In your lifetime, how many times can you remember when everyone agreed about the significance of a major cultural phenomenon?
It is happening now, as libertarians, conservatives, left-liberals and far-leftists all agree that a deep rot has set into Political Correctness. Hell is freezing over and pigs can now fly.
The symptoms of P.C. are well known: hyper-sensitivity to perceived slights, vicious verbal attacks upon ideological enemies and deviants within the ranks, and the use of authoritarian methods to enforce conformity and silence dissenters.
So let my contribution be an indication of how philosophy has laid the groundwork for this phenomenon and how only philosophy can get us out.
The worst manifestations are in universities and their cultural spill-over zones. Campuses are the training ground. Within many classes, the reading lists are narrow, the other sides of debates are excluded, orthodoxy of opinion is enforced; speakers from other perspectives are dis-invited via protests, and those who do get invited are shouted down. When the student-trainees graduate, they become activists and/or contributors to intellectual and activist causes and media.
Students, administrators, and professors all contribute to the problem — and the professors are the most dangerous.
Students are usually wonderfully passionate, but they are impressionable and can be steered in bizarre directions, whereupon their own intelligence takes them with ruthless consistency into absurdities. They are old enough to know that P.C. is a problem, but they are young, and I’m inclined to cut people slack for stupidities they commit in their teens and early twenties.
Administrators are fully adult professionals, and I blame them moderately. Yes, most administrators are backbone-challenged. And they are led by university presidents who are hired to keep the money flowing in and provide administrative efficiency. Advocating an educational mission is part of a president’s job but in practice is typically further down the list of priorities. And since government sources provide a huge amount of the higher-education monies, directly and indirectly, rare is the university administration that will not sacrifice educational quality if it conflicts with a government mandate. The case of Northwestern University’s Laura Kipnis and her Title IX ordeal, as presented in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is a clear example. (And here at The Washington Post.)
A deeper problem is the philosophy that has led us to allow huge government-involvement in education in the first place. “He who pays the piper calls the tune” — those who are suspicious of or outraged by corporate-funding of education have for a long time been blithely unconcerned about government-funding of education and have urged its increase as a matter of political principle.
But political philosophy is only a part of the problem. Moral philosophy and philosophy of language have enabled as much or more damage. This brings us to the professors who have developed the theoretical apparatus of P.C. over the last two generations.
The two leading concepts in the P.C. lexicon are triggers and microaggressions. University education is mostly a conversation among writers and readers, speakers and listeners. The “Trigger” analysis is first about the listener, while the “Microaggression” analysis is first about the speaker.
Trigger theory says that some people are highly vulnerable. They have suffered at least one major trauma in the past, and their ability to function normally now depends on nothing re-triggering the traumatic experience. But instead of expecting the post-trauma victims to control their responses to the world and/or seek therapy, Triggerism says that their vulnerability imposes an obligation on the rest of us to avoid triggering them. In an education context, however, Don’t use the trigger words is often in conflict with Discuss complicated and controversial issues. And the conclusion is that we should sacrifice the discussion to avoid the triggers.
All of that works with the claim that we live in a society that is so racist and sexist that virtually all minorities and women have suffered enormously. The university itself is a microcosm of that sick society and itself manifests the same institutionalized racism and sexism — but it should strive to become a safe zone where healing can take place. The conclusion again is that the more rugged spirits who can handle the hard topics and the rough-and-tumble of challenge and debate should stifle their expression to accommodate the fragile sensibilities of the damaged.
And all of that is to say that the trigger generation is a product of high theory — a set of claims worked out by academics that:
- The Trigger psychological theory is true.
- The Institutionalized-Racism-and-Sexism sociological theory is true.
- The Sacrifice-the Stronger-to-the-Weaker moral theory is true.
Those unsympathetic argue that the anti-Trigger movement will precipitate a generation of delicate “snowflakes” who melt in the least heat, and to a gutted education in which no serious issues are engaged.
That unsympathetic response is true. But avoiding those consequences also means understanding the source, and part of the power of Trigger theory is that can come from psychologically genuine phenomena.
We can imagine how it feels to show up at a big university as a first-year student and feel out of one’s depth intellectually and emotionally. One finds oneself surrounded by intimidatingly smart and assertive characters and forced to take on challenges one feels unprepared for. One feels scared. One feels like a failure. Profound feelings of weakness and failure can generate pathological responses — seeking special accommodations or even lashing out at others and trying to shift the fault to them. (Re-reading Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is instructive here.)
Another part of the Trigger strategy, though, is more calculated and involves turning others’ natural benevolence against them.
Think of the very poor, by analogy. Some who find themselves in poverty feel it to be a matter of shame, and as a matter of pride they hide their poverty while trying to work their way out of it. Others turn to asking or begging for support and will gently request help. They hope that most people’s normal empathy and helpfulness — toward the elderly, pregnant woman, those with handicaps, and so on — will come to their aid.
There are those, however, who will go further and demand assistance as a matter of obligation. Perhaps you have encountered beggars on the street who will say as you are passing by, Oh sure, pretend you didn’t see me or Go enjoy your extra cappuccino or something like that. The strategy is to make you feel guilty and uncomfortable in the face of possible confrontation — and so more likely to give.
Other types of beggars will use their weaknesses as a positive asset. Ordinarily we hide our sores, infirmities, and deformities, again as a matter of personal pride and to avoid making others uncomfortable. But for some, making others uncomfortable is part of a calculated strategy, a tactic to put them off balance and so more malleable.
The point is not that poverty and injuries are not real and serious issues to grapple with. The point is that the same tactics are at work in the Trigger strategy — the explicit use of weakness, trauma, victimhood in order to put one’s perceived enemies off balance and to manipulate them.
It’s the difference between (1) I have a weakness, but I will hide it and/or fix it, and (2) I have a weakness and I will cultivate it and use it against you.
Official Trigger theory is thus a front in the “Social Justice” wars, one version of which believes deeply that society is a brutal battleground of strong-versus-weak conflict. In that battle we are supposed to empathize with the weak and condemn the strong, and feel that in that battle any tactic against the strong is legitimate, as it is for a moral cause — that of the downtrodden.
A generation ago, Jonathan Rauch captured the dynamic in his now-classic Kindly Inquisitors. The benevolence of kindness in response to weakness was, he worried, being transformed into a strategy of inquisition. Presciently true, Mr. Rauch.
The other half of the strategy is Microaggression theory, and that we will take up in the next article.
Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .
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