For someone who reads this site regularly, Frank Bruni’s arguments in Saturday’s New York Times op-ed, “The dangerous safety of college“, won’t be new. But perhaps you should read the short piece anyway, if for no other reason than to show that some liberal and mainstream columnists (Bruni is openly gay as well) are recognizing that American colleges need fewer student “demands”, less shouting, and more engagement with ideas.
Bruni’s subject is Charles Murray’s “incendiary” talk at Middlebury College in Vermont on March 2. As you surely know, Murray was forced off stage by vocal protesters and then had to livestream his talk from an empty room. He and his host were then attacked by a mob while leaving the venue. He was accused of being a racist because of his old book The Bell Curve, but apparently he didn’t even talk about that. But it was too late: the Regressive Left damns you forever for ideological impurities of the past. One misstep, and nobody need pay you any heed for the rest of your life, no matter what you say. You’re put in the idelogical gulag.
Bruni, like many of us, is fearful of this type of censorship, in which arguments are shut down by yelling and demonstrating rather than counterargument. His words:
Protests aren’t the problem, not in and of themselves. They’re vital, and so is work to end racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotry. But much of the policing of imperfect language, silencing of dissent and shaming of dissenters runs counter to that goal, alienating the very onlookers who need illumination.
It’s an approach less practical than passionate, less strategic than cathartic, and partly for that reason, both McWhorter and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt have likened it to a religion.
“When something becomes a religion, we don’t choose the actions that are most likely to solve the problem,” said Haidt, the author of the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind” and a professor at New York University. “We do the things that are the most ritually satisfying.”
He added that what he saw in footage of the confrontation at Middlebury “was a modern-day auto-da-fé: the celebration of a religious rite by burning the blasphemer.”
The protesters didn’t use Murray’s presence as an occasion to hone the most eloquent, irrefutable retort to him. They swarmed and swore.
McWhorter recalled that back when “The Bell Curve” was published, there was disagreement about whether journalists should give it currency by paying it heed. But he said that it was because they engaged the material in detail, rather than just branding it sacrilegious, that he learned enough to conclude on his own that its assertions were wrong — and why.
As Bruni points out, some relevant remarks were made by Van Jones, an activist, Leftist, and fighter for social justice, when spoke last week at my own university, decrying the Snowflake Generation. Here’s a short video of Jones’s take on “safe spaces” delivered at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP; David Axelrod was the moderator and the other guest was conservative commenter S. E. Cupp). Note that the Institute was the site of student protests (and attempted censorship) a few weeks ago when Corey Lewandowski (once Trump’s campaign manager) spoke. The IOP is, however, nonpartisan. And Van Jones’s “social justice” credibility, as a man who really does something, is unimpeachable:
Here’s a bit of the transcript of Jones’s remarks (you can see the entire 1 hour, 22 minute presentation here and the Heterodox Academy’s discussion of the short video here).
There are two ideas about safe spaces: One is a very good idea and one is a terrible idea. The idea of being physically safe on a campus—not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse, or being targeted specifically, personally, for some kind of hate speech—“you are an n-word,” or whatever—I am perfectly fine with that.
But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else including the administration.”
I think that is a terrible idea for the following reason: I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different.
I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym. You can’t live on a campus where people say stuff you don’t like?! And these people can’t fire you, they can’t arrest you, they can’t beat you up, they can just say stuff you don’t like- and you get to say stuff back- and this you cannot bear?! [audience applause]
This is ridiculous BS liberals! My parents, and Monica Elizabeth Peak’s parents [points to someone in the audience and greets her] were marched, they dealt with fire hoses! They dealt with dogs! They dealt with beatings! You can’t deal with a mean tweet?! You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous. I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you in these communities. [applause]
At the end of his piece, Bruni quotes Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, to the effect that the Safety Bubble is damaging to students, ensuring that they won’t be prepared for “constructive engagement in a society that won’t echo their convictions the way their campuses do.” But I worry about more, for the graduates of elite private universities will become the power-mongers of the next generation, and may impose these same values on the rest of us: censorship, cries to suppress “hate speech”, and politics based on identity rather than ideas. I don’t think that’s so far fetched.
29 thoughts on “Frank Bruni on the American college “safety bubble””
That was a great excerpt. Perhaps it points to one way out of this mess, which is for liberal campus speakers at these same universities to take a few minutes out of whatever speech they are giving, to support illiberal speakers. Not just complain about student snowflakes, but to say to the students “last week you prevented Charles Murray from speaking. I disagree with that. I don’t agree with Murray’s position, but I think you, the students, should’ve let him speak to the student body. In fact it might have done you some good to listen to him, and to think through why he is wrong rather than just constantly reasserting that he is wrong…”
Jones as usual is right on the mark. Saying what had been said here many times before.
When something becomes a religion, we don’t choose the actions that are most likely to solve the problem,” said Haidt, the author of the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind” and a professor at New York University. “We do the things that are the most ritually satisfying.”
I started commenting on social justice messageboards in 2012 (up until then I had almost entirely ignored politics) and I did it mainly to engage in ‘outrage posting’. Feeling morally superior and ‘pwning’ bigots felt *good*. And as I have mentioned previously, the more self-righteous and angry my comments were, the easier I found it to be accepted by certain groups *cough* Pharyngula *cough*
I worry about more, for the graduates of elite private universities will become the power-mongers of the next generation, and may impose these same values on the rest of us: censorship, cries to suppress “hate speech”, and politics based on identity rather than ideas. I don’t think that’s so far fetched.
A very real concern, yes. Lets not forget the young woman at Yale who stated, and I paraphrase, that university is about coddlinge one’s feeeeeeeeeeelings and not getting an education.
I used to think that a good rule of thumb was to speak against anonymous posters as if you were face to face with them. That, I thought, would at least make such conversations more substantive and civil, even if it didn’t actually result in the people arguing changing their minds. But looking at the recent spate of campus protestors, maybe I was wrong to think that people *weren’t* (already) treating conservative people as if they were face to face with them. They are certainly engaging in RL behavior I would also find uncivil.
Van Jones was spot on.
Where, I wonder, is the “safe space” for teenaged Muslim girls who want to dance?
Pitch darkness, I suppose.
It was a good article overall, but I was a little surprised Bruni accepted SPLC’s mischaracterization of Charles Murray as a white nationalist. I think the slurs and mischaracterizations are part of the problem with the illiberal left. Many time the protesters are protesting an imagined mischaracterized person and are mostly ignorant of what their target has actually said and done. Much of Murray’s work focuses on warning against loss of social cohesion. I’m not an expert on Murray, but supporting white nationalism would seem really out of character.
In other articles, they showed a protester holding up sign that read “No Eugenics” which is rather odd considering that I’m pretty sure Murray has not advocated Eugenics. They chanted “anti-gay” at a conservative who years ago publicly said he changed his mind on gay marriage and thought it was time to stop opposing it.
His controversial argument was that some of the school achievement gap between different groups is due to inherited intelligence. Because some of the groups compared were racial groups, you could call him racist for making that argument. You could also call him classist because he didn’t limit the argument to different racial groups, he though it explained some of the achievement gap between rich and poor. I read his book a long time ago so I don’t remember everything precisely, but I think he was very careful to not say it explained everything, just that it was a significant factor.
Maybe not Eugenics per se, but he opposes welfare programs, opposes NCLB, and instead thinks the state should focus it’s education resources on high-IQ kids. Which, of course, is statistically similar to saying rich kids, because wealthier families are able to put more resources into pre-school learning and development.
IOW he doesn’t just think there are genetic differences, he advocates social policies that would cause the children of poorer families to fall further and further behind.
The White Nationalist charge probably stems in part from the fact that he wrote a book titled Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 . Because let’s face it, if you’re concerned enough about the state of ‘white America’ that you write an entire book on the subject, that reasonably implies that you think there is a ‘white America’ worth keeping. Which is fairly racist.
I think you can make plausible arguments for calling him racist based on “The Bell Curve”, I don’t think you can make plausible arguments for calling him a white nationalist. To be a white nationalist you have to somewhere say you want a nation for white people. If you showed me quotes of him saying that, I would find that convincing. Injecting a lot of interpretation into the name of a book you haven’t read doesn’t convince me that you know one way or the other.
20 years ago, I might have trusted SPLC. After they slandered Maajid Nawaz and others, not so much. I don’t like the uncharitable mindreading that idealogues use against their opponents. Now, I need better evidence before accepting their claims.
I had assumed he focused “Coming Apart” on white people as a way of avoiding racial controversy so he could focus on the topics he really wants to talk about. But I didn’t read that book so I don’t really know.
I’m sorry, I’m not clear on what you mean by your comment: is writing about white America inherently racist, or is it writing about any race in America racist? And does the book actually say that the white America needs to be preserved, or are you making an inference from the book title that if a title is about Y, then the book probably states that Y is worth keeping?
“The White Nationalist charge probably stems in part from the fact that he wrote a book titled Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 . Because let’s face it, if you’re concerned enough about the state of ‘white America’ that you write an entire book on the subject, that reasonably implies that you think there is a ‘white America’ worth keeping. Which is fairly racist.”
Wow. You should probably judge the content of the book, rather than a very flimsy interpretation of the title. First off, the title doesn’t imply that we need to keep America white; it implies that there is a part of America that is white (you know, the part of America made up of white people), and that the book is about that part of the society.
Here is a quote from a review of the book by Niall Ferguson, : “Niall Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard, a fellow of the Hoover Institution and the author of numerous books, most recently Civilization: The West and the Rest and The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.
Since the advent of ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ there has been a tendency to assume that only the Left worries about inequality in America. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart shows that conservatives, too, need to be concerned.
This is an immensely important and utterly gripping book. It deserves to be as much talked about as Murray’s most controversial work (co-authored with Richard J. Herrnstein), The Bell Curve. Quite unjustly, that book was anathematized as “racist” because it pointed out that, on average, African-Americans had lower IQ scores than white Americans.
No doubt the same politically correct critics will complain about this book, because it is almost entirely devoted to the problem of social polarization within “white America.” They will have to ignore one of Coming Apart’s most surprising findings: that race is not a significant determinant of social polarization in today’s America. It is class that really matters.”
Read those last couple of sentences and then tell me how writing that book makes charging him as a “white nationalist” anything but extremely dishonest.
Regarding your first paragraph, all you did was admit that he indeed never advocated for anything like eugenics. You then listed a bunch of policies you don’t like, but they have absolutely nothing to do with eugenics, though you presented them as if they were practically the same thing.
Re-reading your penultimate sentence:
The latter is most emphatically already the case. Who would think that the Party of Reagan would now have a bromance with Putin? That Republican fiscal conservatism is set to explode the debt in an effort sold as providing health insurance to everybody? That a consensual blow job is grounds for impeachment, but bragging about violent sexual assault and forcing underage employees to pose nude is irrelevant “locker room banter”?
The Left is just playing ketchup, is all.
Very nice. And soon the unemployment lines will be filled with X federal employees from just about every agency in DC while the military establishment will be spending like there is no tomorrow. We might just be following in the Soviet Union’s footsteps.
There’s a joke from the Fox Force 5 pilot that Mia Wallace told Vincent Vega in there somewhere.
My only quibble is that when you point out
lies behind the Republicans you should also extend the question about whether or not Obama was also the outcome of the graduates of elite privilege. And also if Trump’s Presidency is a reaction to such elites, Republican or Democrat.
Not just the past: if you aren’t perfectly aligned across the spectrum, then you are a them not an us. Look at how the organizers Women’s March in DC reacted to would-be supporters who were pro-life. There is no concept of agreeing to disagree, no ability to build coalitions. This is where the lack of historical thinking (even the history of the relatively recent civil rights movement) really hurts progressives. Without the ability to combine with others on important issues, they will never have the ability to put their agenda across (at least democratically). They have have no sense of compromise or toleration. Unfortunately, these are both vanishing from American politics generally.
While the comparison to religion is not perfect, the doctrinal hair-splitting and intolerance make it apt.
And if they just don’t like you for some reason but can’t find any ideological impurities, they’ll find a way to twist your words, or just outright label you as something (bigot, x-phobe, x-ist, etc.) and keep saying it until enough people believe it.
“Look at how the organizers Women’s March in DC reacted to would-be supporters who were pro-life.”
Now that decision I thoroughly agree with for good pragmatic reasons. I’d react the same way if I was organising a march against Trump’s wall and a contingent from the KKK turned up.
I am not entirely convinced their goal is in fact what they claim it to be.
By pushing for ideological purity in every protest, they end up stopping progress on any given issue.
EG: The gender wage gap is a definite issue that needs to be addressed, so we end up with a situation where leading feminists get termed TERFs. Suddenly they don’t have the standing to advance those issues.
On the other side, violence and discrimination against transgender individuals is a definite problem that needs to be solved – so leaders in the trans community get accused of being sexists so that they don’t have standing either.
Thus rather than solving either problem the status quo is maintained.
And of course those who demand the most compromise are the ones least willing to. Note all the articles about “how to be a good ally” – that don’t bother to explain why anyone would want to be an “ally” to the assholes who write them.
Their aim is not to actually solve the injustice they talk about, but rather to utilise it to maintain some other injustice, and to maintain a situation where they have a perpetual right to punch people because they have defined themselves as “down”, and thus everyone else is “up”.
What ever happened to the Left’s commitment to Gandhian-MLKian non-violence??
The phrase “Speak truth to power” comes from a 1955 book “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence” (although the book falsely claimed it was an old Quaker saying).
But you can’t speak truth to power if you have no way to articulate your truth. And that’s a skill you have to hone relentlessly. That means letting as many folks as possible from the political “bell curve” speak.
MLK would be hated and called a race traitor and Uncle Tom by today’s left. Judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin? That’s nullifying their identities, so MLK is a huge racist!
Chomsky is on record as saying that the saying is a bit weird, since often the powerful know the truth – which is why they are able to maintain power, because others do not so know. To be fair, however, the powerless often know the truth too – if they are not corrupted by postmodernism and other epistemic relativisms.
Wow, that Van Jones clip was cathartic. Thank you!
Agreed; a beautifully constructed ad hoc speech. Worthy of Hitchins