For someone who reads this site regularly, Frank Bruni’s arguments in Saturday’s New York Times op-ed, “The dangerous safety of college“, won’t be new. But perhaps you should read the short piece anyway, if for no other reason than to show that some liberal and mainstream columnists (Bruni is openly gay as well) are recognizing that American colleges need fewer student “demands”, less shouting, and more engagement with ideas.
Bruni’s subject is Charles Murray’s “incendiary” talk at Middlebury College in Vermont on March 2. As you surely know, Murray was forced off stage by vocal protesters and then had to livestream his talk from an empty room. He and his host were then attacked by a mob while leaving the venue. He was accused of being a racist because of his old book The Bell Curve, but apparently he didn’t even talk about that. But it was too late: the Regressive Left damns you forever for ideological impurities of the past. One misstep, and nobody need pay you any heed for the rest of your life, no matter what you say. You’re put in the idelogical gulag.
Bruni, like many of us, is fearful of this type of censorship, in which arguments are shut down by yelling and demonstrating rather than counterargument. His words:
Protests aren’t the problem, not in and of themselves. They’re vital, and so is work to end racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotry. But much of the policing of imperfect language, silencing of dissent and shaming of dissenters runs counter to that goal, alienating the very onlookers who need illumination.
It’s an approach less practical than passionate, less strategic than cathartic, and partly for that reason, both McWhorter and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt have likened it to a religion.
“When something becomes a religion, we don’t choose the actions that are most likely to solve the problem,” said Haidt, the author of the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind” and a professor at New York University. “We do the things that are the most ritually satisfying.”
He added that what he saw in footage of the confrontation at Middlebury “was a modern-day auto-da-fé: the celebration of a religious rite by burning the blasphemer.”
The protesters didn’t use Murray’s presence as an occasion to hone the most eloquent, irrefutable retort to him. They swarmed and swore.
McWhorter recalled that back when “The Bell Curve” was published, there was disagreement about whether journalists should give it currency by paying it heed. But he said that it was because they engaged the material in detail, rather than just branding it sacrilegious, that he learned enough to conclude on his own that its assertions were wrong — and why.
As Bruni points out, some relevant remarks were made by Van Jones, an activist, Leftist, and fighter for social justice, when spoke last week at my own university, decrying the Snowflake Generation. Here’s a short video of Jones’s take on “safe spaces” delivered at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP; David Axelrod was the moderator and the other guest was conservative commenter S. E. Cupp). Note that the Institute was the site of student protests (and attempted censorship) a few weeks ago when Corey Lewandowski (once Trump’s campaign manager) spoke. The IOP is, however, nonpartisan. And Van Jones’s “social justice” credibility, as a man who really does something, is unimpeachable:
There are two ideas about safe spaces: One is a very good idea and one is a terrible idea. The idea of being physically safe on a campus—not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse, or being targeted specifically, personally, for some kind of hate speech—“you are an n-word,” or whatever—I am perfectly fine with that.
But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else including the administration.”
I think that is a terrible idea for the following reason: I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different.
I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym. You can’t live on a campus where people say stuff you don’t like?! And these people can’t fire you, they can’t arrest you, they can’t beat you up, they can just say stuff you don’t like- and you get to say stuff back- and this you cannot bear?! [audience applause]
This is ridiculous BS liberals! My parents, and Monica Elizabeth Peak’s parents [points to someone in the audience and greets her] were marched, they dealt with fire hoses! They dealt with dogs! They dealt with beatings! You can’t deal with a mean tweet?! You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous. I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you in these communities. [applause]
At the end of his piece, Bruni quotes Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, to the effect that the Safety Bubble is damaging to students, ensuring that they won’t be prepared for “constructive engagement in a society that won’t echo their convictions the way their campuses do.” But I worry about more, for the graduates of elite private universities will become the power-mongers of the next generation, and may impose these same values on the rest of us: censorship, cries to suppress “hate speech”, and politics based on identity rather than ideas. I don’t think that’s so far fetched.