11 November 2015

Appealing to the wrong dystopian author

The recent high-profile altercation between two Yale staff and a handful of Yale students has unfortunately brought in all the usual suspects in the American nattering class (Friedersdorf, Chait, Goldberg, Drezner, Hinderaker, etc.) into a discussion of ‘political correctness’, ‘free speech’, ‘illiberal leftism’ and the rest of it. As usual, the focus seems squarely aimed in all the wrong places. One way in which this is done is that several commentators (including Chez Pazienza and Brendan O’Neill) and have taken to describing the students’ position as Orwellian. When used in this way, what they mean is that their position is reminiscent of his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But that’s not anywhere close to the right analogy. What Orwell was describing was a totalitarian state which uses total surveillance and the manipulation, simplification and artificial restructuring of language to make people afraid of, and psychologically incapable of, behaving or thinking in a way that the state does not approve. If anything, the inappropriate descriptions of the issues at stake Yale are in fact more Orwellian than the actions of the students themselves. Twitter and YouTube have made it so that Big Brother is always watching you, and your every action in a public space (and in some private spaces) is instantly made available for the scrutiny of the masses, of the media and of the State. And the repeated restructuring of Yale campus politics into a national rubric that opposes two abstract political concepts, ‘political correctness’ against ‘free speech’, impoverishes a discussion that requires greater depth. The behaviour of the American nattering classes reflects much more directly the themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Allow me to be clear. I am just such an illiberal leftist as some among these self-appointed champions of an abstract principle of ‘free speech’ decry. I hold that measures of censorship or curtailment of absolute free expression, in the right circumstances and as long as it is done for the right reasons, can be completely justified. But on those grounds – again, at the risk of engaging in the same kind of Orwellian judgement of a situation to which only the Twitter-YouTube Panopticon grants me access – I cannot endorse or approve at all the kind of behaviour evinced by the Yale students who confronted Dr. Nicholas Christakis on campus. The shrieking and hectoring of the student in question strikes me as rude, selfish and self-absorbed. But more to the point, the reasoning is profoundly hostile to the aims of any properly-oriented censorship! The university is clearly expected, not to educate into truth or to encourage self-reflection in the Socratic sense, but to provide ‘comfort’ and a ‘safe space’ for the students. To provide a surrogate ‘home’ to the students. Striving for truth is not the end goal, but instead a perpetual hedonistic puerilism, and a surrogate society which takes the place of the natural family.

O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!

Yes, I am arguing that the dystopia we’re staring into is less what Orwell imagined, but rather more along the lines of what Huxley did. The devaluation of natural parenthood; the pursuit of sex and other materialistic distractions for purely hedonistic reasons; the use of education not to prime youth for the pursuit of any kind of transcendent truth in adulthood, but rather to condition students to function, purely ‘technically’, in pre-allocated social roles. This dystopia is what underwrites the demands for the creation of ‘safe spaces’, in which the flight from pain and emotional distress is given priority over self-reflection and inquiry. What is frightening about the Yale students’ demands is not that they hold the reins of state power (yet), or that they have any control over the way in which information is gathered or disseminated to the public, but rather that they exemplify the hive mindset hinted at by Huxley, violently intolerant of anything which disturbs their ‘comfort’.

More a propos to the discussion, though, is not the environment of the university. We subsist in a culture where individual, consumer preferences reign over all else – over concrete ties to place or to history or to family, for example. If I may paraphrase and slightly elaborate on Jacob Levy’s point for a moment: on the basis of consumer preference, we engage in self-segregation by race, by class and by ‘culture’. This self-segregation is perpetuated by our choices in city and neighbourhood planning, as well as by our consumer choices. Within the news media we listen to, only a very narrow band of opinion and personal views are tolerated – again, all in the name of consumer preference. We medicate children in an attempt to get them to conform to a technical model of public education that treats knowledge as a consumer commodity and teaching as something akin to retail. Still more to the point, we have raised them in a cultural environment wherein marriage is considered a contract-relationship, and wherein divorce can occur over even minor disagreements. And somehow we act surprised when these children, raised in such environments, have difficulty brooking or countenancing disagreement themselves… some self-awareness of where responsibility lies in this equation seems called-for.

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