The Age of Totalitolerance

Much evil may be committed in the name of “justice” or “equality” or, ironically, “freedom.”

ThomasJeffersonStatueMissouriAll of us believe in some version of those precepts.  Thus, to oppose a strain of totalitarianism that gallops into town under a banner bearing the name of so noble an ideal would make one a monstrous bigot.

And, as we all know, being branded a bigot (or, worse, finding oneself on the dreaded “wrong side of history”) is a fate worse than death for any self-respecting progressive, much less for those weak-kneed souls who fear the wrath of social-media slacktivists.

Since “totalitarianism” is far too nonspecific to describe this precise phenomenon, let’s call it “totalitolerance.”

The news Monday that Missouri President Tim Wolfe had resigned, followed shortly by Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s own resignation, marked another curious case of campus “justice.”

Wolfe’s hand was forced by a growing backlash over several reported racial incidents, the most striking and recent of which was the smearing of human feces in the shape of a swastika in a bathroom at a residence hall, an event I’m grateful took place long after I had settled on a fantasy football team name for 2015.

To be clear, Wolfe’s “fireable offense” was the unforgivable infraction of insufficient sensitivity.  A large number of students and many in the faculty felt that Wolfe had not been strong enough in his response to the racially-charged events of recent months, particularly in the context of the university’s history.

After all, as the Washington Post article on the racial tension at the school helpfully notes, Missouri “was a slave state.”

Although, to be fair, that probably wasn’t entirely Wolfe’s fault.

For his part, Loftin had condemned the racist acts.  That didn’t spare him the same fate that befell Wolfe.  He, too, was faced with the prospect of enormous pressure to leave his position.  Like Wolfe, he capitulated.

Much of the criticism levied at Wolfe involved his refusal to agree to a series of demands presented to him by a student group called Concerned Students 1950.

Just a few days ago, Wolfe stated publicly that the demands were under consideration.  That wasn’t good enough.  Once many of the black players on Missouri’s football team threatened to boycott all football-related activities until Wolfe resigned, momentum for his removal increased dramatically.

I’ll pause here to note that the first two demands on the aforementioned list were, first, that Wolfe not only issue a written apology, but that he “acknowledge his white male privilege, recognize that systems of oppression exist, and provide a verbal commitment to fulfilling Concerned Student 195­0[‘s other] demands.”

If that public self-flagellation weren’t enough, the second demand was that he resign.

The remaining demands included new policies mandating “comprehensive racial awareness” curriculum in all departments, additional funding for “social justice centers” on campus, and a hiring quota that would require at least ten percent of the faculty be persons of color by 2017.

There was also a demand for additional funding for mental health services, which, after reading the rest of the list, I fully support.

In short, these folks expected Wolfe to endorse their victim-driven worldview as publicly as possible, apologize in writing for his past transgressions, and then resign.

I’ll come back to Missouri in a moment, but let’s examine what’s happening at Yale.

The short version is that a faculty member named Erika Christakis had the temerity to send an e-mail around Halloween saying that the University shouldn’t harshly police students over “offensive” costumes.  Her e-mail was in response to an e-mail sent by the Yale administration cautioning students about wearing “insensitive” costumes.

She said, in part:

Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.

The backlash was immediate and powerful.

Hundreds of students and even some faculty said that the Christakis e-mail itself was exceedingly offensive.  The response to the e-mail included a mind-boggling op/ed in the Yale Herald (archived here), expressing frustration over the fact that debate regarding the topic hadn’t simply been shut down in recognition of the “pain” suffered by those who had to read it.

The author directed her ire at Christakis’ husband Nicholas, another Yale faculty member.  Christakis is also a “Master” at Yale.  Putting aside the obvious microaggression in his title, he is the primary faculty presence in a particular residential hall at Yale.  As Yale describes it:

During the year, he or she hosts lectures, study breaks (especially during finals), and Master’s Teas—intimate gatherings during which students have the opportunity to engage with renowned guests from the academy, government, or popular culture.

Think “part advisor, part RA.”

In any event, the author of the op/ed was deeply troubled by his response.  To wit:

This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted [students’] lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained. And through it all, [Michael] Christakis has shown that he does not consider us a priority.

Breakdowns and skipping meals over the mere suggestion that, somewhere, hypothetical offensiveness be permitted.

As a reminder, Erika Christakis’ message was in response to an e-mail from Yale telling students not to dress in “offensive” costumes.

Alas, Christakis made the mistake of thinking a mild dissent was no crime.

The op/ed concluded with these lines: “If you know I’m in pain and you aren’t doing anything to try to help me, then how can you be sorry? Christakis is the Master of Silliman College, it is his job to take care of us, and he is failing.”

“His job is to take care of us.”

A legal adult wrote that.

It gets worse.  The Yale story has been covered brilliantly by FIRE.  They were on-site to record the debate / open forum between Nicholas Christakis and aggrieved students.  That conflict included this video, sadly emblematic of the state of discourse on college campuses:

“It’s not about creating an intellectual space!  It’s not!  It’s about creating a home here!”

“You should not sleep at night!”

A legal adult—who goes to Yale—said that.

Stated plainly, a critical mass of students believe that it is the job of a Yale faculty member to be some sort of pseudo-parent, shielding them from ideas or words that might offend.  The notion of “an intellectual space” is treated as dangerous or undesirable.

This is not progress.

It’s totalitarianism in the name of some misguided, misnomered notion of tolerance.

And that brings me back to Missouri.

Even after the student activists there got Wolfe to resign, there was still more totalitolerance to come.

Media members who attempted to cover this very newsworthy event were greeted with a human shield to prevent interviews, photos, or video of the campus demonstrations on Monday.

Drifting well beyond self-parody, here’s a clip that made the rounds on Monday, as we see not only students attempting to prevent a photographer from covering the event, but also at least two faculty members aiding and abetting this suppression of an exercise of First Amendment rights.

“Hey, hey.  Ho, ho.  Reporters have got to go.”

As a reminder, this is a public space at a state-funded university where a newsworthy event is taking place.

“Reporters have got to go.”

Emboldened by their newfound power, these students fully believe that only their viewpoint matters.  Nothing trumps their perfect right to create a “safe space,” even if their conception of such a “space” includes interfering with someone else’s First Amendment rights, up to and including forcibly, physically removing a journalist.

To them, no principle can stand above their feelings.

We also see something more subtle, but entirely unsurprising.

As is the case with totalitarians of every stripe, there is no such thing as true collaboration or cooperation: Eventually, they will turn on their supposed allies.  That’s what totalitarians do.

It’s right there in the name: “TOTAL” submission is required.

That’s why we see the situation unfolding as it has at Yale.  Academia is dominated by people who agree with these students on nearly every issue.  They are, by and large, “down with the cause,” so to speak.  Michael Christakis does just that here, as he makes an impassioned plea on behalf of free speech:

Note that he is genuinely, sympathetically baffled by the conflict, because he is “as against racism as” the students are.  But they do not accept his premise, saying that his expression that he is “sorry” that they are hurt is meaningless because he stands for the principle of free speech.

Agreement must be total.  Or else.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, a journalist who happens to be young, and who happens to be non-white, was similarly rebuffed, and similarly, justifiably, incensed.  At a university with a very good journalism school, a photojournalist was being physically forced into submission to the whims of the victorious mob.

The fact that both academia and the media are dominated by people who share views with these students will not spare either group from sanction.  Instead, they will continue to be pilloried by these alleged adults who have been conditioned to believe that their grievances and status as victims entitle them to whatever outcome they desire.

Counting yourself among the offended empowers you to ruin lives and careers and trample upon free speech at your pleasure.  What’s more, it is the responsibility of your university to make sure that no one presents a contrary idea.  If that happens, you can simply declare that you feel “unsafe,” a condition that must be remedied by the administration and faculty.  This responsibility apparently now includes preventing a photographer from merely documenting your on-campus victory lap.

Hunger strikes, lists of demands, and the papering of a Thomas Jefferson statue with words like “racist” and “rapist” are portrayed as heroic acts by a media that, for now, still believes that the totalitolerance crowd is its ally.

Do not believe it.

Campus activism can be a good thing.  Protests can be a good thing.  But, they can also become something sinister.

When they shift into bona fide speech suppression, I oppose them in the strongest terms possible.  When they transform into petulant fits of indignance that demand agreement and endorsement of their ideas, lest the dissenter be removed from campus, I will never support them.  When they morph into a movement that claims challenges to its views must be crushed in the euphemistic name of “safety,” I will always be at odds with them.

The people who are at the forefront of the movement to effectuate these goals are not Ghandi.  They are not Martin Luther King, Jr.  They are not Patrick Henry (and I’m sure they’d be happy I absolved them of that comparison).  The worst of what we’ve seen at Missouri and Yale and many other campuses should not be lauded.

Instead, these actions are the postsecondary equivalent of “I’m going to hold my breath until I get my way, Mom!”  Even worse, demands and strikes will now proliferate and continue indefinitely, because most of the people targeted by these folks will be powerless to resist: Ultimately, they will do whatever it takes to avoid being branded racists, not realizing until it is too late that compromise with totalitarians is definitionally impossible.

And, in a perverse way, there is a bit of poetic justice there.  Or at least irony.  That’s because the very beliefs that animate the students, and the environments that coddle them, are largely the responsibility of the academics and administrators who now find themselves in the activists’ crosshairs.  Those beliefs cast a long shadow across a majority of college campuses throughout the United States.

Depending on your sensibilities, you can either weep for our future, or sit back, grab some popcorn, and revel in the pyrotechnics as pockets of academia implode over the next few years.

Either way, we owe it to ourselves, to our country, and, most of all, to these students to demand better from them.

In the meantime—bon appetit, and enjoy the show.

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4 Responses to The Age of Totalitolerance

  1. Pingback: Best of 2015 | The Axis of Ego

  2. JS says:

    Tom, I was beyond furious to see what happened at Missouri and the worst of it that a mass media professor even encouraged it. Somewhere along the lines, we forgot what the First Amendment is and how it works. In a more and more indivdualistic generation, it also seems that they are more and more concerned with their feelings, to hell with everyone else’s, even if they legally have the right to by the First Amendment

  3. This actually makes me weep. The supposed ‘brightest minds’ of our nation, college students, ‘intellectuals of the next generation’ are unable to make a sound argument, look at an issue objectively without involving their own little ‘feelings’. Not every issue is about your feelings. Not every issue involves your particular brand of ‘sensitivity.’ Grow the f-up. If you are to object to every slight, insensitive or racist incident do so intelligently WITHOUT involving your little hurt feelings. It makes me worry for these college students who are to enter the workforce soon. They will be in for a rude awakening, they will learn first hand just how little society cares about their feelings or sensibilities.
    As for Halloween costumes, yes, rude and racists costumes are objectionable, but it’s Halloween, it’s a mandate to be rude, crude and whatever else. If it’s not your cup of tea, look the other way, when you get to the ‘real’ world, there are many more rude, racist and objectionable things than a racist Halloween costume. Not going to class, doing your homework and fulfilling your obligations as a student is a stupid and childish way to respond to a costume you don’t like.

  4. Leslie Murray says:

    Tom, I hope this gets widely disseminated. “A legal adult wrote that.” That’s very chilling indeed. We’d all do well to remember how we used to expect adults to speak and behave.

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