The Campus Victim Cult
A dialogue about why colleges and universities have become so hostile to freedom of thought
HEATHER MAC DONALD: The day before I was slated to speak at Claremont McKenna College last April, I got one of those red-flagged “urgent” e-mails from an administrator. She explained that the college had picked up word of a brewing protest, and was considering moving the event to a building with fewer plate-glass windows and better means of egress. This was not exactly reassuring.
After hearing no additional news about a potential disruption, the administration decided to keep the event in the original building, the Athenaeum. But by the time I arrived, a massive mob of protesters had gathered, so a police escort brought me into the building through a secret passageway.
The auditorium was almost completely empty. Some 300 students had blockaded the building, making mincemeat of the police barricades that had been set up to keep the entrances open. The police simply stood down, as is too often true in our Black Lives Matter era. They didn’t want to offend the students, and they certainly didn’t want to be caught on video using force.
But what was most disconcerting was the fact that the few people who were in the room were transfixed by what was happening outside. Students were shouting and pounding on the plate-glass windows. The lectern had been moved, before the speech, away from the windows, so that when the lights went on inside, I would not be visible to the mob outside.
I took two questions via livestreaming, and at that point the police decided that they could no longer guarantee my safety. They quickly devised an escape plan: I was hustled through the kitchen and into a waiting police van, and sped away to the Claremont Police Department.
The incident was not the high point of open-mindedness in academic history.
FRANK FUREDI: We have to remember that the type of horrible experience that Heather had is just the tip of the iceberg. Fortunately, aggressive mobs of students are still relatively rare, but for every mob scene, there are lots of incidents of censorship and intimidation going on in college classrooms, seminars, and cafeterias.
These incidents represent a much larger problem. One set of radical political views dominates our campuses, and students who deviate from those views are being forced to self-censor. Americans tend to think that this trend is the legacy of the 1960s radicalism that played out in this country. Yet the same phenomenon is occurring across the entire Anglosphere. Similar attitudes have emerged on campuses in Canada, Australia, and my home country of England—none of which had quite the same experience with cultural leftism in the 1960s.
In my latest book, Populism and the Culture Wars in Europe, I argue that these struggles on campuses have little or nothing to do with 1960s radicalism. Today’s radicals have certainly adopted some of the rhetoric of old-fashioned leftism, but they’ve reformulated it into a therapeutic identity politics that would be unrecognizable to the antiracists of the 1960s.
The problem, in my view, begins with how we’re bringing up our children. We’re no longer teaching our young people proper values, such as character and resilience. Instead, we merely validate them. From their earliest days of school, we teach them that they are weak individuals in need of constant therapeutic support. In England, the “safe space” pedagogy was introduced in elementary schools long before students began to demand safe spaces at universities. High school students were told that they didn’t have to listen to lectures about suicide or other difficult subjects because they were likely to be traumatized.
So by the time they enter university, students have become entitled to this kind of protection and validation. They actually feel that they have a right not to hear words that jar or challenge them, and that speaking these words is a cultural crime.
MAC DONALD: Frank Furedi’s book What’s Happened to the University? is an astounding compendium of a cultural shift, with mind-boggling examples. However, I disagree, to a certain extent, with his diagnosis of the crisis on campuses. I think that it is fundamentally an ideological problem, not a psychological one. Greg Lukia- noff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, pinpointed the beginning of this trend in 2013. That was the year we reached critical mass in what has been the dominant ideology at universities for the past two decades: “victimology”—particularly, racial victimology. Universities today are dedicated to the proposition that American institutions, including universities themselves, create a literally threatening environment of oppression for people of color.
You have minority students at Brown, for example, meeting with the provost and demanding that they be exonerated from any kind of academic expectations, such as showing up for class, because they have to protect their ability to exist on the Brown campus. This rhetoric has become standard. To be a minority on campus, in this view, is to be at actual risk of your life. Note that white male students—heterosexual white male students—are perhaps the most vilified group on campus, and yet they are not demanding safe spaces.
The threat to free speech and the betrayal of the academic mission of rational, civil discourse are, of course, terrifying developments. Those threats, however serious, are not the worst aspect of academic culture today. The worst aspect is the cultivation of racial victimology and the belief in permanent, endemic racism. Even if we were to enforce civil debate, that racial victimology would persist, and it is poisoning our society.
FUREDI: I don’t think that there’s much to debate regarding whether the problem is psychological, political, or cultural, because what we’re seeing is an intertwining of trends in all these areas. I disagree with Heather, however, about which students are driving the shift toward victimology.
In England, it’s being driven by students at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which are the British equivalents of Ivy League universities. If you look at the leaders of the movement, they’re not people of color—they’re not minorities of any sort. They come from the most privileged backgrounds. They’re all white, and a large percentage of them are actually white heterosexual men. They are as busy demanding safe spaces as anybody else. Privileged white students have led the way, and then constructed alliances with minority students.
More evidence that the culture of victimhood isn’t exclusively driven by ideology is the fact that conservative students are mimicking the same behaviors as their progressive peers. When push comes to shove—when they feel under pressure—members of the “alt-right” are just as likely to play the victim card as the social-justice warriors.
Of course, the biggest culprits at the moment are still on the left. But it is disturbing when conservatives, who claim to defend free speech, suddenly decide to shut down the free speech of, say, anti-Zionist speakers. It is an absolute double standard. The fact that everyone is playing the victim card is what we should be disturbed about.
MAC DONALD: It’s true—and regrettable—that some right-wing Jewish students claim that they are victimized on college campuses, a claim undermined by their academic success. But the primary driver of the rise of victimhood is still the narrative of racial oppression. I doubt whether any putative campus victims are being injured psychologically by what they perceive as discrimination. Rather, I think that they are merely leveraging the rhetoric of injury in order to make their case against “heteronormativity,” “white privilege,” and the other bogeymen of the day.
FUREDI: You’re right that there is a highly performative element in the campus outrage culture, especially when the cameras are around. People cry and hug each other. It’s a bit like a medieval Passion Play.
But I’ve also seen how the propensity for real psychological trauma has increased among young people in recent years. I’ve witnessed this shift firsthand over the 20 years that I spent administering exams at my university. Two decades ago, about two students out of 100 would attempt to opt out of any given exam because of mental-health problems, saying that their girlfriend or boyfriend had left them and that they were too traumatized to sit for the test.
My response to this used to be, “Well, tough. Go do your exams.” But about ten years ago, the number of students asking to opt out increased to about 15 percent. By the end of my time as an examiner, one out of four students used these excuses not to take their exams, and we increasingly granted their requests.
The trouble was that at a certain point, these students had begun internalizing their own rhetoric. After having been taught to self-victimize and to perceive hardship in every aspect of their lives, they have developed actual trauma. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If they were simply playing at mental illness, this would be a much easier problem to deal with. It wouldn’t take much effort to isolate and confront outbursts of self-serving melodrama. But when you have students becoming paralyzed—frozen to the ground when, say, Trump gets elected or Brexit gets adopted—then universities begin to look like clinics.
MAC DONALD: Yet the data show that, overall, millennials actually have fewer mental-health problems than the baby boomers. There’s less drug addiction among today’s young. There’s less suicide and less depression.
Rather than campuses experiencing a mental-health epidemic, your Passion Play analogy is absolutely right. Self-engrossed students are acting out little psychodramas of oppression. The reason for the rise of this trend is that they now have an appreciative audience of diversity bureaucrats.
There’s a codependent relationship between the ever-expanding diversity bureaucracy—dedicated to the idea that racism is permanent and endemic—and the students conjuring up evidence of oppression around every corner. My guess is that, if you could take away the diversity bureaucrats, so that nobody would be paying these students much attention for their fits, the problem would go away quickly.
FUREDI: The most successful solution will be one aimed at the students. We need to build up a larger cohort of students able to stand on their two feet, who are independent-minded and who actually think that freedom and democracy are good things. Most important, we need students who will confidently push back against the trends of outrage and censorship.
Initially, they will be a minority, but we should remember that a large number of students already oppose the current trends. The right-thinking students are simply being drowned out by their radical peers, but eventually more might begin to reassert rationality on their campuses.
MAC DONALD: At an even higher level, we need to confront head-on the falsehood that college campuses and American society are filled with racism. This untruth is the root cause of the entire disturbance at universities today. Students are shutting down speech not just because they disagree with it but also because, they claim, racism lurks behind every word and thought of their opponents.
To reverse this trend, everybody has to start telling the truth. The next time students demand to shut down a speaker by claiming that they are oppressed, the college president should stand up and say, “Are you kidding me? You are the most privileged human beings in history. You have at your fingertips the thing that Faust sold his soul for: knowledge. Every book that has ever been written is available to you.” When these students claim that they’re oppressed, they’re effectively saying that their professors are racists, though nothing could be further from the truth. Rarely, if ever, has a college president had the temerity to say, “My faculty wants everybody to succeed. There has never been a more compassionate, tolerant environment in human history.”
And if he wanted to be really accurate, such a president could say, “Every single hiring process involves a desperate search to find minority candidates, and we give heavy preference to minority applicants in student admissions.”
FUREDI: The reluctance of administrators to speak against these students is one part of the larger disintegration of adult authority. Adults once saw it as their duty to transmit the legacy of the past to the next generation—parents passed on the values that they learned as children to their own children, and professors and administrators did the same for students on campuses.
Now, instead of that method of socialization, parents and administrators are using psychological techniques. That’s why we now have counselors in schools beginning at a very early age. Therapists are even showing up at our day-care centers—and they’re talking to primary school children so frequently that by the time the kids turn nine, they sound as if they’ve been studying Freud. “I’m stressed out.” “I’m so depressed.” “I need to chill out.” We have socialized a generation with self-victimization, and the kids have internalized its terms.
Our older approach to socializing students rested on morality—the idea that certain beliefs and standards of conduct exist that everyone should strive for. But psychology has wiped away the notion of shared beliefs, which means that people determine whether a given action or belief is moral based on how it makes them feel. If you appeal to normative ideals, you are attacked for trying to impose your values on others.
The whole domain of morality has become absent from campus life. I’ve given lectures at Catholic universities, where professors of theology tell me that they’re scared to teach real theology because students will accuse them of indoctrination. So instead of teaching the Catholic theology in which their universities are rooted, they cover Hinduism on one day, Judaism the next day, and Protestantism the next day; it becomes a cafeteria of diverse religions.
This kind of relativism—fear of embracing or excluding any views—seems to be the dominant ideal on college campuses. We don’t judge one another. Yet making sound judgments and teaching students to evaluate ideas are fundamental duties of any university.
MAC DONALD: This argument that colleges are filled with relativists has become extremely prevalent, but I have a different view. I think that we have hysterical moralists on campus. These student radicals believe unwaveringly that they know the truth, and their truth is that America is racist. To them, their colleges and their country are unequivocally racist, sexist, homophobic, and fascist. They have not the slightest hesitation about passing unrelenting, unappealable moral judgment on anyone who does not fit in those intersectional categories of transcendent victimhood.
I don’t see how one could claim today that colleges are nonjudgmental, excessively tolerant places. They are precisely the opposite. Traditional religion is not the only form of morality; these social-justice progressives have a form of morality just as rigid as the world’s most dogmatic religions.
FUREDI: You’re right that these students are quick to condemn people who don’t share their views or who don’t fit in to the supposedly oppressed categories. However, non-judgmentalism still reigns supreme within their own ranks.
This is the principle behind safe spaces. They don’t criticize one another, and they don’t question one another. They champion the ideal of segregated and segmented lives: black people can live in one place, gay people can live in another, and so on. So non-judgmentalism is the first-order principle for these students, and bitter condemnation is reserved for people who—in their view—are threatening that nonjudgmental paradise.
The problem is that these students have forgotten the difference between non-judgmentalism and genuine tolerance. In a tolerant system, we make judgments but agree to coexist with those with whom we disagree. But these students have convinced themselves that it is necessary to create a world entirely free of judgment. Like the French rebels of 1968, they want a world in which it is forbidden to forbid. Yet, because judgment is not only necessary but also inevitable, the nonjudgmental students end up resorting to a kind of fascism to force their ideal on others.
MAC DONALD: The fruits of political correctness in our day are flatly unimpressive. We have made a great deal of progress since the early twentieth century, when public discourse could unapologetically demean ethnic minorities. But much of the harm that we see on campuses today stems from the misguided belief that we’re still in that mind-set.
One illustration of this blindness to historical change came during the wave of Black Lives Matter campus protests in the fall of 2015. Black Princeton students announced self-pityingly: “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This was a phrase first uttered by Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who grew up on a Mississippi cotton plantation and who was beaten in the 1950s for trying to vote. She had grounds for being sick and tired of being sick and tired. But any Princeton student who feels as though he’s oppressed—I don’t care if he’s black, purple, or green—is out of touch with reality. So I am perfectly happy to say to that student, “You’re wrong. You are not oppressed. You are fantastically privileged simply by virtue of the boundless intellectual resources available to you. And every adult on this campus wants you to succeed.”
Such students are being encouraged to carry a chip on their shoulder. Chinese children are studying day and night to gain access to the allegedly white-supremacist college environment that these complainers claim jeopardizes their very existence. Not only will the victimology ideology prevent its adherents from seizing academic opportunities; it will likely follow them for the rest of their lives, distorting their view of reality and further diminishing their opportunities.
FUREDI: Unfortunately, most people who buy into this philosophy can’t be reasoned out of it. Our job is to dissuade people who might be considering that way of thinking.
My first rule of thumb when debating the social-justice Left is to use humor, because it’s very effective to say, “You can’t be really serious. You don’t really mean it.” Expose their statements to reality and to the facts, but in a lighthearted way. You may not convince your opponent, but you’ll get whoever’s listening on your side.
I’m reminded of the little boy telling the emperor, “You’re not wearing any clothes.” That’s essentially what we have to do. If these people claim to be oppressed, they need to show us where that oppression is coming from.
Reasonable people can win this debate, as long as we address our arguments to the more skeptical members of the younger generation, many of whom will soon hold positions of influence. We need to inspire these students to have the courage to defend open discourse.
To accomplish this, of course, we’ll have to show a bit of courage ourselves. I think that your experience at Claremont McKenna, Heather, demonstrated exactly this kind of courage. Few people would have endured that kind of onslaught, standing by to address students after push had come to shove. Sustaining free speech on campuses will require the efforts of more people willing to do that.
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