There is a recent trend of liberal folks lamenting the failure—even the complete unwillingness—of people on the Left to engage constructively with ideas not their own and with the people who represent those ideas. For example, Bret Stephens wrote a piece in the New York Times, “The Dying Art of Disagreement,” that took to task university students who engaged in de-platforming and the harassment of controversial speakers, insisting that this reflected a fundamental betrayal of liberal education, trading an inability to debate thoughtfully with a reactionary impulse that aims to squelch ideas deemed morally suspect. As he put it: “[T]o disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.” What he does not say is this—disagreeing well is often the first step toward understanding yourself better. If you have a negative reaction to something, then exploring your reasons for that reaction will help you to understand if there is any validity to your views, while avoiding entirely the source of provocation leaves you ignorant of why you believe the way you do.
In somewhat similar vein, a recent Contrapoints video titled, “The Left,” took to task particularly members of the Antifa movement who combine high political theory with a belief that most people are but sheep to the System in order to justify both violence and a refusal to try to reach across political boundaries. It’s the sort of self-critical expression that would be typical of many of the “common sense Left” had Contrapoints not already devoted numerous other videos to a critique of Rightist ideologies—because folks on the Left do tend to lament their failure at reaching out, while folks on the Right tend to emphasize the value of small, inter-related communities (your church, your hometown, your perfect white race). The Left tends to be highly evangelical, maintaining a belief in the transformative power of education and the Enlightenment ethos, though there is a tendency among some to ascribe failure of the revolution to a System that takes on the characteristics of Satan in Christian mythology—all pervasive and always disguising ruin and misery as choice and personal pleasure—and those with such a view do tend to turn inward toward the creation of separatist communities eschewing contact with retrograde forces. In such circles, there is little desire to understand the other because such contact can only contaminate the ideal community you are attempting to foster—and so such community members can often turn upon each other whenever they see signs of cultural impurity or a sufficient lack of devotion to the cause. (Just like folks on the Right.)
But the larger context for recent remarks by both Stephens and Contrapoints is not the manifestation of a closed-group mentality at the fringes of the political spectrum but rather its emergence into everyday life, especially upon the very colleges and universities founded to foster debate about—and inquiry into—how the universe operates. The Right has long targeted universities for the challenges that open inquiry poses to tradition, but here lately many on the ostensible liberal end of the spectrum have expressed concerns regarding what they see as the emergence of an Authoritarian or Regressive Left that refuses to abide by a university’s mandate to foster genuine debate across and against a spectrum of political and cultural ideas. Instead, this seems to be replaced by a knee-jerk reaction to anything that might tentatively be labeled racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise “triggering.” Students are regularly labeled “snowflakes” in need of “safe spaces” insulated from the outside world.
And some of these students have been behaving badly, no doubt—even physically manhandling paid speakers and the faculty in their presence. But I don’t think that this is the result of a culture of privileged students who have been coddled from birth, taught to imbibe only a Leftist ideology and disdain anything else. Instead, I think that this behavior might constitute something of an immune response. That’s how Jack Goldsmith, in a recent Atlantic article, describes some of the behavior of the institutions of American society in the wake of the Trump regime—an immune response. As he put it, the persistent norm violations carried out by Trump have sparked a similar violation of norms by those who are determined to save American democracy. For example, the leaking of materials that do not directly implicate Trump in any sort of illegal activity. It’s one thing to leak in order to bring crimes to light, but while leaking Trump’s phone calls with world leaders certainly embarrasses the regime, it does not connect it with specific wrongdoing. It is action in search of justification. Of course, if you genuinely believe that Trump is a threat to democracy, then any action against him, no matter how petty, is immediately justified, but this erosion of norms will ultimately end up eroding the very institutions they were meant to protect, for even the most perfect future president will not be able to entrust herself entirely to the civil service she is meant to lead.
In a similar vein, I see the recent actions of students, including acts of de-platforming, as an immune response to a larger violation of norms. (To be clear, some people have nothing to offer society at large. Milo whatshisname is a prime example, known at large primarily as a man who can summon pathetic losers to engage in the sexual and racist harassment of women on Twitter. George Will he is not, and no college has any business promoting him as a speaker.) So—to what action or violation of norms is current campus protest an immune response? To answer that question, I want to take us back to the Book of Job.
In the Book of Job, the title character is inflicted with the loss of his children, home, and health and, subsequently, is visited by three people—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—who engage in dialogue with him as a means of determining his offense against God. After all, if God is just and sends his travails only upon the guilty, then Job is very clearly guilty. However, Job insists upon his innocence and righteousness, and, fortunately for him but unbeknownst to all but the reader, this entire chain of misery has been enacted as part of a friendly wager between God and Satan to test Job’s faithfulness. Job remains faithful and has his abundance restored to him—which fact, actually, only reinforces the claim that God does reward with earthly riches those who maintain unwavering loyalty.
But here’s the point—Job’s friends actually had it right. Oh, they are meant to be the villains of the story, but they know their Bible. When Israel is faithful to God, blessings abound, and tiny armies can defeat whole cities armed only with horns. When Israel is cheating on God with various idols, then blessings do not abound, and the military might of the Chosen People falls in the face of their enemies. Prosperity Gospel is not a new movement–it was there at the beginning. And so, in this worldview, and with this history, it only makes sense to see suffering as connected with sin. Observation: Job is suffering. Hypothesis: Job has sinned. Experiment: ask him all about it.
But, as we well know, Job was right on this one. He turned to his friends, said of their hypothesis “Fake news!” and was blessed by God Almighty as a result. It really is a literary masterpiece, but it’s a theological mess that makes it impossible to discern reality (if your reality contains an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent deity). Let’s say my life turns into a country song and I lose my job, my wife, and my dog. My options for interpreting this circumstance, theologically, are: 1) I have done something to offend Sweet Baby Jesus and must make amends, or 2) God is on my side and is testing me with the refining fire of suffering and so everything I was doing beforehand was perfect in the eyes of the Lord and I just need to keep at it and never change. I hope that you can see which one of these is more psychologically comforting to the ego.
So what the Book of Job does is promote the creation of alternate personal realities. As I wrote in my previous post, when you have faith, you can resist the Truth. Job is a one-man Fox News operation constantly assuring himself of his own righteousness, and the author(s) of the story back him up entirely–after all, the story is enshrined in scripture, making Job a model for all humankind. And with this man as a model, any semblance of a shared reality, of discovering a universal truth, completely falls apart.
And maybe it wouldn’t be terrible if the impulse for such alternate realities lay solely within a religious, self-oriented quest, but the drive for self-justification will eventually bleed over into other areas of life. As religion and politics intermingle–as religion becomes a driving force behind the quest for political power–the religious impulse for self-justification extends to those areas of political identity. Because you know that you are right with God, and because your preferred candidate is on the side of God, then any criticism of your preferred candidate is false. Donald Trump, for one, has become an extension of white Christian America, has become part of the greater “self,” a collective ego, and therefore he must be defended with the same resources employed to protect the individual self. It’s less that Donald Trump is a God for white Christian America and more that each believer, modeled after Job and his surety of righteousness, becomes his own God.
Now, how the hell does this all relate to the current spate of campus protest and to the persistent call to attempt to communicate across boundaries of identity? I see campus protest as an immune response to the deliberate proliferation of alternate (false) realities. I am not excusing the vehemence of what happened up at the Evergreen State College or the de-platforming of certain speakers–these are violations of norms that will have longstanding repercussions and make the project of liberal education that much harder to maintain. But they are happening for a reason, rather like the fever harms the body with the aim of preserving the life contained therein. After all, colleges and universities are classically those institutions charged with serious inquiry into the workings of society and the world at large, inquiry aimed at uncovering some semblance of Truth, be it in the operations of atoms or the yearnings of the human heart. Colleges and universities are charged with studying reality, but for a few decades now we have been faced with a political project aimed at undermining not just the utility of this endeavor but also the very concept that reality stands outside of us, beyond us, rather than being something we project upon the world by praying or wishing hard enough. The Trump regime is but the culmination of this project, for he makes not even the slightest feint toward acknowledging the validity of shared reality–oh, no, he had the biggest inauguration ever and certainly didn’t lose the popular vote. And his followers supported him because he projected for them a reality that made their sufferings emblems of their individual and collective righteousness. In short, followers of Trump are like the followers of God, and they cannot be swayed from their zeal, for that would be like Job giving in to his three inquisitors, acknowledging that maybe the problem is personal–and that’s a betrayal, a complete betrayal, of the self.
“Are these words to go unanswered? Is this talker to be vindicated? Will your idle talk reduce men to silence? Will no one rebuke you when you mock? You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless and I am pure in your sight.’ Oh, how I wish that God would speak, that he would open his lips against you and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom, for true wisdom has two sides.” –First speech of Zophar, Job 11: 1-5.