Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

(Re)Secularizing the University

The religion of social-justice activism on campus breeds a new kind of secularism.

I have unwittingly inserted myself 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, pepper-spray speakers, and then, if speakers manage to reach the microphone, chant them down with collective hecklers’ vetoes. At the same time, “social justice” activists and other students retreat to safe spaces—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 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 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,” 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 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. 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.

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, writing in reply to the socialist critic, Irving Howe, 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 and funneled through the bewildering vortex of postmodern theory, including poststructuralism and deconstruction.  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, 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 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. 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, 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, 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 is a Professor of Liberal Studies at New York University. He is the author of Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature (2106), Academic Writing, Real World Topics (2015), and editor of Global Secularisms in A Post-Secular Age (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.