Many of my colleagues and students are responding to the results of the 2016 presidential election with fear, disappointment, and disbelief. For some, Trump’s victory and the social unrest that followed dramatically changed their perceptions of Americans, democracy, and human nature. They are mourning the loss of a progressive dream.
Although I share my colleagues’ and students’ concerns that the current political climate has emboldened people who say and do hateful things to others, I am in no way surprised by the election outcome or its aftermath. These events are entirely predictable and much of what we do in higher education has contributed to them. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, institutions of higher education have helped to foster what some people have referred to as “hate culture.”
Academics frequently identify conditions that lead to negative behavior. For example, in order to address sexual violence on campus, sociologists and others identify the forces behind “rape culture,” including the objectification of women in the media and glorification of “hyper-masculinity.” Similarly, my colleagues who study terrorism identify socio-political conditions, such as unemployment, as contributing factors. At the same time, we seem unwilling to examine the culture and psychology behind hate crimes, as if this would be excusing the behavior or “blaming the victim.” Yet, we cannot merely stomp out hate through coercion, punishment, and social shaming. If we want to prevent or reduce group conflict, we have to identify the social conditions that create it. I argue that an honest assessment of group behavior reveals that academics often contribute to the problem by amplifying social identities.
According to Henri Tajfel and John Turner’s (1979) social identity theory, one’s self-esteem is tied to the status of the groups to which one belongs. People elevate the status of their own groups by comparing them to lower status groups. The salience of these social identities is malleable and researchers have found that they can actively manipulate the strength of people’s social identities by priming them to think about their group memberships or by introducing threat from another group. In higher education, we consistently prime social identity. Strong social identities lead to intensified group conflict, as defense of one’s own group is achieved through degradation of other groups.
On college campuses, political dialog is driven by a commitment to identity politics — activism in support of movements that are organized to promote the status of people based on categories such as gender, race, religion, or sexual preference. Social movements are not always defined according to these groups. For example, Marxist movements defined conflict by class, thereby bringing together people of various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Social movements can also be driven by ideology or shared values, such as the environmental movement.
This isn’t to say that colleges should not educate students on the history of discrimination against women, blacks, or other groups. Students should be educated on how laws, social norms, and values shape the distribution of power in society. They should study the psychology of discrimination, prejudice, and bias. Yet, academics often pursue social and political goals, choosing sides between groups in a conflict. For example, The American Studies Association has declared a boycott on Israeli universities as a show of opposition for Israel’s actions in Palestine.
Fostering strong social identities is a recipe for group conflict. Colleges prime social identities in a number of ways. For example, we strengthen social identity when we sort students into housing options by race or ethnicity, rather than shared interests; when we spend more time talking about group differences than about our common humanity; and when we create “safe spaces” to protect some groups of people from others. All students should have ‘spaces’ where they are safe and comfortable, surrounded by people they trust. The rest of us have this safe space. We call it “home.” The problem comes when we assign these spaces based solely on social identity. It’s the equivalent of moving into segregated neighborhoods. This makes us feel more comfortable at home, but it has negative consequences for our interactions with others.
Colleges and universities encourage students to think primarily in terms of social identity. To make matters worse, we then encourage conflict between groups by framing debates as false dichotomies. The current uproar over free speech on campus is a great example. Free speech is not inherently pro-egalitarian or anti-egalitarian. The Civil Rights Movement relied heavily on the protection of free speech and freedom of the press to spread its message in the face of institutionalized opposition.
Free speech often protects minority voices. Yet, colleges and universities have established speech codes on campus, aimed at protecting vulnerable minority groups from words or phrases that might offend. This sends students the message that one group’s rights are gained at the expense of another group. Free speech is now frequently framed as something that protects racists, sexists, and other “deplorables.”
Arguing in favor of free speech threatens to paint one into this group or, at the very least, suggests that one is insensitive to the needs of minorities. The assumption that silencing offensive ideas reduces hostility against vulnerable groups is deeply flawed. Research shows that the classical liberal approach is more useful – we confront harmful ideas by exposing them to truth. At the very least, grappling with uncomfortable ideas is more fitting to an institution whose purpose is education. Silencing ideas is more suited to an institution whose primary purpose is scoring points in the culture wars.
Finally, we add fuel to this fire because we tend to favor some voices and perspectives over others. We do this when we are too quick to label ideas as “racist,” “sexist,” or “homophobic,” merely because they do not conform to the most progressive ideals; people who favor greater enforcement of immigration laws are “racists,” as is anyone who admits to voting for Trump. The search for microaggressions contributes to this sense that anything that offends protected groups is off limits, even if no harm is intended. Students are actively encouraged to recognize and report microaggressions.
In other words, we encourage them to approach others with suspicion and distrust, rather than goodwill and generosity. Even ambiguous words and behaviors may be reported to overzealous “bias response teams.” Merely the accusation that one has said something racist, sexist, or offensive can do irreparable damage to one’s reputation. The effect of this is that some students are afraid to have open, meaningful conversations with faculty or peers about sensitive topics. This impedes our efforts to promote cross-cultural understanding. And when people believe they are denied legitimate voice in the system, they are more likely to engage in hostile, antisocial behavior.
Well-meaning liberal academics have helped to create our current predicament by promoting a toxic political environment that unnecessarily triggers group conflict. We encourage “hate culture” by creating an environment in which: (1) power and conflict is defined primarily in terms of social identities, such that social identity is frequently primed and becomes more salient than shared values or ideologies; (2) power is defined as a zero-sum game, creating false dichotomies between winners and losers, or victims and perpetrators, which are defined by social identity; (3) the opinions and experiences of members of some groups are awarded less value than those of others, contributing to feelings that one has little voice.
These are the conditions that would seem to create group conflict and cause people to act out aggressively against members of other groups. I think it is clear that these conditions are rampant on college campuses. In the name of promoting social justice, we are instead promoting group conflict.