NY Times Opinion: Progressive outrage is ruining academia

There’s an interesting opinion piece in today’s NY Times about the current state of academia, a state the author describes as descending into emotionalism. Kelly Oliver, the author of the piece, is a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She opens by establishing her own progressive bona fides (she’s bisexual and mentors women and students of color) in a way that seems aimed at letting readers know she is down with the struggle. Nevertheless, much of what she actually says, though carefully couched as applying to both sides of the aisle, sounds a lot like conservative cultural criticism of academia:

It is with some trepidation that I admit that the current political climate in academia confuses me. The more I read about trigger warnings, safe spaces and petitions to retract scholarly articles, the more my head spins. On top of that confusion, I harbor a fear of expressing views that will offend other progressives, scholars and teachers who may also be fighting oppression. And I fear being subject to public shaming on social media, and receiving private hate mail (I still am, after my response in May to the controversy over Rebecca Tuvel’s article in the journal Hypatia). In short, I find myself in an educational environment in which outrage, censoring and public shaming has begun to replace critique, disagreement and debate…

In a culture that increasingly values raw emotions uncontaminated by scholarly analysis, the uncritical legitimation of feelings as the basis for moral authority becomes a form of political leveling. If unexamined outrage is the new truth, then we are moving dangerously close to a form of reactionary politics that closes down difficult discussions and prevents us from distinguishing between sexism or racism and critical discussions of them…

When outrage becomes an end in itself, it also becomes a form of fundamentalism and part of a dogma of purity that can be potentially aggressive, hostile and violent. When political activism becomes dogmatic and punishing, it uses the same techniques of exclusion and oppression that it rejects — only now in the name of liberation.

If you follow that link it goes to a post titled “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice” which argues that social justice warriors seem to be developing and enforcing their own dogma and using age-old means to enforce it. A sample:

Telling people what to do and how to live out their lives is endemic to dogmatic religion and activism. It’s not that my comrades are the bosses of me, but that dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do. This is especially prominent on Facebook. Scrolling through my news feed sometimes feels Iike sliding into a pew to be blasted by a fragmented, frenzied sermon. I know that much of the media posted there means to discipline me to be a better activist and community member. But when dictates aren’t followed, a common procedure of punishment ensues. Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing. Discipline and punishment has been used for all of history to control and destroy people. Why is it being used in movements meant to liberate all of us?

There are some obvious answers to that question, i.e. why do SJWs behave this way. Here’s one: It looks like a coercive religion because that’s exactly what it is. Andrew Sullivan suggested as much back in March:

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante…

If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it.

This new faith may not have a personal god or a promise of lasting redemption but it does have plenty of apostles and a mob of young zealots whose main takeaway from the sermons they’re hearing is that their feelings give them the right to dictate to everyone else (and must not be questioned). As one professor at Evergreen State College wrote in a private email after a group of students confronted her demanding to know where she was going, “The only thing which they would accept was my obedience.”

Read the whole piece and make up your own mind about who the author is talking about here. I have no doubt people on the right can and do behave this way, in fact I’ve said as much. But the right is playing catch-up, at best. The intersectionality dogma now dominating many campuses is coming from the far left.