Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Just as the sacraments are an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, so is irrational activism an obnoxious and virulent sign of inner spiritual torment. Rational activism is sober, respectful, and seeks to convince; the irrational activism we’re seeing today is meant partly to intimidate and mostly to make the activists feel better about themselves. Today’s college students are among the most privileged people in human history, which is perhaps why they regularly command others to check their privilege. A century ago — when the finest colleges were the preserve of white gentile men — the most privileged Yale man had neither smart phone nor Google. He lacked million dollar sports facilities and the Internet. But he had something that today’s students lack: a confident faculty that had the discipline to impress thousands of years of civilization into their students’ souls, transforming them from children into adults.
Childhood should be a time of play, and we regularly make exceptions for children’s misbehavior that we wouldn’t tolerate in adults. That means that we don’t call the cops when a two year old has a temper tantrum in the grocery store or when ten year olds scuffle and wind up with bloody noses. But we do call the cops when twenty-year-olds behave thus. It’s only natural for children to want to stay in the Edenic state of freedom from responsibility. But it’s the job of their parents to see that children learn that only with responsibility comes any measure of freedom. And it is the job of the university to continue this civilizing process with a liberal education: making citizens fit for liberty. By infantilizing their students, the universities have failed in their duty.
It is fair to compare the protesting students to spoiled children because spoiled children are rarely so happy as those with loving but strict parents. By surrendering to the unreasoning whims of their loudest and least rational students, the colleges are flunking. Indeed, they’re like the uncle who gives visiting children nothing to eat but candy and then sends the children home to their unsuspecting parents. Only in this case, the country at large is the parents, and we know all too well what’s going on.
Or do we? There’s a human tendency to look at things that disgust us and link them to other things that disgust us, whether or not there actually is a connection. The antisemite who see Jews behind every bad thing in the world is a classic example of this. We on the right are in danger of falling into the sloppy thinking trap when we blame these campus fiascoes on moral relativism, a favorite bugaboo of conservatives from Paul Ryan to Pope Benedict. After all, if we believe in truth, it’s easy to say that people we don’t like therefore must not believe in truth. It’s easy to do this to people who think differently, but it’s wrong. Relativism does play a role, but perhaps not what we think.
Relativism, like horseradish, is important in small doses, but too much will ruin whatever you’re trying to make, whether a casserole or a civilization. A dash of relativism is required for tolerance and pluralism. It’s why Catholics and Protestants are no longer burning each other at the stake for heresy. For the Judeo-Christian West, tolerance requires some degree of relativism, an understanding that the truth we believe in varies from the truth others believe in, and that the possible errors of others and ourselves require talk and tolerance rather than excoriation and expulsion. Obviously, the person who overdoses on relativism and cannot see the difference between Socrates and suttee is a nihilist. (It’d be a wonder if such a person could get out of bed in the morning.) But what we’re seeing on college campuses right now is a sign not of an excess of relativism, but of a lack of it.
These furious students seem convinced that they have the truth, are in the right, and are going to remake the university in their own image. It isn’t enough that a Yale professor might be wrong about Halloween costumes; she must be ritually anathematized and expelled from Yale. The same people who demand safe spaces feel free to spit on lecture attendees. Mushy relativism isn’t driving these students. It might be more accurate to call these campus antics a misguided religious impulse. Just as the Puritans once sought to purify the church, today’s neopuritans want to purify their colleges with sit-ins and non-negotiable demands.
How should the schools have reacted? Simple. You don’t negotiate with people who make non-negotiable demands. Keep the classes going and expel those who disrupt them. The students were practically begging for an outside authority trump them, and the administration folded. These radicals will soon be asking for more, and the administrations will discover that appetites can grow with the feeding.
It would probably be futile to ask the careerists in college administrations to stand up in defense of civilization, but there might be a method of convincing them that standing up to the mob is the right thing to do. If administrators are quick to throw each other to the mob at the first sign of dissent, how could any other institution trust them to run it? Would you hire anyone who thew decent scholars into a mob run show trial? In other words, the college administrators need to start thinking of their careers: caving to the mob is a bad career move.