The defense of free speech has always been a bedrock bipartisan principle. So it’s unusual to hear a veteran liberal politician excuse campus outrage squads that shout down dissent. But that’s exactly what former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean did in a recent appearance — and his embrace of the campus left reveals a lot about the nation’s current cultural moment.
On a panel at Kenyon College last month, Dean brought up a notorious incident at Yale two years before. In 2015, lecturer and residence hall co-supervisor Erika Christakis had set off protests with an e-mail defending students’ freedom to wear Halloween costumes — such as ones based on the Chinese-inspired cartoon character Mulan — that some may find culturally insensitive. A viral video showed protesters mobbing and berating her husband, professor Nicholas Christakis. The couple later resigned their leadership posts, and Erika Christakis stopped teaching.
Dean’s take on this was that there are “consequences to free speech.” He caricatured Erika Christakis’s thoughtful, sensitive letter as an ugly screed mocking “snowflake” students and defending racist costumes. He also described the protesters as well-behaved, despite their screaming and bullying. That an academic became a target of red-hot rage for challenging progressive dogma on cultural appropriation did not seem to bother him in the least.
Dean is hardly alone in pooh-poohing worries about the illiberal academic left. With Republicans in control of the government and Donald Trump in the White House, many say that it’s crazy, maybe downright perverse, to worry about college students as a threat to liberal society. But not every form of power involves government authority. And what happens on campus doesn’t stay on campus.
For some time, a fixation on identity politics, a culture of reflexive outrage, and a scorched-earth approach to trivial transgressions have been all hallmarks of student activism and academic radicalism. They are now becoming increasingly evident in American life as a whole. In the name of defending women and ethnic and sexual minorities — all reasonable goals — progressives on and off campus are taking illiberal stances that polarize society, put a chill on free speech, and erode respect for due process.
Not long ago, tropes such as “white privilege” or “rape culture,” which reduce a vast range of social dynamics to racism and misogyny, were seldom heard outside the radical wing of the academy; today, they’ve joined the mainstream. The term “microaggression,” describing statements and acts deemed unintentionally prejudiced, now shows up without explanation even in business publications.
Opposing bigotry and injustice are noble goals; but the social justice movement, on and off campus, goes far beyond that. It labels people by identity, creating a hierarchy in which being “marginalized” confers status while being “privileged” brings shame. Moreover, given its focus on changing “wrong” attitudes, is almost by definition hostile to free speech: dissent, even counterargument, becomes “microaggression” or “discursive violence.”
The flap over kimonos in Boston in 2015 was a case in point. When the Museum of Fine Arts put on an interactive event that let visitors try on a kimono, protesters — primarily student activists — denounced it as “orientalism” and “cultural appropriation,” much to the bafflement of many Japanese-Americans and the Japanese consul. In the name of cultural sensitivity, a cross-cultural exchange was canceled. (Even the Trump administration has yet to shut down a single museum program.)
Raucous college activism is nothing new — though, in the 1960s, campus protesters fought for free speech, mostly in opposition to the Vietnam-era draft. In the late ’80s and early ’90s came the “political correctness” wars, which reflected shifting cultural mores on race and gender and helped entrench leftist orthodoxies on campuses.
The excesses of the campus left re-emerged as a national story in 2015 with a wave of student protests, at Yale and elsewhere, that were marked by shocking intolerance for dissent. More recently, student activism has taken the form of forcibly shutting down heretical speakers, from an American Civil Liberties Union representative to Black Lives Matter critic Heather Mac Donald.
Yet the assault on “bad” speech is not just a campus matter. Especially after the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville that turned violent last August, the idea that free speech protections should be reconsidered has been gaining currency on the left. Typical of the genre was a recent NBC News opinion piece by writer Noah Berlatsky, who argued that the First Amendment is too broad and that hate speech should be legally restricted. (What kind of speech Berlatsky would ban is unclear. While his focus is on white supremacists and neo-Nazis, his argument about the harms of “hate speech” seems to cover anything that promotes “stereotypes” about minorities.)
For now, the First Amendment seems safe. But the campus-bred identitarian left is leaving its mark on society in other ways, especially in areas directly connected to culture: media, publishing, and entertainment, which in turn help shape the social climate. Dissident progressive Phoebe Maltz Bovy notes in her recent book, “The Perils of Privilege,” that mainstream-media culture criticism is now heavily fixated on identity politics: Films, shows and entertainers are routinely discussed in terms of their treatment of race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality and often sternly reprimanded for taking an incorrect approach. (The recent backlash against the Golden Globe-winning movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” for its alleged blind spot on race is a case in point.)
Often, the effect is a chilling one. Publishers now employ “sensitivity readers” to prevent offense — which doesn’t always work. Last year, a young-adult novel depicting the persecution of Muslims in a dystopian America, previewed and praised by several Muslim-American readers, was savaged online for a “white savior narrative” because it portrays a white character’s journey to overcome her prejudice. Criticism is not censorship; but when the fear of a backlash becomes so strong that books get withdrawn and rewritten, this can create a genuinely repressive self-censoring climate.
The chill can extend to businesses. Once again, what starts as campus outrage can spill beyond campus. Two years ago, Oberlin College was briefly at the center of a PC-gone-mad story when some students complained about culturally insensitive ethnic cafeteria food. Earlier this year — after an outcry against “culinary white supremacy” in the online press and social media in Portland, Ore. — two women (one white, one part Chinese) felt obliged to shut down the burrito shop they had started after a trip to Mexico. Their handmade tortillas, it seems, were too oppressive.
How do ideas like “culinary white supremacy” make it off university grounds? Partly, it’s because professors who marinate in campus politics enjoy intellectual authority in the outside world, and their opinions appear in the national media. Partly, it’s also because a huge generation of students who have absorbed the “social justice” creed of the campus left, often promoted not only in class but in mandatory workshops, take that outlook with them when they graduate.
Among other things, this trend is evident in the recent conflicts over #MeToo, the movement against sexual abuse. As the list of accused men has grown, even veteran feminists, such as Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, have criticized the movement for equating accusation with guilt and boorish come-ons with rape. The call to “believe women” — instead of waiting for evidence and due process — was a campus protest slogan before #MeToo adopted it.
Likewise, the controversial sexual assault accusation against comedian Aziz Ansari, who appears to be guilty of little more than being a jerk on a date, reflects campus sexual conduct codes. The article accusing Ansari of misconduct was published on Babe.net, an offshoot of a media company that caters to college-age women — and is mainstream enough to count Rupert Murdoch among its investors.
Recent graduates, and the cultural politics they bring, also influence corporations that want to maintain a progressive image — including the tech giants that set the tone for much of the social media. One popular code of conduct for digital communities, cited as a model by companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, stresses that “marginalized people’s safety” must be prioritized over “privileged people’s comfort.”
Materials in the recent lawsuit by James Damore, the former Google engineer fired for writing a memo suggesting that gender disparities in tech jobs at the company are partly due to innate differences in career interests and personality characteristics, reveal a workplace culture where conservatives are routinely blacklisted and diversity promotion includes workshops on “healing from toxic whiteness.” Employees who question such methods are likely to penalized, formally or informally.
Is the doctrinaire left as dangerous to liberal democracy as the unified rule of the right? Certainly, the Trump-era Republican Party has the potential to do grave damage to democratic institutions and is already damaging liberal norms. But the academic left’s hostility to these norms should not be discounted, and its influence over progressive and Democratic dogma is only growing.
What’s more, left-wing campus politics also feed and empower the right. Stories of political correctness run amok, gleefully picked up by conservative media (and in some cases overblown), boost the perception of rampant hypersensitivity, speech policing, and anti-male and/or anti-white bias. New research by Georgia State University Ph.D. candidate Zack Goldberg confirms anecdotal reports that many Trump voters were at least partly motivated by concerns about political correctness.
Perhaps the real danger is that “social justice warriors” on the left are propping up Trumpism on the right, and vice versa. With each side spurring the other to action in a feedback loop, there will soon be little room left for anyone else.
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and a contributing editor at Reason. Follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63.