By Michael Howard
Much is being made of the apparent contempt for fundamental democratic values – the ones that form the bedrock of a free and heterogeneous society – emerging on college campuses across the country, and rightfully so. Legitimacy of grievances aside (and I do not doubt for a moment that, in most cases, they are legitimate), the means being employed to redress those grievances must, for the sake of everything, be subject to scrutiny.
There is a new breed of social activist being mobilized, according to whom the guarding of individual feelings takes precedence over everything else, including the essential right of people to express themselves freely and openly. In this particular bubble, the First Amendment (arguably the most primal element of our Constitution) becomes a mere technicality—something to be abrogated when doing so is expedient.
The folly of this mode of thinking is such that it should not require spelling out. But, in light of recent events, it appears that many (ostensibly well-meaning) people have totally lost the plot, their behavior typifying what has come to be known by some as the “regressive left.”
The term was coined by Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz, who, because of his persistent criticism of fundamentalist Islam (and its political implementation), has met with tremendous backlash from those claiming to be the bastions of liberalism. (For a sense of how absurd the narrative has become, consider that Nawaz, a life-long Muslim of Pakistani descent, has been accused of “Islamophobia” by some of his white, non-Muslim critics.)
Lately, the working machinery of the regressive left can be observed at American universities, where students as well as educators have, in their quest for social progress, grown hostile – and completely intolerant – to the very notion that someone might have the audacity to challenge their views.
At Yale, controversy erupted after Erika Christakis, an education professor, responded to a mass email reminding students to use tact while deciding on Halloween costumes. In an email of her own, addressed to the campus residence she and her husband superintend, Christakis contemplated the wider implications and motives of such an edict, writing:
American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?
The keynote here seems to be that, in Christakis’ opinion, it is preferable that individual maturation should occur organically, with minimal nudging from external (authoritative) forces. Her email is not about Halloween costumes; at least not principally. She is concerned about the infantilization of college-aged people, and the notion that they are (1) unable to make prudent choices without being told to, and (2) unable to deal with situations that offend them.
It goes without saying that everything Christakis wrote in her email is subject to debate. That, of course, is the entire point. I suspect that catalyzing debate, or rather open and honest and mature intellectual discourse (this is Yale, after all), was her primary objective in addressing her ostensibly progressive and (since it is a cant charge to make) privileged Ivy League students. What she got from those progressive privileged Ivy League students was something very different.
A formal letter was quickly drawn up, demanding that Christakis and her husband – because he defended her email – be forced to resign. To the regressive leftists at Yale, Christakis’ diplomatic and carefully reasoned email is grounds for termination—for the destruction of her and her husband’s livelihoods, and, by extension, the effective assassination of each’s character.
In response to this development, Christakis’ husband, who is president of the Silliman College community to which the email was addressed, met with dozens of angry students for what became a cacophony of verbal abuse, most of which was recorded and posted to the internet. In the video, when Christakis begins to explain why he does not agree with what a borderline hysterical student has just told him, said student explodes with: “Then why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you? You should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not. Do you understand that?” At this point she drops her backpack, as though she’s prepared to physically fight. And she ends her tirade by telling a patiently receptive Christakis: “You should not sleep at night. You are disgusting.”
So much for that discourse. So much for free and open exchange of ideas. So much for belief in a plural society. It is worth quoting Noam Chomsky on the subject, since so many people appear to be terribly confused: “If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” The militant students at Yale would do well to heed those words.
But, you’ll say, surely it is unfair to generalize based on the actions of one unhinged student? Isn’t citing her implosion opportunistic? Well, yes, it would be unfair and opportunistic, if her behavior was not part of a larger pattern of politically correct intolerance. But unfortunately it is.
There’s a reason why famed, and comparatively tame, comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock now refuse to perform on college campuses. And we should be disturbed when South Park’s satirical take on political correctness – in which violent frat boys pummel fellow students into adopting politically correct viewpoints – actually seems plausible.
In another, more disquieting instance of PC madness, a large group of activists at the University of Missouri (the president of which has recently resigned) actually prohibited members of the press from gaining access to the ongoing protests, thus displaying explicit scorn for the very set of rights that allow them to protest in the first place. The irony here is weapons-grade, and yet it seems to be lost on every one of them.
The incident was recorded with a cell phone, and the resulting video ought to come with a warning advising viewer discretion. It shows a young man, a student and freelance photographer, attempting to take pictures of what I suppose can be called protest headquarters. He is being physically blocked, however, by a wall of University of Missouri students, who have formed a human fence around a cluster of tents they have set up. Several of them hold their hands in the air, so as to render any photographing impossible. Without any context, you could be excused for assuming that these people are members of a clandestine cult, who have good reason for wanting to keep their activities out of the media.
“You don’t have the right to take our photos,” one student declares, before the mob breaks into a chant: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, reporters have got to go.” Several times, the photographer – who exhibits truly admirable composure – is physically pushed backwards by people who continually remind him that he is not allowed to touch them. A frantic voice can then be heard from a person off camera: “You lost this one, bro. You just lost this one, bro. Back up. You lost this fight. You lost this battle.”
Lost what, exactly? His right to be a reporter? I don’t think it is overdramatic to say that, once social and political activism is at odds with journalism, as the forgoing quote seems to suggest, our society is in very serious trouble. Which is why these people cannot mean – or perhaps cannot understand – what they’re saying.
In what world does a reporter face hostility and aggression for attempting to, as the photographer says, “document for history” public protest? Restriction of the freedom of the press is a totalitarian principle. Intolerance of dissenting viewpoints, and punishment of those who express them, is a totalitarian principle. Has world history been dropped from the curriculum at Yale and the University of Missouri? Joseph Goebbels would not waste one second in capitalizing on the demands issued by these new “progressive” activists. They are the people Lenin had in mind when he coined that famous pejorative descriptor.
Here’s one for the “new activists” at the University of Missouri to consider: suppose Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other intrepid leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, gave strict orders that no reporters, no photographers, no journalists, were permitted to record and document their struggle. Forgetting the fact that such an order makes absolutely no sense, and is impossible to implement by law, what would have become of the Civil Rights Movement?
What if nobody was there to film the shocking violence inflicted on civil rights activists by police officers? If MLK’s speeches weren’t recorded? Furthermore – and most of all – what could possibly be gained from keeping the press away? Nothing, of course. That’s what makes all of this so galling.
In their few feverish attempts to explain why they feel so much antipathy toward a photographer (who, by the way, it is probably safe to assume sympathizes with the activists generally), the students appeal to their non-right to have a “safe space” on public property, and his non-obligation to respect it. The guys who create South Park couldn’t write this if they tried.
But, can’t much of this simply be ascribed to the general foolishness and lack of wisdom characterizing young people everywhere? Not quite.
While college students are notoriously injudicious, college professors are thought (and ought) to be the opposite. It is therefore difficult to rationalize the University of Missouri video’s denouement: a red haired woman who is standing safely behind the human fence (in our cult narrative, she would be the leader of the dubious organization), and who happens in a further turn of irony to be a communications/media professor at the university, incites violence against a man claiming to be from the media, turning and screaming desperately to the mob, with malice in her voice: “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
All this calls to mind a quote from the late writer/professor/composer/linguist Anthony Burgess, whose words, spoken in 1972, now seem prescient. Talking of his own experience with university culture, Burgess expressed vexation with “the professors, the lecturers, who put themselves on the side of the young, deliberately, hoping thereby that when the revolution comes, if it does come, they’ll get some sort of special preference.” If this was self-conscious overstatement then, it is all too apposite now, with the seeds of revolt being sown at Yale and beyond.
At Claremont McKenna College, dean of students Mary Spellman just agreed to – yes, you guessed it – resign! Her crime? Writing an email to a student who had written an article about her difficult experience as a minority. Here is what the email said, in its entirety:
Thank you for writing and sharing this article with me. We have a lot to do as a college and community. Would you be willing to talk with me sometime about these issues? They are important to me and the DOS staff and we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold.
Read it again. Then consider that it sparked a clamorous student uprising, and concluded with Spellman’s resignation. Apparently, sincere expressions of empathy are provocative. If you feel as though you’ve been transported to the Bizarro World, you’re not alone. To say this new activism borders on self-parody is an understatement.
Completing his revolution metaphor, Burgess tacked on a grim – and probably wholly accurate – prophesy, arguing that those sorry professors and lecturers who curry favor with their students would be, in the event of a revolution, “the first to be put up against the wall and have to face the firing squad.”
The fact of the matter is this. In their eagerness to come out on the right side of the politically correct revolution, a growing number of administrators and professors are refusing to stand up for the core values upon which the university system is built, and have thus betrayed their duty to society. Most importantly, however, they have betrayed their duty to the hordes of belligerent students themselves, who evidently require – very badly – a lesson in what it means to be liberal.
Validating feelings is all well and good, until doing so undermines the essential liberties articulated by the First Amendment. That this point is even being debated is embarrassing. It should be obvious to anyone with a shred of common sense that, once those liberties are abrogated (motives notwithstanding), we can abandon any hope for future progress.
If feelings have to be hurt, and “safe spaces” violated, in order to make the new activists on the regressive left comprehend this, so fucking what!
Michael Howard is a free-lance writer from Buffalo, New York.