Tag Archives: Columbia University

Disrupting Campus Speakers Is Not Just A Free-Speech Problem

From kneeling football players to campus shout-downs to professors and a president Tweeting out malignancies, America now has a new problem.

Taken out of its Christian context, to witness is to make an emphatic assertion to someone else who doesn’t share your view that your view is right. That assertion, moreover, doesn’t aim to persuade by reasoning, logic, or evidence, or even by quiet confidence. It is, rather, an assertion of will that draws on a sense of external power.

The shouters-down of Charles Murray or Heather Mac Donald were, for sure,  invoking a different external power that might best be called “Social Justice.”  To them, Social Justice authorizes shout-downs, mob actions, and beatings as acts of piety that display “not the wisdom of men” but the power of the movement.

Will to Power

I introduce this idea as a new way to think about the breakdown in free expression in our society. We usually talk about that breakdown as a crisis of free speech: a matter of Constitutional rights and the sudden loss of respect for letting the other guy have his say. That’s true as far as it goes. Both ordinary civility and the special decorum we used to expect in public events have taken some hard knocks.

But every violation of free speech and every departure from civility is also an expression of a kind of piety. Superficially these outbursts are expressions of animus against “fascists,” “white supremacists,” and the like.

Those labels are so misapplied as to be nothing more than incantations in which a revulsive name is fixed on a designated target.  “Hey hey, ho ho, Charles Murray has got to go,” has no substance except as witness. By repeating it in unison, a crowd expresses its will-to-power.

The Rudeness of the Right

On college campuses, the rudeness has appeared mostly among members of the progressive left who have lately adopted tactics such as shouting down speakers they don’t like, invading classrooms, and barging uninvited into private meetings. But rudeness is bipartisan. And to make the phenomenon of political witnessing clear, it helps to consider examples of conservatives doing it. For example, populist supporters of President Trump recently attempted to shout down a talk by the California Attorney General, a Democrat, at Whittier College.

The “You lie!” moment of nearly a decade ago stands as the outburst that defined the American political right’s temptation with rowdiness. “You lie!” is what Joe Wilson (R—SC) yelled out during a September 9, 2009, address by President Obama to a joint session of Congress. Wilson, as it happened, apologized and was rebuked by the House, but he left a benchmark. Such things aren’t forgotten. As recently as April 2017, Wilson was assailed by angry Democrats at a town hall in his home state, chanting in derision, “You Lie.”

Wilson’s outburst, which came during the early days of the Tea Party movement, pointed in a confrontational direction that, as it happened, the Tea Party movement did not take. Rowdiness, rudeness, and confrontation proved alien to the spirit of those protesters. But their suppression by the IRS and other instruments of President Obama’s government boomeranged. The campaign rallies for Donald Trump were much more boisterous and the rhetoric more bloody-minded. “You lie!” seems tame in comparison to what followed.

The Weirdness of the Left

The rudeness of the right has become an object of contemplation for many on the left. Contemplation at least for some intellectual doyens. More often voices of protest on the right are simply denounced as racist, white supremacist, or neo-Nazi, or attributed to the crudity of “populism.” But it is important to pay attention to liberal and leftist thinkers when they try to go beyond this.

Bill Moyers, a reliable register of orthodox progressive opinion, has just published a conversation with Joan Scott, a historian and gender theorist, and professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump,” Moyers and Scott see the problem entirely through the lens of “attacks on the Academy” from right-wing conservatives, a group outnumbered in the Northeast by 28 to 1, where presidents, policies, and primetime television news comes from.  In Scott’s view, these conservatives are in the grips of an anti-intellectual “bloodlust.” It is aimed at “supposed tenured ‘radicals’” and is meant to undermine “free thought” and “critical thinking.”

Scott occasionally argues points that are important and valid. Like her, I have long argued that free speech and academic freedom are profoundly different. Scott quotes Stanley Fish:

“Freedom of speech is not an academic value. Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value. Each of these is directly related to the goal of academic inquiry: getting a matter of fact right.”

Fish’s term, “accuracy of speech,” is his work-around for the straightforward word “truth.” Fish is a kind of post-modernist (he says “pragmatist’) who rejects the concept of truth, but we can meet him (and Scott) on the close-by summit of “accuracy.”

The Saga of Mattress Girl

The shout-downs, speech codes, bullying of conservative students, efforts to intimidate faculty members who defy the edicts of political correctness, are all breakdowns in civility. The governing principles of intellectual exchange collapse as the rancor rises. But these events are also eruptions of ego. They display a particular kind of self-assertion that merges the individual into a collective will. This isn’t always immediately apparent. Mattress Girl, Emma Sulkowicz, lugging her mattress around the Columbia University campus for a year to protest how the university handled her rape accusation against a fellow student would seem outwardly to be engaged in a completely individualized spectacle—and one that didn’t touch the freedom of anyone else’s expressive rights.

But in fact, Mattress Girl’s spectacle depended entirely on the active collaboration of the Columbia University community, which implicitly and often explicitly supported her vilification of the student she accused of rape, Paul Nungesser. The student newspaper and fellow students made Sulkowicz’s campaign into a collaborative enterprise aimed at shaming Nungesser, who in the end was exonerated and who successfully sued the university for its treatment of him.

So, the individual act of witness may look like a personal statement, but it rides like a surfboard on a wave of collective resentment. The many egos of the protesters join in a chorus of derision and deviation from this group will is harshly punished. But as in other romantic movements, behind this collective conformity lurks a great deal of individual torment.

Clouds Above, Rocks Below

Moyers and Scott provide a genteel version of this kind of witness. They write with the assurance that their attacks on conservatives will meet the smiling approval of their in-group because, after all, they are testifying to the validity of a set of beliefs. They do so in a thoughtful, discursive manner that is not intended to outrage anyone or draw special attention to themselves. As someone who is not part of their intended audience, I do find some of their confident assertions false to the point of outrageousness, but my outrage is stilled by the realization that Moyers and Scott are denizens of an imaginary place, a cloud continent, remote from the actual world.

The students, on the other hand, pose a problem that deserves very serious attention. They are doing their part—consciously and deliberately—to destroy a civilization. Ultimately, they won’t succeed. Civilization has resources beyond their understanding. But in the short term, as in a generation or two, they will do a lot of damage.

Reedies Against Racism

Consider Reed College where a slow-motion protest under the name Reedies Against Racism is waging war on the college’s core humanities course, Humanities 110, “Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean.” The students seem to have gained the upper hand in their attack on Reed’s only required freshman course. Classes have been canceled; a day-long boycott was launched; a Black Lives Matter group presented the president of the college with a list of demands, and President John Kroger capitulated to many of them. The humanities course in question has been a cornerstone of a Reed education since 1943 and is the successor to a requirement that goes back to the college’s founding in 1908. The problem, in the eyes of Reedies Against Racism, is that a course on Ancient Greece is by definition a course on Western civilization. It is thus ethnocentric and “racist.”

I don’t know whether the course at Reed will survive, but the will to oppose the protesters seems weak. The Reed alumni magazine quoted one of the student critics:

Hum 110 should include a history of the Western canon as racist and anti-black; Hum 110 lecturers should restructure delivery and analysis of content, in an understanding that the texts are not familiar with everyone and their backgrounds. Or made non-mandatory given options of other Hum courses with books outside of the Western canon.

Options for “compromise” like this amount to an evisceration of the course in favor of contemporary identity politics and grievance theatre. The alumni magazine, however, frames the debate entirely according to the protesters’ premises:

The protest has ignited a respectful but passionate campus debate over the scope and structure of the course and whether it represents a vision of intellectual life in which all students feel included. At a deeper level, the debate is about race, power, culture, and the nature of education itself.

The debate is really about whether Reed students will learn something about the deep history of western civilization or instead be immersed in something else.

Reed College, of course, has a well-earned reputation for its leftist leanings. Remarkably, Humanities 110 survived the general purge of Western Civilization courses in American higher education. A few years ago, the National Association of Scholars published a study, The Vanishing West, which tracked the dismantling of this course at elite colleges and universities from 1963 to 2010. At the beginning of that range, a two-semester Western Civilization requirement was almost universally required, and it provided the backbone of general education. By 2010, they were all gone, except for fragments here and there.

The Reedies Against Racism movement is about ending a very old legacy—not the legacy of racism, but the legacy of learning how Western civilization invented itself. When I say the iconoclastic movement on campus today will do a lot of damage, this is the damage I expect: loss of historical depth, subordination of knowledge of the past to the political preoccupations of the present; and the ever-inflating assertions of group grievance and grievance-based personal identity. Who has the courage to tell the Reedies Against Racism that their complaint is trivial and that they should get over themselves? I suspect it won’t be President Kroger.

Saying Rude Things

Students protesting to prevent Charles Murray from speaking, or Heather Mac Donald, do plenty of damage. But students organizing to silence Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides may well be the greater threat. Their efforts, extending back to the culture wars of the 1980s, have already stripped American higher education of much of its coherence as well as its ability to teach students about the hard-won nature of our freedom. That ignorance is part of what licenses today’s eruptions of protest against “privilege,” racism, and the like. The targets of the protest are not wholly imaginary, but they are wrongly imagined. The protesters often say they are fighting “structures of oppression” when they are really witnessing against their own exile and confusion.

Attempts to silence speakers or forestall speech are the most conspicuous part of the crisis in free speech, but they are not the heart of the matter. Every effort to talk over someone else (“You lie!”) is also an effort to say something in its own right. It is the saying of rude, outrageous, and provocative things that is the essence of the crisis.

As a culture, we are accustoming ourselves to interruption. We’ve invented justifications for this: an ethic of interruption. The interruptions are more than just shouting down or talking over. They are also the interruptions of civility and thought that could be achieved all on one’s own with a Tweet or some act of solitary protest. The intention in such cases is to interrupt and arrest the flow of things. To demand attention to oneself by means of peculiar pronouncements is part of the new cultural warfare.

I Am Woman, Watch Me Wilt at Columbia

This article was published originally in Commentary

In February 2015, Columbia University—currently ranked the fourth most distinguished academic institution in the United States by U.S. News and World Report—announced that all its students, undergraduate and graduate alike, would be obliged to take part in a “Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative.” This “new, required programming,” the Columbia bureaucracy explained, was designed to explore “the relationship between sexual respect and community membership.”

Columbia’s students were given a menu of “participation options.” They could watch a minimum of two preselected videos about “rape culture” and gender identity and write a “reflection” about what they had learned. They could attend film screenings about sexual assault and masculinity and engage in a monitored discussion afterwards. They could create a “work of art” about the “relationship between sexual respect and University community membership.” Or, if they identified “as survivors, co-survivors, allies, or individuals who have experienced forms of secondary trauma,” they could attend workshops on “Finding Keys to Resiliency.”

Options in the “Finding Keys to Resiliency” module included a “mindfulness workshop” on “cultivating nonjudgmental awareness and being more present for their experience.” If attending the book launch for SLUT: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism got one too agitated about female oppression, one could unwind at a “Yoga class for women” or a “knitting circle.”

To help students organize their required “reflections” on the videos, Columbia provided a set of questions suggestive of a New Age encounter session: “Kalin [a speaker in a video] shares his ‘why’ for passion around prevention education. What is his why? If you have a passion for prevention, ‘what is your why’?”

Another prompt suggested, “Reflect on the idea of manhood as discussed in this talk. What is the interaction of the constructs of manhood and power dynamics?”

The Columbia administrators were careful to avoid any possible misunderstanding that they themselves had failed to “cultivate nonjudgmental awareness” when it comes to college sex. One of the films on offer, The Line: A Personal Exploration about Sexual Assault & Consent, is “told through a ‘sex-positive’ lens,” according to Columbia’s promotional materials.

But Columbia’s “nonjudgmentalism” extends only so far. There was no give-and-take about participation in the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative. The materials announced that it was “essential to arrive on time and participate” in the film screenings and discussions; late arrivals would not be admitted. Attendance at all events would be taken and passed on to the authorities. (This is a far stricter standard than Columbia applies to mere academic classes, where attendance policies are up to each instructor and usually lax.) Students who failed to log the requisite sexual-respect hours and complete the requisite sexual-respect assignments could be blocked from registering for academic coursework—or from graduating.

The rollout, which hit just as students were taking midterms, was a shambles. The computer portals for registering often didn’t work; many students couldn’t find participation options that were still open and that fit into their class schedule or that weren’t restricted to specific groups such as the “LGBTQ community.”

Despite the administration’s admonitions, some Columbia students decided that studying or researching their dissertation took priority over proctored discussions on “how gender affects relationships.” And so they neglected to do their sexual-respect assignments before the deadline ran out.

Columbia has now lowered the boom. In July, it started notifying the recalcitrant students that they were no longer in “good administrative standing.” Such a declaration is no small matter. Columbia treats a loss of administrative standing as seriously as an academic default; failure to repair one’s administrative standing can lead to dismissal.

By July, however, the options remaining to laggard students for demonstrating “sexual respect” had shrunk. No longer could a student view a webinar on “Transgender Sexuality and Trauma” or attend Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen to satisfy the requirement. By now, in order to restore his administrative standing, the non-sexually-respectful student could only watch a recorded TED talk and write a “reflection” on his experience.

One of those recalcitrant students is a Ph.D. candidate doing serious archival research on a central figure in Western civilization. He reports that a number of his liberal graduate-student colleagues are also in trouble for not taking part in the initiative: “Even they felt the requirement was quite infantilizing and they had better things to do with their time, like actual academic work and teaching undergraduates.” That Columbia would elevate this “burdensome distraction” to the level of actual academic responsibilities, he notes, is “yet more proof that universities have lost their bearings entirely.”

But the initiative signals something more worrisome than just Columbia’s distorted priorities, according to this refusenik. “People like me might be losing the right simply to be silent, to be left alone,” he writes. “For the first time I, along with anyone else remotely willing to dissent, am not even being allowed to stay quiet and keep my opinions to myself. The initiative implies that agreement with the ideology—indeed, with a university-mandated code of sexual ethics—is actually required for attendance at this institution.”

In fact, the sexual-respect initiative never challenges the regime of drunken hook-up sex. To do such a thing, of course, would not be “sex-positive.” Rather, the initiative simply assigns wildly asymmetrical responsibilities and liabilities within that regime, consistent with the current practice of college administrations everywhere.

One of the initiative’s videos portrays two females drinking frenetically at a series of dance clubs; a male disengages one of them and escorts her to her dorm room where he has sex with her, allegedly non-consensually because she is too woozy from the boatloads of booze she consumed to offer proper consent. The moral of the video is that bystanders should intervene if they think that someone is too drunk to agree to sex with a stranger. Several additional interpretations come to mind. First, that university administrations should perform an “intervention” on the entire booze-fueled hook-up scene. Second, that females almost always have control over whether they end up in a mentally compromised state and should therefore be careful to avoid such a condition.

This second reading is unthinkable in today’s university, however, where the male is always responsible for regretted couplings, and the female a wilting victim. If this sounds like a resurrection of Victorian values, that’s because it is, but with one major difference: The modern college co-ed retains the prerogative of unbounded promiscuity (think: “sex-positive”), while also retaining the right to revert at will to a stance of offended innocence.

If Columbia felt compelled to take on the issue of “sexual respect,” it could have done so in a way that actually had intellectual value, had it remembered that its primary mission is to fill the empty noggins of the young with at least passing knowledge of mankind’s greatest works. Civilization has grappled for thousands of years with the challenge of ordering the relationship between the sexes and has come up with more sophisticated solutions than forcing males to watch videos on escaping the “man box.” Reading Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene would offer students an elegant take on sexual respect, albeit one grounded in the now taboo virtues of chivalry and chastity. If “relevance” is necessary, Mozart’s Don Giovanni might provide an example of “bystander intervention,” as when Don Giovanni’s aristocratic peers try to hustle the peasant girl Zerlina away from his clutches.

Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, however, were unblinkered about the male sex drive, something about which contemporary feminists can’t make up their minds. To recognize the specific hungers of the specifically male libido puts one dangerously close to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes. And it is precisely the force of the male sex drive that makes the norms of courtship and modesty so important for carving out a zone of freedom and civility for females.

Feminists, by contrast, are inclined to reduce the male libido to a political power play that has more to do with keeping females out of the boardroom than getting them into the bedroom. If gender “power dynamics” are really what lead men to aggressively seek sex, then a lecture from a TED “anti-sexism educator” might be relevant. But if, in fact, men pursue sex because they want to have sex, then a different set of strategies is called for. And one of those strategies might be to tell females in blunt terms: Don’t drink yourself blotto, take your clothes off, and get into bed with a guy you barely know. A sexual-assault counselor will never utter those empowering words, however, because preserving the principle of male fault is more important than protecting females from “rape.”

Naturally, the Columbia initiative embraces the conceit that college campuses are filled with shell-shocked female victims of rape culture who might collapse at any minute from the trauma of college experience. It is for them, explains Columbia, that the “Finding Keys to Resiliency” module was designed. The “Finding Keys to Resiliency” option allows “individuals who identify as survivors” and their “allies” to “incorporate wellness and healing into their day-to-day lives…from trauma-focused therapy to healing circles, from dance and movement to yoga and mind/body work.” If, however, you are a religiously conservative student who believes that premarital intercourse is  immoral (a few such closeted throwbacks still exist), you are out of luck. There is no module for you.

Predictably, the sexual-respect initiative created more trauma for Columbia’s wilting co-eds, but not always in the expected ways. One “survivor” was forced to wait 45 minutes outside her “survivors-only” workshop, only to be told that the workshop had been cancelled. “Sitting there waiting with no word caused me to panic,” she told the Columbia Spectator. The university had failed to provide her with a Victorian fainting couch.

The sexual-respect initiative undoubtedly triggered, to borrow a phrase, by Columbia’s most famous self-identified survivor: the recently graduated Emma Sulkowicz, otherwise known as the “mattress girl.” Sulkowicz belatedly claimed that she had been raped by a fellow student with whom she had been having intermittent casual sex. When Columbia, after a lengthy investigation, failed to find her alleged rapist guilty and expel him, she started carrying around a dormitory mattress in protest. This yearlong stunt, for which Columbia granted her academic credit, earned Sulkowicz rapturous accolades from the campus-rape industry and inspired scores of student imitators at other campuses.

If anyone needs the qualification of being a “self-identified” survivor, it’s Sulkowicz. After her alleged rape, Sulkowicz sent fawning emails to her alleged rapist, begging to get together again. Two days after the incident, Sulkowicz texted him: “Also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr.” A week later she suggested that they hang out together: “I want to see yoyououoyou.” Two months later, she texted: “I love you Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!”

It took Sulkowicz six months to decide that she had been raped. Columbia was indubitably right not to find her sexual partner guilty, but it lost the public relations battle anyway over its alleged mistreatment of rape “survivors.” Thus, Columbia’s burgeoning campus-rape boondoggles, including the “Sexual Violence Response” unit and the new “Special Adviser to the President for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.” This special adviser, a self-described decades long “social-justice advocate,” was soon elevated to executive vice president, heading a new Office of Community Life. From there, she designed the sexual-respect initiative.

I asked the Columbia administration how many students had lost their good standing as a result of not participating in the sexual-respect initiative. The chief of staff for the Office of University Life would only respond, “Because it was a University requirement, there was a high compliance rate with the program.” That may sadly be true. Columbia, after all, has power on its side. Even the most obstreperous comments about the mandate on the Columbia Spectator student-newspaper website were calling for civil disobedience within the confines of the initiative: “Make sure to record every word spoken. If just one feminist gets out of line: walk out, claim you were traumatized by a trigger and file a grievance….Demand to take your class with men, because women trigger your false rape accusation.”

The American university’s plunge into triviality may have become irreversible. To the narcissism of identity politics and victimology can now be added the quackery of “healing circles” and “mind/body work.” Columbia proudly claims that it has developed one of the first university-wide programs on sexual respect in the nation. Expect desperate one-upmanship to follow as our national descent into a new academic Dark Age accelerates.