This commentary originally appeared on Forbes on December 27, 2016.
With the rise across America of campus protests, commencement speaker dis-invitations, “safe spaces,” “micro-aggressions,” and deprivations of free speech generally, the public is beginning to learn just how intolerant a growing number of colleges and universities have become. The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently issued its latest national study, titled, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2017: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses. It finds that 39.6 percent of the 449 colleges and universities it analyzed “maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.” (As alarming as this statistic is, censorship on campus has become so bad that this latest percentage of 39.6 actually represents an improvement over the recent past.)
However, the public has yet to glean the psychological connection between the hypersensitivity studiously cultivated on campus and the inclination to commit violent acts. This point has been largely missed in the ongoing debate over whether many of the campus protesters come to college already hypersensitive or are made that way by faculty and administrators. An example of this debate is Judith Shulevitz’s “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” which was responded to by Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s “Don't Blame Students for Being Hypersensitive. Blame Colleges.”
Both Shulevitz and Bovy are largely right. American culture already makes K-12 students hypersensitive (think of how a young person accustomed to receiving “participation trophies” is likely to react later in life when finally confronted with struggle and failure). But, once in college, the effect of safe spaces, censorship, etc., promises only to exacerbate any preexisting hypersensitivity. As Clay Routledge observes, “More and more colleges are creating “bias response teams” that students can contact if they feel they have been victimized by micro-aggressions. There is an increasing demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect students not from physical danger, but from ideas, course material, and viewpoints they may find offensive.”
In sum, think of these colleges and universities as finishing schools for those bent on spending their lives competing in the Sensitivity Sweepstakes.
However, much of the commentary on campus censorship suggests that the only, or worst, effect of the new “therapeutic” education is the production of “little snowflakes,” that is, weak individuals.
What has been missed is the role hypersensitivity can play as a cause of violence. This nexus is one of the themes of Roy Baumeister’s Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence. He identifies a number of individual psychological factors on whose basis it is possible to “begin to predict who is likely to be dangerous or violent . . . Hypersensitive people, who often think their pride is being assaulted, are potentially dangerous.” He goes on to explain how “hypersensitivity to insults also makes it possible to understand what might otherwise appear to be senseless violence. . . . Many violent people believe that their actions were justified by the offensive acts of the person who became their victim.”
The hypersensitive person can become so irrational that subjectivity becomes all: “Even when a neutral observer would conclude that no serious provocation had occurred, it is still important to recognize that, in the perpetrator’s own view, he or she was merely responding to an attack.”
From this it is not difficult to see how what is taught at a growing number of our universities can turn sensitivity into hypersensitivity. After all, these schools defend their creation of safe spaces and their prohibition on free speech on the grounds that “oppressed groups” face “institutional discrimination.” As one sociology professor states it, “Institutional Discrimination is the unequal distribution of rights or opportunities to individuals or social groups that results from the normal operations of society . . . Institutional discrimination is not the result of some bigot using his or her power to hurt minority groups. These are disparities that are created by people who are doing what they are supposed to. From this vantage point it’s easy to see how people could be totally oblivious to the fact that they are creating inequities.”
This professor, like all academic Social Justice Warriors, sees the job of the teacher to consist in laying bare the injustices perpetrated against oppressed minorities. This is not a far stretch from—indeed, it arises out of—the project called “consciousness raising,” the Marx-inspired term for liberating the oppressed from the “false consciousness” that blinds them to the reality of their (capitalist) oppression. Once consciousness has been raised, the oppressed can more successfully wage the class struggle that Marx deems to have driven all history: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” writes Marx in the opening sentence of his Communist Manifesto.
In this light, the ideological agenda driving the rise of hypersensitivity on campus becomes clearer. It also becomes more frightening, given the demonstrated connection between hypersensitivity and violence.
And the new education on campus is having its intended effect: Today’s Social Justice Warriors are largely Marx’s heirs, with universities cranking out more yearly. A new study finds that “millennials are most likely to view socialism and communism favorably.” Whereas 54 per cent of baby boomers and 71 per cent of mature adults hold a positive view of capitalism, only 42 percent of millennials are favorably disposed toward it. We see from this study that, with each new generation, hypersensitivity to capitalism’s perceived injustices grows.
Thus, the deepest effect of the Left’s success at transforming teaching and learning into consciousness raising and hypersensitivity is missed if we dismiss it as merely in the service of graduating a fresh batch of “little snowflakes” every May. Its full project, instead, is to nourish resentment in order to liberate us from the “old society.”
In sum, sensitivity has been weaponized.