Friday, August 5, 2016

Meltdown Under the Elms

It started with an article in The New Yorker:

This got my attention because the college most prominently featured in the article is Oberlin (in Ohio, a bit west of Cleveland). And I admit, nothing in it surprised me because hypersensitivity was a common ailment in the student body when I attended (1963-1967). But it did seem to represent a new low – or high, depending on which metric one is using. Hypersensitivity is one thing, but morbid hypersensitivity bordering on paranoid psychosis is quite another, it seems to me, especially when it seems to infect a large number of people in the same place at the same time. Then it moves into the realm of mass hysteria. But enough introduction.

So after much meditation, I produced a response, which is as follows.  But please read the New Yorker article first, because as bad as you might think things have gotten, they are much worse.

I can't possibly deal with everything that the article brings up – nor are many of these “issues” even worth dealing with, quite frankly. (Once you give people a license to obsess, they will obsess about anything. The point is to exercise discernment as to which issues are actually worth discussing in a public forum and which ones are better left to the psychiatrist's couch. It's, among other things, evidence of the current trend whereby nothing is any longer personal or private – one's life and thoughts are for public consumption and it's shameful in a way to keep them to oneself.)

I'd rather draw back a bit and deal with the broader issue of hypersensitivity, which is a common element in much of what is discussed. I'd rather do that than get “down in the weeds” with each micro-issue – plus, I have a certain historical perspective that I'd like to put into play. I don't think one can understand the current hypersensitivity craze without looking at the socio-political history of colleges and universities in the U.S.; but since the only one I'm at all familiar with is Oberlin, I'll have to confine my remarks to that one place – although, hopefully, some generalization will not be totally out of order. (In fact, since Oberlin is at the vanguard of most social movements – or at least fancies that it is – using it as an example might be much more fruitful than some other college or university selected at random.)

The phrase “reductio ad absurdum” comes to mind. There is nothing new about college students (in “liberal arts” colleges in particular) being thin-skinned, hypersensitive, and easily offended; they were like that in my day too. Or, at least some of them were, and I was always curious as to the difference between the easily-offended types (think of the ones would boo or hiss every time they heard something they didn't like – which was about once every five minutes) and the rest, who were either thick-skinned, or apathetic, or who had better things to do. The sensitive types were the self-anointed guardians of what we now call political correctness; they claimed the right to boo or hiss at anyone whose opinions did not match their own – and the range of issues for which this was true was quite wide (although, arguably, not as wide as the comparable range today -- “ecology” was a brand-new subject back then, and “global warming” was unheard of, just to give a couple of examples).

So what was the difference? Upbringing? Culture? What they had been taught in high school, or by their parents – or rebellion against either or both of those? Or was it just DNA – a “born that way” personality trait? I never figured it out back then, and still can't. One thing I can say for certain is that it was highly correlated with what was called “activism” -- which was, then as now, firmly based on liberal/progressive doctrine. (I say “activism” as opposed to “revolution”, because, although there were some bonafide Leninists/Stalinists and Maoists on campus, they were too small a minority to make much of a difference. But, there were also very few “coat and tie radicals”; most of the activist types I recall were pretty much in the middle of the spectrum. They were, if you will, right out of central casting -- they had the right hair, wore the right clothes, smoked the right dope, protested and demonstrated the right amount, etc. They were, in that sense, “Goldilocks people” -- they had found a comfortable middle ground and pretty much remained there as long as they were able.)

The main point is that many of them hit campus on the first day of freshman year already primed – so it was easy to imagine that they had been born that way. But there were others who were gradually radicalized over time – like the superficial “preppie” guy I knew who eventually wound up in every picket line and in every demonstration he could find. (I don't recall anyone ever being “de-radicalized”, on the other hand – I guess it's some kind of political/social ratchet effect. Maybe it's based on the academic environment, which shares little with the “real world”.) The ones who fascinated me were the ones who showed up on campus already armed with “Das Kapital” and Molotov cocktails; what were they like in high school? In grade school? It's fascinating, really.

I'm describing that landscape (of the mid-60s) in order to establish a context for discussing what's happening now. As I said, the hair-trigger sensitivities were there, as was the chip-on-shoulder, street demonstration attitude. But here's the difference. Back then, there were real causes; very few of these activists were constantly waxing indignant about nothing. One might argue with their motives, but the things they were talking about were real, and they were external – part of the wider world, by and large. (Causes within the confines of the campus were real too, if bordering on the trivial at times.)

And this is not to say that campus activism of the traditional sort is extinct; I'm sure that there are plenty of people and groups agitating for the same or similar causes (and with, most likely, the same degree of success), but that is not the emphasis; it's not what makes the news. What makes the news now is safe rooms, and teddy bears, and “comfort animals” -- as if a large proportion of college students had mysteriously regressed into infancy. And actually, that is a good question right off the bat – were they always this way? Were they raised this way? Or is it more a matter of opportunity, i.e. if one is allowed to, and reinforced for, acting a certain way, then the chances are that the behavior will persist and increase. In this, I'm almost temped to think of it as a variety of mass hysteria, but I suspect there are too many differences to make this a fruitful comparison. What I do think is that suggestibility has a lot to do with it, as does conformity, the need to “belong”, the need for “visibility” or “affirmation”. There is nothing like moving from an at least somewhat diverse high school setting to a hermetically-sealed hothouse campus environment where there is only one acceptable way to think about any given issue. Think of it as a kind of relatively benign prison camp where the same propaganda is blasted out of loudspeakers starting at 4 AM daily and not stopping until midnight. Actually, part of this oversensitivity may simply be a kind of reaction against this political and informational tyranny – a form of PTSD. (This is based on the theory that things get worse for these people once they transition from high school to college – but I admittedly have no data, just supposition.)

I say that legitimate activism is not extinct – or I certainly hope so, because many of the causes were legitimate, as I said. And yet, one is hard pressed to draw a clear line connecting the “classic” activism of old and the hypersensitivity of today. For one thing, are we even talking about the same people? Or is it an entirely new breed? Say what you like about the activists of old – that they were oftentimes thin-skinned, oversensitive, paranoid, whatever – but they did show a bit of durability as well. They would get out there day after day, writing, printing, distributing, demonstrating, protesting... they were not afraid of the world, in other words. (The world was, on the other hand, remarkably afraid of them, which is no longer the case for the current generation.) I don't see the slightest trace of this robustness and stamina among the pajama-clad, teddy bear-clinging crowd; just the opposite. And yet I can't help but at least try to connect a few dots.

The activists of old were, as I said, invariably of the liberal/socialist bent, and all subscribed to the notion of collectivism to some degree – by which I mean not only collectivism in the economic and political sense but in the social psychological sense. The truth, in other words, resided not in the individual but in the group – the collective. In fact, there was no distinction between “truth” and what we now call political correctness; the truth was determined by the will of the people, which was expressed as the product of a dialectic (and, actually, by the social dominance of “agents of change” -- political leaders by and large, but also members of the academe and what we now call the media). But here we encounter a phenomenon that I noted quite often back then, which was that so many of these activists, who presented themselves as altruists and humanists, were actually quite infantile in their personal behavior and particularly their interactions with other people. They may have been demagogues in public, but they were petty tyrants and spoiled brats in private – and this got me thinking about the psychological roots of activism, and of liberalism in general. How many of them really believed in their cause? How many were sincere? And how many had a personal agenda that tended to interfere with, or cancel out, the good the were supposedly doing?

So even back then there was this personal note – this radical subjectivity – that, rather than being overcome, served as a kind of energizer, but which, for that reason, may have corrupted the process. So if you take this subjective tendency and mix it with what Ayn Rand calls “social metaphysics”, plus the general moral anarchy of the time... well, the bottom line is that there were no absolutes, no bedrock principles, and that politics – the will of the collective, however defined – was the highest manifestation of truth (with the perfectly logical result that the word “truth” pretty much went out of use). (I can think of no better example than this: In my day, the consensus was that Israel could do no wrong. Now things have shifted – not 180 degrees maybe, but more than I would ever have thought possible. And yet the facts behind the issue have changed very little in essence. So what brought about the change? Who decided, in other words?)

So, between then and now – did this cluster of ideas, tendencies, and motivations remain within the halls of academe, paralleling the wider culture but not always interacting with it, and eventually manifest itself in the absurdities of today? Or did they flow out into the larger culture, and by an iterative process over many decades flow back into the academe, in a distorted and grotesque form? What, in other words, are college students responding to now? A specific set of premises, facts, and theories – or some sort of aura or atmosphere? Where do they get their cues – their marching orders, if you will? Because in former times it was fairly obvious; in these times, it's much less so simply because of the radical subjectivity of it all.

And – does it even matter on this level of detail? In any case, I think the key is subjectivity. Back then something was true if the group said it was. But then the “group” became fragmented over time into sub-groups and sub-sub-groups, based on ever finer points of identity politics – race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, body type, and so on. (We see this brought out very clearly by the article.) And if the degree of fragmentation we've seen so far is acceptable – commendable, even – why stop there? Why be part of a group, however small, that is ever searching for something to be upset, indignant, or offended by, when you can be your own group? The essence of identity politics is, after all, to choose one, or very few, demographic descriptors as the key to one's identity and place in the world, and as a platform from which to protest injustice. But where is it written that it has to stop there? Why not cut to the chase and identify with a group of one – namely oneself? That way, you don't even have to get together with anyone else in order to decide on which issues to focus on on any given day – you just wake up each morning and decide for yourself... or, better yet perhaps, put off deciding until you've gotten a taste of what the world is dishing out that day, at which point you can withdraw back into your shell and claim grievance, unfair treatment, bullying, persecution, and pretty much any form of -ism you like – and who is to argue? If it's all subjective anyway – if there are no absolutes – if it's all a matter of opinion – then why isn't my opinion superior to that of any group? If smaller (social and political fragmentation) is better, then why isn't the smallest unit – me – best of all? Don't I have as many rights, if not more, as any group? Don't I have, above all, a right to feel offended and threatened, since if we're only talking about me, then anything that comes along is an existential threat? In other words, one can put up with threats to one's group because, after all, the group is not identical to the individual – I am more than the group to which I belong (although it would be hard to detect any admission of this sort in the current climate). But if my “group” is me, and no more, then all of my interactions with the world cut to the quick if they are negative – and carry an aura of insecurity if they are good. So the solution, such as it is, had to be to provide “safe havens” where I can recover from the inevitable buffeting I'm going to get the minute I walk out the door – or, even if I stay home, by means of the Internet, TV, books, magazines, newspapers, the telephone, etc. I will exercise non-stop vigilance when it comes to “microaggression” or “triggers”, because, after all, I am an entity unto myself – and yet no more robust or secure than an egg without a shell.

I mean, really, what is wrong with these people? I was certainly not a paradigm of mental health when I was in college, but at least I had enough sense to realize that I was my own worst enemy – that it was not “them” or “the system” that was the main source of my discontent. This sort of fairly basic insight seems totally lacking in the current crop of quivering undergraduates.

It's ironic that there is a traditional American ideal of the independent, fearless, self-actualizing individual who only acts as part of a group when it's convenient, and the rest of the time is a lone wolf. This is part of our mythology as a people and as a nation – and, yes, it probably is a myth, by and large, although we've all encountered people who seem to come pretty close to this description. (We find them more often in literature and movies – and, referring to Ayn Rand again, in her novels.) And yet in practice, it seems like most self-contained people are self-contained for all the wrong reasons. (Note that the word “idiot” is ultimately derived from a Greek word meaning “one's own, private”. So these poor souls who run off to safe rooms at the slightest provocation can could be called idiots.) Any number of patients in mental asylums are king of their own hill. There is a mental disorder in which the individual believes that he is the only thing that exists. (This is a philosophical disorder as well.) But how far is the pajama and teddy bear crowd from this state? Will they recover? Or are they on to something? They are, whether they are conscious of it or not, the personification – the reductio ad absurdum – of liberalism, subjectivism, and all of its political and social trappings. They are victims, certainly – but so are we, if you include the social costs of having to deal with them. When there are things we are not allowed to discuss, we are accepting the tyranny that their helplessness imposes on us – which, I guess, means that they are not so helpless or powerless after all. And maybe on some level they realize that and revel in it.

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