are sick and tired of being called racist for innocent things they’ve said or done,” Mr. Haidt observes. “The response to being called a racist unfairly is never to say, ‘Gee, what did I do that led to me being called this? I should be more careful.’ The response is almost always, ‘[Expletive] you!’ ”

Yes it is. Read the whole thing.

It is interesting to contemplate this phenomenon as a manifestation of religious conflict. Yesterday I wrote in this space about Philip Rieff’s theory of culture, saying that it is built on “sacred order.” Rieff considered our own culture to be an “anti-culture” because, in his view, the only thing it sees as sacred is the tearing-down of sacred order. What we see on campus is more complex. There can be no doubt that these student Jacobins and their faculty fellow travelers wish to impose a new, highly illiberal sacred order on campuses — and are succeeding. But what they are doing is destroying the capacity of universities to do what universities are supposed to do. If they are allowed to continue, American universities where they hold sway will come to resemble East German universities.

This past weekend, I met a woman who had grown up in communist Hungary. I mentioned to her something I have heard from several older people, defectors from communist Eastern Europe living in the West today: that the speech culture emerging in the West today reminds them of life under communism, because of the way you never know whether or not your words will get you destroyed by power-holders who consider you ideologically dangerous.

She nodded vigorously. “This is how the state destroyed society,” she said. “You had to be afraid of everybody, because you didn’t know who might report you to the government for something innocent you said.”

Here is a great scene from the German film “The Lives Of Others,” set in the final years of communist East Germany. The scene takes place inside Stasi headquarters, in a cafeteria. Everybody in the scene works for the secret police, but the men in the distance are officers:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8vDQaAYaQg&w=525&h=300]

It is not hard at all to imagine a similar scene playing out in a college cafeteria in the US. Imagine not being able to tell a joke without having to worry that someone would report you to the campus diversity commissar, potentially ruining your name, and even your academic career.

Can a university thrive under such circumstances? Can any community?

Haidt’s Heterodox Academy website has a list of colleges that are much better at respecting free speech and open inquiry. If you are thinking about going to college, or sending your kids to college, you really need to see this list. Certain leftist professors at Wellesley College are not interested in maintaining the school as a place where faculty, students, and campus guests can speak and think freely. They have written an e-mail calling on the college to ban speakers who challenge the point of view held by sacred victim groups, lamenting that aggrieved students are compelled to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.”

Yes, actual college professors wrote that. These professors, members of the school’s Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity, generously offer themselves as gatekeepers for who should and should not be allowed to speak on campus, based on the content of their speech.

By the way, Princeton’s Robert George reminds us:

Imagine that Charles Murray were a black man, and had been shut down by a Middlebury mob, and chased off campus in fear of his physical safety. Do you think it would have taken Middlebury a month (and counting) to discipline those responsible for it — even the students caught on camera, their faces clearly shown, disrupting his speech?



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now