A cultural struggle is rampaging America’s universities: Students want to banish any discrimination and sexism from campuses. But their achievements may have unintended consequences.
The author of this text would like to remain anonymous.
When the director of the dining hall at Oberlin College, a small elite university in Ohio, decided to offer an international menu a few months ago, she was hoping for praise: From General Tso’s Chicken to sushi, there was to be something for every taste. But instead of praise, she reaped the fury of some student groups. The Asian American Alliance demanded in an official statement to the director “that she improve the food preparation in the cafeteria because these dishes distort our culture.” When Americans “not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative,” a student argues in The New York Times.
Members of a privileged majority, according to the students, have no right to steal from the cultures of underprivileged minorities. This can include Christians who decorate their rooms with Buddha statues and white women who wear turbans. And as a result, what goes for religion and fashion is also applicable to food — which is why Oberlin’s oppressive dining services committed a political sin when they put mediocre sushi on the menu without the needed input from the Asian student community.
One could view the complaints of the Oberlin students as an absurd curiosity. The reality is, unfortunately, much more serious. The sushi posse may have just been an extreme case, but in no way an outlier. “Problematic” is the favorite word of campus activists — and they happen to find many things problematic. In the past year, universities in the United States have been utterly overwhelmed by similar student protests.
In February, due to pressure from female students, disciplinary action was taken against a female professor at Northwestern University because she claimed that the fear of sexual abuse through hook-ups on campus is overblown.
In May, students at Columbia University demanded that professors warn them of the traumatizing content of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” before teaching it.
In October, a psychologist caused a wave of protests at Yale when she refused to advise students as to which supposedly culture-appropriating costumes they could not wear for Halloween.
Like at Oberlin, the pretense for these protests was in each case an apparent misinterpretation of good intentions. Like at Oberlin, the leader of the protests argued for nothing less than a radical change of free norms. If they are able to implement their worldview, they will undermine the fundamental rules of cooperative living in a liberal society.
The Fear of Becoming the Target of a Witch Hunt
An early success has already come for the students: Criticizing the protests at American universities has become widely taboo. No one wants to be on the side of the oppressor, the privileged majority. White, male, heterosexual professors in particular can no longer choose to publicly criticize the protests. Professors with tenure do have secure jobs, but they can quickly find themselves tied to the virtual whipping post — and can forget about any future advancement. And as for the faculty that still awaits tenure, the risks are even more serious. Their lectures are extended on a year to year basis. Theoretically, only a couple of tweets by outraged students stand between the docent and the employment office.
When I told my friends my idea to write this article, their reaction hardly surprised me: Career-wise, a friend of mine said, I am committing a particularly effective form of suicide. She is right. Despite that, I can’t let myself be entirely mum. Therefore, I have decided to write this article anonymously. I have taught for years at a leading American university. I cannot say more about my identity without fearing professional consequences.
I know: This fear may appear overblown, but on this campus, the fear is omnipresent. The fear of becoming the victim of a witch hunt haunts every member of the faculty. I, too, have developed my own censor. Above all, I ask myself in silence if what I say might be misinterpreted by a radical or upset student. I avoid particularly controversial subjects from the beginning. I have enough cautionary tales. In my circle of acquaintances, there is a professor who was accused of racism because he confused the names of two Asian students. There is a professor who was made the target of student protests because she spoke out against the new university guidelines on sexual harassment. There is a professor who was accused of racism because she allegedly gave lower grades to black students. There is a professor who was targeted because he spoke out against accepting members of ethnic minorities into the school when they had lower grades.
What is playing out among my colleagues is taking place all over the country.
The troubles of Erika Christakis, a well-known child psychologist, began at the end of October, when a committee at Yale warned students at the university about wearing “culturally appropriative” costumes for Halloween — i.e. Native American garb or sombreros. In her role as associate master of Sillman College, one of the dormitories for Yale’s undergraduates, Christakis wrote an email to her students. She wrote extensively about not wanting “to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” but nevertheless stopped short of telling the students which costumes were unacceptable. “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.”
This cautiously worded email set the students of Sillman College in an uproar. Students gathered in the dorm to protest against Christakis — and demand that the university administration fire her. Their campus, they explained, needs to be a so-called safe space, in which they could be protected from supposed offenses and animosity. Christakis not taking enough effort to produce such a safe space proves she is a villain. When her husband, the master of the Sillman College, wanted to lead an open debate with the protest leaders, some students became aggressive. “You make me sick!” one student screamed. The pressure continued, and Erika Christakis resigned from her teaching position.
Students also demand more protection of their feelings in class. Their intended keyword in this case is “trigger warning.” This was demanded of a Classics professor by students at Columbia University in New York: He should issue a disclaimer before reading the traumatizing content of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.” The rapes described therein could trigger psychological trauma among victims of sexual assault. “Like so many other works in the Western canon,” four students explained in the Columbia Spectator, “[Ovid’s “Metamorphosis”] contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.” With sensitive texts, such as Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” professors are therefore obliged to issue a warning — and allow their students to leave during class.
Regardless of whether it’s about film, literature, or sexual harassment laws, students all over the country have begun to demand this trigger warning. A textbook publisher that is preparing a new edition of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” is now feeling the consequences. On the title page, he warns the reader of the philosopher’s views: “Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.”
Such pre-emptive censoring is not only intended for the major works of critical thought — but also for minor expressions in everyday life. Students and professors are being called out on Facebook and Twitter for so-called “microaggressions,” which may not even have ill intent. What can be called a “microaggression” is so vaguely defined that it encourages supposed victims to overreact to minor misunderstandings. In an open letter, the president of the University of California has requested that professors avoid the use of microaggressions — a well-intended request, but the examples of forbidden statements clearly limit the freedom of speech of the faculty. According to the university administration, statements like “America is the land of possibility” or “I think the best qualified candidate should get the job” are now taboo. They would promote the “myth of meritocracy” and the idea that “race or gender don’t play a role.” Expressions like “America is a melting pot” or “there is only one race, the human race” can now be considered faux pas. Even though they may seem antiracist, in reality, they imply “that a white person doesn’t want to admit the cultural importance of race identity.” Despite their nice ring, they more or less amount to what George Orwell called a thought crime.
Prosperous White People with Bad Consciences
The tragic consequence of this farce is that there is no shortage of real grievances in the U.S. that students could be protesting. American society believes that it treats all citizens equally. But at the same time, blacks and Latinos are more often poorer than whites, police have murdered more African-Americans like Tamir Rice without punishment, and Donald Trump continues to encourage hate toward Mexicans and Muslims.
Traditionally, student protests in the U.S. have been denouncements of such injustices in appeal to the universal nature of American society. The civil rights movement in the 1960s demanded for blacks the same constitutionally guaranteed rights that whites had been enjoying since the founding of the country. But a large portion of the current generation of student leaders is lacking the patience for this strategy. When the actual society and culture don’t correspond to its purported values, then one must think that something must be wrong with the values themselves. In that sense, they aren’t fighting for a society of equals, but for one in which the rights and responsibilities of the individual are clearly dependent on skin color. The difference to the current situation is that white Americans no longer enjoy more de jour rights and fewer responsibilities than historically underprivileged minorities like blacks or Hispanics.
As one can glean from their favorite publication sources — online media like Salon or BuzzFeed — the discourse revolves around questions of identity among young, left-wing activists. In the society of which they dream, people would find their value not as individuals but as members of a supposedly oppressed minority. Whether a political measure is justified is measured by whether it serves blacks or whites, women or men, homosexuals or heterosexuals. Even the truthfulness of an opinion ultimately depends on whether it has been expressed by a privileged (and therefore suspect) or underprivileged (therefore virtuous) person.
The strange form of their protest has much to do with the identity of the students. The political activism among the poorest Americans still targets important subjects such as a higher minimum wage or reform of the justice system. The protest leaders at the universities, on the other hand, come from two comparably privileged groups. One group consists of prosperous white people, who want to loudly display their bad conscience about the American past — and also finally consider themselves to be on the good side. The other group consists of blacks and Hispanics from middle class families who can pick up minor social offenses more readily than major socio-economic injustices. That many of them could potentially profit from their demands — such as the hiring of more black and Hispanic professors and administrators — is certainly not a coincidence.
In order to implement their desired utopia, many students are ready to dismantle the foundations of a free society. “I don’t want to have to lead a debate,” wrote one protest leader at Yale during the controversy around the Halloween costumes. “I want to talk about my pain.” More and more students are agreeing with her. According to a poll, more than half of American students demand that their university limit freedom of opinion on campus. Almost two-thirds want to be warned by their professors with a trigger warning before unpleasant content.
If the students actually are able to impose their ideals on universities, this would be a catastrophe for the American education system. Classes would simply become pure information absorption that wouldn’t intellectually challenge the students. This eerie conformity already occurs to some degree at universities, which should be promoting the free exchange of ideas. Even my own seminars have become less spontaneous over the past few years — and therefore not stimulating the students enough to question their own assumptions. That’s not good, but it’s better than losing my own job due to a thoughtless remark or becoming the target of a witch hunt.
It could get even worse if the students win some battles but lose the war. They are demanding that university administration punish alleged offensive remarks, thereby giving them the power to control the opinions of students as well as professors. If the political climate changes, the administration can use their new power to censor students or to silence critics of the university presidents.
Nothing is easier than making fun of student protests. Marvel at the young radicals on the march who want to create a more just world, but instead, they themselves often become the future leading representatives of this unjust world! Despite this irony, don’t underestimate this movement. Past student protests have already managed to achieve some long-lasting influence on politics and society. Many of those students who founded communes in the U.S. and Germany in the ‘60s, later transformed into monogamous grandparents. Nevertheless, the sexual norms on both sides of the Atlantic have changed radically since then.
This questioning of the foundations of liberal society could yield a similarly long-lasting influence. And in a society that revolves more and more around the cultural identity of the individual, these seeds of thought will be planted in fertile soils. It has already begun to change the U.S. from the ground up.
Germany is luckily far away from the American situation. But the first parallels are beginning to appear. Students at Humboldt University not only declared the politics professor Herfried Münkler an “extremist of the middle,” but also meticulously collected his remarks. In their blog, which they named Münkler Watch, they formulate similar ideas that have been put forth in American schools. No wonder they represent the “privileging of a privileged perspective like that of the white, male European” as a form of subliminal racism.
But such accusations still sound exotic to German ears. But as with so many of the cultural developments in America that once appeared exotic to us, we can become accustomed to them within a few years. That would be tragic. There is much we can take away from American universities. But we shouldn’t shame ourselves over our ignorance of new terms such as trigger warning and microaggression. And if the foundations of cooperation in our liberal society should appear outdated, then we should defend them with spirit.
Translator’s note: The translator wants to communicate that he does not necessarily share the author’s opinions.