The activist culture on university campuses has chalked up a growing number of denunciations of figures who allegdly deal in hate speech. Germaine Greer has been excoriated by those incensed with her recent transphobic remarks. The gay and civil rights activist Peter Tatchell was ‘no platformed’ for alleged racism and transphobia for merely supporting Greer’s right to express her opinion with which he actually disagrees. The liberal comedian Bill Maher was almost prevented from delivering a university commencement speech because of his ‘islamophobia’. Majid Nawaz the prominent Muslim reformer and anti-religious extremism campaigner was attacked for gratuitous blasphemy of Islam. And the exceptional women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was denied a promised honorary degree after a student led backlash at Brandeis University.
One of the most startling examples of this trend was a dramatic public denunciation of a college professor on a Yale University campus. In short, an email from the university administration was circulated to the student body in advance of a costume party encouraging students to be mindful of racial and cultural sensitivities when choosing their costumes. Erika Christakis, a professor of early childhood education, responded with an email of her own questioning the wisdom of institutions imposing rigid expectations on students and that students were mature enough to handle obnoxious or offensive costumes.
In response members of the student body called on the professor to step down for endorsing ‘cultural misappropriation’ and insensitivity towards minority students, which she subsequently did. Most disturbing was when Professor Nicholas Christakis (husband of Erika) was attempting to mediate with his students and was surrounded and hectored by his students. This event was filmed, presumably by a student, and the irate crowd launched into a stream of invective directed at their professor.
Firstly students chided him for not remembering the name of one student out of 500 who so happened to be African-American which was interpreted as somehow discriminatory in itself. Then though he was encircled and turned to face another questioner turning his back on one group of students he provoked further derision. Next came another student who said unless the professor apologized immediately she would leave, not wanting to hear anything else. One voice said ‘walk away he doesn’t deserve to be listened too’. Another student screamed directly at the professor ‘why the f**k did you accept the position (Master)? Who the f**k hired you’. The final verbal lashing declared that the purpose of Yale was ‘not about creating an intellectual space. It’s about creating a home’.
This episode is arguably the consequence of a hyper attitude of absolute political correctness. I don’t mean that in its sarcastic sense when used lazily against an opinion one thinks is too soft. Actual political correctness was devised by the former Marxist-Leninist regimes where a rigid doctrine or political line was formulated by the party’s core leadership and then transmitted downward through the ranks. It was not to be debated and every individual was required to voice and thoroughly promote the political line given to them.
This behaviour rests on an especially dangerous mentality of purity of political opinion. Why would such a person feel the need or responsibility to debate if they believe their program is correct, true and superior to all other arguments? The extreme example of this was during Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in which the party’s youth was cynically revved up to weed out imagined traitors and the politically ‘incorrect’.
The rather tame public berating of Professor Christakos looks quite similar to the fanatical Red Guards who would hall up their elders and subject them to vicious condemnations before their communities. The primary victims of the Red Guards were educators and low level functionaries who made the mistake of concentrating on their jobs rather than being conspicuous in their public devotion to comrade Mao’s revolution. Teachers, principals and writers were savagely handled by the youthful Red Guards and marched through the streets wearing humiliating signs. One of their favourite punishments was to pour black ink over the heads of their victims to further their public shaming.
Now nothing that is occurring at present rises to the level of China during the Cultural Revolution. But there are themes that look very similar but utilise a different language and generally avoid actual violence. In Maoist China and the Soviet Union the ‘enemies’ of the political leadership were commonly denounced with the carefully constructed phrase ‘right deviationist’. This term was used in order to say that otherwise orthodox communists were the equivalent of the conservative, fascist, imperialist opposition for ‘deviating’ from the official political line. In substance it meant if you were not supporting the leader as fanatically and uncompromisingly as the faithful you were liable for total exclusion.
I believe that we are seeing a modern 21st century version of this tendency. It was best articulated by the liberal comedian Bill Maher who castigated liberals for attacking people who they agree with 95 of the time. This hyper purity is increasingly seen on the political left with figures like Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer being ‘no platformed’, an increasingly common tactic from university student bodies.
In the case of Peter Tatchell the racism charge against him was supposedly backed up by his criticism of Islamist spokespersons who are socially conservative (if not regressive), homophobic and misogynistic. Bizarre though it is, it demonstrates that the uncompromising political line of such student movements results in them finding common cause with right-wing Islamist movements over a gay left-wing activist.
There was a great deal of media attention when the self-professed ‘socialist’ candidate for president Bernie Sanders was kicked off his own stage by spokespersons of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign. The movement expressed disapproval of Sanders for his supposed inaction on African American disadvantage and discrimination in America.
The Sander’s rally demonstrates the sad consequences of the protestor’s actions. The 15,000 strong crowd of predominately white progressives became hostile at having their event disrupted and thus damaged the BLM movement. By opting for the most extreme measures against what are essentially their allies they risk alienation of the very people who agree with them on the substance. It also serves to radicalise politically active individuals and thus discourages them from working within the political process as it exists in order to achieve results.
Freedom to express ones opinion encounters its greatest challenge from those who think they have all the answers to complicated questions. It also bodes ill for the future of education, which is becoming the main battle ground for the free speech debate. What good is there in being educated but never acknowledging a divergent opinion? How will the politically active citizens of tomorrow deal with crisis and complexity if they have never been taught to debate their political opposites? Certainty of rightness always and forever is precisely where we should be calling for a deviation from the generally political line.
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