The Pea of Victimization Under Twenty Campus Mattresses
As campuses across the country are roiled in paroxysms of self-righteous indignation over race, groups of black students, perhaps inspired and emboldened by the anarchistic successes at University of Missouri, have formed coalitions and presented elaborate, and breathtakingly audacious, lists of demands which they have nailed to the doors of their respective university administrations.
An ever-growing list of these remarkably outrageous demands is even being archived at a site, The Demands.org, and which, as of this week, comprised the juvenile manifestos of groups on over 60 campuses, including calls for removals of college presidents (as happened at University of Missouri, as the most conspicuous and significant example), the renaming of buildings and schools named for racists and other moral reprobates (as happened at Princeton and indignation over its former president, Woodrow Wilson), and various similar calls for increased recruitment of minority faculty and students, enhanced centers and facilities for minority students, increased financial aid to “students of color” and other underrepresented groups, and a litany of other minority-centric benefits and amenities.
“The power to be found in victimization, like any power,” wrote Shelby Steele in The Content of Our Character, “is intoxicating and can lend itself to the creation of a new class of super-victims who can feel the pea of victimization under twenty mattresses.” Apparently, the new victims in the culture of aggrievement that seems to have overtaken our campuses have been irritated by the hard pea of racism and want everyone else on campus to know and feel their pain, as well, since almost all the lists of demands from the campus crybullies include one well-intentioned, but intellectually pernicious, item; namely, mandatory sensitivity training -- or, as it was called in Mao’s China, “re-education” -- on the details of diversity, oppression, racism, and other maladies purportedly afflicting marginalized student groups on today’s campuses.
At Scripps College, for example, activists demanded “mandatory Anti-Oppression Trainings” for faculty, staff, and students, including the Orwellian requirement that students not be able to register for classes each semester unless they attend the forced re-education sessions so the Scripps “community can begin to explicitly unlearn the ways in which we are complicit in structural and interpersonal violence.”
At Princeton, a group with the comic book-like name of The Black Justice League demanded “cultural competency training for all staff and faculty,” even though, they were forced to acknowledge, such a demand “was voted down on the grounds of trespassing freedom of speech” last year. Their solution to that thorny point? A demand for “a public conversation . . . on the true role of freedom of speech and freedom of intellectual thought [italics added] in a way that does not reinforce anti-Blackness and xenophobia,” meaning that free speech should not include, in their moral universe, any ideas that contradict or question a worldview that does not render them perpetual victims of the endemic, culturally-resilient racism they see everywhere around them.
Members of University of Missouri’s Concerned Student 1950 included the demand that the School “creates and enforces [a mandatory] comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum throughout all campus departments and units,” which “must be vetted, maintained, and overseen by a board comprised of students, staff and faculty of color.”
Students at Bard College called for “Diversity and Sensitivity Workshops multiple times a semester to faculty and staff at all levels,” providing “continuous in-person training regarding cultural understanding, engagement with bias, the use of inclusive language, etc.” Boston College activists called for mandatory “Diversity & Anti-Oppression Training,” while Brown University’s Concerned Graduate Students of Color “demand[ed] an in-person and compulsory Title IX training for faculty, staff, DPS, administrators, and students that includes an intersectional framework,” unlike the current training, which, according to the enlightened graduate students who see oppression in many dark corners of the campus, “does not address the structural racism, queerphobia, economic violence and transphobia that is foundational to sexual violence on campus.”
The Dartmouth reeducation commissars similarly want to introduce “curricular changes that require all students to interrogate issues of social justice, marginalization and exploitation in depth. Each student should have to take classes that will challenge their understanding of institutionalized injustice around issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.” Duke’s list calls for “mandatory learning on institutional racism and anti-oppression practices for both students and faculty.”
At the Harvard School of Public Health the call was for “instituting mandatory training on race and privilege for all students, post-docs, staff, and faculty, developing case studies that challenge social injustice, and increasing practicum opportunities on themes of racism and health;” at Johns Hopkins University, a “mandatory cultural competency in the form of a semester long class requirement;” at NYU, “perpetual, continuing education on diversity for all university members;” at Purdue, “a required comprehensive racial awareness curriculum for all students, staff, faculty, administration, and police;” at Sarah Lawrence, a required “anti-racist course or class for credit, such as is required for Physical Education [italics added];” and, at the University of San Diego, “the creation of a [mandatory] comprehensive orientation on racial, gender, and queer inclusion and diversity . . , maintained by a board comprised of students, staff and faculty from diverse, less privileged backgrounds.”
In his engaging book, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, Charles J. Sykes traced the growth of this culture of victimization and suggested that it has increasingly opened wide divisions between races, economic and social classes, and the advantaged and the disadvantaged -- particularly when self-defined victims, such as these campus whiners, make unreasonable or exaggerated demands on the larger society by which they feel victimized.
“In the society of victims,” Sykes wrote, “individuals compete not only for rights or economic advantage but also for points on the ‘sensitivity’ index, where ‘feelings’ rather than reason are what count. Once feelings are established as the barometer of acceptable behavior, speech (and, by extension, thought) becomes only as free as the most sensitive group will permit [italics added].”
Mandatory, school-sponsored sensitivity training classes were called for by all of these activists precisely because, as Sykes observed, “one of the central dogmas of the new victimist politics is that only members of a victim group are able to understand their own suffering. Because only a victim can really understand his own plight, any criticism or questioning from nonvictims is rejected out of hand as an act of disrespect and insensitivity . . . The fear of hurt has trumped the search for truth.”
And, concluded Sykes, “One of the central dogmas of the new victimist politics is that only members of a victim group are able to understand their own suffering.”
So while these sanctimonious moral brats may feel aggrieved and in need of campus-wide support systems to provide them “safe” spaces in which they can escape racism and oppression, the idea that universities should be compelled to set up mandatory training and teaching about racism, oppression, cultural diversity, and the myriad of other, related phobias and biases that animate the worldviews of these new victims is as wrong-headed as it is impractical.
First of all, there is something profoundly self-contradictory about the idea of minority students who current attend Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Berkeley, and some other of the world’s most elite educational institutions braying about institutional racism, which, if it actually existed at all, would certainly have been more successful in making sure none of these social engineers would ever have been admitted to their respective schools in the first place. In fact, some experts have observed that aggressive affirmative action in minority student recruitment has meant that many black students arrive at top universities ill-equipped to compete with their white and Asian peers, and some of the oppression and alleged racism they experience is more a result of their own self-doubt and frustration than it is a manifestation of anyone’s animosity to their presence on campuses.
More importantly, the idea that black students, and only black students, should demand and receive mandatory sensitivity courses, programs, or workshops that all students and faculty must attend, presumably to make them less racist and more tolerant, is flawed. It is flawed, first, because it is not the business of universities to tell students what to think, but to teach them how to think; and it is also misguided because it assumes that only black students are so aggrieved that special campus-wide instructional remedies should be devised to soothe their aching sensibilities. Should such mandatory training be introduced to address black students’ demands, what would prevent other protected campus victim groups from then asking for, and having implemented, similar sensitivity training pertaining to them? Would not Muslim students, currently complaining about what they perceive to be rampant Islamophobia, not subsequently demand sensitivity training to address anti-Muslim sentiment? Would not gays and Hispanics question why they were not being proactively protected by sensitivity training for the collective prejudices they experience, to say nothing of Jewish students, more than half of whom, in a 2014 survey of 55 campuses nationwide, “reported having been subjected to or having witnessed anti-Semitism on their campuses”?
And how, exactly, would such training sessions, courses, or workshops be conducted, assuming the request for their creation ever went through? Would students be graded in such mandatory courses? Could anyone question what was taught, have an alternate view of the existence or extent of racism, oppression, other biases as outlined in the courses, or present different views than the ones established, in advance, by the like-minded individuals who conceived of, developed, and fervently believe in the content and truthfulness of this one-sided instruction? Obviously, anyone who dared to question the established heterodoxy would be maligned as a racist, silenced for his or her prejudiced and inappropriate views, and punished either by receiving a failing grade or by being ostracized as a moral and intellectual reprobate.
And that is the fatal flaw of any notion that well-intentioned, but intellectually naïve students have about introducing mandated courses in racial sensitivity, oppression, and the benefits of campus diversity: such instruction is based on the incorrect idea that there is only one appropriate and accurate way to look at a very complex and amorphous topic. It starts with the belief that a particular groups’ needs are so critical that they, alone, should have mandatory instruction established to explain and defend their interactions in a society with diverse sub-classes, each of which could make competing demands from the majority culture; and that, in the event that the mandatory instruction were ever instituted, students and faculty with differing views of the content of that instruction would, of necessity, be proscribed from expressing those views, could not engage in alternative discussions, and would thereby be silenced out of fear of being labeled racists -- precisely the conditions that are antithetical to academia’s fundamental precepts of free speech and robust debate.
In 1943, the Supreme Court addressed this very issue, in a slightly different context, in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. In that case, the Court noted that even when policies are well-intentioned, and are designed to create a common good -- such as improved race relations on campus through the creation of mandatory instruction -- there is a danger in allowing government or individuals to impose a specific view of the world on others, even with supposed lofty purposes. “Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country,” the Court noted, “have been waged by many good, as well as by evil, men.” And, more disturbingly, initial efforts to define what is right and good -- such as improved race relations -- can eventually lead to a required adherence to one set of beliefs and the suppression of other views. “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent,” the Court concluded, “soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, author of Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel & Jews, is President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).