The Academy's Hypersensitive Hissy Fits

The Chronicle of Higher Education is the newspaper of record for the field of higher education.  As such, it is presumably a cultural bellwether, indicating the direction in which American, and to some degree global, intellectuals are headed.

Scrolling through the Chronicle is like strolling through a carnival of rhetorical excess, with histrionic broadsides about "the crisis in the humanities" and the "war on science."  We pass the occasional popcorn stand selling sentimental concerns about the serf class of untenured adjuncts, who actually do the lion's share of teaching.

Lately, however, even my typical delight in sparring with liberals through the Chronicle has been dampened by a plague of articles about people being offended.  Too many of the headlines are about somebody posting a risqué Facebook status or an administrator agreeing to speak before people with politically incorrect views.  The epidemic of umbrage, outrage, and protest has spread from the predictable liberal fever swamps, where Ann Coulter gets scrapped by angry Fordham prigs, to our own conservative quarters, where rightists connive to sink the careers of Kansas journalism teachers tweeting about the NRA and Michigan creative writers who don't like Republicans (my mindset is this: if you're a Republican in college, you need to get used to being criticized!).

The grave issues weighing on my colleagues' consciousness aren't the atrocious failures of higher education professionals to run colleges (tuition has increased by 439%, and forty years of progressive college ideology have widened class inequality).  Nor is their primary concern the fact that academics are not always providing truthful and useful information to the public (ironclad "consensuses" about the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions and the wondrous benefits of same-sex parenting have turned out to be exceedingly flimsy).

It's always the conservatives' fault.  We know this.

But even American Thinker readers may be shocked at just how distracted these aegis-bearers are, by faux pas that they deem "offensive," "insulting," or "disrespectful."  Nowadays, it seems that the entire American professoriate has been transformed from medieval monks doing cloistered research, into a mob of screeching lunatics escaping the asylum at midnight and running through the streets in their nightgowns, howling at ghosts at every turn.

When I was seven years old, I recited those age-old words, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."  Now professors flip the essence of those terms and believe that material harm done to individuals doesn't really matter -- the most piously liberal academics can deny people tenure, cut off adjuncts' health benefits, and dress down students with no remorse -- but any impolite expression is truly menacing.

Karl Marx, who believed that history was driven by raw material struggles over the activities that sustain life, must be rolling over in his grave.  His strongest devotees now congregate in American higher education, where they're so consumed with chasing down people who say the wrong thing that they don't even seem to know anything about the material struggles that sustain life.

Exhibit A is John Corvino, the chair of philosophy at Wayne State University and author of What Is Wrong with Homosexuality?  In Rhode Island, a state where same-sex marriage has already passed and a majority of the state supports it, Corvino was invited by various departments to a Catholic school -- Providence College -- to share his thoughts on same-sex marriage.  In light of the Pope's statements that Catholics need to focus on social-justice questions and set aside tiresome debates about homosexuality, the administrators at Providence College decided, understandably, that Corvino's visit was not going to serve much of a purpose.

Corvino was not a scholar who happened to be gay, invited to come and discuss an issue that's still important and about which there is much new to be said.  No, on the contrary, he is a scholar who was scheduled to beat up on traditional Catholics who might dislike being in the minority of an overwhelmingly pro-gay New England state.  There's virtually nothing new to say about gay marriage, so the speech would serve little purpose other than gloating, since talking about same-sex marriage in Rhode Island is like whipping a dead donkey.

"Does Providence College See Me as a Virus?" John Corvino asks in the Chronicle, which was of course more than happy to give him prime real estate in its "Conversation" section, so he could complain about the hassle of being disinvited.  The only thing is, he wasn't ultimately disinvited.  The administration wanted to invite someone who could give a counterpoint, since otherwise, Corvino would be beating up on a captive audience of Catholics.  There were several changes to the format of the appearance -- in essence, a scheduling snafu -- which Corvino considered a threat to academic freedom and LGBT students:

The truth is that it's difficult not to feel as if the Providence College administration regards me as a sort of virus that might infect students if not blocked by some administration-approved surgical mask. The feeling is sadly familiar, to me and to any gay person. It is the malaise of the closet, the notion that some features of oneself are unspeakable. I am the Other. And if I feel that way, I can only imagine how young gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Providence College students must feel. It is for them that I remain most concerned.

Conductor -- let's cue the violins. "The malaise of the closet?" For heaven's sake, he had to adjust his schedule a little and deal with some embarrassing press. Had he come and left as originally planned, the LGBT students at Providence would still be LGBT students at Providence anyway -- i.e., students whose sexual activity is frowned upon by the doctrines of the institution they attend.

The Corvino controversy was all over the internet.  At the same time, Stephen Jimenez's book revealing formerly hidden truths about the Matthew Shepard case, a cause célèbre about actual homophobic violence, was deep-sixed by most of the mainstream media.  In other words, a minor inconvenience to a philosopher merited more concern than an opportunity to unpack the real causes of violence in many gay people's lives.  The latter discussion would require that gay people look inward and interrogate the gay culture itself, which is precisely what the obsession with "offensive" gestures allows people to avoid.  In fact, just to prove how imbalanced our focus on gay issues is, consider that at Ole Miss, football players who were forced to see the Laramie Project, a play we know now is based on falsehoods about Matthew Shepard, were disciplined for laughing at parts of the play when they were supposed to be serious.  This was seen as a bias incident and possibly a hate crime.

Laughing when a performance you are forced to attend fails to elicit the response the actors are going for -- a hate crime.  This is the world of hypersensitive hissy fits, par excellence.

As it goes for sexual orientation, so it goes for race and sex.  Despite the fact that all studies show that females make up a disproportionate share of college students, the Chronicle is concerned that in the sciences, there aren't enough women.  Rather than examine what about our educational system is causing so many men to drop out of the entire postsecondary schooling system, the subculture of hard sciences must be chastised for referring to women as "babes" or posting a Facebook status regretting that women at a scientific conference don't look like supermodels.  (By the way, I've noticed that male scholars in literary criticism don't look like porn stars, but that isn't a grave concern for these folks.)

And so we come upon the case of Danielle Lee, an African-American woman who blogs for Scientific American.  The name of her blog is "Urban Scientist," where she admittedly tries to bring a hip-hop flavor to the otherwise unexciting world of laboratory experiments.  In an e-mail exchange with a pseudonymous editor at Biology-Online, she declined to blog for free, whereupon she received a message asking, "are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?"

Furious, she posted about the grave insult to her, being called a whore (though she wasn't really being called a whore, if you read the details).  Soon tens of thousands of people were jumping into the outrage through online forums.  The predictable "stand with Danielle" hashtags started.  I bit the bullet and dove into the comments section of that article, pointing out that I've been called a whore by gay leftist antagonists, as well as an a-hole, a race traitor, and many far worse things.  I am also a person of color and bisexual, so where's my pity-party?

For that matter, why is Danielle Lee a symbol of racial martyrdom for receiving a question in an e-mail, while Ted Cruz, the first Latino senator from Texas, is called a terrorist, compared to Osama bin laden, and condemned as unpatriotic?

Thereby hangs the perennial problem with leading intellectual discourse by hysteria and hypersensitivity.  The logic unravels, inconsistencies become fatal to discourse, and proportionality crumbles.  Everyone gets distracted.  People accommodate real injustice because they are chasing after phantom vindications against wispy enemies who really can't hurt them.  Neurosis and narcissism rule.

Conservatives must learn from all this.  As tempting as it is to start catching the leftists when they say mean or intemperate things, let's not follow their example.  Hypersensitivity hurts the person throwing the tantrum before it hurts anyone else.

Robert Oscar Lopez edits English Manif.