2017 brought us a white supremacist resurgence, an investigation into Russian election interference and the revelation that, yes, many famous men are bad. But the real threat, according to a few choice commentators, is the same as it always has been: those crazy kids.
A lecture-turned-essay by Jonathan Haidt making the rounds on Twitter and elsewhere identifies the salient destructive forces in society today as “Republicans in Washington” and “the Left on campus.” The Republicans get two paragraphs. The left gets 13.
This is one of the starker examples of the both-sidesism that puts troubling trends in campus culture on the same platform as actual crises such as rising racism and declining democratic norms. Haidt’s cohort of anti-political-correctness crusaders identify intolerance among student progressives as an epidemic. It will kill us all, they seem to believe, if we don’t write enough think pieces to stop it.
These people worry that students on what they call the left are so obsessed with being liberal that they have become illiberal. And they have a point about PC culture at its worst. Identity politics, intersectionality or whatever you want to call it can stifle speech.
Sometimes, students literally shout down those they disagree with, or threaten them with violence. Other times, people stay silent because they fear that speaking out will lead activists to label them racist or something-else-ist. Critical thinking can fall by the wayside with students encased in a bubble wrap of views that confirm their own.
But the 50-something men who most often insert themselves into the campus culture wars forget that 18-year-olds are 18-year-olds. College students are entering an environment where they’re being told that they can change the way the world works, and they’re learning about — and latching on to — the ideas they believe will help them do it. The most radical frameworks are often the most energizing.
It is likely the real world will someday temper the views students hold today, or at least the way they express them. That may explain why we don’t see much spillage into off-campus society: The biggest recent shifts in polarization occur among older generations, and they tend toward the right. The data, when it comes down to it, do not support the hysteria.
So what does merit a mass freakout (besides all those neo-Nazis who swarmed Charlottesville this summer)? Well, if speech is the thing, there’s plenty to pick from.
Real stories are “fake news.” Conservative legislatures this year introduced at least 18 bills to curb protests, including one that would have indemnified drivers who hit dissenters with their cars. And in the uproar over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “ban” on certain words in budget documents, the administration’s goal was to influence language through ideology and shunt science to the side.
You can keep pointing at campuses, too. Days after Haidt’s musings appeared online, the New Yorker published a piece by Jane Mayer that uncovered possible racial bias and illegal campaign activity by conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA. (President Trump praised the organization on Twitter the next day.)
Turning Point prowls college campuses for student government candidates who align with its aims and allegedly funnels secret money into their campaigns. It claims “a stronger, more organized presence than all the left-wing campus groups combined,” at more than a thousand schools altogether. The group also curates a “Professor Watch List” of those it deems too liberal. Professors on the list have received death threats. Some have had to leave campus for their physical safety.
The United States has a lot of problems. Some people see PC campus culture as paramount among them, and though their emphasis can seem misplaced, it’s their prerogative to champion unfettered expression. But if that’s really what they’re worried about, they might want to take a look around.