Academia, the rise of Trump, and offensive speech?

I thought this was a good article, which helped to sort out what’s happening on college campuses and the reaction to it within the political sphere:

It’s long, but worth the read. I’d love to hear what people think of Wells’ views on these issues, since they often come up here (free speech vs safe space, kind of stuff).


Bit beyond me. :frowning2: Something about the combination of the language used, the font and the layout turns it into a giant impenetrable wall of text for me.

Looking forward to others views so I can get a tl;dr on it. :slight_smile:


I usually find the discourse of “offence” to be insidiously disempowering because it normalizes hierarchies of social power. Not unlike public protests, successful use of it involves persuading others with “real power” to act on one’s behalf through opprobrium - whether it is legislature, school administration, corporate HR, etc. It uses real causes but deepens the precedent of conceding the power of social change to those already in power. This trend I think has resulted in the left being increasingly unable or unwilling to organize over the past 40 years or so, and having become far more reactionary in nature.

The left is more able to control its own narrative and agenda I think through a more “cognitive behavioral therapy” model of being trained to recognize and manage one’s own reactions to troubling situations and stimuli. This is done with people recovering from overt trauma, but the methodology is not limited to this. It can be argued that “ideally, people shouldn’t need to do this”, and I could agree. But what is happening here is a form of cultural/information warfare - or if you prefer, a strategic clash of disparate ideologies. Those who have had to personally fend off and/or prevail against violent police, sexual assailants, racist gangs, bigoted ideologues, etc I think can attest to the fact that (for better or worse) a person or group has little chance of victory (survival) without being in control of one’s own immediate mental, physical, and emotional responses. Many on the right are police, military, and businesspeople who know this and have been using to their advantage, while scoring gains in popular media by depicting the left as disrespectful and undisciplined due to this same tendency of harnessing emotional outrage almost exclusively without much consideration of tactics or strategy. Yes, it is hypocritical, as many on the right are fragile reactionaries - but they have had an advantage of more of them being willing to see “the long game”.


As something of an aside - being “the other kind of Indian” I have always been aware of the tightrope-walk of cultural appropriation with regards to regions and disciplines such as yoga. As well as how USians tend to be blind to the reality of Christianity being an appropriation from the east also. I found these two parts of the article to be subtly at odds:

An official with the centre explained that, as yoga comes from cultures that “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”

That is easy for me to appreciate and agree with, from an American context as well as the focus using yoga to facilitate mindfulness generally. But:

Practising yoga could make you complicit in histories of imperial rape.

Goes against the classical tenets of yoga. That since the term yoga refers to the union and harmonizing of the many apparent aspects of self, everybody is actually “practising yoga” all of the time, whether they know it or not. With the difference that those who aren’t aware of it tend to not do as well as those who do it deliberately. So the contrast between this and yoga-as-commodity-lifestyle-choice can be seen itself as a symptom of reframing due to cultural bias.


I was interested to see Wells note the inherent subjectivity and effective unfalsifiability, of offense-based standards; and the fact that cries of offense are generally a tool to shut up whoever is offending you; but even after quoting David Duke’s (more or less transparent; but not obviously incorrect) restatement of his goals in warm-and-fuzzy terms; not really go further on the troubling potential there(and, arguably, dismiss it “this populist perversion of reality”).

Once you appeal to subjective, unfalsifiable, emotional experience; particularly if it’s said to be only truly accessible to one of the correct life and cultural experience; you have a standard that is about as flexible as one could possibly want; and as easily accommodates your enemies as your allies. In many cases, it’s actually more useful for people defending positions of privilege; because the valorization of emotion allows you to shove any inconvenient factual issues into a shouting match over who has more and deeper feelz.

The intellectual honesty of people doing this can…um…vary widely; but it works: think of the “All lives matter” thing that arose as a counter to “Black lives matter”. It has the virtue of being true, reasonably noble sounding; can be demanded by anyone who is ‘offended’ by the narrow exclusivity of BLM; all while conveniently eliding the fact that we were talking about black lives specifically because they are the ones who get executed by the cops at a notably higher rate, specifically. If you had to argue the point; that would be a problem. If you can just be offended; and demand the adoption of a more inclusive phrase instead, you can ignore all those tedious empirical details while remaining fully in the language of inclusion. And, since trying to falsify people’s emotions is hard(and probably offensive in itself), questions about the honesty of your belief in this argument can be deflected by simply asserting the emotional strength of your attachment to it.

If you are interested in redressing the assorted real disadvantages of people really on the shit end of assorted power imbalances, adopting a subjective, emotional, standard might have been a good tactic at some point; but it’s hard to think of a worse strategy: since people often don’t care(or actively prefer) things that way; trying to hammer on the facts is an arduous business; but at least you have them. If the standard is affective experience, you might get a stronger case in the short term; but you are also appealing to something that everyone is well placed to make a claim to; and if someone has enough superior position to enjoy overt superiority in resource allocation, state force, etc. do you want to bet that your ability to get your feelings cared about will exceed his?


There are a lot of good points in this article, and I’ve been trying to write a response, but everything I want to say sounds inadequate. I don’t think there can be a TLDR for this, because it’s so densely written and there are good points all around. It’s more of a brief survey than anything else.

Free speech (in the sense of legally protected speech) wasn’t really mentioned here, but this was more about who controls the conversation, versus who should control the conversation. I will say that the idea of unregulated speech is asking for trouble, because of the opportunity to flood out all legitimate discourse with bullshit. Conversations can be derailed much more easily than they can be gotten back on track. Outright restriction of speech is a bad idea, but there has to be some control. If it seems like speech carries on okay without any kind of regulation, it’s because one message dominates the conversation.


Thanks @Mindysan33.

This gave me a sad, to learn that the current debate between the academy and its critics in Canada is so much like the one in the U.S.

That people on campus in both places take offense so much both is and isn’t a big problem, seems to me . I think it’s a problem because so much attention paid to the merely personal level means less attention paid to the systemic level. But I don’t think it’s a big problem in that i don’t think the occasional stifling of freeze peach is some huge problem – that’s just the right playing the victim card, inappropriately enough, as just one more prong in its sustained, well- funded and steadily effective attack on academia (which many on the right attack because they know it’s a site from which a collective of sorts regularly sees through and points out the right’s pro-wealth crap). The right demands a seat at the table to argue positions that academia in general knows are not just the other side in an ongoing debate; they’ve long been exposed as disproven, mendacious bullshit.


I don’t think we are taking offense as much as he seems to be implying. He cherry picks some instances but its over a couple years and they weren’t issues on campus… only when they made the news. (That whole Qubec article tho. That was terrible. Dude had to apologize for insulting an entire province. It was a bad article.)

If a yoga class gets cancelled and no one cares why until a week later when its a slow news day… is there really outrage?


Phew, good to hear! My stereotypes about Canadian can remain intact. :wink:


I think I’d say the same about American campuses, though, that the sense of the creation of safe spaces and dominance of that sort of postcolonial mindset is really only seen as certain institutions. I mean, GSU certainly has it’s share of leftists organizations and the like, but they attract a tiny fraction of our students, honestly speaking. Since GSU skews heavily towards working class kids of color, they have less time to devote to activism. That being said, the couple of times there have been kids on campus attempting to do things like set up a “European pride” organization or whatever dumb shit, they get nowhere, because that’s just not going to fly here… because, well, it’s a black majority school. I actually saw a flyer the other day of one of these guys put up by the antifascist organization on campus, basically warning people that he’s trying to ferret out progressives and antifascists.

Much of this seems to be more about the perception of college campuses as hotbeds of progressiveism and postcolonialism, and how the right employs those ideas for itself. He makes an interesting point about how this brings the two sides to the same point, but I’m really not sure how much I agree with that, TBH.


It could be the school too. We’re a weird school, Engineering and Business and Performing Arts. All together, and super diverse. The article is from a UofT prof (university of Toronto) and they’re a much more staid and traditional and conservative (and uppity) school. Football and sports are hugely important and they have frats and sororities. So a much movie-like university experience. I think that colours his opinion of what is happening on campuses a bit too much. (I mean he is at UofT, and we joke about Torontonians extrapolating their experience as that of all Canadians, so much we call Toronto the centre of the universe).


Yeah, this is right on… there are lots of different kinds of campuses and they all have different kinds of cultures. UGA is not GSU (no matter how much Becker would like that to be true…), and Vasser is not University of Michigan, and UNC is not… I don’t know, Stanford! A community college has it’s own way of operating, etc. YOU know all this, so I don’t need to tell you this. Someone should tell him, maybe?


Hahah you can’t tell someone who teaches at UofT anything! THEY tell YOU! :wink:


A bit O/T, but this seems like a good place for this:


I don’t agree with that. It’s the one thing in there that really makes me question the whole article. Both sides aren’t really at the same point. The right imitates the left’s language, but it’s a very hollow imitation. I suppose if one were overly idealistic, or totally devoid of context, they could think that both sides are doing the same thing. However, in reality, that’s not true at all.

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I remember that… I found the original article to be really tone deaf, honestly, and more than a little condescending. But I’m inclined to think that people who believe that free love is the definition of true freedom are probably coming from a very privileged position. To think that a tenured professor doesn’t have some sort of power over a graduate student, even one they are not directly working for, is naive, at best. I do agree that banning such relationships is not at all helpful, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t problematic on some level.

I agree, but I’m not sure he’s saying they’re the same, rather that there is some similar baggage to sort through, maybe? Given that the right is pulling directly from that sort of mindset of power relations and who has power in a relationship or on campus, puts them in a shared position, even if they aren’t really the same? Does that make sense?


I’m not sure either, which is why I held off from commenting for so long. I get the impression that he’s too smart to say or even think something like that, but I really couldn’t tell, so who knows.

I’d say the opposite. They are literally the same, but only very literally, and they couldn’t be further from the same position. The right often act like bullies asking for protection from their victims.


Thanks for the link to the article @Mindysan33.

Interesting read. It’s refreshing to see this sort of thing being written about where the writer doesn’t take either extreme as a starting point, and actually seems to want to examine the topic fairly.

However, it does wander about a bit, and it seems to avoid a clear-cut conclusion. Perhaps there isn’t one.

However, it did get me thinking about a number of things-

Firstly, that it’s easy to see how the concept of offence as an entirely subjective notion, unrelated to anything but the inner mental state of the offence-taker, became easily abused as a rhetorical bludgeon. If the US patent system, with its “first to file” rule encourages the filing of speculative claims for later gain, then it’s easy to see how a “first to claim offence” rule leads to an incentive for frivolous or false “taking” of offence in order to gain a political advantage.

And the utter subjectivity does seem to push the matter towards absurdity, where anyone who speaks cannot know in advance whether what they are saying is acceptable, because the permissibility of a statement depends not only on the unknowable mental state of everyone listening, but on the possibility of someone finding meta-offence in a statement they are not actually offended about. (This seems related to the rise of the ghastly word “problematic”, which I find to be a sneaky assertion of a problem on behalf of some unknown party, which doesn’t feel the need to provide any justification for itself, hoping to get along on insinuation alone)

It reminds me of something I said previously. We are in the strange position where it’s possible to use the rhetoric of deconstruction to turn a claim of lower social status into political or social power. This leads directly to the bizarre situation where rich, educated people with access to the rhetoric of deconstruction search blindly through the forest of hierarchies (because everything has one, if you look hard enough), until they can concoct a claim to some form of subjugation, which can then be used as a springboard to greater influence. It’s quite a sight, and it only comes at the expense of eroding the concept of solidarity between people. But hey, what’s the use of that when divide and rule works so nicely.

Secondly it got me thinking about a fundamental disconnect between two ways of thinking that I’ve been meaning to start a discussion on for a while. The fault-line is between those who have a consequences based view of the right and wrong, and those who have a principles based view of what is right and wrong. (The two are related to (but not identical to) the paralell split between ethical relativists and ethical universalists. But I digress.)

The consequencialists will see the other side as hidebound and getting in the way of progress, with no appreciation for context, while the principlists will see the other side as raising special pleading into an art-form, with a tendency to overlook their own “side”'s faults.

Why does this relate to the article- because I think I can see the downside of the consequentialist world-view illustrated quite clearly in the excesses of both sides of this debate. Once you have raised any political viewpoint to the status of the ultimate good, it becomes very easy to fall down that slope into condoning any action that pushes forward that agenda, regardless of who it hurts. And it’s possibly a driving force behind the maxim that all revolutions end up devouring their own children.

Finally, to get onto my own opinions on the matter (I do go on a bit, don’t I).
I think that it’s good that this article was written. It’s good that someone has tried to talk about consequences of rival cultures of offending and taking offence, without dismissing the entire phenomenon as made up (okayy, until the last couple of paragraphs anyway.) or sneering. I also think that the phenomenon is probably the product of a very confused set of ideas about ideas themselves, that a self contradictory intellectual framework has produced the equivalent of a “divide by zero error”, that has infected the real world.
I’d also think that the taking of offence always has to be the start of a discussion, not the end of one. because sometimes, the correct response to a claim of being offended is this one from Steven Fry:


There is a new article by Kipnis on the Ludlow case in the Chronicle of Higher Education. However, I don’t think this particular case has a lot to do with the issue of speech on campus. It is more about the powerful - the University structure - making a decision on the side of expediency.

Generally, I think when you have a situation where due process isn’t scrupulous, the people who suffer most are usually the people with the least amount of power. That means being cautious praising an outcome in any such conflict without thinking about how you got there.


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