Friday, April 26, 2024

Feelings on Campus

In "The Campus-Left Occupation that Broke Higher Education," George Packer of The Atlantic concludes

Elite universities are caught in a trap of their own making, one that has been a long time coming. They’ve trained pro-Palestinian students to believe that, on the oppressor-oppressed axis, Jews are white and therefore dominant, not “marginalized,” while Israel is a settler-colonialist state and therefore illegitimate. They’ve trained pro-Israel students to believe that unwelcome and even offensive speech makes them so unsafe that they should stay away from campus. What the universities haven’t done is train their students to talk with one another.

Well, of course not. They have failed to train their students to do so because of the current emphasis not on what is actually said or done but upon the impact of statements or actions. Packer explains

The muscle of independent thinking and open debate, the ability to earn authority that Daniel Bell described as essential to a university’s survival, has long since atrophied. So when, after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Jewish students found themselves subjected to the kind of hostile atmosphere that, if directed at any other minority group, would have brought down high-level rebukes, online cancellations, and maybe administrative punishments, they fell back on the obvious defense available under the new orthodoxy. They said that they felt “unsafe.” They accused pro-Palestinian students of anti-Semitism—sometimes fairly, sometimes not. They asked for protections that other groups already enjoyed. Who could blame them? They were doing what their leaders and teachers had instructed them was the right, the only, way to respond to a hurt.

Right-wingers could gloat that colleges, especially of the elite nature, what Reverend Jeremiah Wright (also Frederick Douglass and the Apostle Paul) have said in a different context: Whatsoever you sow, that you also shall reap. However, most of them, ironically pro-Israel (rhetorically pro-Jewish), ,have embraced the same reasoning. One of the most prominent:

Texas Governor Greg Abbott urges swift punishment after police arrested more than 20 people while dispersing an anti-Israel protest that pro-Palestinian demonstrators held at University of Texas in Austin.

“These protesters belong in jail,” Abbott writes on social media.

“Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

The statement from the President of the University of Texas was excellent. At least as quoted, the governor of Texas did not urge swift punishment of individuals because they broke any laws or disrupted operations of the university or of its students. He condemned them for "joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests."

It appears that Abbott's ire was invoked not because student protestors misbehaved or committed criminal offenses but because their words were hateful and bigoted. The greatest crime is not to be wrong or illegal but to be insensitive. This has been the guiding principle of much of the woke left for several years but gained energy during the black lives matter protests in the summer of 2020. A report from that time noted

A statue of Confederate soldier John B. Castleman was removed from the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood in Louisville on June 8. According to a report by the Courier-Journal, the city plans to move the statue to Cave Hill Cemetery, where Castleman is buried.

The University of Kentucky in Lexington said on June 5 that a mural, which has previously been a source of controversy on campus, will be removed. Students have protested racist images of black people and Native Americans in the mural.

The mural may have been bigoted and/or may have painted a false image of blacks and tribal peoples. Yet, that apparently was not the basis of the decision. Instead

In an email to students, the university’s president, Eli Capilouto, recalled “a conversation with one student about the mural who stopped me cold with the observation that every time he walked into a class in Memorial Hall, he was forced to reckon with the fact that his forebears were enslaved.”

The university president did not want to hurt the student's feelings, did not want him to take offense. He believed that the problem was not the mural itself. It was in the response, justified or not, to the art. 

Universities have been particularly partial to these priorities and so have been prone to punish speech more readily than behavior. And now the right, as represented by the governor of Texas, denounces protesters not for their actions but because some of their language is anti-Semitic and hateful. It makes individuals feel unsafe, apart from being unsafe, and is disagreeable and discomforting, perhaps even  painful. That should not be the primary issue but, for institutions of higher learning, what goes around, sadly comes around.


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