On Campus: Minority Priorities
The free speech wars on North American campuses appear to have arrived at their inevitable endpoint. For years, American and Canadian students have played around with a new form of morality in education. It is based not on a traditional concept of searching for truth or investigating and analysing ideas, but rather on the concept that the veracity of an opinion can be discerned by the person uttering it.
In this way, a considerable number of people have apparently decided that a variety of "privileges" exist that make some speakers vital to listen to and others unnecessary, unless they agree to mouth a set of pre-ordained platitudes.
This concept, coupled with the idea that minorities require special protection from speech, have now finally delivered the moral breakdown that was always waiting for it. The warning signs have been there for years.
In 2010, the former editor of the left-wing magazine The New Republic, Martin Peretz, arrived to speak at Harvard University. There he was greeted by a group of around a hundred students and others who decided to shout at him as he arrived at their campus. They decided to greet him with chants of "Hey hey, ho ho, Marty Peretz has got to go." And so, a generation of American students who can have had little, if any, knowledge of Peretz's career or left-wing interests, chose to name him a racist and be done with him.
Being Jewish, a minority group, certainly did not offer any protection, and may indeed have harmed his cause; it already seemed that there were ordering-systems at work in the business of minority priorities.
By the time, then, that the British-born Milo Yiannopoulos was touring American campuses in 2016-17, protest movements were busily trying to work out precisely what orders of persecuted minorities should exist. As Yiannopoulos is openly gay, there was a slight queasiness about shutting him down -- at first. People who are members of at least one minority group have a certain protected status, and as such a certain inevitably about ranking develops. But just as you can be marked up, you can be marked down. Yiannopoulos may be gay, but he has been rude about aspects of transsexualism. That view at least evened things out. However, his tendency to criticise Islam and Muslims moved him lower -- indeed right down to the lowest level, that of white heterosexual male.
As though to prove that it was not just "provocateurs" who now incur the wrath of the Stepford students, this year, the distinguished sociologist Charles Murray (no relation) was due to speak at Middlebury College. The college authorities had warned students that while protests would be allowed, any attempts to disrupt the lecture would be looked at in a very different light.
Murray was due to address the themes of his 2012 book, Coming Apart, a seminal analysis of the social bifurcation and sense of being "left behind" that led to last year's election results in America.
Students at a liberal college could ordinarily do with hearing someone explain the social forces that are pulling them and the rest of the country apart from each other.
But the students of Middlebury evidently decided that they did not need to hear this. Instead of simply staying away from the lecture, they chose to embed those divisions. Dozens of the students at Middlebury decided, it seems, that Murray was a racist. They had also decided, for reasons which nobody even bothered to explain, that he was "anti-gay".
So, before and during Murray's thwarted attempt to give a lecture, they bawled and chanted, among other things, a variant of the national anthem of modern North American campuses: "Hey hey, ho ho, Charles Murray has got to go."
Later the same month, it was the Canadian professor and psychologist Jordan Peterson's turn. He was meant to be lecturing at McMaster University. But students crowded around the front and sides of the lecture hall as he attempted, in his learned and professorial way, to enlighten the students on a variety of issues. Disruptive students, however, had apparently decided that Peterson was "anti-trans", among other things. So they let off sirens and banged tins and repeatedly shouted, "Shut this down. Shut this down."
Peterson is, it seems to have been decided, meant to be a person of privilege; trans people are meant to be part of a persecuted minority.
Once again, therefore, the disruption and intimidation were portrayed to seem justified.
As at Middlebury, the college authorities seemed to have no desire to discipline students who know so little of true liberalism that they should ordinarily have no place at an institution of learning. But of course, at these institutions, as at so many before them, the adults appear to have vacated the campus.
Students who want to protect their ears from white men telling them anything with which they do not already agree may cause these ugly and totalitarian scenes. They do not occur, notably, when truly ugly and totalitarian views emerge.
Although students up and down the land claim that words wound and even kill when they come from people who have never wounded or killed anyone, it seems that these or other students remain silent when, for example, a former Black Panther associate and supporter of innumerable totalitarian regimes, such as Angela Davis, turns up to speak.
At the end of the same month in which Murray and Peterson were prevented from speaking, Davis was invited to address Marquette University. Because she does all the boilerplate stuff such as stressing how various rights movements "make a positive difference in the world", and otherwise telling students what many of them want to hear, her lecture at Marquette went off without interruption. Everyone in the packed hall listened politely and applauded her sentiments.
In other words, the approved event was not a lecture; it was a political rally.
Davis has certainly little or nothing new to say that would educate or challenge a hall full of students. Her narrative, like that of so many approved speakers, embeds the idea that there are people with privilege and that they should be persuaded or forced to share that privilege with everyone else.
So it is probably as well that people realise where this narrative leads. When you consistently break down a society along racial and sectarian lines for short-term political and personal gain, there is bound to be a group that must in the end lose out. That group may just turn out to be a minority as well.
Sure enough, the same month that Angela Davis was applauded and Peterson and Murray were silenced, some pamphlets turned up on campus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Like so many leaflets before them, these talked about the scourge of "privilege". And who did these pamphlets identify as the people with the most privilege? Why, the Jews of course. Or, as the pamphlets put it, "Ending white privilege... Starts with ending Jewish privilege."
As with the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, which also ended up with anti-Semitism at its core, who could seriously not have seen that this would be where all this would end? At present, the people who preach tolerance in the United States and Canada are turning out to be the least tolerant.
And the people who complain of discrimination turn out to be opening the door to practitioners of the oldest discrimination of all.
Douglas Murray, British author, commentator and public affairs analyst, is based in London, England.