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Liberal Prof Afraid of Mao-ish Students

How the progressive revolution is eating its own -- and why conservatives should take no pleasure in it

A number of you have sent me the Edward Schlosser essay on Vox, headlined, “I’m a Liberal Professor, And My Liberal Students Terrify Me”. It cannot fail to bring to mind the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution, in which Mao turned the fervor and idealism of students on their professors, creating generational warfare and a “Lord of the Flies” situation. I know we’ve been talking about this phenomenon of young progressives destroying liberalism on campus, but I believe it’s worth dwelling on further, because of what it reveals about human nature.

Here are some excerpts from the Schlosser piece (“Edward Schlosser,” by the way, is the pseudonym of a college professor hiding behind anonymity to protect himself):

The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.

Schlosser talks about how, in 2009, a right-wing undergraduate complained to the school administration that Schlosser held “communistical sympathies” because he challenged in class the student’s narrative about the role home loans to minorities played in the economic crash. It was a ridiculous claim, easily dismissed; nobody takes seriously a student griping about their professor possibly being a commie.

But once students start claiming that they have been personally injured by a professor’s rhetoric, everything changes. Has changed. Schlosser:

I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We’ve seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.

I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either.

I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, “Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.” Hurting a student’s feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.

He says that the first kind of complaint can be resolved by appealing to evidence. But the second kind of complaint, the far more dangerous kind, is hard to combat because it involves having to challenge the subjective emotional state of a student. This is the irrational end point of accepting a philosophical principle that desires justify themselves. Schlosser says that people who think profs are overreacting don’t understand the realities of life within contemporary higher ed:

I wrote about this fear on my blog, and while the response was mostly positive, some liberals called me paranoid, or expressed doubt about why any teacher would nix the particular texts I listed. I guarantee you that these people do not work in higher education, or if they do they are at least two decades removed from the job search. The academic job market is brutal. Teachers who are not tenured or tenure-track faculty members have no right to due process before being dismissed, and there’s a mile-long line of applicants eager to take their place. And as writer and academic Freddie DeBoer writes, they don’t even have to be formally fired — they can just not get rehired. In this type of environment, boat-rocking isn’t just dangerous, it’s suicidal, and so teachers limit their lessons to things they know won’t upset anybody.

The real problem: a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice

This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate. What if this hurts my evaluations and I don’t get tenure? How many complaints will it take before chairs and administrators begin to worry that I’m not giving our customers — er, students, pardon me — the positive experience they’re paying for? Ten? Half a dozen? Two or three?

The left has brought this onto itself, Schlosser indicates, by embracing identity politics and charging it with emotivism. Feelings experienced by persons of favored identity groups are thought to be sufficient guides to truth. Obviously one cannot challenge the reality of feelings. Worse, when hurting the feelings of a person of a favored identity group becomes tantamount to denying the legitimacy of their personhood, and even akin to physical assault, campus life becomes tyrannical. It’s all reminiscent of the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone, in which all the adults in the life of the paranormally gifted brat Little Anthony kowtow to his every whim out of fear of offending him, and suffering horrendous consequences.

Here’s the core of Schlosser’s point:

Personal experience and feelings aren’t just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics. In such an environment, it’s no wonder that students are so prone to elevate minor slights to protestable offenses.

(It’s also why seemingly piddling matters of cultural consumption warrant much more emotional outrage than concerns with larger material implications. Compare the number of web articles surrounding the supposed problematic aspects of the newest Avengers movie with those complaining about, say, the piecemeal dismantling of abortion rights. The former outnumber the latter considerably, and their rhetoric is typically much more impassioned and inflated. I’d discuss this in my classes — if I weren’t too scared to talk about abortion.)

Think about all the Caitlyn Jenner hoo-ha. Do you think people like me really care whether or not a trivial celebrity puts on a dress and calls himself a woman? Of course not. But, as Erick Erickson often notes, we are being made to care — as in coerced. The agenda of the media and other opinion-makers in this culture is in-your-face and aggressive about demonizing dissent on LGBT issues. To hold insufficiently progressive opinions is to reveal oneself as a bigot in their eyes. And these people have the levers of power within certain powerful spheres, like academia, media, and law.

This is why I think theologian Al Mohler is mistaken to fault Bob Gates for not standing up for the traditional Boy Scout ideal. I wish Gates had done so, but my sense is that Gates, whatever his personal convictions about the matter (I don’t know what they are), correctly judges that given the way courts, the legal profession, and, increasingly, society, thinks, it has become impossible to defend the old ideal. That doesn’t necessarily mean that mounting the battle is entirely without meaning, but I find it hard to fault Gates for recognizing the futility of the cause at this point. There is no way to argue one’s way to victory here, because the opinion-making elites, and increasingly everyone in this culture, has adopted in some form the identity politics + emotivism way of seeing the world. The more important question here is now Why didn’t Bob Gates fight for the Boy Scouts? but Is there any reason to believe that Bob Gates could have prevailed had he chosen to fight for the Boy Scouts?

To make it more practical, there is a reason why white people, especially white males, tend to stay quiet and disengaged when their companies or institutions put everyone through diversity training, or have related sensitivity-raising seminars. They perfectly well know that these exercises are not really about encouraging diversity, but exactly its opposite: establishing a power hierarchy within the organization based on progressive identity categories, and empowering favored groups to punish those they feel are insufficiently sensitive to their feelings. In most cases, as a member of a disfavored identity group, to be honest about what you think, even in complete good faith (that is, to test your opinions with an openness to change if you are revealed to have unfounded prejudices) is to make yourself vulnerable to stigmatization, and possibly even job loss. Reason will have nothing at all to do with it, and will likely do you no good if you are called on to defend yourself, precisely because it will be hard to argue against the feelings of your accuser. And, like Schlosser, I would say that if you think this is paranoid, you are insufficiently experienced in the ways of corporate America and the power of the “diversity” mentality to compel conformity.

This stuff comes from somewhere. I think it comes from campuses, where the American leadership class coalesces. Andrew Sullivan told me last month that it is hard for him to go speak on campuses now, because in some places, the campus gay left tries to disrupt his appearances. Why? Because the man who did more than any single individual to make gay marriage a reality in this country is now thought by young radicals to be insufficiently progressive because he publicly stood up for Brendan Eich, and stands up for the right of his religious opponents to be wrong.

When the Social Justice Warriors will not let Andrew Sullivan speak on campus without protest, you can imagine how frightening it must be for ordinary professors, liberal and conservative both, who only want to do what professors are supposed to do: teach.

Schlosser sees all this as fueling a conservative backlash at the ballot box. Maybe so. As I have said, the SJWs who control the Democratic Party’s policy on LGBTs are so aggressive that they push someone like me, for whom religious liberty is the most important political issue, kicking and screaming towards the Republicans. However, when it comes to defending the integrity of the university, Republicans are uncertain trumpets. In Wisconsin, the state legislature is considering a proposal that would so radically alter tenure in state law that it amounts to its effective cancellation. I don’t know enough about the Wisconsin situation to make an informed judgment on the wisdom of this move, but when I think about how tenure may be the most meaningful protection for professors against their SJW students, I wonder if Republicans have considered that tearing down that traditional barrier may make faculty deadheads more accountable for their lack of performance, it also grants far more powers to the SJWs to intimidate professors and instructors.

One of the most fascinating sociological aspects of all this is the light it shines on mankind’s compulsion to purity. It’s part of the human experience. In Florence last year, I visited the monastic cell of the Dominican reformer Savonarola, who whipped the Renaissance masses up into righteous fervor over the corruption of the establishment. The abuses and injustices Savonarola confronted were very real, and it took moral courage for him to speak up. The pope the friar confronted, Alexander VI Borgia, was arguably the most corrupt man ever to sit on the papal throne. But Savonarola became intoxicated by the power of his ideas, and the quest for what he considered to be social justice and the purification of the public square from corrupt thoughts and deeds, and lost the confidence of the crowd. Eventually he was burned at the stake.

This sort of thing recurs in all societies throughout history: serious corruption leads to movements for reform and renewal, but the reformers’ passion for their ideals, including the ideal of purity, can lead to hysteria and disaster. Sen. Joe McCarthy was not entirely wrong about communist infiltration of certain sectors of the US establishment, but his crusading mentality, unrestrained by prudence or humanity, ended up destroying lives, including his own. Among the most extreme examples of this in contemporary history is China’s Cultural Revolution, in which Mao Zedong and his allies encouraged and empowered radicalized students to turn on their teachers and authority figures in the name of “revolutionary purity” — and nearly plunged China into anarchy.

Without a doubt idiotic and cowardly moves like Hampshire College’s cancellation of a white Afrobeat band’s performance on barely-veiled racist grounds are galaxies removed from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. (At Hampshire, campus SJWs contended that the group was too white, and the gutless administration cancelled the scheduled musical performance because it believed it could no longer guarantee a “safe and healthy” event. Notice how concepts of safety and hygiene are deployed to suppress speech — even a musical performance — that offend Social Justice Warriors’ sense of purity.) Still, the ideological zealotry is frightening — and it really does filter its way out into the wider society. A religiously conservative friend of mine who works for a major corporation says that the increasing pressure within the corporation for employees to identify themselves as LGBT “allies” is pretty clearly turning into a purity test in which what counts is not the employee’s behavior towards LGBT colleagues, but the thoughts she carries in her mind. My friend expects ultimately to be fired or forced to resign over the refusal to answer the “Are you willing to identify as an LGBT ally?” question — and this will be morally justified within the company on grounds of creating a “safe space.”

This is a major reason why conservatives should not take pleasure in the spectacle of liberal college professors being intimidated and even terrified by illiberal forces they unleashed. What happens on campus does not stay on campus. Besides, as Schlosser points out, the reductive market-conservative mentality that treats the education process as nothing more than a contractual exchange between a customer (the student) and a merchant (the university) aids and abets the destruction of the university’s authority, and the transfer of real power to the mob. This is conservative?