Some Concerns About Campus Identity Politics

Diversity progressives should be careful about the kind of activism that poisons the atmosphere, because soon even they will be choking on the fumes.

March 19, 2019

Ronald Reagan used to say that referring to someone who 80% agrees with you as a 20% traitor is both wrong and unhelpful. That big tent philosophy combined with sunny optimism helped to build modern conservatism.

One of the things that strikes me about the harder edges of campus-based identity politics is that it is taking the exact opposite approach. Instead of big tent, it is narrow path. Instead of open doors, there are purity tests.

Increasingly, I get the feeling that the out-front activists are not so much serving as the vanguard of a larger movement, but a group intent on marginalizing everyone who does not hew to their rigid orthodoxies.

About 18 months ago I got into a discussion in a religion class at an elite liberal arts college that deteriorated into an argument with a couple of students on a couple of relatively narrow identity issues. They unholstered the standard power, privilege and oppression language (micro-aggression, safe space, erasure) and I literally felt everybody else in the room physically bow out of the conversation. The entire session was two students and one faculty member strenuously arguing with me while forty other students sat passively by and waited for the performance to end.

After class, a young black woman sitting next to me said, “Ummmm, Dr. Patel, do you have time for me to ask a question? I was wondering about whether your PhD in the sociology of religion helped you start your Interfaith nonprofit, because I’m kind of interested in walking a similar path.”

The professor had asked me to come to class to discuss precisely those kinds of questions, but I’d (stupidly) allowed a couple students to dominate in a manner that silenced everyone else.

Sometimes, the learning of the broader community suffers when campus discourse is dominated by the identity politics of the few. Ironically, the people who suffer the most are the students interested in the issues but still developing their views.

“If you don’t agree with everything they believe in then you run the risk of being cancelled,” a student at an elite liberal arts college told me in a private, small group session recently.

Another student, same college, different session: “There are many POC (person of color) experiences at this college, but the activist climate here only allows you to narrate one.” And so, what do you do? Either you succumb to the peer pressure and silence your own creative thoughts in favor of the group-approved slogans, or you move to a totally different social group who might not care about these issues at all.

To have to make that choice on a college campus is a tragedy. The whole purpose of a campus is to exercise the muscle of creative thinking, which happens best when half-baked thoughts are being openly exchanged by a civil community who assumes the good will of those in the conversation. Civilization, as John Courtney Murray reminds us, is literally defined by people locked together in a constructive argument.

There was a powerful piece by Jennifer Senior in The New York Times recently about Kosoko Jackson, a gay black writer. Jackson worked as a ‘sensitivity reader’ for a publishing house, flagging sections of books that some people from minority groups might/could find offensive. He recently wrote his own first novel but had to pull it from the shelves because some of the ways he wrote about some minorities were deemed offensive by activists.

Senior’s memorable turn of phrase on the incident. “One of the captains of cancel culture - which urges people to shun the insensitive, the oppressive, the morally questionable - got canceled himself.”

Revolutions, so the saying goes, eat their own children. I feel like I am watching that happen in real-time on America’s elite liberal arts colleges because I have met too many students who speak about experiences similar to Kosoko Jackson’s. They are, as Jennifer Senior writes, people happy to place the guillotines out, but inevitably find that some comment they make on the quad or in class marks them as a head to be taken.

We are all beneficiaries of, and responsible for, what I’m starting to think of as “the clean air of civil discourse” - by which I mean a campus discussion that is characterized by openness, good will, a spirit of welcome and attentive principally to learning, not politics. Be careful about self-righteous rudeness, angry call outs, shut-down-the-speaker shouting, sloganeering that sidelines other views, rigid orthodoxies that prevent fellow students from forming creative thoughts or expressing heterodox ideas, etc. One day you might find yourself choking on the poison you’ve put in the atmosphere.


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