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Culture

Morals and Moralizing at Yale

It’s a relief to see the intelligence of a lot of the commentary that this Yale and University of Missouri ugliness has generated across the spectrum. Rich has a characteristically trenchant treatment. Over at The Atlantic, by contrast, Connor Friedsorf has this nicely reported piece, in the kill-them-with-kindness category. Writing for New York Magazine, meanwhile, former New Republic writer Jonathan Chait is simply exasperated

The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement…. 

That these activists have been able to prevail, even in the face of frequently harsh national publicity highlighting the blunt illiberalism of their methods, confirms that these incidents reflect something deeper than a series of one-off episodes. They are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the delegitimization of dissent as a first-order goal.

That such voices are now cropping up on the left as well as the right is a good thing. Sometimes the best way to deal with a revolution is to let it burn itself out. But Chait’s comparison to Marxism bears more than a moment’s reflection. In 1966, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in China, an apocalyptic upending of society in which student youth were sent out from the schools into society to correct the bourgeois excesses of Communist party elites. The differences between the Red Guards of Communist China and today’s student activists are often more of degree than of kind. America’s universities have not been shut down, as they were in the Chinese case; but like their Red Guard counterparts, todays student activists obviously don’t have much homework to do. In the Chinese case, students were able to have leaders arrested and sent to prison or out into the fields or factories to work as menial laborers; whereas today’s student activists merely denounce, and intimidate, and ruin careers. It’s all a harrowing testament to the facility with which narratives of grievance turn into excuses for tyranny and oppression. That’s just one of the tendencies that today’s university students share with political Islam, incidentally.

The inclusivity movement’s desire to suppress free speech is every bit as horrible as the racism that it’s supposed to be combating. In both cases, the evil is the tendency to want to tyrannize and subjugate others. To submit to tyranny — to offer groveling apologies like the university officials have done at New Haven and Columbia, like dissidents making forced confessions in Stalinist show trials — is not only grotesque and shameful, it contributes to the problem. These people cannot be mollified with apologies or concessions. They must be fought with the force of our own moral self-confidence and conviction. You think I’m speaking from white privilege, young student? Is what I’m saying a micro-aggression? Hate speech, perhaps? Why don’t you go learn something, so the people who are paying for your education don’t feel like they’re contributing to the decline and fall of our civilization.  

Dean Acheson said once that moralizing and being moral are not the same thing. That’s a cardinal point, perhaps the most important in this whole controversy. People who are truly moral tend to focus first of all on correcting their own behavior. Those who seek to make others tolerant should start with tolerance of others. Moralizing over others, on the other hand, is just a way of tyrannizing over them.​ It is not always easy to tell the difference between the two. Self-admitted sinners of the sanctimonious sort (a peculilarly American genre of which Jimmy Carter is the greatest living exponent) can make it hard to tell the difference between being moral and moralizing, because conflating the two is often their whole strategy. But, lucky for us, today’s university students may as well be donning uniforms and forming Red Guard brigades. 

These students are to be resisted, not coddled. Far from being a force for morality or justice, they are a very real danger to society, and should be treated as such.

Attention should now focus on university officials. It goes without saying that the University of Missouri professor should be fired for brazenly inciting mob violence against a student. A real test of our social strength will be whether the Yale screamer is expelled from school. Meanwhile, if you’re a university administrator, you are hopefully starting to understand how dangerous it is to defer to these students’ strategically exaggerated and utterly hypocritical sensitivities. Please stop apologizing to them. This is not Communist China, and you are not in a show trial. Have some backbone and stick up for yourself. Otherwise what kind of an example are you in the end?

Contributing editor Mario Loyola is senior fellow and Director of the Center for Competitive Federalism at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He began his career in corporate ...

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