Many critics of the students protesting racism so vociferously on college campuses these days say they are just "whiners" who need to accept that life isn’t perfect and get back to their books. Political correctness has run so rampant, these critics say, that it threatens freedom of speech. Both claims are reductive analyses of something more complex.
But the fact is that one need not suffer from residual bigotry, or even mere incomprehension, to find something amiss in the furious building takeovers, indignant slates of radical demands, and claims that life on today’s college campuses is an endless experience of racism. Protest is crucial in an enlightened and complex society, but something has indeed gone wrong — and college leaders and the faculty share as much of the blame as the students.
The "whiny" analysis is hasty — the now-famous lists of students’ demands always include some legitimate concerns. For example, if I were an undergraduate at Princeton today, Woodrow Wilson’s name on university buildings would rankle me. I am given neither to street-style protest nor to the idea that public buildings must be purged of the names of all figures whose social views we now find unpleasant. But Wilson, for all of his accomplishments, was especially bigoted even for his era and Southern origins.
More to the point, the claim that a college campus should be a locus of absolutely unfettered free speech is a pose. There are certain opinions and topics which an enlightened society can today justifiably exclude from discussion. No university any of us would want to be associated with would entertain "free speech" in favor of genocide, slavery, or withdrawing women’s right to vote, even in the vein of airing them in order to review the arguments against them, as John Stuart Mill advised be done with repugnant ideas. There comes a point where all will agree that we have made at least some progress in social history and, in the interests of time and energy, need not revisit issues that have been decided. The question, however, is which issues, and this is where our current student protesters err in their confidence.
The tenor of their protests is founded on an assumption — tacit but, like most tacit assumptions, decisive — that they are battling something as unequivocally, conclusively intolerable as genocide, slavery, or the withdrawal of women’s suffrage: namely, "racism." And of course, none of us are in favor of racism, which allows their rhetoric a certain potency. One resists opposing a battle declared on such terms. However, these students have been allowed to suppose that racism is a much simpler concept than it is. The reason they come off as "whiners" is because their demands address problems more specific than "racism," ones that are very much up for intelligent, civil debate.
Another frequent protest target is "cultural appropriation," as when members of Bowdoin’s student government faced impeachment proceedings for wearing tiny sombreros at a "Tequila party," or student leaders at the University of Ottawa suspended yoga classes, deeming them insensitive to the legacies of colonialism. But what is cultural appropriation? In the 1920s, rampant fusion of European and African musical styles created jazz, and new American ways of dancing. This has been endlessly celebrated by artists and intellectuals of all stripes, and yet it would qualify today as cultural appropriation by whites of black "heritage." The entire Greco-Roman encounter could be considered "cultural appropriation," along with all of European and Asian history. If few of us today would be inclined to wish those past events away, what do we make of condemnations of white gay men for adopting some of black women’s speech patterns and gestures out of admiration? Is it appropriation when little white girls wear Mulan costumes for Halloween? This is territory for continuing — and even fascinating — discussion and debate. "Appropriation" cannot be merely hauled off as a claim of injury along the incontestable lines of "Ouch!"
Or, take racial preferences in college admissions. Should they continue indefinitely and, if not, for how long? Should they be based solely on race or also on socioeconomics? The issue is hugely complex, and yet a standard example used to support claims that racism is rampant on campuses is that nonblack students treat affirmative action as a topic of discussion rather than advocacy. Affirmative action has now acquired such a totemic status on campus that discussing it in anything but beatific terms is inconceivable. However, the on-the-ground reality of affirmative action is tricky.
A frequently used example of microaggression is the assumption that a black student was admitted under affirmative action. Yet taking umbrage at that assumption is rather dismissive of those students who actually were admitted via affirmative action — you must consider them deficient in some way. That paradox could furnish grounds for a discussion about whether affirmative action should be a permanent policy and to whom it should be applied.
However, today’s students can be pardoned for thinking such a discussion could take place only among people who would have felt at home in Hitler’s bunker. The stark yet civil logic that characterized academic discussion about affirmative action in the 1970s — it is uncanny to read the sheer calmness of these writings from our vantage point — has been largely replaced by euphemisms that analysts a century from now will toil to parse.
Hence today’s young people are under the impression that anyone who questions the unassailable moral wisdom of eternal affirmative action for all people of color is naïve at best (they don’t know that a higher percentage of black people than white ones are poor, and that racism still exists) or Satanic at worst (they are working to keep black people in poverty). This is unfortunate and further reveals the problem with claiming that campus culture is, quite simply, "racist."
That claim is, in larger view, anti-intellectual. It has no place on a university campus, even in the service of social justice.
Catchphrases like "microaggression" and "cultural appropriation" are even more insidious because their sonic allure encourages people to substitute them for thought. The "safe space" metaphor, for example, and the invocation of the "black body" as an object of historical and continued abuse, appeal in part because of the alliteration and rhythm in the phrases. However, euphony and placard-readiness are not argument. When black civil-rights pioneers endured pitiless condescension throughout their lives, as well as jailings and beatings of their black bodies, do we not minimize their sufferings by claiming that we need spaces "safe" from passing microaggressions? Veterans of the revolutionary barricades of the 1960s such as Todd Gitlin have noted that the very idea connotes a cry of weakness, antithetical to the strength required of a successful protest movement.
Even the concept of social justice requires careful consideration in contexts such as these. The very term "social justice" is used in these protests as a battering ram, as if anyone with real questions for the protesters is morally equivalent to someone battling child labor laws, or is questioning the appropriateness of organized protest itself. The idea that all protest is, by definition, beyond criticism constitutes a refrain from reflection: It is, again, anti-intellectual.
Justice is a protean subject that philosophers have spent millennia in disagreement about. The indignant, eye-rolling indoctrination in the guise of social justice — for example, in demands that all on campus submit to classes on microaggression, as if its definition were as incontestable as French irregular verbs — flies in the face of any reasoned conception of justice or morality.
The platform here is not simply radical — in which case it would still be open for debate. Rather, it is semicoherent. Those who see these students as heirs of the ’60s counterculture, or of the Wobblies and Haymarket protesters, are standing too far back from the action.
The question is whether the current protests are appropriate or productive, and to what degree. For example, to treat the current rash of disinvitations of campus speakers as, simply, "protest" is a fundamentally disengaged position. It implies that refusing to allow someone to air offensive ideas is the only kind of protest that exists. However, a protest could consist of a demonstration making opposition to the speakers’ views known (and, these days, amply broadcast on social media). A protest could entail attending the speaker’s presentation and then presenting a withering takedown of his or her arguments in the campus newspaper the next day. A protest could take the form of inviting a speaker with opposed views to campus hot on the heels of the one who gave offense. Shutting down the event completely as an offense to "safe space" is another choice, but one among many, and like the others, requires justification — and not simply in the name of something as amorphous as "social justice."
Our students’ oversimplified sense of what racism consists of is not, in the end, their fault. While claims that college campuses have been taken over by a furiously leftist professoriate are vastly exaggerated, let’s face the facts. Namely, in the climate that has reigned since the 1980s, a student is highly unlikely to encounter a class discussion on race issues in which views pointedly opposed to the liberal orthodoxy are given as much air time as the orthodoxy, or in which a critical mass of students — as opposed to the occasional especially "brave" and usually Republican one — feel free to espouse the oppositional view knowing that if they are logical and civil they will not be accused of moral degeneracy.
We can be sure it’s not that students don’t exist who might question the standard-line arguments, since in interviews and campus surveys they are vociferous about feeling muzzled by the current campus climate. Rather, the question becomes: How could we expect today’s students to be aware that affirmative action, microaggression, and cultural appropriation are not akin to genocide and slavery and therefore are not exempt from real exploration? They have been taught, as much via omission as example, that these phenomena are all "racism" writ large, and that their duty as moral citizens is to battle this "racism." They are not whining, they are putting their learning into action.
Sadly, I see little evidence that this bias in how students are instructed in race issues will change any time soon. However, its result is that a substantial body of students feel sincerely justified in painting American university campuses — perhaps the least racist spaces on the planet earth — as oppressive hotbeds of pitiless, near-daily discrimination. Even sympathetic observers end up a tad uncomfortable here: Those of us who support today’s protests against police brutality against black people (such as myself) are less enthusiastic about the campus protests modeled directly on those.
The reason for the difference in reaction, however, is something most people are reluctant to admit, and sometimes may feel it isn’t their "place" to state. But there comes a point when the demands of empiricism are so self-evident that to deny them is possible only via disengagement or self-deception. Today’s protesters’ depiction of racism on college campuses is vastly exaggerated to the point of the fantastical. Certainly racism exists on campuses, as it does in the world. Certainly there are instances of it that we should try to exterminate. A student barring all but white women from a fraternity party, as was said to have happened one night at Yale last fall, should be reported and possibly expelled.
However, is bigotry so open and ceaseless on today’s college campuses that it necessitates protest so recklessly furious that a naïve observer would assume conditions were little advanced beyond those of 1930? We insult the intelligence of the protesters, as well as black people everywhere, to pretend that the answer is yes.
Until college leaders are brave enough to foster a truly open-minded discussion of race issues, though, we can expect protests like these to continue far into the future.
Correction (4/19/2016, 1:00 p.m.) In the sentence that begins, "Namely, in the climate that has reigned since the 1980s …," an editing error that introduced ambiguity has been repaired.
John H. McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford University Press, 2014).