Transatlantic Tremors: Illiberal Assaults on the Academy in America and England

Matthew Stewart

Three books authored or edited by British writers—“I Find That Offensive!” by social commentator Claire Fox, Unsafe Space: The Crisis of Free Speech on Campus, edited by spiked deputy editor Tom Slater, and What’s Happened to the University? A Sociological Exploration of Its Infantilisation, by University of Kent emeritus professor of sociology Frank Furedi—reveal that many of the same problems and transformations recently evident on American campuses have cropped up in the UK with troubling frequency and comparable intensity. In their most modest function as chronicles of the times, the books are of enormous value. Taken together, they record dozens upon dozens of examples of illiberal activities and radical outbursts at American and British colleges and universities. Readers of this journal will not be surprised to learn that nearly all of the assaults are generated from the political Left. Some of these incidents have been widely reported, even making the national news, while others have escaped the media radar. This latter sort is apt to elicit silent nods of recognition and assent from readers, for these less sensational cases represent the steady erosion of freedom and civility, the taken-for-granted strictures and prohibitions that govern campus interactions, the expectation that dissenters will at the very least keep their mouths shut if they cannot actually be made to change their minds—in short, the quiet, ongoing, largely uncontested wearing away of academic freedom.

Frank Furedi and Claire Fox both stress that broader social trends underpin eruptions such as no-platforming, shout-downs, and disinvitations. Likewise they find that these broader trends underwrite student demands for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and speech codes. Thus, too, with students’ insistence that institutions champion their favored “social justice” identity classifications. These phenomena owe much to a generalized shift in the culture. Feelings are now given precedence in the conduct of human affairs. Key cultural institutions have moved toward prizing the emotional and the subjective, often at the expense of the rational and testable. Even the university, where one would suppose the rational and the testable should take pride of place, has ceded important ground to the merely or trivially emotional.

Many in the media and academe have shared a tendency to see recent campus developments as 1980s and 1990s political correctness resurgent. While PC 2.0 does in fact bear resemblances to the culture wars of that era, these books make clear that it has engendered novel phenomena and unforeseen mutations, as we shall see. Others have compared today’s upheavals to 1960s campus protests and student unrest. Furedi sees things differently:

It is important to understand that the present-day mood of illiberalism is not underpinned by a self-conscious political project. The current issues raised on campuses tend to be not political but prepolitical, and they often refer to conditions that are psychological.1

One objection, at least, springs immediately to mind: What of the flurry of 2016 protests tied in with Black Lives Matter on American campuses? Furedi, who excels at parsing activist rhetoric and administrative gobbledygook, sees even these seemingly political contests as framed in the language of psychological trauma. Concluding his discussion of the infamous 2015 Yale Halloween costumes fiasco, which involved students screaming abuse at professors for suggesting that “hurtful” Halloween costumes do not really pose an existential threat, Furedi writes, “Campus protests that were once promoted through a political and social vocabulary are often justified through drawing attention to harms in therapeutic terms....The Black Lives Matter movement offers a paradigm of the integration of the therapeutic into the outlook of antiracism” (41–42).

The same risk-aversion that has infused general society has achieved fetish status on many campuses—and the definition of what constitutes an actual risk has itself been hyper-inflated. Administrators and student life staff enmesh themselves in a feedback loop of activities and statements that ostensibly seek to comfort students but actually end up fostering more demands for consolation and reassurance. The language of therapy is everywhere present; that of stoicism, everywhere absent. Psychological harms and dangers are given the deepest consideration; the development of actual psychological strength may interest the individual student therapist in consultations (I say may—let us hope), but seems to interest few of those who create institutional policy and offer up public pronouncements. Furedi reports that the National Union of Students in the UK, a confederation of over six hundred student unions, “has enthusiastically embraced the role of risk-management consultancy.” What is meant here by risk management? A publication providing “student activists helpful advice on how to protect their campus from the harm caused by the words of controversial speakers” (37).

This combination of factors—favoring the emotional, valorizing the subjective, encouraging risk-averse students and overly cautious institutions—goes far in explaining the illiberal ethos that so frequently erupts, and, when dormant, still holds a quiet institutional grip. Allegations are treated as facts, the accused are assumed to be guilty until they can prove themselves innocent. In the U.S. this mind shift has created a shift in actual practices, most visibly and distressingly in the growing number of kangaroo court episodes generated by the 2011 Department of Education directives regarding adjudication of alleged student sexual assault cases.

As the title of her book indicates, Claire Fox catalogues the sensitive generation’s demands not to be confronted with inconvenient facts or differences of opinion. Saying, “That’s offensive,” when confronted with an alternative point of view amounts to saying, “Shut up”—with the added bonus that the offended party assumes the moral high ground without having to do any actual intellectual climbing. Fox is adept at classifying the factors that have gone into creating the campus “snowflakes” f this generation, and she begins by blaming her own age group for nurturing the strange mix of hypersensitive fragility and overbearing sense of entitlement that emerges in so many campus stories—what some have called the “crybully” phenomenon. In short, this generation has been “socialised into safe spaces.” 2

Fox joins other commentators who have noted that safety “is now redefined in...existential terms....Formal safe-space policies often promise a judgement-free environment, guaranteed by excluding views that challenge a pre-given consensus” (63). This notion of safety confounds even many of those who work on campuses. For members of the general public who seldom think about campus life, this use of the word “safety” is literally incomprehensible. What can it mean when well-dressed, well-fed students attending the most expensive, most privileged, and most progressive institutions in the nation—enrolling and then returning year on year of their own free will—say that they feel unsafe? What can it mean when the son of a multimillionaire family states that he has felt unsafe on campus for years? 3 If he really felt unsafe, wouldn’t he have left the university long ago, or at the least sought police protection?

Just as existential problems have steadily been recast into medical categories, so have students sought out official sanction and bureaucratic action in the face of words, ideas, and events that displease them. As University of Pennsylvania history of education professor Jonathan Zimmerman has noted elsewhere, “In the Port Huron Statement, the now-classic 1962 college protest manifesto, students resolved to ‘wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy.’ Today they typically demand more layers of administration, which they invest with ever greater powers of bureaucratic control.” 4

Fox joins Furedi in examining the risk-averse culture, which she identifies as “health and safety madness” (67). She speaks of a generation trained to “catastrophis[e] life’s challenges,” overlapping here with the observations of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their widely read September 2015 Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” 5 Fox notes that children aren’t born with this frightened mindset or with the proclivity to hyperbolize and hyper-focus on imagining the worst possible outcome. They pick it up from their parents, the media, and school. Fox is particularly good in exemplifying the ways that schools, agencies, and even children’s charities have gone about “blurring the line between physical and psychological harm” (87). The “anti-bullying bandwagon,” for example, has both broadened the definitions of abuse and amplified the likely effects of victimization (91). Fox writes that “we have socialised children and young adults to think of themselves as weak and fragile, reared them to believe that name-calling can lead to mental illness, that without therapy they won’t be able to deal with independence, criticism or exams” (105). The formula is in place: when such learned helplessness collides on campus with statements that challenge the orthodoxies of politicized identity fed to students during their K–12 years, there is only outrage. They have learned no healthy, mature strategies of response.

Thus the cry in crybully has been explained. But whence comes the bully? How have these self-styled victims also arrogated unto themselves a sense of entitlement and moral authority? San Diego State University psychology professor and author Jean M. Twenge, cited by Fox, has described the growth of adolescent narcissism, the lowered expectations for emerging adulthood, and the consequent expansion of the transition years.6 The self-esteem movement, the focus on student-centered desires, the advocacy of “student agency” and “student voice,” the trophies-for-everybody ethos—all of these have been insisted upon by schools and increasingly talked up by parents. Fox finds that schools have imparted the lesson that the curriculum is valuable only insofar as it holds up a mirror for students to look into: “Educating the young traditionally allowed new generations to join in the Great Conversation of civilisation by furnishing access to the works and insights of previous generations....Today it seems we only want to facilitate a conversation in which the young talk to themselves, about themselves” (142). While Furedi’s book seems aimed primarily at an academic audience, Fox’s book is written as a crossover polemic.7 The next time your neighbor asks you, “Is it really true that college students think…” or “Do college students actually expect…” or “How can college students demand...?” you can hand him “I Find That Offensive!” and say, “Read this. You don’t know the half of it.”

But the half of it isn’t the whole picture. There remains a large group of students who have no interest in claiming trauma and victimhood as the means to getting what they want. There is a significant group who can’t believe the nonsense that goes on. Add to this the group of benumbed or indifferent students who just want to put their heads down and get on with their studies. All the while, the angry moral entrepreneurs grab the headlines and win concessions from path-of-least-resistance campus authorities.8 We should remind ourselves of how quickly today’s patently absurd request turns into tomorrow’s accepted norm, and just as quickly becomes required code or law. It has been little more than twenty years since Antioch College was the butt of jokes—including a mocking skit on Saturday Night Live, locus classicus of pop culture leftism—for enacting an affirmative-consent code of sexual conduct. Now at least 1500 institutions and two state systems (California and New York) have mandated these very codes.9

Fox ends with a letter to “Generation Snowflake,” whom she calls out for fancying itself rebellious while actually “acting as patsies for the establishment,” by which she means the multiculturalist bureaucratic and political class that sets the agenda for educational institutions (149). These form the cadre of university authorities too “cowardly” to govern “an academy that is rotting from within” (159). The letter is meant not only as a wake-up call to the snowflakes but also as a buck-up call to the “anti-snowflakes,” who the author recognizes still comprise a significant percentage of the student body (a silent majority?). It is an interesting rhetorical exercise, and one would like to see student reaction to it. Surely, the second group is the more reachable.

Furedi refers to “the weaponisation of emotions,” a phrase implying that, after all, there is often a political agenda or power grab behind students’ cries of pain and traumatization. The articles in Unsafe Space, edited by spiked deputy editor Tom Slater, tend to bridge the gap between the outgrowths of therapy culture and political activism. In his introduction to the volume, Slater acknowledges that campus censorship has indeed come to be seen as “a necessary part of protecting thin-skinned students from the harm of words themselves.”10 Nonetheless, the articles proceed to engage with the political agenda behind the silencing, suppression, and no-platforming that occur with regularity.

In “The ‘New’ Feminism and the Fear of Free Speech,” for example, Nancy McDermott, an independent researcher and affiliate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, analyzes prominent feminist causes célèbres in light of third-wave feminism’s unpopularity with the general public. Women’s studies-style feminism has been largely ignored outside the “pockets in academia, NGOs and non-profits,” where it is entrenched and in turn embraced by “officialdom” (30–31). Feminist cultivation of grievance remains a tactic for hanging on to institutional power, but, McDermott writes, this tactic “comes at the price of creating a generation of adults too emotionally fragile the challenge of running a complex society” (31).

In “Teaching Students to Censor,” spiked education editor Joanna Williams reminds the reader that the shift toward postmodernism was useful for academic feminists already operating under the slogan “the personal is political” (51). “A politicised and feminist approach to academic work,” she writes, “grounded in a social constructionist assumption of gender as performative rather than biological, sat comfortably alongside a postmodernism that assumed [that] discourse constructs not just perceptions of reality, but often reality itself” (52). Here Williams describes a key sophistic move that allowed political activism to replace disinterested inquiry as the goal of many professors, and, in some instances, of whole departments and disciplines. This activism has in turn instilled the “orthodoxy whereby some topics are placed beyond challenge” (55).

Peter Wood tackles a different orthodoxy in “A Climate of Censorship: Eco-Orthodoxy on Campus.” Using the 2015 Bjørn Lomborg debacle at the University of Western Australia as an initial case study, Wood describes a world in which the expression of doubt or skepticism concerning details or emphases is willfully equated to climate change denialism. Lomborg has long been on record as agreeing that global warming is occurring and that manmade activities figure heavily in its genesis. He departs from the prevailing academic thought pattern, however, in two ways: (1) he is skeptical that warming is happening as quickly as its proponents claim and has expressed doubts that climate scientists can predict the various disasters that they have laid before the public with the accuracy that they claim; and (2) he argues that it is unwise to spend enormous sums on schemes that will slow global warming only slightly.

Lomborg would prefer to spend the money on any number of serious here-and-now problems that confront the human race. Citing the eco-orthodoxy’s “fanaticism of the apocalypse,” Wood finds that their “combination of dread and anticipation provides the rationale for shutting dissenters out of public discussion” (100). Rhetorical force overwhelms scientific give-and-take; thus, skeptics are labeled “deniers” and deniers become heretics. In the case of Lomborg, the University of Western Australia bowed to eco-activists’ pressure and returned $4 million to the government rather than hire him to work at a “consensus centre” for which the money had been earmarked.11

Other Unsafe Space pieces include: “From No Platform to Safe Space: A Crisis of Enlightenment” (Brendan O’Neill), “Re-Educating Men: The War on Lads and Frats” (Slater), “Trigger Warnings: A Gun to the Head of Academia” (Greg Lukianoff), “BDS: Demonizing Israel, Destroying Free Speech” (Sean Collins), “Debating Abortion on Campus: Let Both the Pro and Anti Sides Speak” (Jon O’Brien), “Terrorism and Free Speech: An Unholy Alliance of State and Students” (Slater), and “Academic Freedom: The Threat from Within” (Furedi). One sees a more direct treatment of political dimensions in these titles, and there is obviously a shared concern over the loss of academic freedom and the suppression of free speech. It ought to be noted that many of the contributors write regularly for the British website spiked, “Britain’s first online-only current-affairs” magazine, which has devoted considerable energy to defending free speech.12

That sort of energy has been in short supply from those responsible for running our institutions of higher learning. While here and there administrations have taken a stand, more often they have caved and kowtowed. The high-profile, headline-grabbing insurrections and open flouting of rules and conventions of decorum are surely demoralizing for faculty and students who are not on board with the progressive agenda. These incidents also undermine the already shaky confidence of that segment of the general public that has not bought into the various trends they see emerging in colleges and universities. While these voices are seldom heard in the media, they actually remain large in number. Any reflexive anti-intellectual streak ought not to receive encouragement, of course, nor should campus authorities cave in to pressure from ill-iformed populists any more than they should to crybullies. But it becomes harder and harder not to sympathize with that part of the tax-paying, tuition-paying public whose patience with campus politics is growing thin. Each of the authors here has encouraged those of us in charge and those of us who teach to take a stand in defense of academic freedom and against illiberal bullying and political coercion.

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