In general, I take it as a wholly salutary sign that something as fundamentally inane as the largely (though not entirely) unofficial speech codes of (some) universities and a small subsection of online discourse might be perceived, for better or worse, as the sort of thing worthy of, what is that charmingly stupid American phrase? A national conversation. In a better world, we would spend a trillion dollars investigating who exactly is silencing whom with their withering verbal disapproval, while conflicts between nations would be fought and settled entirely by pseudonymous tweeters pwning each other for the cost of monthly broadband. Alas, the fallen state of Man, etc. Whatever Weird Physics may murmur in its fever dreams, there is, for us at least, no other world but this one. And hey, is it actually so bad that the merits of, say, intersectionality—as an idea, as a practice—merit discussion, even if only for the purpose of dismissal, in a major magazine? I’d say it’s not.
As a general rule, I find the more elaborate rituals of call-outs and trigger warnings as tiresome and banal as the political right, in which I’d include someone like Jonathan Chait. The second, in particular, with a basis in the subtle possibility of “re-traumatizing” the previously traumatized seems to me to suffer from the crystal vibrations of homeopathy and hypnotherapy: no one believes in anything that is actually true with such fervor. Humans surely suffer, and those who deviate from the broad norm suffer more and more deeply, but I think we are far more defined by our resiliency than by our traumas, and I believe in the corollary: that speech itself is what best transmutes the latter into the former. For all the hocus-pocus and pharmacological excess of the modern psychological disciplines, and for all its founders’ silly ideas, there’s some truth to your mom’s old saw. Maybe you’ll feel better if you just talk about it.
On the other hand, the complaints about this minor, if zealous, policing of the boundaries of acceptable discourse are so operatically hysterical (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of using that particular word; sorry), so grossly out of proportion to its actual reach and effect, that I feel compelled to take the side of the language cops—if only because it’s so absurd to call them cops. What you actually see, when the wild-eyed radicals from the gender studies collective, come baying about the Western Canon’s awfulness, is a minor exercise of political power by people who otherwise have very little—because of their age, because of their race, because of their gender, etc. That they so frequently flex this power within the institutions of their universities says little about the nature of their cause or the great meaning and vitality of the university. We all enact our political will within the confines of some proximate community. The staff meeting is closer than city council, which is nearer than Harrisburg, which is a shorter drive than Washington D.C. The dean is more likely to hear your petition than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
And, obviously, people outside of the university rarely complain about any of this until, by accident of intersecting institutions, this local kind of politics gravely affronts the prerogatives of exactly such august power. When Condoleeza Rice gets disinvited from giving the same speech she has given ten thousand times before, it’s because that’s easier for some assistant vice provost for external affairs in the grand scheme of his every day at the office dealing with these kids than the opposite. The idea that this has anything to do with discourse, ideas, freedom, liberty . . . for God’s sake, leave the weed-smoking to the youth. No idea has ever been transmitted during a commencement address or convocation series in the history of commencement addresses and convocation series. These are opportunities to mutually burnish reputations by rubbing them against each other in a grotesque exhibit of hierarchical frottage that is itself the dourest form of pornography. In the meantime, what have the students in this example done? Well, they’ve organized collectively toward a mutually desired end and exerted rhetorical and perhaps minor financial pressure in order to achieve it. In other words, they’ve learned-by-doing an important and excellent lesson in the operation of power in an oligarchic democracy. Which ain’t a bad thing.
This, by the way, is why I think that the fear expressed by some more genuine people of the left—that these tendencies toward internecine pissing matches over who has or has not most thoroughly purified themselves of all wrongthink leads to a fractious and disorganized left that will never mobilize against the iniquities of global capital and imperial militarism—are misplaced. First, because, for all their persistence within the cycling generations of universities, these questions are formative, but not necessarily normative, especially for people who leave the academy. I know that I got pretty wrapped up (sometimes for, sometimes against) in speech codes and all that when I was a student at Oberlin College lo these many years ago. I think it made me a better and sharper thinker about questions of equity, equality, and power than I would otherwise have become, even if I now find the particulars of those debates very silly. Second, because I think that people tempered by these debates will—some of them—ultimately develop a subtler understanding of the operation of power within and by global capital, which has, after all, resisted and redirected a hundred years of mass movements and solidarity with hardly a hiccup. In other words, and as I endlessly repeat, I think the kids today are all right. Better, very frequently, than we were.