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It has become increasingly clear since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks that American college campuses are failing to create cultures and communities that respect human rights values.
The events since Oct. 7 illustrate this challenge in stark relief, but it has taken more than a decade of changes in campus culture to reach this stage where dehumanization and disregard for human rights has become normalized on many campuses.
Respectful dialogue, freedom of expression without incitement to hatred and violence, and coexistence have become increasingly strained and are at a breaking point.
Students of diverse backgrounds—Israelis and Jews, Arabs and Muslims, and others—are finding themselves insecure on campus, experiencing hostility both in-person and online.
Campuses have become sites of imminent or actual physical violence: examples include threats to murder Jewish people allegedly made by a Cornell University student, antisemitic messages emailed to staff at the University of Pennsylvania that “threatened violence” against members of Penn’s Jewish community and specifically named Penn Hillel, and the physical assault of an Israeli student at Columbia University. Virulent hate speech justifying the murder and rape of Jewish people and glorifying the Hamas attacks can be heard at campuses across the country, including George Washington University, New York University and University of California, Berkeley. At Stanford University, a hit-and-run that injured an Arab Muslim student is being investigated as a hate crime—and is one of multiple possible hate crimes reported at Stanford since mid-October, including three other alleged incidents targeting Arab, Muslim or Palestinian students or symbols and another involving the removal of a mezuzah from a Jewish student’s door. Drawings of Nazi swastikas have also been found on the Stanford campus in the past few weeks; in mid-October, an instructor was suspended for alleged identity-based discrimination against Jewish students.
These incidents have shaken college campuses, terrorizing students and undermining physical safety, let alone the ability to study and maintain community.
In my teaching of human rights, I find that students are interested in human rights and sympathetic to them both as principles and as practice.
However, I also find growing and sometimes great resistance among some students and faculty to the principles of universality, equality and human dignity, which are fundamental to human rights.
As concern and sensitivity to the moral and social demands of equity have risen—appropriately—they have also, problematically, eclipsed respect for the concurrent and interdependent values of equality, universality and human dignity.
As concern for collective rights has risen—understandably—in tandem with greater emphasis in public culture on group identity and categories of identity, respect for individual rights has lessened, problematically.
As someone who identifies with human rights and social justice and aims to advance both—and indeed believes they are inextricably bound—I have found that the current dominant iterations of social justice have become narrow, hardened into dogma and doctrine that cut them off from the broader values and aims of human rights and the liberalism that animates it.
Recently, this has been made most evident by the prevalence of support and justification amongst many faculty and students on university campuses for the Hamas rapes, torture, hostage taking and massacres in Israel—depicted on many college campuses as a form of “legitimate resistance,” even, appallingly, described and justified as acts of justice rather than unconscionable crimes against innocent civilians.
The (im)moral principle that animates this conviction is the idea that the ends justify the means and that human beings do not have intrinsic human rights and human dignity. It is a belief that is fundamental to both authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and utterly inimical to democracy.
If raping or torturing or killing advances what is perceived to be a just cause, i.e., freedom from Israeli control of Gaza’s borders, not only is it considered to be allowed—but it is also perceived and defended as necessary.
The logic that defends these massacres can and does devalue and dehumanize anyone. It starts with Jews, but it does not end there. It could be applied in other equally immoral ways to individuals and groups of different backgrounds and identities in different contexts. It illustrates a broad moral malice and malaise: once the ends justify the means, morality and human rights collapse and there is no restraint on human behavior.
As campus cultures have become increasingly characterized by binaries—simplifications of complex and dynamic social and political realities, and rigid hierarchies of perceived victimhood and perceived merit, rather than respect for pluralism and complexity and individual personhood—human rights values can no longer be accommodated and respected.
Dominant campus cultures perceive pluralism and some aspects of liberal democracy as a threat to revolutionary change and perceive equality and freedom and human rights themselves as a threat to social justice.
Campus culture and popular culture generally—in part because of social media and the pressures to take public positions on global issues in ways that reflect prevailing orthodoxies and often favor virtue signaling and symbolism over engagement of substance—have become more emotional, egotistical and anti-empirical.
It has become harder to find a healthy integration and balance of reason, concern for truth and reality, ethics, empathy and emotion in higher education contexts and in society and public discourse, in general. Emotions of rage, moral and intellectual certainty, and absolutism now dominate.
Although many are shocked by the intensity and prevalence of antisemitism targeting Jews on college campuses today, antisemitism is a symptom of this broader moral and social malice.
Antisemitism has been increasing steadily in American society and on college campuses for some time, with particular severity in the last two years. For too long, university administrators have ignored the distinctive ways in which Jewish people experience and suffer from discrimination and exclusion and have downplayed and denied these experiences.
At the same time, other forms of discrimination and hate, including anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, also manifest on college campuses and beyond, and it becomes difficult to address them effectively without respect for fundamental human rights values.
To begin to address these pathologies and their harmful impacts on campus communities, universities need to model and enable more vigorous forms of pluralism—intellectually and ethically.
Universities have an essential societal role to play in strengthening values of pluralism, equality, human dignity and universality and working to restore human rights values and cultures, which are prerequisites for maintaining a healthy and durable democracy.
The dangerous breakdown of moral and social decency at universities stems in large part from universities having eroded their own commitments to the very principles and practices that make a liberal education possible and emancipatory of mind, conscience, character and community.
Too many academic departments have become ideological and doctrinal—seeing intellectual and ethical diversity as a threat to their power and beliefs, rather than a source of enrichment and opportunity for dialogue, critique, and the generation of new knowledge.
Universities need to stop fearing liberalism and seek to renew the ethical and intellectual integrity of our campus communities, enabling exchange and coexistence, to restore a healthier balance of democratic values and commitment to human rights that embraces human dignity, equality, freedom and universality alongside the pursuit of justice.