Reflecting on Campus thought police

In my recent post Campus Thought Police, I suggested that all the attention campuses pay to hate crimes and intolerance ends up diminishing individuals’ sense of agency and empowerment.  Looking at it after the fact, I wondered if I could make the connection more clear.

To clarify on sense of agency: when the community is given no sense of progress, it comes to feel powerless.

The messaging that comes from the campus establishment treats hate and intolerance as if they were perennial, unparalleled mortal dangers.  The constant use of such an urgent tone makes it seem as if the Civil Rights era counted for nothing.

But there has been much progress.  Racism, sexism, and other bad -isms have become stigmas to a culture that is now loathe to harbor stigmas.  Nonetheless, instead of placing us somewhere on the long arc of the moral universe, campus voices convey to us that we are in a Sisyphean task: rolling the boulder ever up the hill with nothing to show for it.  The unending klaxon calling us to battle stations against intolerance eventually convinces us that we are fighting some insurmountable evil.  No reasonable observer can maintain hope if they take the academy’s message at face value.

To clarify on empowerment: activism shunts individuals to the radical margin when they should be integrating with the mainstream.

All the prevalent theories on race, class, gender, and so on shove earnest young souls like cattle onto the divisive boat of oppression politics.  If they stay for the ride, they go on to commit civil disobedience, plan direct actions, and lead generally counterproductive lives.  The dogma that they are in mortal combat with oppressive forces locks them necessarily into solidarity and cooperation.  For the sake of comrades and self, they’re never free to think that oppression may not actually define their existence.

But if their worldview is mistaken, then in all their sound and fury they are missing their true calling.  Instead of uncritically fighting on some far flung front of the war on oppression, students should be preparing to constructively enter a society that is on balance more just than unjust.  They should experience the wonderful challenge of interpersonal competition rather than the dull drumbeat to cooperate with comrades.  The university prides itself as a marketplace of ideas, but if there is any such competition, it hasn’t pierced the Berlin Wall that upholds the politically correct dictums of the academic establishment.

Campus leaders’ actual if unintended conveyance of a lack of progress erodes onlookers’ sense of agency.  The shunting of students into unfruitful radicalism not only bereaves society but dis-empowers the students as well.  The leading voices of the academy need to re-examine the message they’re sending to the world.

Moral equivalence, tolerance, reciprocity

When specifics are at stake, when values are weighed, and when judgments must be passed, it seems American liberals cannot help but default to moral equivalence.

Take for example the post-9/11 semantic struggle for the word “terrorism.”  In an earlier era, terrorism clearly meant something like a plane hijacking or an embassy bombing; it was bad because it forced a government into an odious moral dilemma of either sacrificing innocents or legitimating violence as a means for change.  But with the War on Terror, many opponents were either too angry or wearied by the daily use of the “T” word to maintain the important distinctions of who, how, and why that makes terrorism so bad.  In their new parlance, “terrorist” became an epithet befitting the unrealistic black-and-white view that any exercise of force or the mere holding of power was bad.  Common was the claim that Americans were terrorists because they dropped bombs from planes or their ancestors once sniped British officers from treetops.  This dumbing down of the “T” word culminated in a bumper sticker featuring a quaint photo of four Native Americans with rifles at the ready.  Its caption: “Homeland Security–fighting terrorism since 1492.”  And so in a thumbnail sketch, the whole of our glorious and equitable American civilization was dismissed as no different from a band of murderous Islamo-supremacist thugs.

Not only can moral equivalence single-handedly dismiss a civilization’s rich heritage, its also a cover for those who don’t want to think too hard in comparing religions or considering their respective relation to truth.  In the midst of August’s “Ground Zero mosque” media madness, a telling exchange between Charlie Rose and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria demonstrated a shameful intellectual weakness that pervades mainstream journalism.  To them, the shared evil between Christendom and Islam was not violence or the threat of coercive force, but the idea of proselytization itself;  that is, the desire to share, spread, or submit for discussion that one idea or belief is possibly better than another.  It is anathema to their profession, which upholds objectivity and neutrality.  But in an existential twist, their reports in turn must be colored by a tolerance that is itself intolerant of exclusive truth claims.  All this is surely an overreaction to a past age when fears of patriarchy, conformity, and stigmatization of minorities were major concerns.  But if we can’t get beyond the hang up of stigmatization and the impulse of tolerance that begets moral equivalence, then we have no hope of solving our problems.

Oddly enough, the inability of journalists to admit their true feelings or core motivations gives them something in common with orthodox Islam.  They both are deficient in reciprocity.  While the vested partisans of Christendom have demonstrated a sustained capacity for self-criticism, reflection, dialog, and reform, no one under the sun of political correctness can bear to admit that orthodox Islam today is in want of those things.  When a religion’s unmistakable prescription for apostasy is death, and when a civilization propagates its ideas but cannot reciprocate openness to allow the honest consideration of others, there is a problem.  Any institution or social phenomena, whether it be a religion, a government, or the culture of professional journalism, cannot long survive without shedding illiberal bulwarks against the unfettered exchange of ideas.  Totalitarian states make no qualms about shutting up debate, but when American liberals run up against the hard facts of life, they all too often dull distinctions by means of moral equivalence.

To be sure, all individuals must be respected and judged on their own merits, not on their cultural background.  And while religions and cultural norms should be given due diligence, it does not hold that in the end they are all the same.

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