GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

April 1, 2015

Sea Change

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:08 pm

Let’s stipulate that the kind of thinking representing in the letter below (in response to an article critical of “safe spaces” on college campuses), which I found on Mark Steyn’s website, is an “emergent” mode of thinking—that is, growing and capable of finding institutional and conceptual support in the broader culture. How many young people today think in terms of this treacly mixture of therapeutic and victimary categories? 10%? 50%? It’s always hard to answer such questions, and it depends upon your standards of measurement. What we can see is how seamlessly it intersects with a wide range of contemporary assumptions and postures. And we can also see how radically unlike any way that any people has ever thought or spoken before it is—a veritable sea change in language, morality, manners and psychology. Let’s take a look.

To the Editor:

Judith Shulevitz’s article about safe spaces on college campuses is a direct assault on my generation and what we find important. My generation has embraced the ideas of safe spaces and safe language. Without these, many victims of trauma or discrimination would be excluded from campus discussions that seek to cultivate and strengthen campus intellectual life. Truly open-minded intellectual growth desperately needs the participation of these groups.

Not all ideas are created equal. Some ought to be unreservedly condemned; consideration of such ideas is not at all helpful in bolstering campus intellectual life. The current generation of college students has denied validity to the failed ideas of the past. We have embraced the knowledge and empathy of the present. We are shaping the wisdom of the future.

Stony Brook, N.Y.

The writer is a senior at Stony Brook University.

Let’s first note that someone capable of writing this letter would be incapable of using words like “truth,” “justice” and “freedom” competently. You can’t make sense of the notion of truth if you divide the world into ideas that have been “embraced” and those that have been “denied validity,” much less if you think it is a “generation” that has done these things. Instead of “truth,” we have “open-minded intellectual growth,” which is here virtually defined by the extent to which “victims” (the most unstable among us) are protected from any ideas that would re-traumatize them. This “open-minded intellectual growth,” therefore, would also be impossible without those ideas it “unreservedly condemn[s]”—it is the refusal to consider such ideas, which is to say their constant ritual denunciation, that protects the victims. Instead of “freedom” we have “safety,” with an extremely low (and constantly lowered) threshold for what counts as a threat. Instead of “justice,” which requires a kind of abstraction from the concrete features of contending parties to focus on their deserts under a shared standard, we have “empathy” and, even though the word is not used here, the ubiquitous “inclusion.” There is the same kind of double talk here, insofar as including some implies excluding others—in this case, at the very least, those who “assault” the new “generation” with the “failed ideas of the past.”

The gnostic, self-righteous deification of the new generation and complementary demonization of the old is familiar to us from the 1960s, but it’s interesting that Meerwarth refers so vaguely and blandly to those “failed ideas of the past.” Presumably he could name some of those ideas, but which ones? Racism, sexism, homophobia? But are those really “ideas”? For the victimary thinker, they are more inbred, ontological features of the inherited social landscape—the possibility that there were ever ideas there, that there were ever arguments in favor of the social arrangements now described in these terms, cannot even be imagined. The 60s radical would do much better here: he would mention capitalism, militarism, imperialism and even liberalism, and would at least be able to lampoon the defenders of these views. And the 60s radical, while certainly capable of complacent paeans to “my generation,” also knew that there were conflicts within the generation, that the emergence of the generation was marked by events (the Beatles, Vietnam, Selma, etc.), and didn’t just embrace things spontaneously experienced to be revelatory break from everything humans had previously believed. What are the events to which this new generation could refer? Who are the thinkers who created and disseminated these salvific new ideas of “safe spaces and safe language”? There’s no Marx, or C. Wright Mills, or Herbert Marcuse here—these ideas seems have been secreted out of the very institutions now incapable of thinking outside of their miasmic fog.

All of which means it’s very difficult to imagine initiating a conversation with Mr. Meerwarth and his cohorts. There are no canonical texts to argue about. The “events” one might refer to are marginal, mass-produced, hysterical hoaxes, designed precisely so as to make conversation impossible: Ferguson, Eric Garner, the girl with the bed strapped to her back, now Indiana, in the misty past the legend of Matthew Sheppard (reenacted on campuses throughout the country in “The Laramie Project”). Aside from being frauds, these are all stories of pure villains and victims (degraded, unsalvageable past, untainted future), without the kind of rational, if rejected, motivations of, and differentiations within, both that the opponent of segregation and the Vietnam War could still acknowledge. We seem to be witnessing a thoroughly self-contained, self-referential, self-inoculating, self-healing mode of being. Maybe we are headed toward a future in which the civilized world is comprised of competing cults, like Scientology. Certainly the current generation of 20-somethings has a lot more than the Meerwarths, despite his imperial claims, but there are a lot of Meerwarths as well, they will be moving into a lot of influential positions (the State Department comedy team of Jen Psaki and Melanie Harf are a couple of Meerwarths), and when war, depression or serious civil unrest comes their crack up will produce devastating secondary tremors throughout the culture.

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