Here’s a really thoughtful e-mail that came in last night from a reader at a major urban university. I’m withholding his name and his institution for privacy reasons:
It’s becoming a conservative ‘meme’ to call out treating college students as ‘infantile’ because of treating the election of Trump as a traumatic event. I live in dorm with undergrads and I have a word of caution.
Your response to Linker struck me as 50% right on and 50% completely off. You are right to point to the attempts to stifle dissent on college campuses as dangerous, and right to be offended at the tedious self-righteousness with which it often happens. But I think you are at risk of papering over the responsibility some of us have to respond to some real emotions and beliefs held by the folks behind the scenes. On a political and abstract level it is appropriate to just call these things out as absurd, satirize their principles (or lack thereof) and lament their illiberality. But on a personal level that often does not persuade or even treat the other seriously. Consider the difference between responding to the ‘no trigger warnings’ letter at the University of Chicago at a national level and on campus: students here tended to say ‘why would they not want to help victims of trauma?’ as much as ‘ooh, they deny rape culture!’. I don’t like how easily abused trigger warnings are and I distrust them, but the former is a question coming out of concern for another. If I were to ridicule it I would not be answering a valid concern held by another. If I were writing policy I might take a blunter approach, but if I am talking in person to that student who cares I’d have harder work to do to try to explain myself persuasively.
So back to Trump-wailing: I am also disturbed by the angst and tears provoked by the election. I heard about a professor on my campus comparing the need to discuss the election in class to the need to discuss 9/11 when he was an undergrad. I am all for discussing important national events in class, but that made my blood boil. I was an undergrad when 9/11 happened too, and people were leaving class to find out if their parents were alive or not. That makes it different.
At the same time, I think it’s important to understand that at universities there is often a grand narrative about how Justice is working now. Conservatives like to pretend they do not participate in these, but they do: many like to own the movement towards Justice when it pertains to the civil rights, or to the pain felt by those solidly in the pro-life camp. These are ways of orienting us to national movements that demand responses but are hard to understand fully.
So first, one of the prominent movements of the moment is the sense that minorities suffer from leftover effects of previously institutionalized racism, that these effects still take a toll on their well-being, and that they ought to be addressed. For many minorities, and for many non-minority college students who have been taught this, the insensitivity of Trump and his coalition to this is what stings. It feels as though it is now in no one’s interest to deal with real problems they face. Moreover, they feel as though it will be politically rewarding to dismiss these claims.
I would not affirm all of those claims, but I can see why students who deeply believe these things feel threatened. Some have more of reason to than others, but many of the majority culture students are grieving with their friends who are not. Sometimes that turns into ridiculous political posturing; but for many I know it’s genuine compassion coming out of a shared perception.
The point is that the feeling can be real even when the perceptions that lead to it are warped. I would imagine from my reading–I know few Trump supporters personally, since I live on a college campus–that there are Trump supporters whose own suffering has been ignored and as a result are willing to overlook the pain experienced by the large politically liberal minority population of the country. But this is a most dangerous situation: when two groups feel they are wronged and refuse to see each other’s suffering and acknowledge each other’s hurt, resentment is sure to grow. Conservatives should point out that in an important way, Trump’s election is a victory for justice for the disempowered: conservative voters long ignored by their representatives voted against their own political leader’s preferences. They should also be willing to hear about other narratives, where this feels like a great defeat for the cause of justice.
I wish that instead of doing the silly pantsuit ‘Alleluia’ that SNL had worked out another ‘Black Jeopardy’ style skit about parallel experiences of despised blacks and whites. Perhaps about politicians who are elected over and over but never deliver, or about the inability to get their co-workers to even listen for ten seconds without interposing the prefab counterarguments supplied to them by their favorite blog or TV show last night.
So again as towards the weepy college students: we got here largely because people ignored the real pain felt and said those people were ridiculous anyway, that their pain didn’t count for anything. I don’t advise making a habit of mirroring that behavior if we want to claim to offer a different way forward for the nation. You don’t have to agree with someone to say I’m sorry you feel desperate, and you do have to love them to offer hope.
I really should just knock off for the day. Between Scott Alexander’s post and this reader’s letter, I can’t hope to write anything remotely as thoughtful or compelling.
UPDATE: Sam M. writes:
Well, it’s hard. If you see a beggar on the street, it is one thing to be empathic and try to help. It’s quite another when it’s three in the morning and that same beggar is found out back peering into your window while trying to pick a lock.
The snowflakes discussed here were, quite recently, seen as politically ascendant. What did they do with that ascendency? Assuage the fears and concerns of people unlike them? Or did they make political, legislative and cultural rules to annihilate their foes? Even now, the universities are openly saying that they will not follow federal laws. Remember what happened to conservative colleges that had concerns? They were told that they would lose federal funding due to Title IX. They were threatened with the loss of accreditation.
I guess the RA might be right. Maybe we should follow our better angels and live and let live and make sure there is a steady stream of coloring books and puppies. I am open to that for sure. But lets remember that the Title IX threats and the accreditation threats were extant until LAST WEEK. And while conservatives are being asked to win graciously, the Left is losing with riots and “not my president” and sanctuary cities that are openly saying that they will not follow federal law.
Detente is a two-way street. I desperately think we need one. But both sides are going to need some empathy. More than Jamelle Bouie seems ready to offer. Shame on us for not being more aggressive. But until they get over the wailing it’s going to be hard to break through.
UPDATE.2: Another e-mail from an RA:
In general, that email is a terrific example of how we are all imprisoned by the logic of these larger cultural forces, whether we like them or not. Ultimately, what a decent, well-meaning young person finds terribly hurtful and offensive is a reality you just have to accept. It is easy to denounce these disturbing cultural forces in the abstract, but they are, inconveniently, attached to a set of uncommonly decent, kind and bright human beings. In a residence hall, swatting down the p.c. spider often means slapping some innocent kid in the face.
And yet it remains true that the grand narrative of justice these students have been taught, and emphatically believe, is blinkered and absurd. It’s also self-serving. The privilege of being white conveniently disguises the much more rarefied privilege of attending an elite university. And this obvious blindless licenses moral bullying and indulgent self-pity. America’s future elite has been cruelly victimized by the ignorant, unwashed horde. A sneering ruling class is bad but sustainable. A ruling class that combines sneering contempt and wailing self-pity is ripe for a rupture — as we’re finding out.
Anyhow, you already know that part. I mostly write to second your earlier correspondent. And to try to express how it’s possible to share every one of your concerns and yet sincerely believe that the students here are truly terrific — far, far better than one would have a right to expect from the culture that has shaped them.