The Abolition of Man is the best refutation of moral relativism that has ever seen print (aside from the Bible, of course). In this short and cogent book, C.S. Lewis ponders what happens when human beings abrogate transcendent moral law and objective truth and begin to fashion their own guidelines for living. One argument that he refutes is that “Man” needs not to observe old, time-encrusted commandments handed down from the Year One, but can decide the course of his own future through reason and deliberation.
Lewis responds, simply, that “Man” will not make such decisions, but a certain number of men who have the power in any given generation will do so, depending on the technology available to them, and that these decisions will then bind the generations afterward. “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases,” Lewis explains, actually means “the power of some men to make other men what they please.”
Furthermore, Lewis argues, these powerful men will not necessarily act out of reason and deliberation, but, bypassing objective standards of truth, will be governed by their own “impulses.”
Lewis particularly faults the moral relativists for not considering, as physicists routinely must, the dimension of Time in their actions and calculations. Lewis is thinking in terms of generations. When we consider curricular changes propelled by students at a university, we are dealing with a much shorter timeline, four years really, the amount of time it takes most students to earn the degree–the ones who will earn the degree, that is, and not drop out altogether. So, at present, we are talking about changes demanded by, say, members of the Class of 2022, that will affect all future students in that particular college through the 2020s and into the 2030s and even the 2040s, some of them now obliviously playing video games, some toddling about their playgroups, some not yet even born.
This prospective scenario may be playing out now at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. As Peter Wood writes at Minding the Campus, “a slow-motion protest” is being mounted at Reed by the “Reedies Against Racism,” who are
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.
As Wood explains, “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.”
While the outcome of the Reedies’ disruptive activism is not yet known, the whole protest seems to illuminate Lewis’s point. Some members of the present student body at Reed are seeking to overturn a required course that has instructed generations of students before them, and to eliminate it from the education of cohorts of students after them because these activists feel that studying Ancient Greece, foundational to Western civilization, is ipso facto “racist.”
I thought about this while at a New York Philharmonic concert featuring two works by Leonard Bernstein, inspired, respectively, by Plato’s Symposium and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. I saw a young couple there, perhaps in their early thirties, who would be about the right age to have graduated Stanford in, say, 2006, long after the “hey-hey-ho-ho-Western-Civ-has-got-to-go” movement removed any required courses there on Western culture, and sparked similar movements at other colleges. Obviously, this couple is interested in concert music, but they might have been surprised to find that a modern composer such as Bernstein, who also composed the popular musical West Side Story, drew inspiration from ancient texts.
I could imagine them wondering as they busied over the program prior to the entry of the conductor, “Who are Plato and Jeremiah and why would Bernstein find them inspirational?” Or perhaps, alternatively, “Too bad, but the courses in which these ancient figures were taught were no longer required at Stanford when we were there.”
Yes, those infinitely wise students of the Class of 2002, barely out of braces and acne ointments, had decided that my couple, Class of 2006, were not to be required to study these writers, supposedly tainted somehow by the purported racism of the West.
Thanks to the actions at Stanford, which started the whole anti-Western-courses crusade throughout American higher education, students are missing out on the likes of Plato and the prophets in favor of diversity writers such as bell hooks and Sandra Cisneros.
The Founding Fathers who fashioned our system of government set it down for generations to follow but they provided a mechanism of checks and balances and a procedure for amending the Constitution. Today’s student militants don’t think very far ahead.
Some students are daring to think differently, however. In 2016, close to twenty years after the hey-hey-ho-ho-ing, the staff of the Stanford Review, the student newspaper founded in 1987 by Peter Thiel and Norman Book as a conservative/libertarian alternative, drew up a petition to the Faculty Senate to require a two-quarter freshmen course in Western civilization.
It may be protested that a requirement should not be necessary, that students could individually and separately seek out courses in the great figures, assuming that these are somewhere still available, and in relatively unpoliticized form, somewhere in the university, but some students might actually like the guidance of a designed, thought-out curriculum. As the little girl in a free-form, progressive school asked her teacher, “Could we just for one day not do whatever we want?”
The petition garnered enough signatures for the request to be put to a school-wide student vote before it could get to the Faculty Senate. It was defeated, 342 in favor, and 1992 against. It is evidently too late to reverse the actions of previous generations of students. As Lewis says, some men and women get to decide what other men and women can have.
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.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”
The assistant professor probably thought she was safe from the madcap race-and-gender left since she was of mixed-race, queer and lecturing on Sappho. But she was woefully wrong. Black-clad demonstrators called her a “race traitor for not opposing the Humanities Syllabus, and they insisted she was “ableist” and a “gaslighter,” a relatively new insult of the left meaning someone who makes disadvantaged people doubt the reality of their oppression.
The teacher may well have felt doubly secure because she had revealed that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and doubted she could complete the lecture if protesters appeared.
The scene was Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and in an article in the September 9th issue of The Economist, the assistant professor teaching Sappho, Lucia Martinez Valdivia, confessed she is afraid of her students, just as another professor anonymously confessed the same thing to Vox in the most famous college article of 2015, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and I’m Afraid of My Students.”
“I‘m intimidated by these students,” said the Reed professor in her blog, “I am scared to death to teach courses on race, gender or sexuality, or even texts that bring these issues up in any way. … I’m at a loss as how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in historicity or objective facts (they denounce the latter as being a tool of the white cis-heteropatriarchy).”
Denying facts and running roughshod over dissent are not the cutting edge of the campus left. This is a newer phase of the revolution when the revolutionaries turn on their own. We had a glimpse of this at Evergreen State College a few weeks ago when Bret Weinstein, perhaps the left-most professor on campus, was attacked and abused by the left-most students for not leaving the campus on the day the young Jacobins ordered all white people to clear out. So, Weinstein was forced to relocate his family and go on the Tucker Carlson Show on Fox.
A few weeks after the Reed incident, the college invited Kimberly Peirce, who may have looked like a safe choice. She is the “gender-fluid” director of “Boys Don’t Cry,” (1999) praised as the first sympathetic feature film about transgendered people. But no, the hard leftists at Reed were furious that Peirce had used Hillary Swank, a non-trans actor, as the lead. So, protesters ripped down posters promoting the event, and put up their own, saying “Fuck Your Transphobia” and “Fuck this cis white bitch” (“CIS” is a disparaging word of people still identifying with their birth sex.)
At Reason, Robbie Soave wrote: “This is the elite American college campus: a place where even queer, leftist professors and filmmakers are afraid of being sent to the guillotine by self-professed radical students.”
The Economist reported that Humanities courses seem to be a recurrent source of friction because of their “Eurocentric” and “racist” content and because their authors are predominantly male and white.
Some students at Reed admit they are afraid to share their feelings with other students for fear of being targeted by campus protesters. But some students seem to resent the hard-left activists. One black student shouted down the activists: “This is a classroom. This is not the place. We are trying to learn. We are freshman students.” The Economist attached a subhead to this comment: “Thermidorian Reaction” but we are likely to see a good many more teen Robespierres before Thermidor arrives.
John Leo is the editor of Minding The Campus, dedicated to chronicling developments within higher education in an effort to restore balance and intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years, and was syndicated to 140 newspapers through the Universal Press Syndicate.
Radical sex warriors at Reed College tried to shout down Kimberly Peirce, partly because she didn’t use a trans actor in her 1999 movie Boys Don’t Cry, about the murder of a transgender male. This is an excerpt from Robby Soave’s blog on the event at Reason.com:
“The most revealing comment came from Lucia Martinez, an assistant professor of English at Reed who identifies as a “gay mixed-race woman.” Martinez wrote:
“I teach at Reed. I am intimidated by these students. I am scared to teach courses on race, gender, or sexuality, or even texts that bring these issues up in any way—and I am a gay mixed-race woman. There is a serious problem here and at other [selective liberal arts colleges], and I’m at a loss as to how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in either historicity or objective facts. (They denounce the latter as being a tool of the white cisheteropatriarchy.)”
How many professors must confess that they live in terror of their far-left students before we start taking them seriously? Before we recognize that a thin-skinned, easily-offended super-minority of students has gained the power to censor academics and other students for broaching controversial subjects before we are prepared to do something about it? This is the elite American college campus: a place where even queer, leftist professors and filmmakers are afraid of being sent to the guillotine by self-professed radical students.