Safetyism and the Tentifada: Modern Campus Protests Undermine Intellectual Rigor and Erode Higher Education

The spring of 2024 witnessed the startling reemergence of anti-Semitism on the quads of many leading universities. Rather than admissions policies that quietly barred Jews from campus in the early twentieth century for fears of “overrepresentation,” the present paroxysms are on florid display. Camps were erected, students assembled with signage, makeshift libraries, and teach-ins that harken back to the days when hippies permanently revolutionized college culture. The Baby Boomers who pursued graduate degrees and now occupy the leadership of these institutions are faced with the dilemma of excusing this behavior to the larger polity while simultaneously placating the protesters. There appears to be a panic setting in as large donors retreat, Title VI lawsuits pile up, and the broader legitimacy of higher learning erodes. Although little is remarked upon, there is an enduring feature of the seemingly chaotic response: safetyism.

In their best-selling book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff diagnose the cause of the dramatic movement of universities from defenders of liberal ideals upholding the pursuit of truth to pious enforcers of illiberalism. The immediate cause for reflection was the Great Halloween Costume Contrempts that occupied Yale in the fall of 2015. The second author delivered a talk on campus the day Professor Nicholas Christakis was subjected to an aggressive chastisement at the hands of an ad hoc student assembly that went viral. The personal encounter managed to distill into a piece of media fit for the social media age all the signature elements that identify their cause for concern.

As posited by Haidt and Lukianoff, the ultimate cause of the vitriolic reaction is parenting having shifted decidedly toward ensuring emotional well-being.

Responding to consumer demands, university administrators have come to adopt that same operating principle. In this updated version of in loco parentis, administrators who exert increasing authority over the prerogatives of faculty attempt to gently prod adolescents toward full-fledged adulthood by affording them similar protections. That sustaining desire to shelter students from sources of information and reality that threaten to arouse discomfort is what The Coddling of the American Mind popularized as safetyism. The presumed responsibility is no longer to ensure young adults build immunity—and better arguments—through encountering challenges and overcoming them to build resilience but to ward against these potential sources of antifragility manifesting in the first place.

This alluring but ultimately destructive mindset is built upon three fundamental assumptions. First, there is a genuine concern that each of us is incapable of psychological resilience. Second, there is steadfast faith in the validity of emotional reasoning in understanding the world. Third, the world we encounter is Manichean; there is good and evil, with nothing in between. A codicil to this point is that identity politics is the key to arranging a proper understanding of that struggle.


Campus Protests of Yore

Revisiting the characteristics of the golden age of campus protests provides a proper baseline for evaluating the pro-Palestinian protests. The 1960s was riven by questions of profound significance, like resolving the jarring inequality of Jim Crow. Three attributes deserve an account in explaining why the civil rights movement ultimately earned success. The omnibus effort to make good on the promise of the Constitution stands out for its intellectual underpinnings and clear and defensible tactics and because African Americans involved themselves bodily in the repeal of American apartheid.

The civil rights movement represented the culmination of a debate that dates to the birth of our country. Frederick Douglass and others thundered from pulpits and published newspapers to articulate their case. Later, the animating debate of the accommodationist Booker T. Washington and the zeal of W.E.B. DuBois sharpened positions.

Moving forward, it was the forceful but tempered plaint of Reverand Martin Luther King Jr., and to a lesser degree, the militance of Malcolm X, that urged social reform. Over those decades, the positions of many had a hearing in the form of pamphlets, books, sermons, and later in radio addresses, marches, and television. The broader public, and most specifically, the African American community, was intimately familiar with the particulars of the brief for racial equality. Therefore, when the violent musings of the Black Panther Party’s Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice) confronted the superlative prose of James Baldwin, the community had options to contemplate.

Many attempts to foment action were tried and tested. There were separatist movements like Marcus Garvey’s that fared poorly. There was Bayard Rustin’s plan to march on Washington that Franklin Delano Roosevelt bargained away. DuBois’ NAACP pursued vigorous legal action to force the courts to recognize the incongruity of Constitutional principles of “separate but equal”. Before any of these, there was John Brown’s martyrdom, arguably the casus belli of the Civil War. The litany of failure was reversed in Martin Luther King’s commanding insight that there is a profound difference between participating in a cause that dispenses violence and those on the receiving end of patently unjust aggression.

The moral foundation of the cause and the tactics being firmly affixed, the movement required adherents willing to risk themselves bodily for the cause. The decision to structure an entire social movement on a strategy of passive civil disobedience meant he was effectively delivering his flock into the jaws of a violent reaction. Therefore, his arguments had to be profoundly reasoned and morally persuasive. Many of the younger generation were stirred by the call to non-aggression. In 1960, four students from a local HBCU, North Carolina A&T, staged a sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth to protest racial discrimination. James Meredith braved the gathering mobs at the University of Mississippi. The Freedom Rides exemplified this approach to demonstrate the evil of segregation most acutely. Many white and Jewish college students from the north were routinely firebombed and bludgeoned in busses alongside African Americans. Few moments demonstrate the depth of commitment to ideals in action better than Fisk University’s Diane Nash rebuffing Attorney General of the United States Robert Kennedy, then pleading with her not to get on the bus. Students following her lead often left her sealed letters to be opened in the event of their death.


Pro-Palestinian Protests

Given its duration, the civil rights movement’s arguments were battle-tested and widely approved. The newness of the Palestinian cause, at least in terms of Generation Z’s awareness, means that the arguments favoring the cause are inchoate by comparison. In fairness to the present college cohort, they are the recipient of a desiccating intellectual heritage.

The collapse of Soviet communism widely discredited class-based Marxism, which was then replaced by postmodernism’s focus on the power dynamics of hermeneutics. The latest offspring emerging from this philosophical slurry is intersectionality, which dichotomizes the moral world into oppressor and victim categories. And in an era consumed by negative polarity where strange alliances like Queers for Palestine and the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace have formed. This omnicause now provides a venue for a coalition of convenience for those who identify with the marginalized to find a common cause in criticizing Western ideals.

The relative incoherence of the sense of mission has resulted in simultaneous grandiose and pedestrian demands. While the everyday demands for severing ties with Israeli universities and divestment are tenable, others are too far-fetched to be considered realistic, like calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Other lists convey a lack of consistency of intent, as it is difficult to draw a link between their criticisms of the war and the specifics of the demands. For example, at Columbia University, where the protests began, activists insist that the university invest in housing for the underprivileged in the adjacent neighborhood and separate themselves from the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Alternatively, other demands appeal to the broader public for material support. These lists betray unpreparedness and a sense of insistence on a level of comfort that conveys an unseriousness for the cause. Columbia University graduate student Johanna King-Slutzky famously took to the press, insisting that university authorities provide catering for the occupiers as “a basic human right.” The University of Chicago’s collective made a public appeal for dental dams. Others simply appealed for a list of items reminiscent of packing for summer camp: batteries, bike helmets, first aid supplies, and non-perishable food. The impossible aims of most of the demands being laid on university administrators and the triviality of the requests for creature comforts lend credence to the criticism that the protests are more catharsis than cause. With this in mind, it is difficult to dispute Columbia-trained sociologist Musa Al-Gharbi’s contention that the campus protests are largely outbursts of self-absorption.

Safetyism is most clearly found in the varied efforts to protect students from negative consequences. Unlike the civil rights protests, no one is asked to risk life, limb, or lunch. Witness the rotating speechmakers at the respective bullhorns. Such an arrangement indicates a lack of leadership and diffuses responsibility, as do the ubiquitous masks meant to conceal identities. Given the allegations of genocide, others assumed a more serious pose. Princeton University students thankfully invented the new locution of a “rotating hunger strike” rather than press toward the inevitable. Administrators have done their part to contribute to a protest of limited liability by consistently ordering police to stand down. Administrators have often conceded demands for immunity, as Northwestern University did upon their negotiated conclusion to the protests. However, Harvard University faculty’s defense of student protesters being stripped of their diplomas was not enough to overcome the veto from their board of trustees. Meanwhile, at Columbia, the faculty donned neon-colored vests to wreath the assembled students, effectively serving as a phalanx.

Administrators nationwide have demonstrated great reluctance to expel students out of an entirely reasonable fear of aggravating the problem. The refusal to punish amounts to a subsidy for protesters, some of whom have engaged in willful trespass, harassment, vandalism, and violence against Jews. It is difficult to dispute the recent reflections of another leading cultural commentator, Tyler Austin Harper, that campus administrators at universities like Columbia, which actively celebrates its history of student protest, are on the receiving end of the praxis that they have preached.


Moving Forward

The economic fortune of higher education is quickly deteriorating, which means that change is coming. Affluent institutions with reputations to rely on and generous endowments to sustain their budgets will likely be unmoved by the public reaction against the excesses of campus protests. Jewish students will migrate elsewhere to avoid threats, as will the majority of students interested in avoiding one more serious impediment to the pursuit of their education. Other than a continuing drift toward embracing the status quo, the curriculum will be slightly altered. Elite institutions, and those wishing to brand themselves as such, will continue to graduate bright students interested in learning the lexicon of values consistent with the worldview of that milieu.

On the other hand, most schools that lack any advantage along these margins face a realistic threat of going out of business. Politicians attempt to divest from public institutions, and young men increasingly avoid college altogether. Some schools can camouflage themselves by moving with the zeitgeist, but that strategy will not suffice for many. More universities facing the inevitable will risk crafting an independent sense of mission. In these cases, students will be challenged to reckon with complicated questions and discover a sustaining goal in life. In this more variegated ecosystem, a set of competencies and purposes will be discovered through an honestly critical inquiry. The disastrous Congressional testimony of the heads of Harvard, UPenn, and MIT on December 12 foisted higher education onto the prongs of a dilemma that every college president now faces. All must opt for either continuing credentialism or building human capacities.

Photo by Ted Eytan — Creative Commons


2 thoughts on “Safetyism and the Tentifada: Modern Campus Protests Undermine Intellectual Rigor and Erode Higher Education

  1. I am a straight white male who is not a veteran. In 1974 when I graduated from college in a recession when affirmative action made it illegal in many cases to hire white males. I have been assured by lots of people that I should’ve been thrilled to be jobless because it meant that other people who deserved it more were getting jobs.

    Feminists, queers, Blacks, Hispanics, Christians, atheists, Marxists, environmentalists and a bunch of other people all explain that no matter what I think, no matter what evidence I bring, no matter what logic I bring, I’m wrong. I am apparently incapable of being correct because I’m a white male.

    The intersectionality experts explain that since I am not part of an approved victim group, I am responsible for the victimization of everybody who is downtrodden.

    I would explain what the WOKE people think of me but they keep on changing their minds about what is specifically wrong with me.

    I’ve decided to accept the majority view. I’m an evil, wicked, mean, bad, nasty, racist, male chauvinist, and a couple of other things that I’ve forgotten.

    The mental health types assure me that I should have self-esteem and be proud of who I am. Okay, I’m proud of being evil, wicked, mean, bad, nasty, racist, male chauvinist, and a couple of other things that I’ve forgotten.

    If there’s anyone who wants to join me in starting a support group for evil, wicked, mean, bad, nasty, racist, male chauvinist, and a couple of other things that I’ve forgotten (everyone explains that support groups are good so forming one must be really good) wants to join my new support group they can email me at (ewmbnrmc is the acronym of evil, wicked, mean, bad, nasty, racist, male chauvinist.) We can get together and ignore everybody else.

  2. “Administrators nationwide have demonstrated great reluctance to expel students out of an entirely reasonable fear of aggravating the problem. The refusal to punish amounts to a subsidy for protesters”

    Administrators have been doing this for 40-50 years now, and are rapidly approaching a critical mass were EVERYONE will openly defy the rules. I’m actually surprised that it hasn’t happened yet, but much as the Black Students brought the rifles into Cornell, what’s going to happen when the Jewish students bring rifles into Columbia?

    OR is it that the Jewish students would never do that?

    And what does that say about who does and who does not have civil rights in this country?

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