Many will recall the viral video of a Yale student screaming at her residential college head about his failure to understand her perspective on Halloween-costume policies. The professor and his wife, who ultimately resigned under intense student pressure, are far from the only casualties of the social justice heat wave sweeping campuses. Administrators are defenestrated for awkward phrasing. Speakers are threatened with physical violence for holding conservative views. As a Yale alumna watching the video and ensuing events unfold, I wanted to understand why the student felt so strongly, why her views caught fire.
From a distance, the incidents that cause these blow-ups often seem petty or ridiculous. Halloween costumes? Really? But the circumstances that have created this situation are complex, and there is ultimately a powerful spiritual need being met by social justice radicalism. The protests draw students into an intoxicating furor where moral categories are real, where they can achieve deep personal righteousness and participate in a historic battle between good and evil.
A vacuum has opened up in campus moral culture—and in moral culture in America writ large—such that the vision offered by the social justice leaders is speaking to a deeply felt hunger. The movement’s ferocity comes from this hunger, and until we find other ways to speak to it, we will find that measured, logical rejoinders à la “I agree with you that racism is a problem, I just think your way of addressing it is counterproductive” will fall on deaf ears.
Speaking to this felt need must be one of our most urgent priorities, because the integrity of the university is at stake. Universities have flourished as an uneasy but potent marriage between liberalism and illiberalism—a place where many faiths, increasing over time to include a wide variety, both secular and religious, are able to engage in a single vibrant argument, made safe by a community of individuals united by shared purpose. Their excellence has been driven by a dialectic between orthodoxy and dissidence, between theory and critique, that has propelled both sides toward truth.
The social justice movements we are seeing now are a new orthodoxy that threatens to eradicate dissidence as unnecessary and the community as invalid, and to destroy the dialectic that makes the university our best vehicle for communal truth-seeking. Those of us who can see the threat must resist the radical wave. Some contrarian leaders, like New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, are blazing a path for us to follow. Further, we must restore the modern university to the high ideals of its tradition, capable of forming individuals with humility, intellectual integrity, and common grace.
Liberalism Needs Illiberalism
Consider the relationship between liberal and illiberal traditions in our country. Loosely speaking, liberal traditions are those that prioritize individual freedom; illiberal traditions prize other goods more highly, and understand individual freedom as a product of those other goods. Any serious faith, whether secular or religious, tends to be illiberal. Notably, this includes the social justice philosophy presently animating college students.
Historically, the idea that best encapsulates this relationship is freedom of religion. It is at the centre of America’s origin story: Pilgrims passionate in their form of faith, unwilling to be cowed by state power, struck out to a new frontier to form communities that hewed tightly to their sense of truth. But they did not require that others practice the same truths, on principle. A century later, Tocqueville saw a young society rooted in strong local communities based on a moral vision and a spare national culture with almost no mandatory beliefs. From the years before its birth, America has combined the ideals of a faith-driven heart and a free mind.
There is one other crucial element of this blend: The illiberal traditions that shaped Americans’ moral sense gave them a reason to love their fellows, and the sense of common national purpose defined a community of fellows to love. Liberal systems depend on some form of fellowship.
Most major institutions in our society bear the hallmarks of this tradition, but the university, especially in its modern form, is the purest expression of this genius blend of illiberalism and liberalism.
The university is an institution whose goal is to bring human beings and societies into greater relationship with truth. The university’s telos is not only to enlighten individuals. It is a communal enterprise, and its participants are bound to one another by shared purpose. Ultimately it is a vehicle for collective truth-seeking that implicates all of society. The university helps all of us to understand more than any individual intelligence could.
At its best, the university pursues the truth by bringing together people with access to different facets of the truth. Among professors, it gathers biologists and architects, literary geniuses and economists and philosophers. It strives to attract students with many different driving passions, and who come from as many different walks of life as possible, whose minds represent very different starting points from which to journey down each discipline’s path.
Diversity is touted far and wide as a value unto itself. But it is understood shallowly. Racial, socioeconomic, and other demographic diversity types are really proxies for an effort to bring together students whose place in life allows them to see truth in ways that others, placed differently, can’t or won’t see. Which is why it is important for diverse illiberal traditions to be represented in a student body. The reason it benefits an American to have a north Indian roommate is because her inherited forms of thought may illuminate a side of the truth Western thought has completely missed. The same is true for a liberal from San Francisco and a conservative Jew from Manhattan. Both students are formed, and bonded, by the interaction.
This structure of pursuit of truth guards us in the all-important sphere of knowledge from the classic human failing: pride. The university’s underlying value is not relativism but humility. By collecting all the orthodoxies in one place and giving them free rein to engage one another, by welcoming dissent, it forces each system of thought to expose its weaknesses, and therefore allows its adherents to see them. It trains students to do the same within their own minds.
The modern university is in some ways an unresolved experiment. Historically, universities typically engaged diverse ideas within a certain religious, philosophical, or scientific tradition. In its present form, the university brings together people with radically different presuppositions, who must share nothing but a commitment to the common project in order to join the cacophonous symphony of ideas. This has the potential for enormous dynamism, but we should not be surprised by the instability it generates.
Students Want More
Many people defending the university see the need to bolster its liberalism, but the illiberal side of the equation may be even more important. As Yuval Levin brilliantly articulates in The Fractured Republic, the open, liberal America we know and love has always depended on illiberal institutions. The capacity to use freedom well requires the moral formation only our illiberal traditions and institutions can provide.
The problem is that major illiberal institutions— like marriage and organized religion— are also in decline. As strong illiberal institutions have declined, a vacuum has opened up. Today, children are raised to believe that the answers to the most important questions in life can be found within themselves. It’s little wonder epistemological individualism holds sway when they come of age. They’re growing up in an era where no authority seems trustworthy; in fact most of them seem fundamentally corrupt. There is profound skepticism about any hero or moral tale; metaphysical truth seems like wishful thinking. In short, this means there is nothing to put your faith in—no ideals, no institution, no leaders or icons.
Meanwhile, widespread individualism and globalization have eviscerated community life. New data suggest that technology has made the teenage years even more isolating and fraught than they already were. So even the immediate bonds young people would fall back on are absent, limited, or mediated through technologies that distance people as much as they connect them.
But the young Americans who make it to college are nonetheless passionate people, with hope for the future. Like Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, they are spiritually ambitious. They cannot help but seek to do good and to be good.
We talk about young people’s big dreams in career terms: to be a doctor, a scientist, a politician. We talk much less frequently about young people’s big dreams in spiritual terms—to be holy, a model of good, a secular saint—but those dreams are no less real. Students want to change the world, so much so that the phrase itself has become cliché. They don’t just want to make money. But students, primed to pursue spiritual greatness, are presently offered only one moral vision, based on individual choice, historical oppression, and social justice.
We have a population of young people who are navigating a philosophical vacuum without strong communities to support them, who nonetheless have great spiritual energy. Is it any wonder that when given one moral vision, an orthodoxy in which they can be warriors for justice against the oppressors in a grand historic movement, they immerse in it to the point of blind excess?
Don’t Fight Social Justice Warriors
So, what is to be done? The first imperative is to resist the total takeover of the new orthodoxy.
Jonathan Haidt is the best resistance leader we have right now. Haidt, who is a moral psychologist by training, founded Heterodox Academy (HXA) to promote what he has termed “viewpoint diversity” on college campuses. The advocacy group features a blog to compile stories about suppression of free speech and tools to combat the phenomenon.
Heterodox Academy has also become a hub for professors and university administrators across the country who are concerned about the trends they see—and, crucially, are willing to say so publicly. Given the rate of firings around the country even for “microaggressions”— tiny and often unconscious infractions that ostensibly oppress protected groups—it takes substantial courage to sign your name in explicit opposition to the social justice movements.
HXA resists the new orthodoxy on two fronts: the holy war–esque cultural front and the bureaucratic institutional front. Interestingly, Haidt himself manifests the dual nature of this battle. To say he is passionate about the issue would be an almost laughable understatement; at times he seems fired by a pseudo-religious zeal, while at other times simply like a stereotypical social scientist dismayed by the dysfunction of his home institution. HXA hosts both polemical takedowns of the student activists’ excesses and very procedural tools. For example, they have a college free-speech ratings system for prospective students and donors that operates purely according to the pedestrian logic of institutional incentives.
The cultural dominance of the new social justice orthodoxy is by this point sufficiently tyrannical that forces must be marshalled against it. There is no way to re-create liberalism without a critical mass of dissident views among university faculty and leadership.
But do Haidt and his compatriots embody the solution to the campus politics crisis, or do they simply offer resistance? Although they represent a powerful and vital force for resistance, they lack some of the deep elements needed to solve the problem at its core, for at least two reasons.
First, Haidt is pushing the limits of what psychology can explain and accomplish. He is a brilliant and sophisticated thinker. But this is ultimately a spiritual battle, and psychology fundamentally cannot respond to the hunger that is driving students to radicalism.
Many readers may believe that they would be immune to social justice fever. But if you were a student walking onto campus today, it might be surprisingly hard not to be swept up in things. Young people crave some kind of heroism, some architecture of purpose—that’s why every college is full of student clubs devoted to an art or a cause, and why so many students explain their choice of major by articulating how it will equip them to make the world a better place. They crave meaning, but in modern America that word has become a catch-all for everything the soul desires, and our culture gives students very little instruction in how to feed those desires. As Alan Jacobs notes in his recent New Atlantis piece on the subject, students are imbibing social justice theology to feed their mythological cores in a society filled instead with technological-core logics.
Students seek meaning in careers and causes and, perhaps most importantly, in each other. An intensely attractive aspect of the social justice movements is that they provide moral community. They are groups bound by a shared vision of the good, fighting to birth it into reality. It is one thing to believe in a cause; it is another to have an entire circle of passionate comrades-in-arms who (you feel) will together achieve great good for all people. Human beings were made for moral community, and yet the sources of it in our fragmented, meritocracyfuelled nation are few and far between.
Fundamentally, these students are seeking ultimate answers. Psychology can explain how they are pursuing the search, but it cannot address the questions that underlie it. Haidt does an admirable job of fighting a dangerous outgrowth of this spiritual need, but his field can never provide a mythology that satisfies it.
And if Haidt and HXA want to succeed in reforming the university, they will have to pay close attention to the good desire for fellowship and meaning that lies at the heart of these movements, and treat it seriously. Reweaving the social fabric, at the university level and beyond, requires deep listening and a base-level respect for your interlocutor. The social justice activists are responding to a felt moral horror at the problems they see. They are trying to force an awareness of these problems, and of certain people’s experiences, into the cultural lexicon as an intervention against future damage of the same kind. They are doing so in a socially violent way, which Haidt rightfully condemns; but fixing the problem requires taking their moral concern seriously, and offering them a better moral story.
For example, many have ridiculed a Yale student’s comment that she and her fellows don’t want to “debate” these issues. She explained that sometimes, when you tell your parents something is painful, you don’t want them to argue with you, you just want them to listen and hold you while you cry. This may sound overly sensitive. But if we consider the issue of sexual violence, where the experience in question is profoundly traumatic, it is reasonable to request a different form of engagement.
In the parable of the good Samaritan, we learn that if someone is bleeding, you should treat them differently; not to do so is a moral failure. Trauma survivors can be thought of as psychologically bleeding, as wounded in a way that should engender a different form of engagement. To argue that others should be able to debate the subject of their victimization with them without in any way accounting for their state of existence, and that free speech must be the priority in such engagements, is unreasonable.
Obviously, students regularly take victim status and the claims it justifies to gross excess. But to engage them in a way that will solve the problem, we must first hear the sentiments that drive them.
Haidt and HXA interact with the dynamics roiling campuses in a thoughtful way, but their basic approach is closer to fighting a battle than inviting their opponents to a conversation. They do not emphasize listening to the social justice activists’ concerns, and Haidt’s diagnosis of the student activists as “coddled” is condescending rather than engaging. It would be hard for someone on the other side of the divide to perceive an olive branch in HXA’s message and work.
To be fair, the social justice activists’ claims also sound warlike, and rarely contain olive branches or invitation to rejoinder from anyone outside the groups they aim to represent. It is understandable that Haidt and company would respond in kind. But unfortunately, in doing so they play into the Manichaean mythology at the core of social justice extremism, rather than changing the dynamic in a way that would co-opt the movement’s momentum and win back hearts and minds.
Presenting the Possibility of Redemption
That said, we should all be grateful for Haidt and HXA’s work. They have the courage to articulate the problem, name it, track it, and define it, in a loud and credible way. And they gather people who want to stand up for free thought, for liberalism, against the poisonous new orthodoxy.
Beyond resistance, the deeper solution rests in restoring the health of the liberal system by addressing the spiritual vacuum on campus. This is a complex task, but may include an infusion of moral content into campus discourse through greater diversity in professors’ and students’ illiberal traditions, re-prioritizing the humanities compared to the social sciences, and addressing the decline in illiberal institutions in society more broadly.
First, students need a way to presume the possibility of communal redemption rather than simply Manichaean defeat of the evil oppressors by the innocent victims and their allies. Tangibly, this would look like changing a shame culture, which ostracizes microaggressors as morally deformed, into a guilt culture, which penalizes behaviour but says microaggressors are still welcome in the moral community. It would also entail developing a more discerning way to think about what a microaggression is, and how to consider impact, moral responsibility, and blame with regard to these small, harmful actions.
Second, it will promote moderation rather than radicalism. A philosophy is radical when it prioritizes one good to the exclusion of all others—in this case, a particular form of justice. Moderation comes not from feeble indecision but from strong loyalties to multiple incommensurate goods, so an individual is pulled in competing directions; from this flows humility before the complexity of our moral universe.
Third, multiple strong illiberalisms will restore the dialectic that is the heartbeat of the university. To resist the current orthodoxy is to participate in the dialectic that defines the university, to engage in its characteristic mechanism for the collective pursuit of truth. It will be messy, but vibrant and fruitful rather than self-destructive.
Additionally, we need an alliance between those still steeped in our major historical illiberal traditions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, which gave birth to the Western liberal university—and those committed to the Enlightenment ideal of a free mind to help the university evolve without losing itself. We need to negotiate a new shared vision of the university that re-grounds it in the marriage of the two. In particular, we need to reinvigorate the sense of common purpose and common identity that holds liberalism together. Students need to engage in fierce debates within a community characterized by deep fellowship.
Finally, the spiritual vacuum on campus is ultimately a product of the spiritual vacuum in American culture more broadly. our broader task is therefore to create a vision of our collective life that translates the values that have always undergirded our society into new forms that respond to the particulars of modern life and breathe spiritual vitality back into it. That vision should be rooted in careful, honoring observation of the ordinary Americans whose lives shine with moral goodness in spite of modern headwinds.
From this can be drawn a vision of the good life for individuals that is accessible and profound, and a vision of communal and national life that responds to our sins and expresses the best aspects of our national character. Fellowship undergirds both. A vibrant university needs the same.