Universities are political places, but there’s good politics and bad.
First point: The protesting students are neither “snowflakes” who can’t take the heat nor “delicate flowers” whose feelings have been bruised. University students have seen movie violence, broken up with boyfriends and girlfriends, read ugly things on the internet, viewed porn clips, lost grandparents, and heard distressing news from around the world. And they survived.
We also learn from the protesters’ own vocabulary that many of them have a rich capacity for swearing, insults, and other crudities. Yet from childhood all have learned from their teachers, mom and dad, and Disney movies when and when not say Fuck you and Your type disgusts me.
They may be angry, but they are adults who know what they are doing. “Cry-bullies” is half-right, as the tears are a tactic.
Second point: Most of the many grievances are not meant to be resolved. They are meant to fester and be used in the service of power-politics strategy.
We have all experienced the same dynamic in personal relationships. Once you’ve decided you dislike someone, you can always find something about him or her that’s irritating. The same point holds generally: once you’ve decided to attack an enemy, there’s always an issue available to “justify” your actions.
Accordingly, the fact that the students’ complaints are often overwrought or semi-informed is a feature, not a bug. David Burge notes, wryly, that “Campuses today are a theatrical mashup of 1984 and Lord of the Flies, performed by people who don’t understand these references.” Amusingly true, but that does not mean that the thuggish behavior is stupid and uncalculated.
The protesters’ point is to make unreasonable demands, and their goal is to see how much they can get away with.
Third point: The student protesters have had expert guidance.
Students are young adults with their own minds and initiatives, but they are still in development and can be shaped by prevailing orthodoxies. We see it in art and theater students who are cultivating creative identities and experimenting dramatically with their personal styles. We see it in science students who are passionately developing their capacities to make objective judgments about natural complexity. In both cases, there is some self-selection, as students find some university disciplines more attractive than others, but in both cases there is also expert training by the discipline’s leaders – the professors who encourage, instill, and exemplify the mindset and character that is to be emulated.
So what we see in the protesting students, most of whom come from a handful of humanities and social studies departments, is the result of an academic sub-culture dedicated to a set of adversarial values, drawn from a bottomless well of curdled resentments.
Fourth point: Note that the progressive, postmodern, and other strands of left thinking have been running the universities for two generations now. And the public school system. Yet we are to believe and understand that sexism, racism, and a host of other pathologies have taken over our culture. Either the intellectual and educational establishments have been grossly incompetent in teaching American youth – or they have succeeded in molding a significant portion of them according to their precepts. We should be open to both arguments.
Yet when the same tactics arise at many campuses, that’s not necessarily evidence of a conspiracy but rather of a shared set of ideas being leveraged.
Fifth point: One of those core ideas is evident from the pattern of the grievances. Feel sorry for us – or else.
Most of us have a natural benevolence that leads us to be helpful to those who are struggling with life’s challenges – the sick, the elderly, pregnant women, the poor, and so on.
Yet that benevolence can be captured by the moral philosophy of altruism and transformed into the view that that the rich, the powerful, and the strong have a fundamental obligation to sacrifice for the poor, the powerless, and the weak.
Often that altruism, in turn, can be combined with the view that it is the fault of the rich that the poor are poor, the fault of the powerful that the powerless are powerless, and the fault of the strong that the weak are weak. (Sometimes, of course, that is true.)
But, finally, if we combine all of the above with the view that the world is divided into conflicting groups – men versus women, whites versus browns versus yellows versus blacks, rich versus middling versus poor, Jews versus Muslims versus Christians versus atheists, and more – then we generate within ourselves a deep identification with any group that is failing and an equally a deep outrage against any group that is successful.
The result is an anger at all social injustice – and a feeling of moral empowerment to do anything for the cause of the weaker. If, therefore, the strong are not voluntarily sacrificing for the weak – and if they are not atoning for causing the weak’s problems in the first place – then they ought to be punished and forced to do their obligations.
The weapons-grade altruism now being deployed is thus a consequence of the view that anything is legitimate on behalf of the weak. Psychologically, it is one form of “pathological altruism,” to borrow Professor Barbara Oakley’s apt phrase. And in its activist expression, it is a version of what André Glucksmann warned us about, namely “how easy it was to pursue a passion for justice and revolution using obscene measures.”
Sixth and last point: Philosophy is practical. What we are experiencing on campus is applied philosophy. The theory is delivered to the students from their professors – on hundreds of issues in dozens of courses. The theory is then put into practice, and universities in effect function as laboratory experiments for philosophy.
That has always been the case in the history of the university, as the actual functioning of universities has modeled the prevailing philosophical framework of the time. In the late medieval era, universities were institutionalizations of traditional authority, top-down instruction, and regurgitation. Over the centuries they evolved toward the humanistic model of liberal education, with its emphasis upon critical thinking, free speech and let-the-best-argument-prevail, no matter who makes it. And we are now seeing a shift to postmodern anti-rationalism and group-conflict power politics, as in one generation Speak truth to power has devolved into Fuck truth and grab power.
The French postmodernist Jacques Derrida warned us not to be among those who “turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.”
The battle for the soul of the university is joined, and the principals have made their principles explicit and clear.
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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