Progressive Professor: My Progressive Students Terrify Me

David Jones/PA Wire URN:21969286/AP
File Photo: David Jones/PA Wire URN:21969286/AP

A progressive professor says his students have become enamored of a simplistic social justice politics that makes every discussion personal and therefore a potential “threat” to their identity.

At the heart of the Vox article is the claim that something has changed on campus. In the past a student complaint about political bias would have been handled perfunctorily. The complaint would be acknowledged and then it would be ignored. But times are changing. With an increasing focus on social justice and identity politics, students now take every disagreement personally and professors feel pressure to avoid giving any offense, intended or not:

This new understanding of social justice politics resembles what University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. calls a politics of personal testimony, in which the feelings of individuals are the primary or even exclusive means through which social issues are understood and discussed. Reed derides this sort of political approach as essentially being a non-politics, a discourse that “is focused much more on taxonomy than politics [which] emphasizes the names by which we should call some strains of inequality [ … ] over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them.” Under such a conception, people become more concerned with signaling goodness, usually through semantics and empty gestures, than with actually working to effect change.

Herein lies the folly of oversimplified identity politics: while identity concerns obviously warrant analysis, focusing on them too exclusively draws our attention so far inward that none of our analyses can lead to action.  Rebecca Reilly Cooper, a political philosopher at the University of Warwick, worries about the effectiveness of a politics in which “particular experiences can never legitimately speak for any one other than ourselves, and personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity.” Personal experience and feelings aren’t just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics. In such an environment, it’s no wonder that students are so prone to elevate minor slights to protestable offenses.

The author’s description of this new behavior on campus is in line with other recent pieces on the same topic. What’s new here is an attempt to offer a functional criticism of the behavior. Ultimately, the author seems stuck within the collective bubble which fostered this insular thinking in the first place.

Compare the number of web articles surrounding the supposed problematic aspects of the newest Avengers movie with those complaining about, say, the piecemeal dismantling of abortion rights. The former outnumber the latter considerably, and their rhetoric is typically much more impassioned and inflated. I’d discuss this in my classes — if I weren’t too scared to talk about abortion.

In other words, this isn’t bad because it infantilizes students and turns them into hypersensitive speech monitors who stifle real debate. It’s bad because it hampers them from winning other, more important progressive battles. The author returns to this idea in his conclusion, “This is terrifying. No one will ever accept that. And if that becomes a salient part of liberal politics, liberals are going to suffer tremendous electoral defeat.”

If “electoral defeat” for progressives is the worst outcome you can foresee from making emotive identity politics the core of education, perhaps you’ve missed the point.


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