One of the great concerns of campus insanity—the howling mobs, the ruthless ideological conformity, the utter intolerance of dissenting thought—is that eventually it will breach the barriers of the campus and spill out into the larger culture. But has that already happened? And what can we do about it?
“When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based ‘social justice’ movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well.” So argues Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine.
Sullivan notes that many people have dismissed his concerns that “campus culture” will eventually become part of broader society. “These are students, after all,” the rebuttals go, according to Sullivan. “They’ll grow up once they leave their cloistered, neo-Marxist safe spaces. The real world isn’t like that.”
But we’re already seeing these ideas cross over into “the real world,” Sullivan argues. For instance: “[T]he whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned ‘privilege’ — is increasingly suspect. The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment — untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights — are now routinely understood as mere masks for ‘white male’ power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites.”
Sullivan doesn’t see this as surprising: “If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation,” he writes, “then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large.”
Citing the current political polarization of the country, Sullivan—himself a liberal—acknowledges that many people have been stirred up by President Trump’s bombastic, sometimes offensive rhetoric. But, he writes, “anger is rarely a good frame of mind to pursue the imperatives of reason, let alone to defend the norms of liberal democracy:”
And yes, I’m not talking about formal rules — but norms of liberal behavior. One of them is a robust public debate, free from intimidation. Liberals welcome dissent because it’s our surest way to avoid error. Cultural Marxists fear dissent because they believe it can do harm to others’ feelings and help sustain existing identity-based power structures. Yes, this is not about the First Amendment. The government is not preventing anyone from speaking. But it is about the spirit of the First Amendment. One of the reasons I defended Katie Roiphe against a campaign to preemptively suppress an essay of hers (even to the point of attempting to sabotage an entire issue of Harper’s) is because of this spirit. She may be wrong, but that does not make her a hobgoblin whose career needs to be ended. And the impulse to intimidate, vilify, ruin, and abuse a writer for her opinions chills open debate. This is a real-world echo of the campus habit of disrupting speakers, no-platforming conservatives, and shouting people down. But now this reflexive hostility to speech is actually endorsed by writers and editors. Journalism itself has become a means of intimidating journalists.
An entirely intended byproduct of this kind of bullying — and Roiphe is just the latest victim — is silence. If voicing an “incorrect” opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet. This silence on any controversial social issue is endemic on college campuses, but it’s now everywhere. Think of the wonderful SNL sketch recently, when three couples at a restaurant stumble onto the subject of Aziz Ansari. No one feels capable of saying anything in public. In the #MeToo debate, the gulf between what Twitter screams and what pops up in your private email in-box is staggering. It’s as big a gulf on the left as you find between the public statements and private views of Republicans on Trump. This is compounded by the idea that only a member of a minority group can speak about racism or homophobia, or that only women can discuss sexual harassment. The only reason this should be the case is if we think someone’s identity is more important than the argument they might want to make. And that campus orthodoxy is now the culture’s as a whole.
Microaggressions? How else do you explain how the glorious defenestration of horrific perpetrators of sexual abuse and harassment so quickly turned into a focus on an unwanted hug or an off-color remark? The whole cultural Marxist idea of a microaggression, after all, is that it’s on a spectrum with macro-aggression. Patriarchy and white supremacy — which define our world — come in micro, mini and macro forms — but it’s all connected. A bad date is just one end of a patriarchal curve that ends with rape. And that’s why left-feminists are not just interested in exposing workplace abuse or punishing sex crimes, but in policing even consensual sex for any hint of patriarchy’s omnipresent threat.
Sullivan is not alone: Several weeks ago, columnist Cathy Young argued at The Boston Globe that the campus standards of “a fixation on identity politics, a culture of reflexive outrage, and a scorched-earth approach to trivial transgressions” are becoming “increasingly evident in American life as a whole. In the name of defending women and ethnic and sexual minorities — all reasonable goals — progressives on and off campus are taking illiberal stances that polarize society, put a chill on free speech, and erode respect for due process.”