The Roots of Campus Progressivism’s Madness

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Why do so many left-wing students subscribe to a profoundly illiberal conception of political discourse?

This weekend, I became one alumnus among thousands of University of Michigan alumni heading out into the world to begin discharging my duties as a citizen: voting, paying taxes, and engaging my co-citizens in the public square. Some have argued that a sizeable number of my fellow graduates will not be able to make it in the real world. Because they have been conditioned to have an “expectation of confirmation” of their ideas, the thinking goes, these “snowflakes” will “melt” upon contact with different opinions. While that is a striking (and horrifying) thing to contemplate, I think we ought to take a step back and try to understand the campus mindset more thoroughly, because if we don’t, we’ll be subject to increasingly extreme displays of illiberalism and anti-intellectualism that will inevitably trickle out of universities and infect the wider society — to our collective detriment.

The first thing to know is that the picture that is painted in the media of campuses as incubators and hotbeds of far-left radicalism is, too often, accurate — and depressing. What’s more, too many of the most politically active liberal students understand neither free speech nor one of its prime functions: to discover what’s true. And why would they? After all, free speech and truth itself are nothing more than oppressive, white-supremacist social constructs! Nearly every liberal college student with whom I have spoken in-person or engaged online believes that the First Amendment proscribes so-called hate speech, by which they seem to mean nothing more than speech that expresses ideas with which they disagree or that offend them. And when they find out that the First Amendment does not actually achieve this, to them, desirable end, they bristle: Well, it should!

“That’s offensive!” is a common retort among my peers, and it shows how far standards of discourse have plummeted. The numbers bear this out. But while clustering, the political polarization of academia and society more generally, and the rise of social media bear their share of the blame, they are not by themselves sufficient explanations for what is happening on our elite campuses. Why are students behaving in ever more fascistic ways?

There are two primary reasons. First, students themselves don’t believe that it is at all unrealistic to expect that their professors peddle progressive ideas about any and all subjects, because their politics are increasingly indistinguishable from a sort of new-age religion. Second, they operate under a concept of “freedom” that is illiberal but nonetheless highly consistent with their basic moral and intellectual intuitions, backgrounds, and formations.

John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, in his “Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion,” at the Daily Beast, likens our society’s now-commonplace stigmatization of racism to a religion. Essentially, McWhorter argues that, for the political Left, questions and challenges to progressive orthodoxy vis-à-vis race are a priori inappropriate and thus “a symptom of, yes, racism’s persistence.” Increasingly, too, sexual orientation, gender, and various other social identities have been folded into the religion of Antiracism, which is, as a result, morphing into the broader religion of what I’ll call “Antibigotry,” where “bigotry” is defined exclusively and unilaterally by the Left’s tripartite secular clerisy: legacy media, academia, and Hollywood.

Consequently, discussions about certain controversial issues are often fraught with tension and wholly unproductive. Take, for example, affirmative action. Philosophically, there are good arguments for and against the practice. Practically speaking, though, there seems to be strong evidence that the policy harms minorities and spawns unnecessary problems. And constitutionally speaking, it seems quite plausible that an original understanding of the 14th Amendment — very much in the “mainstream” of judicial practice, contra the rantings of Senator Schumer and co. — would hold that the Constitution abhors distinctions based solely on race.

Despite this powerful case to be made against affirmative action, the response by many of my peers is often simply to assert that to oppose the practice is itself racist, no matter the seeming reasonableness of the person who does so. This is because, for many of those who support affirmative action, there simply is no reasonable case against it. Anyone who dares to argue otherwise or even just fails to express unbridled enthusiasm for the practice reveals his own damnable unbelief, and opens himself up for ritual purging.

How did we get to this point?

McWhorter once again offers insight. In his “When Slogans Replace Arguments,” at the Chronicle of Higher Education, he maintains that student protesters — those whom the right-wing commentariat often labels “whiners” — operate with the tacit assumption that the racism that they are battling is “something as unequivocally, conclusively intolerable as genocide, slavery, or the withdrawal of women’s suffrage” when, in reality, “their demands [e.g., speaking out against ‘microaggressions’] address problems more specific than ‘racism,’ ones that are very much up for intelligent, civil debate.” These students fervently believe that they are the front-line troops of an infallible moral vanguard, locked in an epic struggle for the very soul of their generation — and of their nation, rotten to the core though they often maintain it to be. Unsurprisingly, then, speech that “offends” them, or ideas that call into question their own conception of the world, are more truly seen as existential threats to the all-consuming struggle for “social justice” — not to mention harbingers of the resurgence of the frightening, oppressive, “cisnormative,” “heteropatriarchal,” white-supremacist, highly defective moral order of yesteryear.

It is not because students are ‘snowflakes’ and have pie in the sky illusions about what to expect from college that they shout down or assault speakers.

What I call “true racism,” the sort rampant during Jim Crow, obviously just is wrong. But left-wing students are not now dealing with such a phenomenon; they are instead faced with “racism-lite,” or the existence of persons whose only sin is to offer robust arguments that contradict the sacrosanct dogmas of Antibigotry. Given their moral, intellectual, and social journeys, then, it is not quite so shocking that they understand themselves to have entirely legitimate grievances and are accordingly motivated to act in extreme ways against what they see as the specter of normalized bigotry’s reasserting itself.

Many left-wing students are also utterly incapable of fathoming that their political opponents disagree with them in good faith. Emmett Rensin’s Vox essay “The Smug Style of American Liberalism” is instructive here because of what it doesn’t say. Rensin notes what numerous others have noted previously: Progressives do not believe that they have an ideology. Rather, they believe that their policy prescriptions and even value judgments are “fact-based” and reflect only their commitment to dispassionate pragmatism — that they are advocating for any given political program exclusively because it is just “what works.” This is laughable on its face, and yet all-too-many progressives continue to believe it. Why?

Because, per Rensin, American liberalism — progressivism — is shot through with a nasty smugness, a “way of conducting politics” that is “predicated on the belief that American life is not divided by moral difference or policy divergence . . . but by the failure of half the country to know what’s good for them.” It is this smugness that turns off so many of the Americans who he believes should be progressivism’s natural constituents:

This . . . is fundamental to understanding the smug style. If good politics and good beliefs are just Good Facts and good tweets—that is, if there is no ideology beyond sensible conclusions drawn from a rational assessment of the world—then there are no moral fights, only lying liars and the stupid rubes who believe them.

Rensin’s point is that the “hicks” out there are just grossly out of step with the modern world, that the only way they can possibly disagree with progressivism’s tenets is if they are morons. That they oppose the cultural Marxism of gender deconstructionists or demands for so-called reproductive justice (read: an unlimited right to abortion), that their gut reaction is to shudder at mass, illegal immigration or recoil at the Left’s flagrant, frequent, and often fanatical rhetoric and displays of anti-Americanism is simply proof positive that they have been duped, hoodwinked, or otherwise allowed themselves to be misled by right-wing charlatans. They are, in other words, dreadfully mired in their wrong-thinking ways, all the while committing myriad thought crimes.

Rensin doesn’t go far enough, however. Believing that one’s ideological opponents are merely dumb is one thing, sure. But if that truly is the case, how can the crazed manner in which students behave be conceptualized and justified when they insist, as they did at UC Berkeley after Milo Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking there in early February, that physical violence is an appropriate response to mere words? It is clear that something else is afoot. Progressives on campus tacitly subscribe to the notion of the existence of a Kantian “higher self” when dealing with speech. Thus they see it as their (sacred) duty to “educate” the unwashed masses on the arcane and ultimately risible particularities of how one is to properly comport oneself in polite society. (Asking another student, “Where are you from?” — a completely reasonable question under normal circumstances — is a “microaggression” at the University of Minnesota and far too many other universities.)

In this way, paradoxically, speech is supposedly freer than when the First Amendment is fully intact. Indeed, the First Amendment as written actually hinders speech, for it does nothing to assist people on the journey to becoming their “higher selves,” the selves who would never think to question the self-evidently bogus shibboleths of progressivism. When speech that offends is suppressed and its proponents are driven out of polite society, those who have been historically oppressed are more able to speak their minds. Thus, we are all freer when true free speech is curtailed.

These positions, commonly held by my peers and many others, are profoundly wrongheaded. But it is not because students are “snowflakes” and have pie-in-the-sky illusions about what to expect from college that they shout down or assault speakers. It is because they have been bombarded by messages from an overwhelmingly progressive media (“The Megaphone”) and raised on a steady diet of Antibigotry scripture that they have come to believe that arguments against certain policies that just so happen to implicate people’s identities — their race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. — are fueled by nothing more than a barely (if at all) veiled hatred of the members of those groups.

No wonder these students are so livid. After all, roughly half the populace (the conservative, “traditional,” Republican half) shamelessly flouts one of the crystal-clear moral imperatives of our age: that to be free, decent, and fully human means collectively agreeing to give no quarter to ideas which may offend anyone, anywhere, at any time.

— Deion Kathawa is an alumnus of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor with degrees in both philosophy and political science, the former editor in chief of the Michigan Review, and a contributor to American Greatness.




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