Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Off the Rails

George Orwell was a man of the left who saw clearly that the totalitarian impulse to control thought, speech and behavior of the masses led to dehumanization, repression, and horror. His novels 1984 and Animal Farm should be required reading for every high school or college student, but so far from warning us against the mind-numbing thought-control and censorship that Orwell foresaw in the late 1940s, many schools are actually trying, perhaps inadvertently, to foster something similar to it.

That's not exactly Philipp Oehmke's thesis in his article in Der Spiegel titled "Has Political Correctness Gone Off the Rails?", but much of what he reveals about the trends on the campus of Oberlin College (which it's reasonable to assume serves as a synecdoche for elite schools across the country) certainly has Orwellian overtones.

Here are just a few excerpts from Oehmke's essay.
Only a few months earlier, a handful of students claimed they had been traumatized after someone used chalk to scrawl "Trump 2016" on the walls of buildings and on sidewalks at Oberlin and at other liberal universities. It triggered protests on some campuses, with students demanding "safe spaces" where they would be spared from hearing or seeing the name of this "fascist, racist candidate."

In the months prior to the election, "safe spaces" had been one of the most widely discussed terms at Oberlin. The concept has its roots in feminism and describes a physically and intellectually sheltered space that protects one from potentially insulting, injurious or traumatizing ideas or comments -- a place, in short, that protects one from the world. When conservative philosopher and feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers was scheduled to give a speech at Oberlin last year, some students did not approve and claimed that Sommer's views on feminism represented "microaggressions."

When Sommers appeared anyway, leading some Oberlin students to create a "safe space" during the speech where, as one professor reported, "New Age music" was played to calm their nerves and ease their trauma. They could also "get massages and console themselves with stuffed animals."

"Microaggressions" are the conceptual cousins of "safe spaces" -- small remarks perceived by the victims to be objectionable. In addition, there are also "trigger warnings" -- brief indicators placed before a text, image, film or work of art alerting the viewer or listener of the possibility that it could "trigger" memories of a traumatic experience or the recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a warning surely makes sense for people who have experienced war, who have fled their home country or who have otherwise been exposed to cruelty and violence.

But at Oberlin, one student complained to the university administration and requested a trigger warning for Sophocles' "Antigone." The student argued that the suicide scene in the play had triggered strong emotions in him and that he, as someone who had himself long been on suicide watch, should have been warned. In an article he wrote for the Oberlin Review, the student, Cyrus Eosphoros, compared a trigger warning to the list of ingredients on food items. "People should have the right to know and consent to what they're putting into their minds," he wrote. Eosphoros has since dropped out of the school.

The call for safe spaces and trigger warnings in addition to complaints about microaggressions all fall under the term "political correctness" in the United States.

[Opponents of PC] consider it an expression of a victim culture, within which the hypersensitive "leftist mainstream" (also used as an epithet) seeks to isolate itself from every deviation from its own worldview. Opponents of political correctness consider it to be an overwrought fixation on the needs of minorities and one's individual identity, on skin color and gender.

In the last decade, however, the obsession with minorities and their victimhood may have gone overboard. In a much-discussed opinion piece for the New York Times last month, Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, argued that American liberalism in recent years has been seized by hysteria regarding race, gender and sexual identity.

"The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups," he wrote.

Even as the white working class and lower class flocked to Trump in droves, students at Oberlin were busy organizing a protest against the food served at the Afrikan Heritage House. A few students had pointed out that the dishes there were at most Westernized interpretations of the original recipes, a state of affairs which showed a lack of respect toward African traditions. This offense, too, has a term: "cultural appropriation."

Meanwhile, Asian students complained that the cafeteria served bánh mì using inauthentic ingredients, prompting accusations of cultural imperialism.

The college took the complaints seriously, as it does with all grievances lodged by students. It has a reputation to protect -- and must also protect itself from the lawsuits that many of its students' parents can easily afford.

For some professors, it has gone too far. One of those is Roger Copeland. On a recent Friday afternoon, he made his way to the Slow Train Café, the only place at Oberlin where everybody meets up during the day -- professors, students and activists. He has come to talk about everything he believes has destroyed his profession. He has recently accepted an early-retirement severence package and will be leaving the school in a few weeks. Professor Copeland has taught for over 40 years at Oberlin. He is a theater professor and he looks the part. He arrives wearing a Hawaiian shirt and speaks, even in normal discussion, as if he were reciting Shakespeare from the stage.

Copeland himself took to the streets in protest in the 1970s: against the Vietnam War, against Watergate -- the big things. On two occasions, he was arrested.

Today, though, it's personal pronouns that his students are squabbling over and Copeland has little understanding. He says students no longer want to be addressed as "he" or "she," but as "X" or "they" or newly created personal pronouns. At Oberlin, terms like "Latina" or "Latino" for people with Central or South American backgrounds have been replaced with the gender-neutral "Latinx."

Cisgender is a relatively new word and Copeland only recently became aware of it. He also learned that it is often used as an insult. It describes pretty much to a "T" what he is: a white, heterosexual man who is certain that he doesn't want to be a woman and isn't even a little bit bi-sexual.

Copeland isn't the only victim. Across the country, "social justice warriors," as they are disparagingly called, are leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, attacking professors, artists, authors and even DJs along the way.
Exactly how Copeland was victimized at Oberlin you can read about at the link along with much else about the state of affairs there.

Reflecting on Oehmke's article, it's difficult to think of anything more likely to balkanize us into groups insulated from and hostile towards one another than the inability to interact with each other without having to fear that we'll be innocently doing or saying something that could cost us our livelihood.

Where does it all end, and how and why have we come to this point in the first place?

Maybe one explanation is that many young people need a cause to infuse their lives with meaning, but when all the important battles have been largely won, nothing significant is left for which to fight. So students, and their faculty abettors, find their meaning in the minutiae of "social justice," magnifying these out of all proportion to their real importance, turning them into what they doubtless sincerely believe to be matters of grave urgency, when in fact, to people outside the academic bubble who struggle just to make a living for their families, they often seem trivial. Indeed, the great-grandparents of these students, men and women who confronted real social injustice, would probably find some of the preoccupations and obsessions of their descendants mystifying.

Perhaps for some another explanation is that by successfully intimidating both college administrators and the larger, probably more apathetic, student body into acceding to their demands, they find themselves experiencing a rush of euphoria that accompanies the realization that, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they have power over others. That rush can be catnip, it can be addictive, to the spiritually empty or politically impotent.

In any case, it's ironic that so many students are devastated by the election of Donald Trump because it is surely an aversion to the political correctness such as is illustrated in Oehmke's essay and strongly supported by Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, that was at least partly responsible for the electoral backlash the left suffered last November.

The faculty and students on our elite campuses probably don't see this, though. Oehmke closes his piece with this:
A few days after [the election], news of the vote breakdown in Oberlin came in: 4,575 votes for Hillary Clinton against 412 for Donald Trump. They now want to find those Trump voters. And confront them.
What does it mean to "confront them"? Does it mean to bully, harass, and intimidate them into conforming to the majority view? If so, it's another irony that students who claim to be offended by "microaggressions" in the larger culture - who protest against them and demand safe spaces from them - would employ the same tactics, on an even greater scale, against a minority group on their own campus. How Orwellian.