The Campus Tendency to Extremism

There is a common cultural dynamic in which competition among members of a social or political movement for the prestige of ideological purity and group leadership leads to more and more extreme substantive positions. Examples are countless: Christianity, based on a Jewish Messiah and his Jewish Apostles, soon enough came to disparage Jews who did not follow Jesus, claimed that “the Jews” had murdered Jesus, and that they would burn in hell. Centuries of Christian attacks on Jews followed, from the Crusades to pogroms, ending in a half-successful attempt at genocide. Islam, which drew heavily upon Judaism and Christianity, declared Jews and Christians stubborn holders of corrupt faiths who would burn in hell, and that the end days would not come until all Jews on earth were murdered, an objective proudly declared by Hamas.

Attempts to ameliorate poverty and economic exploitation led to movements of reform, then socialism, then communism, which, when implemented in the Soviet Union, Peoples Republic of China, and Khmer Rouge Cambodia led to the murder of a hundred million people from incorrect social categories. Recent attempts in the West to remove prejudice and discrimination against females and people of color led rapidly to the vilification of males and whites, and the implementation of systematic institutional discrimination against males and whites. Attempts to come to the aid of females in distress led to the institutionalization of abortion, which was going to “safe, legal, and rare,” but in fact led the millions of “terminations,” on-demand abortion, “a woman’s choice,” and the demand to murder babies at all stages of pregnancy and also newborns, this demand the highest priority of feminists.

[Where Does the Impulse to Vilify America and the West Come From?]

This tendency to extremism is quite familiar to anyone observing the domination of “higher education” institutions by “social justice” ideology. “Social justice” warriors on campuses make more and more extreme and outrageous demands daily. These demands do not sit well even with confirmed “progressives” such as Robert Boyers, a long-time Professor of English at Skidmore College, author of The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies. He criticizes “the new fundamentalism” that requires that “all are expected to speak with one voice about the right and the true,” a demand that he characterizes as “intolerant and illiberal.” He regards it as “bizarre that of all places the liberal university should now be the one where strenuous efforts are most emphatically made to insure consensus,” reflecting “a new wave of puritanism and a culture of suspicion.” As a result, he says, “the university is, in many ways, an increasingly toxic environment.”

In the main chapters, Boyers interrogates, with grace and literary depth, a number of prominent concepts. The first is “privilege,” heavily used in discourses about “sexism” and “racism,” which Boyers says “is at present promiscuously (and often punitively) deployed to imply a wide range of advantages or deficits against which no one can be adequately defended.” Boyer rejects this usage on the grounds that “to consider either of us primarily as white people, deliberately consigning to irrelevance everything that made us different from one another—and different from the kinds of white people who regard their whiteness as an endowment to be proud of—was to deny what was clearly most important about each of us.” He points out that “privilege is increasingly hauled in as a weapon” by people who “are mainly interested in drawing hard lines separating the guilty from the saved, the serenely oblivious from the righteous, fiercely aggrieved, and censorious.”

Boyers then addresses what he refers to as “the academy as total cultural environment,” as in—it appears to this reviewer—“total” meaning totalitarian. He addresses the hiring of political commissars, particularly: diversity officers. “Diversity officers are often appointed chiefly to ensure that a party-line be promulgated and enforced.” In other words, diversity officers were charged with ensuring that incorrect ideas would be suppressed, and to guarantee what was deemed by many professors and administrators to be “an indisputably correct consensus.” Diversity officers were hired to ensure “subordination—of students and faculty alike—to an entrenched dogma.” Many self-identified “liberal” professors, in fact, are supporters of a “deep and pervasive … regime of intolerance. For many academics, the desire to cleanse the campus of dissident voices has become something of a mission.”

[Word by Word, SJW’s Are Changing America]

Boyers criticizes “willing what cannot be willed,” the attempt to impose ideological principles on an uncooperative reality. He argues that both conservatives and progressives “have been seduced by ill-digested ideas that have led them to deny the obvious, or to refuse to so much as consider what may be entailed in their principles or avowals.” In other words, ideology has been substituted for the reality principle, with satisfying ideas never tested by experience and evidence. One example is “the will required to uphold the proscription against blaming the victim.” This will requires “a strictly managed effort not to acknowledge things that may threaten our principled benevolence.” Thus, “the characterization of entire groups as victims has underwritten the conviction that such groups may never be subjected to criticism of any kind.” By treating groups as beyond criticism, we will that they will be beyond criticism by acting as we would like, which they do not. Once again, we will what cannot be willed.

Reducing people to characteristics based on gross census categories is, according to Boyers, “‘unwarranted by or echoed in the actual moral-psychological economies of ordinary citizens,’” quoting Bilgrami. “We…grow too comfortable with categories that make of identity a baldly obvious and undifferentiated fact.” But this is not an innocent oversimplification, but a politically motivated one. “There are countless … voices sowing pointless triumphalist rage and flattening our common view of identity.” But this “suits those who want to make of identity a weapon in a war that pits oppressors against victims.”

Boyers criticizes the “diversity” culture because its advocates do not like or tolerate real differences, especially differences of perspective and opinion. It does appear that what diversity advocates, seen in “the lockstep march of the new commissars setting up to take control of our cultural institutions, from the universities to mainstream media,” really mean by “diversity” is many people looking different all saying the same thing. This undermines intellectual inquiry, substituting for it enforce conformity and unthinking uniformity.

[What Your Sons and Daughters Will Learn at University]

Two further issues taken up by Boyers are, one, the campaign on behalf of the disabled (or otherwise abled) to forbid any reference to physical capability, such as seeing, hearing, walking, running, etc., and, two, the ban on “cultural appropriation,” which is any cultural borrowing from anyone other than oneself. Boyers sees these as an illegitimate suppression of imagination, and a violation of freedom, especially of artists. These discussions, as all of the previous ones mentioned, are interrogated for their complexities with considerable subtleness and literary enhancement. Boyers presents many relevant anecdotes from his academic milieu and refers to many significant authors, such as Mill, Marcuse, and Said. The summary of Boyers’ views presented here do not, of course, do justice to his complex explorations.

Boyers is worried about “the revolution of moral concern, driven by people in the grip of delusions.” In his conclusion, he largely abstains from telling us what should be done. Rather, he focuses on what is “not to be done”:

The promulgation of ideas entertained without seriousness, that is, without any corresponding consideration what would be entailed were they actually to be effected.

The use of ideas such as privilege, appropriation, ableism, and mircroaggression to sow hostility, persecute other members of a community, and make meaningful conversation impossible.

The use of the classroom and the seminar to indoctrinate students and thus to send them off parroting views that they have not adequately thought through or mastered.

The creation of an “us versus them” orientation, underwritten by enemies lists and fueled by a sense that on matters for which a consensus has been reached no dispute may be tolerated.

The weaponization of “virtue” for … “class advantage,” with zealots adept mainly at trumpeting their own superior status and making a “fetish of indignation.”

[The Growing Threat of Repressive Social Justice]

Boyers is primarily worried about “a liberalism increasingly drawn to denial and overt repression.” But, at the same time, Boyers is not shy about providing his progressive bona fides. He rails against President Trump and conservatives. “The political Right has Fox News to purvey lies, misinformation, and sheer ignorance.” Another progressive shibboleth is condemning “the fanaticism and cruelty of Jewish settlers” in Judea and Samaria. More basic, Boyers brags that he has “bought into the logic of diversity, and fully supports the imperative of restitution,” and enthusiastically supports “affirmative action” discrimination.

Boyers’ progressivism is why he never questions the foundation of “social justice” ideology; in fact, he accepts its validity. He never discusses or criticizes the theoretical bases of “social justice” ideology, its genealogy of Marxist class conflict theory, feminist neo-Marxist gender class conflict theory, race, sexuality, and ethnicity class conflict theory, postmodernism and its rejection of truth, evidence, and reality, Leninist postcolonial theory which ahistorically blames all of the world’s problems on Western imperialism and colonialism, and intersectionism, which demands unity among the world’s victims.

Boyers buys into social justice ideology but does not like the results when it is taken to its logical extremism, as it is in contemporary “higher education,” the media, large corporations, and progressive governments such as those of Obama and Trudeau. He wants to “will what cannot be willed”: moderate and tolerant progressivism.


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

8 thoughts on “The Campus Tendency to Extremism

  1. Our universities, the media, and the Democrat Party lead the charge to political correctness. We must have uniformity of thought, language, and behavior. Uniformity, uniformity, uniformity goes the cry. I spent more than 40 years involved in manufacturing, all of it involving quality assurance and technology. A saying in my field (Attributed to Edward Deming (1980) in: Chang W. Kang, Paul H. Kvam (2012) Basic Statistical Tools for Improving Quality. p. 19) is:

    Uncontrolled Variation is the Enemy of Quality

    Well we’re all in favor of quality aren’t we? They are surely right so let’s control or eliminate variation to achieve uniformity.

    Fortunately, there is another side to that coin (my own formulation):

    Uniformity is the Enemy of Knowledge

    So if our schools succeed with their drive to uniformity, they will simultaneously defeat their primary purpose, the propagation and discovery of knowledge. We taxpayers should not allow government to continue pouring money into our current education system. Peer review is of no value once all reviewers are of like mind. Professional societies are of little value if they serve only to enforce conformity.

    Professor Michael Mann and cohorts, well at least 97% of them reportedly agree that global warming is apocalyptic and with Democratic attorney’s general, former bartenders, and others try to stifle all opposition. I submit that is a form of bigotry (intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself). Think Lysenko/Stalin, or Mann/Gore. Count me a skeptic.

  2. It strikes me that the winters of discontent pertaining to certain outcomes reflected upon by those wishing perhaps upon a star for an ideology to truly live by – resemble a bunch of bricklayers halfway up a Babel tower discussing, debating and arguing over the best method to keep the damned thing from falling over.
    Which apparently it did, in the end, anyway.

    We know by now that there were deep core roots to the ideological thinking that gave us those regimes – the ones mentioned above, the ones that succeeded in murdering a hundred million people. That’s a hell of a statistical spotlight to shine on the issue.
    Universities actually used to be places where lots of tender young intellects studied, and studied hard – the very reasons why so very many people had to die so that their political betters could “wash themselves in the blood of the lambs”, so to speak. Not so very many tender young intellects do that anymore. As if we need new and more current holocausts to wake them up. As if the moral of the story is that a 21st century version would be peopled by those who believe “We can do it better.” What? Kill 2 or three or more hundreds of millions? A billion perhaps?

    To me the obvious clue buried inside the dysphoria is one simple thing: the wheels fall off when people can’t talk to each other. For reasons of fear and loathing, repugnance, resentment, prejudice, bias, extreme dislike, hatred, distrust, mistrust, tribalism, identitarianism, racism, sexism, phobias galore, ignorance, a new socialized technology which can now capture every single damned thing you say…
    Imagine, whispering in a locked room with padded walls scanned hourly to ensure no bugs….spy meets spy.
    Just to speak a curious truth.

    Could it be that there is indeed, something truly rotten in the core of modern and progressive thought? And that its drivers are the same thing that always was. The get out of jail free card that allows its owner to hate with impunity?
    Because it sure appears to me, and has appeared for some time now, that long slow simmering hatreds prowl the land, looking for victims of their righteous reason to be.
    And that curiously, what this actually does to students who spend undergraduate careers learning how to hate. Which kicks the literal crap out of long held practices which promoted decency, humane responses, tolerance, acceptance, and the gradual acquisition of ongoing processes that encourage a deep love and abiding respect for humanity.
    Apparently we’re better than that, now.

    Well no actually. We aren’t.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful and illuminating review of Boyers’ book; your witty conclusion is well prepared! Most enjoyable.

  4. I disagree — the insanity currently occurring in higher education is not sustainable.

    There simply aren’t 18 year olds to fill all the seats or enough money to pay all the bills. Add in the fact that the internet has done what the interstate highway system did to the monopoly once enjoyed by the railroads, and you can see how change is inevitable.

    It’s estimated that half the colleges currently in existence will close in the next 10-15 years. That’s a “buyer’s market” which will make it increasingly difficult to impose this foolishness on students and their parents.

    It’s one thing to put up with it when you need the degree and you have no other choices, but as that changes so too will be ability to impose an ideological mandate.

    What I find most telling is that the colleges that are in the most trouble financially tend to be those that lean farthest to the left. I do think that there is a relationship here….

  5. Notice how the left always uses words as weapons.

    That’s why Confucius proposed a “rectification of names,” to make words correspond to reality. What was the purpose of that? To promote social harmony.


  6. Encouraging, until you get to the end and learn what intolerant and wrong-headed beliefs this “progressive” cherishes. For a few shining moments, I had hope.

  7. The “progressive agenda” promulgated now at most Canadian universities, and accepted by an ever increasing number of Canadian corporations is succeeding in making Canada a country of mediocrity. When “inclusion” actually means “exclusion” – excluding from competition the best qualified teachers, students and professionals simply because they lack the correct DNA, the only winners are are the countries that we compete with. Xi and Putin smile each time another university or corporation submits to the social justice apparatchiks. Salzman scores again

  8. Just as the States are said to be laboratories of democracy, our colleges and universities have become laboratories of despotism. The sole point of the wokeness phenomenon is to subject others to one’s will. That is all it is.

    Based only on the texts quoted here, Boyers clearly does not understand willing or the will. Or, rather, he engages in the same sort of futile exercise that so many do, which is to attempt to refute the will by reason. The will is naturally impervious to reason. Any belief may be willed, any belief at all. Any behavior may be willed, any behavior at all. Orwell depicted the willing of the belief that 2+2 = 5. The Soviet Union produced such a scene daily, hourly. So Boyers is simply, flatly, wrong to assert the impossibility of “willing what cannot be willed.”

    The chief mission of education and socialization, from infancy through centenarianhood, is to subject the will to reason. But the will is far more powerful than reason and right now, our colleges and universities are merely scenes of a Dionysian orgy of will. It no longer matters what is willed so long as the will may run rampant and roughshod over all who would oppose it, which today means conservatives, which in turn means anyone daring to challenge the exercise of will by the untutored children running amok in these places.

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