Let’s Not Think The Battle Has Been Won

January 2016

Those of us dismayed by the loss of free speech and critical thought in the Western university might be heartened by the recent melodramas at Yale and the University of Missouri. Perhaps the micro-aggression and safe space movement will now begin to crumble under the weight of its own absurdity. After all, what fiction writer could come up with an archetypal figure like Melissa Click, the communications professor who called for muscle to evict a student reporter from her safe, but very public, space?

The situation of the Master and Associate Master of Yale’s Silliman College is at least as bizarre. For anyone to see racism, or even insensitivity, in their rather innocuous call for tolerance, civility, and adult judgment would have been considered delusional not so long ago. That a privileged Yale senior could scream and curse at Nicholas Christakis while claiming—and, in some circles, achieving—victim status, makes a mockery of Martin Luther King’s call for all people to be judged on the basis of their character. Take a look at the video to see just how fearful she was.

There finally seems to be a growing push back against this lunacy, in part, perhaps, because wider swaths of the general public are coming to learn what passes for the pursuit of social justice in today’s university. There is even hope for change within the academy. Everett Piper, Oklahoma Wesleyan president, was recently quoted by NBC as criticizing students for claiming victim status “every time their feelings are hurt” while reminding them that “This is not a daycare. It is a university.” Now, that’s pretty heady stuff coming from a university administrator.

Perhaps the most effective force for change will be the growing number of self-identified progressives who are recognizing the error of the current path. Sometimes this realisation comes without prodding and sometimes it is because club members find themselves getting burned.

Consider the situation of Northwestern film professor Laura Kipness who, in an opinion piece published last February in the Chronicle of Higher Education, dared question the “sexual paranoia” and infantilization of students on her campus and beyond. Her views not only sparked the now predictable outrage, but placed her on the wrong end of a Title IX investigation that dragged on for months before she was eventually cleared. Predictably, the actions of the complainants and their supporters cemented Kipness’s thesis and, just as predictably, this irony was lost on the outraged mob.

Still, it’s far from a sure bet. It may be that what is perceived here as rumblings of change are really just the death throes of free speech in Western universities. It was only a decade ago we thought we had seen the end of 1990s political correctness, but the current resurgence in intolerance is making that period look mild by comparison. We would be unwise to underestimate the power of the authoritarians driving this illiberalism, the political cowardice of university administrations, or the apathy of the general public.

Yale’s William F. Buckley Program recently sponsored a multi-campus survey of 800 American undergraduates showing that 51% supported speech codes (with only 36% opposed) and that 63% would call for mandatory “trigger warnings” from professors. With every pundit appearing on MSNBC, CNN, and our own CBC decrying what is happening there is usually a well- educated and seemingly intelligent counter-pundit defending it. We would be overly sanguine to think that Nicholas Christakis kept his job because his administration realised how ridiculous the situation was or even because the growing public push-back forced them to see the light. We will never know what might have happened to him had he not engaged in his soul-selling mea culpa.

It’s also disconcerting that the professors finally finding some backbone rest heavily on a “those silly kids” style of explanation. Perhaps brave enough to label the students as “cupcakes,” they often conveniently forget about who mixed the batter and turned on the oven. Others see the “piling on” phenomenon as it relates to Melissa Click as cheap and sensational; they, of course, do not mean to defend her but “don’t you know” that every movement has its eccentrics? They conveniently forget the many Melissa Clicks, male and female, who work around them separated from their own notoriety by a single lapse in judgment.

This may be the last best time to reclaim our institutions so that they can once again be universities. Of course, those who spearhead this anti-intellectual movement remain in the minority, but they are a minority who call the shots and they are growing in number. Those of us who know better too often remain silent for fear of being ostracised and, over time, find our own thinking shifting towards the normalization of the phenomenon. That is, after all, how thinking works. To recognize that one is a coward is to create uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, reduced readily enough by coming up with mini-justifications. After all, how bad can it be to support the promotion of social justice? Maybe some antics used are excessive but, on balance, I’m in.

For most of my twenty-five years in the academy, the thought-authoritarians defended their positions and offered rationales, however hackneyed, about how they weren’t really squashing free speech and vilifying competing perspectives. More recently, though, the agents of correct thinking see less-and-less of a need to try to justify their departure from the bedrock tenets of the academy. Whereas they once criticized the pursuit of truth as being biased and called for fresh perspectives from marginalized groups, they have now arrived at the truth and wish to prevent any further exploration.

Many junior professors left graduate school having already been fully indoctrinated in the prevailing orthodoxy. Sure, some arrive in their new positions with more scholarly views of what the university is supposed to be, but those thoughts, they seem to reason, are best kept to oneself. After so many years of schooling and a lottery win that gives them a shot at tenure, it’s hard to judge them too critically. No, it’s those of us who have been around for a while, who know what is happening is wrong, and who still acquiesce for comfort’s sake who are the cowards. And, once we are gone, just how many will be left who really do know better?