Many have observed a trend on campus toward intolerance for expression and debate. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the monomaniacal, semi-professional street performers who dedicate themselves to careers in activism. In recent years, however, those advocating aggression in response to unwanted speech have migrated from the streets onto student-newspaper editorial boards, where they gloss their tyrannical fanaticism with a veneer of false sagacity.
In recent years, student editors have protested the appearance of conservative speakers on campus by associating difficult ideas with physical trauma. A 2012 op-ed in the Harvard Crimson declared expressions of racism to be “an act of violence.” In 2015, The Oberlin Review protested Christina Hoff Sommers for questioning the statistical basis for a variety of feminist myths by penning “a love letter to ourselves.” This exercise in self-soothing relieved the pain that resulted from the rejection of what Hillary Clinton once called a self-professed victim’s “right to be believed.” Georgetown’s The Hoya endorsed Oberlin’s assessment of the threat posed by Sommers and, thus, critical statistical analysis by asserting that her invitation to speak at the university amounted to endorsing “a harmful conversation.”
The notion that one is under physical assault eventually legitimizes—even demands—a preventative response. The editors at Wellesley College’s student newspaper inadvertently endorsed this grim totalitarianism in an editorial advocating the use of “appropriate measures” against those who support those they deem to be irresponsible politicians or lecturers. “[I]f people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted,” the piece read. Amid laborious prose that read as though an algorithm translated it from the original Mandarin, these students articulated the logical foundations of fascism: We, the victimized, are owed reparative justice. And here it comes.
Those with a cursory understanding of history won’t be surprised to see that this vaguely menacing worldview includes a semi-coherent racial component. When the students at Claremont McKenna College marched and protested an appearance by Heather Mac Donald for having the temerity through scholarship and perseverance to challenge the myths preferred by the Black Lives Matter movement (sensing a pattern?), they chose to segregate their protest by race. “For white accomplices,” read a Facebook post from a protest organizer, who surely meant “allies.” “Please keep in mind that your role… is to serve as a buffer between students of color and the police.” Supporters of this tactic contend that police are less likely to use violence against white protesters, as was the case during the Civil Rights Movement’s demonstrations in the early 1960s. The problem with this logic is that this is not the Civil Rights Movement and it’s most certainly not the early 1960s.
The left’s impulse to segregate would be more threatening if its members’ narcissism did not temper it. “Protests are not the apex of activism, and in some cases, a large presence of white people actually hinders the overall goals for such a gathering,” wrote a columnist in Chapman University’s student paper, “like when more media attention is put on white people standing at the front of a protest rather than focusing on the people who are actually affected by the issues at hand.” She must have missed the memo about a plague of police violence targeting African-American protesters on college campuses.
Of course, for some on the left, the lack of police violence meted out against white people is a source of great shame. Writing in the New Republic, the liberal columnist Jess Zimmerman took aim at the display of admirable civility put on by anti-Donald Trump demonstrators at January’s nationwide Women’s March. “If the police stay their hand with you, white women, it is not a compliment,” she wrote. “It is condescension.” In other words, if white protesters do not provoke police violence, they are little better than those against whom they are protesting.
Central to all these increasingly belligerent internal debates among members of the activist left is the question of violence. Is it necessary? When should it be invited? What is the maximum political benefit derived from its targeted application? Out of a culture that equates discomfiting speech with violence has sprung forth an ethos that justifies a physical response to challenging ideas. In February, protesters at the University of California, Berkeley set their college alight to prevent Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. A month later, the invitation of Charles Murray to address Middlebury College spurred a reptilian mob to attack their professors, giving one whiplash and a concussion. These acts of animalism are spontaneous, but an intellectual class that excuses violence in the effort to silence dissent has lent them a kind of legitimacy. It won’t be long before this behavior is no longer so unplanned.
Perhaps the generation of agitators gestating on American college campuses believes their illiberal, racially conscious movement is a necessary response to current political conditions, but that is a bankrupt logic. Only toxic moral relativism can justify violence and racial segregation in the name of combating injustice. As philosophy professor Peter Kreeft observed, the relativistic rejection of absolute truths and moral imperatives isn’t noble. “Moral relativism has a reputation for being compassionate, caring and humane,” Kreeft wrote, “but it is an extremely useful philosophy for tyrants.” The students on campuses indulging their worst Jacobin impulses would benefit from consuming Kreeft’s work, but they must have skipped class that day.