This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on August 22, 2017.
As the campus culture wars grind on, two new groups have emerged—the hypersensitive and the guilty. Anticipating the first of these, I argued here that, under the tutelage of the campus PC/SJW crowd, sensitivity has been “weaponized.” Much of the media criticism of campus censorship suggests that it culminates in the creation of “little snowflakes,” that is, weak, timid individuals. That’s not wrong, but it misses the whole picture. Although some of the PC/SJW-indoctrinated students will doubtless come to embody timidity, their turning to violence—as we have seen on a number of campuses—is just as likely a result. Further, and most important, it is those against whom left-wing hypersensitivity is aimed who will truly become snowflakes. They will and are intended to grow powerless through “historical guilt.”
Regarding the violence-spawning effects of hypersensitivity, I looked to Roy Baumeister’s Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence, which finds that “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.”
Does any of this ring a bell? If not, consider the recent claim that it’s morally acceptable to “punch Nazis and white male libertarians.” Aside from its uninformed equation of Nazism with libertarianism, this is not a cry from, or for, “little snowflakes.” It is a call to battle. If you doubt this, ask Alison Stanger, the liberal professor who invited AEI’s Charles Murray to speak at Middlebury College. For her classically liberal openness to competing arguments, the mob swarmed her, injuring her to the extent that she had to be taken to the Emergency Room, from which she emerged with a neck brace.
Does this sound like the actions of timid “little snowflakes” to you?
If what you want is a display of campus timidity—one bordering on outright slavishness—view this video taken at Evergreen State College, in which its president is harassed by the protesters into keeping his hands down at his side while he addresses them. As I wrote here, at the end of May, Evergreen was forced to shut down for two days after a series of campus protests and disruptions, which included threatening Biology professor Bret Weinstein, whose only sin was to insist on fulfilling his obligation to teach his students.
At roughly the 6:00-minute point in the seven-minute video, you’ll find the students forcing President Bridges into what can only be described as a guilt-constructed straitjacket. The poor man complies, holding his arms stiffly at his side, to avoid “giving offense.”
If you wonder about the enervating effects of guilt, hold your hands at your sides while you try to compete in a contentious debate. Feel powerless? Demoralized? You’re supposed to. These are the new rules of engagement on campus (and, increasingly, in the public square): Not only must you never deign to express yourself though using your hands when you speak, you must also keep your eyes down, lest your looking be construed as leering. Not only what or whom you look at, but also, how you look and when you look could get a student or teacher censured, or worse.
In sum, campus defenders of free speech and debate must now self-censor what they say, how they say it, whom they say it to, and whether they use their hands in saying it. Does this sound like a culture conducive to teaching and learning difficult and sometimes-controversial subjects?
If our universities still required students to study Shakespeare, they might learn from the example of Lady Macbeth the shattering effects of guilt on the human soul. Because students no longer are made to study the Bard, let us consider instead the findings of modern medical studies: According to research reported on WebMd.com, guilt “contributes to cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders. It can even have a negative impact on the immune system over time." Guilt also has been shown to “contribute significantly to depression, as it very often involves a negative view of self, and to anxiety."
Viewing President Bridge’s doomed efforts to engage in a reasonable discussion with the protesters, one fears that the unfortunate man will suffer some or all of the above maladies as a result. Here’s hoping that he recovers. But the more pressing question is whether our campuses and, with them, our society, will recover, or whether the rage of the hypersensitive will vanquish those anxious creatures whose depression stems from accepting their professors’ teaching that they ought to feel guilty.
I have no certain answer to this question. On the side of optimism, some point to the fact that, of late, there has been serious pushback against our campuses’ institutionalized indoctrination. To give just the most recent example, North Carolina passed the “Restore Campus Free Speech Act” last month, “the first comprehensive campus free-speech legislation based on the Goldwater proposal.” The model language for the bill was coauthored by Stanley Kurtz, Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher. The Goldwater Institute proposal is, Kurtz writes, “under consideration in several states.”
On the side of pessimism, the PC/SJW perpetrators of campus intolerance and misology cannot be anticipated to go gentle into that good night. Nor would we, if we felt compelled, as they do, by a profound moral duty to expose and rectify what they deem to be capitalism’s architectonic role in promoting racism, sexism, and the like. In liberating their students from “false consciousness,” they believe themselves to be on the side of the angels, by which they justify exorcising the un-PC demons on campus.
One thing, at the least, appears clear: The battle between the hypersensitive and the guilty will determine free speech’s fate on campus, which, in turn, will determine its fate in the state and national legislatures, courts, and society at large.