Many who criticize outrageous forms of behavior on college campuses, from “micro-aggression” to “safe spaces,” warn (either out of fear or glee) that once students who have been sheltered from challenging ideas and conflict enter the “real world,” they will quickly discover what it’s like to encounter an obstacle without “daddy” there to intervene.
While I understand where such a sentiment might come from, it fails to note that new moral cultures tend to first take hold in the world of ideas and then work their way out to other parts of society. For once new ways of thinking and acting are innovated and achieve success, it is only natural that other people will try to replicate behaviors they might have otherwise never considered.
The campus situation is made more complicated by the fact that the evils protestors claim to be fighting against are not imaginary. Racial bigotry and gender stereotyping continue to be prevalent in our society, even if we have placed their most obscene aspects (such as common use of the “N word” or blaming women for being raped) beyond the pale. Poverty endures, even if millions aren’t starving in the streets. In fact, who would listen to protestors for a minute if the issues being chanted about didn’t resonate with targeted audiences?
But here is where experience dealing with the BDS “movement” provides important insight into what might be wrong with perceiving today’s campus uprisings as misguided tactics used in support of noble causes.
Before going further, I need to go all philo-dweeby on you for a few paragraphs by bringing up relevant insights from that much-maligned 19th century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. I’ll let you read about the controversies surrounding the man and his work on your own, but for now you should be thinking about what he had to say on guilt as a form of control.
According to his theories, the powerful of the world were brought under the control of the weak once they were convinced that use of their power (never mind misuse and abuse of it) was something evil, for which they should be ashamed. In fact, Nietzsche saw the entire Judeo-Christian moral code as the means whereby the meek did inherit the earth by convincing the strong that their strength represented sin for which they needed to atone (by putting it into service for those less powerful than they).
I’ll get to how those ideas were put to malicious use by others in a minute, but for purposes of this discussion keep in mind that attempts to use guilt to motivate action can only work on those already sensitive to the evils being condemned. To cite an obvious example, if everyone in a society believed it virtuous to denigrate people of other races, the no one would know what you’re talking about if you condemned the “evils of racism.”
So accusations of bigotry or indifference to the suffering of the poor can only work against those who sincerely believe that everyone is susceptible to those evils. But doesn’t everybody fall into this category?
The BDS movement provides a powerful counter-example. For, as has been pointed out on multiple occasions (on this site and elsewhere), the boycotters insist that they are fighting on behalf of human rights, justice and a wide range of noble causes and beliefs. But even as they vociferously insist others subject themselves to the boycotter’s moral judgement, they are equally adamant that similar moral judgement targeting them is inadmissible.
More than that, the very notion that those the boycotters claim to represent (and on whose behalf they fight) exemplify the very sins being protested (human rights abuses, racism, sexism, etc.) is ignored or shouted down. In other words, with the BDS movement we have the strange hybrid of people using the Culture of Victimhood to insist that those living in a Culture of Dignity obey them while ignoring the brutality routinely practiced by a Culture of Honor those boycotters support.
If others are now reading from the SJP playbook, creating a culture of one-way moral judgement where ends justify any means, we may be looking at a contagion not likely to end well.
Best case scenario is that the current protest culture will turn out to be another moral panic that tends to flare up in this country, but eventually blows over.
A more troubling possibility is that a Culture of Victimhood will take hold beyond the campus driven not by those seeking to fight injustice but by the ruthless (i.e. those most able to suppress their own guilt even as they demand others feel guilty enough to bow down before them).
The threat from such a scenario is two-fold. First would be the degradation of thought and virtue currently taking hold on campuses, a phenomenon those of us who deal with BDS takeovers of institutions (like ASA and PCUSA) have seen for years. Even more troubling is the possibility that a backlash will take the form of a new moral culture that, like the Nazis, try to get “beyond good and evil” by rejecting all moral codes that equating power with sin.
Is there an alternative?
Possibly, but thoughts on that will have to wait until next time when this series concludes.