A turning point is underway in the culture wars over American universities. Dismayed by their wild-eyed radicalism and anti-intellectual demands, college faculties, administrators, and much of the media are turning their backs on the regressive left.
Left-wing activists have been running rampant on college campuses for years. In 2014, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that the number of speaker disinvitations on campus, typically prompted by the allegedly “offensive” views of a visiting speaker, had more than tripled over ten years. Activist crusades against cultural appropriation, sexism and racism have led to the banning of an eclectic range of items on campus, from Charlie Hebdo to mini-sombreros.
In one low point, student leaders at the University of Minnesota blocked a proposed annual moment of remembrance for 9/11 on the grounds that it could promote “Islamophobia.”
Previously quick to take the side of students demanding “safety” from offensive speech (Minnesota’s faculty quickly complied with activist’s demands to censor Charlie Hebdo, for example), it now seems that colleges administrators have had enough with the regressive left.
The President of Oberlin, an infamously liberal college, recently rebuffed a list of demands from left-wing activists on campus, the University of Missouri has been uncompromising in its decision to fire radical assistant professor Melissa Click over her attempted physical intimidation of a student reporter, and a growing number of professors are now speaking out against the culture of safe spaces and censorship on campus.
Of course, these efforts feel a little like Pandora trying to close her box — campus faculties trying to contain campus crazies they themselves helped create.
The campus crazies are still winning some victories, like Princeton and Harvard’s removal of the academic title “Master” over complaints that it conjured memories of slavery. But the flames of resistance are quickly flickering to life. Allies of the regressive left grow harder to find, while new opponents appear every day. After all, the regressive types manufacture a new enemy everytime they decide that an ally or a sympathiser isn’t ideologically pure enough for them.
The regressive left played into the hands of its opponents with hysterical responses to recent visits to U.S campuses from Breitbart Tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos and Professor Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute.
A visit by Yiannopoulos to the University of Rutgers led to bizarre scenes in which activists smeared red paint on their faces and chanted “Black Lives Matter” in an effort to disrupt the event. A group therapy session for triggered student snowflakes quickly followed. Similar events occurred at the University of Minnesota, where a joint talk by Yiannopoulos and Sommers was interrupted by protesters wielding airhorns. There was less disruption during Yiannopoulos’ visit to the University of Pittsburgh, but left-wing students did report his visit made them feel “hurt” and “unsafe.” One student even report being brought to tears by the Breitbart Tech editor’s presence.
For the educational establishment, these emotionally incontinent reactions serve as further proof that the regressive left is out of control. It is now almost impossible to deny that their activism on campus breeds a climate of intellectual and political intolerance, masked by a thin veil of concern for mental health. As conservatives have been saying for some time, the regressive left is made up of crybullies — seamlessly switching between aggressors and victims depending on the circumstances.
From another perspective, these universities are failing at their basic task of creating intellectually robust young people capable of rational thought, discourse, and debate. If their entire world shatters when presented with opposing views, how will they survive the stress and daily challenges of the jobs market? Even burger-flippers have to occasionally handle rude customers. McDonalds won’t be installing a safe space for their employees anytime soon. Their only option will be the burgeoning profession of diversity consultancy, where no-one gets fired due to companies’ fear of being labelled bigots.
Faculties and professors seem to have realised that something has to change, and have cautiously used the visits of Yiannopoulos and Sommers to challenge student activists. The same administrations that once embraced campus speech codes are now releasing robust statements defending free speech. In the wake of the Yiannopoulos incident, the President of Rutgers University put out a statement defending the right of students to invite “offensive” speakers to campus, defending the “right to speak freely” as “fundamental to our university, our society, and our nation.”
Elsewhere, a senior faculty committee at the University of Minnesota – the same campus that saw bans on Charlie Hebdo and 9/11 remembrances – used the controversy surrounding Yiannopoulos’ visit to vote 7-2 in favour of a statement backing freedom of speech as the university’s “paramount value.”
Beyond leftovers of 1970s-era radicalism like Missouri’s recently-fired assistant professor Melissa Click, many academics have realised the threat posed by the regressive left to the intellectual life of American campuses. Even before the events of Yiannopoulos and Sommers’ tour, they were taking cautious steps to fight the regressive left. For example, a growing number of colleges have embraced the Chicago Principles. Published by the University of Chicago in 2012, the principles call for discussion of “offensive” ideas, and affirm that “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university.”
Even the most ardently left-wing academics are getting cold feet. Last summer, Vox published the viral account of an anonymous liberal professor who said his own liberal students “terrified” him, and condemned a “simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice” for the problem.
Even Rani Neutill, who on paper represents the ideal academic of the regressive left – woman, feminist, ethnic minority, film studies lecturer – published an account of her disastrous run-ins with students’ demands for “trigger warnings” on potentially offensive content, which forced her to abandon a course on sex and cinema.
“Colleges are the new helicopter parents, places where the quest for emotional safety and psychic healing leads not to learning, but regression” wrote Neutill.
Neutill’s story was published by none other than Salon. What hope is there for the regressive left on campus, if they can’t even rely on a feminist film studies lecturer who writes for Salon?
Mainstream media is no friend to the regressive left either. While conservative media has always opposed activist antics on campus, now liberal publications are doing so as well. It was The Atlantic, a stalwart of the liberal establishment, that published Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s marathon analysis of the “coddling” of students in America, and it is no longer uncommon to see condemnations of student censorship in liberal publications like The Guardian, The New York Times and The Daily Beast.
Even the President and First Lady, often accused of being apologists for identity politics – most notably Black Lives Matter – have turned against college activists. During her commencement address at Oberlin College, the First Lady reminded students that politics is “loud and messy, and not particularly warm and fuzzy.” Instead of retreating into safe spaces, she advised students to “seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find.”
President Obama has been even blunter in his advice to students. Speaking at an educational town hall event last year, Obama said:
I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women.”
I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either — that you when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.
As for students themselves, the regressive left no longer has a monopoly on campus activism. Their radicalism, unchecked for so many years, has led to a backlash from moderates, libertarians and conservatives on campus. They may be quieter, but if student turnout at Yiannopoulos events is anything to go by, they far outnumber their left-wing counterparts.
The regressive left even faces the prospect of the alternative right’s arrival on campus, who respond to the left’s identity politics with an equally radical identity politics of their own. Although initially pegged as a hoax by Buzzfeed, the “white student unions” that emerged on college campuses in the wake of the Missouri protests are the product of a genuine, if clandestine, mobilization of alt-right students.
Their emergence is likely to hasten efforts by administrators to quell radicalism on campus, lest colleges become the sites for a stand-off between identity warriors from both the left and the right.
There is a growing realization among all sides of the establishment, from college administrations to the President himself, that student censorship on campus has gone too far. Left-wing activists now face hostility from the left, the centre, and the right (who, after years of warnings about radicalism on campus, are no doubt feeling a great sense of vindication) as well as the mainstream media.
While their opponents have yet to agree on a plan of action against the campus left, there is now clear agreement that something must be done. From now on, the regressive left is on the defensive.