Yesterday, MSNBC host Chris Hayes went off on the idea that American conservatives are paying an outsized degree of attention to academia and speech issues on campus because conservatism is based on a politics of victimhood and grievance. I am not exaggerating.
If you haven’t been paying attention to right wing media recently, it’s *amazing* how much attention current campus controversies have gotten. The reason, I think, is that the right now controls most state houses and all three branches of federal gov’t. They have *tons of power*. But modern conservatism’s emotional fuel is grievance and persecution, so they need to focus on Berkeley campus. You’d think liberals arts undergrads had the nuclear codes.
First of all, paying attention to what happens on campus hasn’t been a new item of conservative priority since God and Man at Yale. Conservatives recognize that college campuses and their frames of reality have an outsized impact on the culture, training the next generation of leaders. There are countless books about the academy and the problematic impact it has had on American life, and there were particularly a good deal of things written during the 1960s and 1970s about the changing nature of the academy. This strikes many conservative writers as a similar moment, a flashpoint when something dramatic is changing about our institutions of higher education. Additionally, as a practical matter, conservatives tend to be older and middle class – they are more likely to have college-aged children and to be confronting the challenge of finding an institution that will educate rather than indoctrinate their sons and daughters, and for a hefty fee.
Second, the idea that conservatism’s emotional fuel is grievance and persecution as a political and legal matter strikes me as a very new idea – as in, post-Obergefell. Prior to that, conservatives had few examples of actual legal prosecution for the way they live according to their beliefs (with the exception of, say, home schooling or gun ownership). Hayes is indeed correct that Republicans (not conservatives) have won at every level of government and do indeed hold political power. The left, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly dominant in two places: the academy and mass media. So that is where the fights happen.
It is no accident that the place that lends itself to creating conflicts between the dominant order of thought and people who want to speak their minds freely is the college campus, where conservatives feel outnumbered and crushed by a system of higher education that believes in academic freedom for me, not for thee. On the campus, administrators have nigh unchecked power to negatively impact the lives of the students on campus, and along with faculty, they are often easily brought to heel by the heckling mobs of the moment – see most recently at Middlebury, where a professor apologized to the recent rioters for the offense of even inviting Charles Murray to speak. This is, of course, a mistake on the part of the rioters – if they did not protest, heckle, and attempt to shut down speech they treat as a violent assault on their minds, no one would remark on a lecture to a handful of quiet well-behaved students. But instead they give Murray, and Ann Coulter, and Milo, and all the rest the oxygen that turns these sparks into forest fires.
The power of the closed bubble of academia makes for more conflict. Mass media, on the other hand, is essentially powerless other than an ability to lecture you about your wrongthink. They are easier to ignore, and to mock in return. Conservatives have gotten used to being yelled at just about everywhere and by just about everyone for years – by cable news and NPR and SNL and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and John Oliver and Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah and so on, but also by sportscasters and entertainment reporters, by dramatic television and sitcoms, and by any movie or TV show in need of conveniently depicting Americans who read Bibles or own guns as hicks and bigots undeserving of respect.
When I was much younger, my siblings and I would routinely tune in to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy on PBS. He was a fascinating instructor bent on helping kids achieve a basic understanding of science. When he engaged in politics, it was only very briefly if at all. He has recently returned to Netflix to, as so many of their products attempt, play on the nostalgia of older Millennials. Sadly, he spends most of his new Netflix show yelling at the audience. He also collaborated with Rachel Bloom on this bizarre video on transgenderism which has nothing to do with science, and is as cringeworthy a thing as you will see all year. The whole thing manages to be unfunny, tone-deaf, and hectoring – it mangles the real issues involved and disrespects the audience at the same time.
This isn’t about persecution – it’s disrespect. And the fundamental basis of healthy politics is respect. Real persecution is only a small part of what conservatives object to about the current state of the campus or the public square – the occasional group that is shut down, the florist or cake baker whose livelihood is threatened, the religious group that is berated into breaking their faith – these are the exceptions. The overall issue is a disrespect that now views words as weapons, fueled by an academic culture which has transferred the language of PTSD to simple day-to-day existence. We want an educational system that produces citizens, not victims – one that produces thinking people who respect the views of those with whom they disagree, who can grapple with those views as they come, not one that will curl up into a ball of rage at the first sign of wrongthink, or turn into an aggrieved party whose pain must be acknowledged.
We must not fall into the trap of thinking speech that offends is speech that must be forbidden. A healthy culture demands that much of us, to equip the next generation of Americans with the knowledge and reason they will need to confront an uncertain future.