Campus thought police

Hate crimes have received a bit of press lately, with the news supernova over Trayvon Martin as well as the recent conviction of Dharun Ravi in the Tyler Clementi case.  Much ink has been spilled on these things already.  I will spare you but to say that hoodies are not a good symbol to rally around, and that Mr. Ravi’s disproportionately harsh sentence tells us just how powerful the politically-driven liberal witch hunt for bullies is.

Now only occasionally do hate and intolerance receive as much attention in the public square as they do on university campuses.  The past couple of years there has been great hand-wringing across the University of California system.  President Yudof issued this open letter in March.  The academic establishment typically shies away from moral and absolutist language, but its use in this letter betrays the community’s critical-thinking blind spot.  In response to one act of vandalism, the UC President sounds more like a back-bending diplomat when he applauds the “rapid and vigorous condemnation of this cowardly act.”  This kind of language is reserved for when some ultra-important party has been ticked off and must be mollified.

That party is a large one, animated in its adherence to the orthodoxy of victimhood.  It is driven by the oppressor-oppressed paradigm, and it continuously demands urgent, corrective action.  As a modern day Sisyphus, the university president or chancellor must repeatedly expend campus time and resources condemning every little act of vandalism and thoughtless transgression.  Furthermore, their chains require them to assure that such crimes will be expunged completely from the grounds of the academy.  But there will always be insensitive yokels ready to wreak havoc, if for no other reason than to elicit a response from the ultra-sensitive communities on campus.

A couple of news items from last fall help us see a fuller picture of the campus orthodoxy that dictates these responses.  After a student column on some regrettable phenomenon called “jungle fever,” The California Aggie editorial board informed its readership that its staff were to undergo “diversity training.”  This prescription can’t help but remind me of Communist-era reeducation camps.  And after some abortion opponents surreptitiously distributed the “180” video on campus, the campus Women’s Resource Center not only condemned the act but felt compelled to offer support to “students identifying as Jewish, Queer, People of Color, Women, Transgender, Romani, and folks with disabilities” who were offended or else menaced by a sense of “erasure.”

There are limits to sensitivity on campus and in the public square.  Authority figures always take it upon themselves to reassure the public through their actions, but these grandiose declarations end up diminishing the sense of agency and empowerment that ought to be cultivated in the individuals of the community.  There is too much coddling of victims and not enough sense of perspective.  If we are to preserve the academy as an arena of critical thought, and if it is to deliver us well-rounded, capable citizens for society, we must shake off the unhealthy campus obsession over hate and intolerance.

Bootstraps versus Knapsacks

The California state budget fiasco has afforded me some free time recently, so I’ve been doing some spring cleaning.  Among the relics I unearthed from recent months were the collected handouts for a class  on race taught at my church last year.  It was a sad reminder that leftist agitprop had infiltrated the Sunday classroom.  I mean no disrespect for those who earnestly pursue God’s will in matters of race and justice.  Yet,  the ideas propagated in those papers and discussions contribute to an unhealthy, counterproductive worldview.

One particularly troubling area of the race curriculum is its prescribed journey from bootstraps to knapsacks.  Since I first encountered these two concepts in the same context, they have always seemed at odds.  Bootstraps and knapsacks are mutually exclusive; people tend to love one and hate the other.  In one corner is the classic “up by the bootstraps” idea that hard work begets success in America.  As an alternative, progressives offer the red pill notion that any comfort, success, and prosperity are owed instead to an “invisible knapsack of privilege.”  No, you can’t make this stuff up.  The  idea originated in the 1980s with feminist Peggy McIntosh.  Now if you take success and prosperity to be synonymous with  being white, you have the original gist of the knapsack.

McIntosh’s personal revelations notwithstanding, I find the knapsack lacks effective explanatory power from where I stand as a mixed race, conservative man in a tremendously free and prosperous society.  I find it more relevant to look at success in America as a general whole rather than assume that success is the exclusive reserve of some monolithic group called  “whites.”  Yet knapsack proponents are eager to showcase McIntosh’s writing as a contrast to bootstraps in the hope of inducing an aha! moment that race is integrally relevant to American success.  Any serious-minded person who encounters these two tangling visions must decide which one will ultimately color (no pun intended) their own life at the everyday level.

In their existential tendencies, knapsack and bootstraps could not be more divergent.  In spite of its good intentions, knapsack supplants bootstraps’ twin senses of gratitude and agency with a new malaise of victimhood and guilt.  In doing away with bootstraps, knapsack denies us the ability to thank our parents, ancestors, and even our Creator for their respective roles in contributing to our current comfort and success.  From its secular Leftist roots, knapsack can only give us an impersonal, monolithic explanation that oppression is the true father of our prosperity.  Its as depressing as when Luke Skywalker discovers that Darth Vader is his dad. Progressive Christians mean well when they attempt to carve a path for American repentance, but they damage worldviews when they uphold knapsack and dismiss bootstraps.  American history is marked more by opportunity than by oppression.  But supposing the facts to be in dispute, such an assertion would be better defended in a separate post.  Existentially, bootstraps thinking cultivates an “attitude of gratitude” that in turn nurtures desire for stewardship. This then necessitates individual accountability, and all three of these are integral to Christian living.  Knapsack, however, turns us to navel-gazing and perpetually renewed  calls for dialog that might make good sound bites but do little to effect meaningful change.  Instead of attending ponderous powwows that reinforce progressive dogmas, Christians sincerely pursuing what is right and good should look critically at knapsack thinking and reclaim as their own the virtues of the bootstraps ethic.

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