There is a kind of language preferred by the the young, left-leaning and well-educated that can strike others as so effete and finely attenuated that it amounts to gobbledygook. In fact, the pet terms of these young people -- "intersectionality," "structural inequality" and, last but certainly not least, the "microaggression" -- often serve to alert others that they are, in fact, others.
These words might aim to carefully describe the sometimes-insidious remnants of American bigotry and the complex network of injustices that play out over people's lifetimes. They might aim to describe things and experiences that are real, that contain the remaining work of those concerned with justice. But for those whose primary political and intellectual activities consist of backyard barbecue conversations and the occasional trip to the voting booth, it's also language that offers almost tangible proof of something else entirely.
For them, these young people see the world in a way that is so different -- so divorced from the reality of holding down a decent-paying job or longing for one, raising kids and paying bills -- that there is little point in listening to them at all. And it's that very disconnect that has made the recent spate of protests about language, treatment and the obligations of university administrators so hard for many Americans to understand.
They see young people, clad in their $250 Columbia jackets and $150 Ugg boots and accompanied in protest by their $100 iPhones, $2,000 laptops and constantly updated Twitter feeds talking about disadvantage and long-simmering discontent. And, for some Americans, it all makes very little sense. The fact that many of these students attended K-12 schools more segregated than did their parents or that the quality of those schools and the instruction offered statistically has much more to do with how many white children were in attendance than almost anything else, is not nearly as easy to spot in a front-page newspaper photo or online image as as an oh- perfectly-slouchy $185 cashmere beanie or a $118 pair of True Religion skinny jeans. The same is true of the many experiences with the nation's health care system, its banks, its police and other institutions in which no amount of personal or parental wealth can eliminate the elevated risk that blacks and Latinos face of experiencing something unusual, something substandard or something downright unconstitutional.
Still, to these Americans, claims that the content of college course catalogs, the composition of school faculty and the names that hang above ivy-covered building doorways amount to manifestations of bias can seem ephemeral, unclear and complicated, at best -- and, at worst, totally farcical.
Most recently, a group of students who staged a 32-hour sit-in protest in the office of Princeton University President Christopher Eisgrube have come in for what might be more than their fair share of public ridicule after they tried to demand the removal of former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson's name from one of the university's world-renowned schools and a mural honoring Wilson on campus.
To boil this down to it's simplest (the students might prefer the words "most reductive") terms, the Princeton students who amassed in Eisgrube's office are asking that one of the nation's most respected Ivy League institutions look and think seriously about the social and cultural consequences -- on the respected campus and off -- of giving venerated space and mention to only part of the life, work and legacy of Wilson. They are asking that the school consider the more complex truth about who Wilson really was.
Wilson was not simply a Virginia-born Princeton alum who went on to serve as the University's chief administrator. He was not merely the 28th president of the United States. He was not only the mind behind what would become the United Nations. He was a man who said openly and often that he wanted repeal the 14th and 15th Amendments granting African Americans birthright citizenship and black men the right to vote. He was a university president who discouraged black enrollment and a U.S. president who, at the very least, expressed some sympathy for the frustrations that drove the Klu Klux Klan's long terrorist rampage.
These students are arguing that the constant celebration of one part of Wilson's story without regular and equally prominent attention to the rest offers a kind of quiet sanction or casual acceptance of pronounced bigotry. It conveys the message that this part of Wilson amounts to an insignificant part of his history. They are claiming that the psychological assault involved in studying at a school (or watching students the world over vie to attend it) bearing the name of a man who did not think African Americans worthy of citizenship or the franchise does more than impede learning. It dispatches into the world otherwise thoughtful people who, at some level, have been taught that some indignities and injustices are reasonable, or at least pragmatic. It creates another generation of Americans who simply cannot fathom the idea that this is a heavy and unnecessary load that non-white Americans bear daily.
News that Princeton's president would sit and discuss the name of one of Princeton's most vaunted schools or the future of a Wilson campus mural is, for many Americans, at this point not even worthy of more than a firm shake of the head.
Oddly, though, it's Donald Trump and a handful of violent supporters who have made very plain for the "others" why some attention to "microagressions" and non-lethal threats makes a whole lot of sense after all.
In fact, The Fix is going to go so far as to say this: The students at Princeton and every other school engaged in a war about language and inclusion, hostilities and affronts -- both major and minor -- should consider thanking Trump.
Trump and each of the people who engaged in hitting, kicking, choking or physically removing a (perhaps annoying but, at least before the assault began, peaceful) black protester from Trump's Alabama rally have really done quite a lot in very little time to make the importance of rhetoric and the danger inherent in normalizing the utterly objectionable perfectly and utterly clear. And they have done it without multi-syllabic words, perfect pictures or actions that require much explanation at all. Even they would almost certainly agree most of the media are not on their side.
After just more than five months without much in the way of reasoned political debate, plainly constitutional policy proposals and the semblance of respect for others, Trump and the violent protesters at his rally have made plain just what the psychic affirmation of some Americans' worst and ugliest fears and unchecked assumptions can do.
It should really come as no surprise to Trump fans or those who proudly oppose him that it came from a campaign launched by a man who has long fueled claims that President Obama has no legitimate hold on the Oval Office, that began with a speech demonizing undocumented immigrants and arguably all Latinos (depending on your point of view), which promptly moved on to menstrual-cycle references and looks-centered ridicule of women who refused to be silenced by Trump. And, it should come as no shock at all that using its campaign-controlled media platforms, the Trump operation has give voice and major amplification to a host of arguably racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and utterly false conspiracy theories and would, this weekend, stage an event where a man with a different set of political ideas was stomped to the ground.
Hate -- particularly the kind that grows from fear and anxiety about the loss of a singular hold on all opportunities sought after and desired in a society -- does not instantly grow dangerous. It does not instantly morph into a kind of intolerant violence on display at the Trump gathering in Alabama.
Let's face and collectively acknowledge this, at least: That scene in Alabama would have been incredibly unlikely at a presidential campaign speech when Trump kicked off his campaign in June. But, like any unaddressed contagion, that kind of sentiment can, with time and the right conditions, crop up at other events to come. They have already given Trump such a commanding lead that other candidates feel the need, to some degree, to emulate Trump and his rhetoric, just to remain competitive.
That's why the students at Princeton and on every other campus where young people, equipped with little more than their advanced ideas and their youthful blend of naiveté and confidence (some might say arrogance) should thank Trump and his most violent and passionate supporters. Together, they have made the social weight and intellectual danger of allowing the unacceptable to masquerade as normal utterly and totally plain.