This article originally appeared in Minding the Campus on October 26, 2017.
From kneeling football players to campus shout-downs to professors and a president Tweeting out malignancies, America now has a new problem.
Taken out of its Christian context, to witness is to make an emphatic assertion to someone else who doesn’t share your view that your view is right. That assertion, moreover, doesn’t aim to persuade by reasoning, logic, or evidence, or even by quiet confidence. It is, rather, an assertion of will that draws on a sense of external power.
The shouters-down of Charles Murray or Heather Mac Donald were, for sure, invoking a different external power that might best be called “Social Justice.” To them, Social Justice authorizes shout-downs, mob actions, and beatings as acts of piety that display “not the wisdom of men” but the power of the movement.
Will to Power
I introduce this idea as a new way to think about the breakdown in free expression in our society. We usually talk about that breakdown as a crisis of free speech: a matter of Constitutional rights and the sudden loss of respect for letting the other guy have his say. That’s true as far as it goes. Both ordinary civility and the special decorum we used to expect in public events have taken some hard knocks.
But every violation of free speech and every departure from civility is also an expression of a kind of piety. Superficially these outbursts are expressions of animus against “fascists,” “white supremacists,” and the like.
Those labels are so misapplied as to be nothing more than incantations in which a revulsive name is fixed on a designated target. “Hey hey, ho ho, Charles Murray has got to go,” has no substance except as witness. By repeating it in unison, a crowd expresses its will-to-power.
The Rudeness of the Right
On college campuses, the rudeness has appeared mostly among members of the progressive left who have lately adopted tactics such as shouting down speakersthey don’t like, invading classrooms, and barging uninvited into private meetings. But rudeness is bipartisan. And to make the phenomenon of political witnessing clear, it helps to consider examples of conservatives doing it. For example, populist supporters of President Trump recently attempted to shout down a talk by the California Attorney General, a Democrat, at Whittier College.
The “You lie!” moment of nearly a decade ago stands as the outburst that defined the American political right’s temptation with rowdiness. “You lie!” is what Joe Wilson (R—SC) yelled out during a September 9, 2009, address by President Obama to a joint session of Congress. Wilson, as it happened, apologized and was rebuked by the House, but he left a benchmark. Such things aren’t forgotten. As recently as April 2017, Wilson was assailed by angry Democrats at a town hall in his home state, chanting in derision, “You Lie.”
Wilson’s outburst, which came during the early days of the Tea Party movement, pointed in a confrontational direction that, as it happened, the Tea Party movement did not take. Rowdiness, rudeness, and confrontation proved alien to the spirit of those protesters. But their suppression by the IRS and other instruments of President Obama’s government boomeranged. The campaign rallies for Donald Trump were much more boisterous and the rhetoric more bloody-minded. “You lie!” seems tame in comparison to what followed.
The Weirdness of the Left
The rudeness of the right has become an object of contemplation for many on the left. Contemplation at least for some intellectual doyens. More often voices of protest on the right are simply denounced as racist, white supremacist, or neo-Nazi, or attributed to the crudity of “populism.” But it is important to pay attention to liberal and leftist thinkers when they try to go beyond this.
Bill Moyers, a reliable register of orthodox progressive opinion, has just published a conversation with Joan Scott, a historian and gender theorist, and professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump,” Moyers and Scott see the problem entirely through the lens of “attacks on the Academy” from right-wing conservatives, a group outnumbered in the Northeast by 28 to 1, where presidents, policies, and primetime television news comes from. In Scott’s view, these conservatives are in the grips of an anti-intellectual “bloodlust.” It is aimed at “supposed tenured ‘radicals’” and is meant to undermine “free thought” and “critical thinking.”
Scott occasionally argues points that are important and valid. Like her, I have long argued that free speech and academic freedom are profoundly different. Scott quotes Stanley Fish:
“Freedom of speech is not an academic value. Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value. Each of these is directly related to the goal of academic inquiry: getting a matter of fact right.”
Fish’s term, “accuracy of speech,” is his work-around for the straightforward word “truth.” Fish is a kind of post-modernist (he says “pragmatist’) who rejects the concept of truth, but we can meet him (and Scott) on the close-by summit of “accuracy.”
The Saga of Mattress Girl
The shout-downs, speech codes, bullying of conservative students, efforts to intimidate faculty members who defy the edicts of political correctness, are all breakdowns in civility. The governing principles of intellectual exchange collapse as the rancor rises. But these events are also eruptions of ego. They display a particular kind of self-assertion that merges the individual into a collective will. This isn’t always immediately apparent. Mattress Girl, Emma Sulkowicz, lugging her mattress around the Columbia University campus for a year to protest how the university handled her rape accusation against a fellow student would seem outwardly to be engaged in a completely individualized spectacle—and one that didn’t touch the freedom of anyone else’s expressive rights.
But in fact, Mattress Girl’s spectacle depended entirely on the active collaboration of the Columbia University community, which implicitly and often explicitly supported her vilification of the student she accused of rape, Paul Nungesser. The student newspaper and fellow students made Sulkowicz’s campaign into a collaborative enterprise aimed at shaming Nungesser, who in the end was exonerated and who successfully sued the university for its treatment of him.
So, the individual act of witness may look like a personal statement, but it rides like a surfboard on a wave of collective resentment. The many egos of the protesters join in a chorus of derision and deviation from this group will is harshly punished. But as in other romantic movements, behind this collective conformity lurks a great deal of individual torment.
Clouds Above, Rocks Below
Moyers and Scott provide a genteel version of this kind of witness. They write with the assurance that their attacks on conservatives will meet the smiling approval of their in-group because, after all, they are testifying to the validity of a set of beliefs. They do so in a thoughtful, discursive manner that is not intended to outrage anyone or draw special attention to themselves. As someone who is not part of their intended audience, I do find some of their confident assertions false to the point of outrageousness, but my outrage is stilled by the realization that Moyers and Scott are denizens of an imaginary place, a cloud continent, remote from the actual world.
The students, on the other hand, pose a problem that deserves very serious attention. They are doing their part—consciously and deliberately—to destroy a civilization. Ultimately, they won’t succeed. Civilization has resources beyond their understanding. But in the short term, as in a generation or two, they will do a lot of damage.
Reedies Against Racism
Consider Reed College where a slow-motion protest under the name Reedies Against Racism is waging war on the college’s core humanities course, Humanities 110, “Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean.” The students seem to have gained the upper hand in their attack on Reed’s only required freshman course. Classes have been canceled; a day-long boycott was launched; a Black Lives Matter group presented the president of the college with a list of demands, and President John Kroger capitulated to many of them. The humanities course in question has been a cornerstone of a Reed education since 1943 and is the successor to a requirement that goes back to the college’s founding in 1908. The problem, in the eyes of Reedies Against Racism, is that a course on Ancient Greece is by definition a course on Western civilization. It is thus ethnocentric and “racist.”
I don’t know whether the course at Reed will survive, but the will to oppose the protesters seems weak. The Reed alumni magazine quoted one of the student critics:
Hum 110 should include a history of the Western canon as racist and anti-black; Hum 110 lecturers should restructure delivery and analysis of content, in an understanding that the texts are not familiar with everyone and their backgrounds. Or made non-mandatory given options of other Hum courses with books outside of the Western canon.
Options for “compromise” like this amount to an evisceration of the course in favor of contemporary identity politics and grievance theatre. The alumni magazine, however, frames the debate entirely according to the protesters’ premises:
The protest has ignited a respectful but passionate campus debate over the scope and structure of the course and whether it represents a vision of intellectual life in which all students feel included. At a deeper level, the debate is about race, power, culture, and the nature of education itself.
The debate is really about whether Reed students will learn something about the deep history of western civilization or instead be immersed in something else.
Reed College, of course, has a well-earned reputation for its leftist leanings. Remarkably, Humanities 110 survived the general purge of Western Civilization courses in American higher education. A few years ago, the National Association of Scholars published a study, The Vanishing West, which tracked the dismantling of this course at elite colleges and universities from 1963 to 2010. At the beginning of that range, a two-semester Western Civilization requirement was almost universally required, and it provided the backbone of general education. By 2010, they were all gone, except for fragments here and there.
The Reedies Against Racism movement is about ending a very old legacy—not the legacy of racism, but the legacy of learning how Western civilization invented itself. When I say the iconoclastic movement on campus today will do a lot of damage, this is the damage I expect: loss of historical depth, subordination of knowledge of the past to the political preoccupations of the present; and the ever-inflating assertions of group grievance and grievance-based personal identity. Who has the courage to tell the Reedies Against Racism that their complaint is trivial and that they should get over themselves? I suspect it won’t be President Kroger.
Saying Rude Things
Students protesting to prevent Charles Murray from speaking, or Heather Mac Donald, do plenty of damage. But students organizing to silence Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides may well be the greater threat. Their efforts, extending back to the culture wars of the 1980s, have already stripped American higher education of much of its coherence as well as its ability to teach students about the hard-won nature of our freedom. That ignorance is part of what licenses today’s eruptions of protest against “privilege,” racism, and the like. The targets of the protest are not wholly imaginary, but they are wrongly imagined. The protesters often say they are fighting “structures of oppression” when they are really witnessing against their own exile and confusion.
Attempts to silence speakers or forestall speech are the most conspicuous part of the crisis in free speech, but they are not the heart of the matter. Every effort to talk over someone else (“You lie!”) is also an effort to say something in its own right. It is the saying of rude, outrageous, and provocative things that is the essence of the crisis.
As a culture, we are accustoming ourselves to interruption. We’ve invented justifications for this: an ethic of interruption. The interruptions are more than just shouting down or talking over. They are also the interruptions of civility and thought that could be achieved all on one’s own with a Tweet or some act of solitary protest. The intention in such cases is to interrupt and arrest the flow of things. To demand attention to oneself by means of peculiar pronouncements is part of the new cultural warfare.