From what I can determine, the SJW thought process goes something like this:
I subjectively perceive your Christian values as "hateful" -- the root of "oppressive" social structures. I discovered my own unconscious biases on campus through seminars, and by studying endlessly repeated examples of the New Left's vastly expanded lexicon of what constitutes racism, bigotry, and misogyny in my social science courses. I do not need to respond to your so-called evidence-based arguments to the contrary, because your reactionary response -- a defense mechanism -- only reveals your unconscious desire to defend your privilege (white, male, heterosexual, Christian, etc.) and the status quo. Your presence has therefore "triggered" a justifiably irrational, aggressive, and sometimes violent response from student activists. Your fascist ideas must be silenced, not debated. Stop hating and microaggressing; acknowledge your privilege; put on a Che Guevara T-shirt.
It sounds like Maoist reeducation camp brainwashing, right? But we're not talking about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This is happening on American college campuses. It's the mantra of the New Left's Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). This is what we are up against. By we, I mean the vast majority of Americans who do not believe these things to be true. By this, I mean irrational, arrogant, formulaic, programmatic identity confusion. Why are these kids so confused about who they are? Obviously most students are not campus activists, and yet why do so many of our college graduates believe their cultural heritage to be oppressive and something to be ashamed of?
My previous blog post about the violent attack on Charles Murray and Allison Stanger at Middlebury (see here) focused on how a clear-eyed examination of the intellectual roots of the regressive left may help explain the cognitive mechanisms behind the normalization of violent SJW attacks on campus conservatives. I've been closely following progressive reactions to the attack in the hopes that the left -- which dominates the discourse on most college campuses -- might be moving in the direction of putting this genie back into the bottle before these problems spill into the streets. I've been anticipating a shift against campus intolerance. Why? As a matter of, if no other reason, self-preservation. It doesn't take much imagination to see the potential for blowback. So, how have progressives responded?
The Heterodox Academy, led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (see here), has garnered a good deal of attention for calling for the cultivation of open debate and intellectual diversity on campuses. Haidt represents the progressive liberal desire to continue the classically liberal tradition of free speech. While this is an encouraging sign, I would also highlight what I suspect is a less openly discussed, but common, reaction by the regressive left -- perhaps an aversion to violence on campus (honestly -- how many leftists do you know that could hold their own in a saloon scuffle?), but an agreement that silencing "certain" forms of speech is necessary. The difference is one of strategy, and not of intent. The regressive left shares many of the same assumptions and goals of progressive liberals. However, as we shall see, the means of accomplishing these goals has become the dividing line between progressive liberals and the regressive left, but precisely where that line will be drawn remains to be seen.
Let's consider the recent Slate article, "In Praise of Intolerance: Today’s political climate doesn’t require more tolerance. It requires less," by assistant professor at James Madison University, Alan Levinovitz (for the full article, see here). Levinovitz's thesis is that despite the longstanding tradition within liberal thought to condemn intolerance, he has discovered the opposite to be desirable -- virtuous intolerance is essential to social progress. Of course, he uses a straw man to prove his point by suggesting that university biology departments should not consider hiring white supremacists, anti-vaxxers, or creationists, simply to show tolerance for other points of view. However, Levinovitz cautions that because of the liberal emphasis on "championing tolerance instead of truth or goodness, the left has opened itself up to unavoidable accusations of hypocrisy."
Levinovitz then focuses his argument by noting that efforts by Haidt, and other well-meaning progressive liberals, to eliminate "religious fundamentalism" are incompatible with tolerating these points of view. He stresses that "Progress today depends, as it always has, on the refusal to tolerate falsehood and immorality." Levinovitz chides Haidt for trying to "magic away" the views of the "religious right" while clinging to "an expansive vision of tolerance."
What campuses need, according to Levinovitz, is a renewed dedication to virtuous civil intolerance. He suggests that "the object and the context" of intolerance are vital in this regard. His example -- Charles Murray. He suggests that intolerance in the form of violence against the likes of Murray, and in the context of a campus speech, is inappropriate and inadvisable -- don't give a bad idea a "cross to die on." But he suggests that shouting at Murray in the supermarket for handing out copies of The Bell Curve would be acceptable and appropriate. Levinovitz goes on to note that in other contexts -- such as when dealing with civil rights issues -- "violence can be perfectly justifiable" and sometimes "laws need to be broken." To be fair, Levinovitz does not excuse name-calling as a cover for intellectual laziness, or avoiding the hard work of defeating "bad" ideas through debate.
So what would Levinovitz consider to be a dangerous idea today -- one that should be the object of "fierce resistance"? You might have immediately thought of Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto. After all, those ideas contributed to the deaths of well over 100 million people in the twentieth century. But you would be wrong. Levinovitz's central example of a nefarious thinker? C.S. Lewis. Yes, that C.S. Lewis -- the author of Mere Christianity, which Levinovitz characterizes as a "poisonous" work of "religious nationalism," that threatens to turn back the clock to the "not so good old days." What does he find so objectionable about Mere Christianity? It calls for American political and economic leaders to be Christians, and suggests that men should be the head of households. Crazy talk! Educated people cannot be allowed to think such thoughts. Can they?
To summarize these two progressive responses to the SJW attack at Middlebury:
Haidt's response -- Let's get together and talk; free speech is important, even if I think you're a religious bumpkin with a provisional mindset; let's try to understand one another, agree to disagree, and avoid the pitfalls of groupthink by preventing an "orthodox" point of view from reigning supreme on campuses.
The cowboy scorecard: Haidt's willingness to engage and empathize scores big cowboy points. You have to respect a man that is willing to try and put himself in your boots -- even if he's accustomed to wearing high-end dress shoes.
Levinovitz's retort -- Stop coddling the religious right; some ideas need to be vigorously, virtuously, and in the right context, violently, opposed; don't be a violent idiot on campus though; stop being lazy and engage in the hard work of opposing bad ideas on the merits.
The cowboy scorecard: A cowboy has to respect Levinovitz for sticking to his guns, but it would seem that he's walking on thin ice when taking the "moral high ground" as a secular humanist. What is a secular humanist, exactly? Sounds like a fancy term for self-absorbed bull-pucky to me.
Conclusion: Although both make interesting points, Haidt is the clear winner. Yes, he's biased, but aren't we all? As a social psychologist he's probably more aware of his biases, and more open to a discussion of biases, than most. He understands that the messy business of representative government means accepting that others will not always agree with you, and that it is necessary to meet with good intentions and the desire to understand the other. He wants to find common ground. That requires grit, and humility.
Here's the rub. With the blurring of the lines of what constitutes racism, misogyny, and bigotry by the New Left and campus SJWs, what would Levinovitz suggest as the proper parameters of violence and lawlessness for SJWs, who see Nazis everywhere? What would Haidt say about the temper tantrums of the SJWs? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Help them better deal with their emotions? That sounds like coddling to me. Here's an idea right out of the field of psychology -- there must be consequences for undesirable behavior.
When we peak through the polite and sophisticated veneer of secular humanist objectivity, we see an unmistakable disdain for Christian values (for statistics, see the most recent Pew study here). Isn't this -- a disdain for Christian values -- the scholar's (Levinovitz) and the activist's (SJWs) common ground? Both clearly see traditional Christian ideas as oppressive (the not so good old days!). They simply differ on how to eradicate this "oppression." Is that not true? The scholar imposes cultural revolution from above; the activist fights the cultural revolution in the streets. Is that not true?
I have a few additional cowboy questions about how we might identify the difference between, say, a fundamentalist that should be opposed, and a "good" Christian that should be accepted? Surely, there are a few "good" Christians out there. Right? What's the litmus? A literal interpretation of the Bible? One's politics on key progressive issues, such as "trans" rights? Is a fundamentalist someone that does not support gender neutrality policies on campus? How about Trump voters? Would Haidt welcome Trump's deplorables to the heterodox table? It should be noted that a majority of Protestants and Catholics voted for Trump in the 2016 election (see here). Can they come out of the closet yet? How about truth -- absolute or relative? Is that a good litmus? Is a "good" Christian simply a person who no longer holds Christian beliefs, like a secular humanist? Maybe students should be assigned Mere Christianity, and purged if they refuse to condemn it's values. Think it can't happen (see here)?
Secular humanists, New Left "professor activists," and SJWs need to remember that Christians represent over 70% of the U.S. population. Are Evangelicals the nasty ones? That's over 25% of the population. Perhaps conservative Catholics -- are they the problem? Catholics represent over 20% of the U.S. population. Of course, we could turn the tables in this discussion and suggest that the declining numbers of Christians as an overall proportion of American society may be, in part, in decline as a result of activist professors and leftist gate-keepers who control the keys of entry into the middle class via the college degree. Of course, that would be a nasty example of stereotyping. So we won't do that.
And what, exactly, is a secular humanist? Are humans fundamentally good? Can you prove that empirically? What is the moral code of the New Left, and it's SJW activists? Doesn't the act of separating truth from falsehood, the moral from the immoral, require a belief system? A moral code? What's true, and how do you know? Does truth exist, or are all truths relative and socially constructed? Are the truths being defended by the university echo chamber subject to debate and discussion, or would disagreeing with these "truths" automatically land one in the category of pseudoscience? How is that different from the SJWs lazy-labeling of the other as a racist, bigot, or misogynist? Is anyone on campus allowed to believe in objective truth beyond the shifting dogmas of progressive identity politics? Hint: young people are sometimes lazy; their lazy labels are an oversimplified parroting of what they hear from you. They are reflecting your beliefs and values.
Levinovitz is right to recognize that the classically liberal tradition of free speech has allowed us to solve problems without unnecessary recourse to violence. But what happens when that formula no longer works? And what if that formula is no longer working because Christian values and ideas -- which I would argue promote self-reflection and empathy -- have been purged from the university by secular humanists practicing "virtuous intolerance." The crossroads we face today is a spiritual crossroads. The crisis we face today is an identity crisis. When students are searching for their identities as young adults -- as Americans -- they are finding it in rudderless progressive values. You may think of yourself as a tolerant liberal -- aghast by campus violence -- but if you also routinely stereotype Christians, Republicans, and those who hold traditional American values as backward, and uninformed, then please recognize that the SJWs are your children. They have taken your assumptions to logical conclusions. They see fascists, white supremacists, oppressive capitalist structures, and the evil patriarchy everywhere. Secular humanists -- you are committed to destroying their faith; the New Left is simply giving them a new one (see here).
- The Cowboy Historian