Safe spaces. Trigger warnings. The “fat acceptance” movement. Trigglypuff. The progressive, feminist politics of the American campus have become so extreme that they’ve become comical. But how did this situation come to pass?
There are few people who can answer the question better than Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the maverick cultural critic Camille Paglia. If the tearful, toddler-like beast of progressive campus feminism is Voldemort, preying on the impressionable minds of young students, then Sommers and Paglia could be likened to Dumbledore, the wise wizard who has a better understanding of the villain than anyone.
The two legends of the culture wars, who have been battling campus feminism and political correctness together since the late 1980s, filmed an hour-long discussion for the American Enterprise Institute which was released last week. It’s a must-watch for anyone interested in the resurgence of political correctness, feminism, and the politics of victimhood.
While cultural libertarians of the 1980s and 1990s preoccupied with the censorship campaigns of the religious right, Sommers and Paglia saw a new threat to freedom looming on the horizon: campus feminism. Dogmatic, censorious, and anti-sex, it had morphed from what was, briefly, a force of liberty to one of pink jack-booted authoritarianism. The movement of Friedan, which sought to liberate women from oppressive social norms and taboos had become the movement of Dworkin and MacKinnon, who sought to impose entirely new ones.
Sommers and Paglia went to war, fighting against a movement to which they both claimed membership — in part to save it from the censorious figureheads of the 1980s. For a while, they succeeded: their books, which included Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism? achieved instant success, and their arguments resounded with a public sick of early-90s political correctness.
But as we’ve seen with the rise of safe spaces on campus, the Title IX crisis on campus, and the panic over rape culture, authoritarian feminism and political correctness have since rebounded. In the video, Sommers and Paglia explain why.
“The excesses of feminism, the victimology, the male-bashing, the panic over sexuality — at the time, 21 years ago, we were confident that it would be corrected, that it was simply too mad to succeed” said Sommers. “But it’s still here.”
“People are going to start to wake up and realize that if they had listened to us to begin with, we wouldn’t have these problems now” agreed Paglia.
Sommers and Paglia then launched into an in-depth dissection of the current problems on American campuses, and where they came from.
Sommers explained how an unholy alliance had formed between college administrators, radical students, and the state. “It’s a kind of axis of intolerance with deans and fanatical young feminists and the United States government, because the Department of Education has sent this directive to all the schools that they have to clamp down on harassers and so forth, and they’ve defined it so broadly that if you hear someone telling an off-colour joke, you can bring them up on charges of harassment… So we have this little reign of terror, this hyper-puritanism.”
“The bureaucrats have taken over the universities” said Paglia, although she also blamed “utter wimps” in faculties for not fighting back.
Sommers and Paglia also discussed the rise of the coddled American student, who wants to be protected from anything that might hurt their feelings.
“It’s what education has come to. They’re therapeutic resorts — [that’s] what education has turned into” said Paglia.
“They come to college thinking that if someone disagrees with them or says something that’s distressing, it’s a catastrophe” agreed Sommers.
The pair also touched on the persistence of virulent anti-Americanism among the campus left.”
“They believe … that all other cultures in the history of the world were somehow a paradise on earth, when in fact we’re enjoying the most liberties ever as women!” said Paglia.
“All these students who are so hostile to the United States because it’s a capitalist hetero-patriarchal oppressive imperialist system, these sort of terms are taken seriously” responded Sommers. “Well, compared to what! What other country … I mean, we’re far from perfect but we’re a struggling democracy that’s done more to address racism and classism and sexism than any country I’m aware of, but it’s almost as if they don’t know that.”
They concluded by discussing solutions to the present crisis on American campuses, with the discussion ending on a hopeful note about the rise of dissident millennials.
“I think there has to be pressure on the colleges and the universities themselves” said Paglia. “To maintain an atmosphere for civil discourse and for hospitality to guests of any political persuasion, and without that sort of backbone coming from the college administrations themselves, I think this is going to go on.”
“But I feel that there’s slowly a sense of things turning, that [they’re] starting to become aware that this is really getting absurd now.”
“Every generation faces a threat to freedom” said Sommers. “You always have to fight for it … There’s always movements that come along and have good reasons why someone should have to shut up, or keep quiet.”
“Someone called our universities islands of repression in a sea of freedom. Students have to liberate their islands. We’re here to foment rebellion.”