The Campus Culture War

Elevated Thoughts on the Campus Culture War

Summary: Today, there’s a healthy campus culture war being fough between at least two groups, progressives and classical liberals. In their everyday skirmishes, the sides attack each other with their own perspectives, worldviews, and accusations. At its peak, the war pits two sets of first principles against each other.

But besides the war of firmly held first principles, there is another struggle, a greater struggle, which all sides are avoiding.

The greater struggle comes when the sides turn away from each other and towards their own first principles, to ask whether they have truly earned the right to take those principles for granted. The way to do that is through essential inquiry into their own, and our own, fundamental positions. When we inquire into the status of our own first principles, they are no longer merely available to wield as weapons, so inquiry has a pacifying tendency. But because such inquiry is a struggle to win the truth for ourselves, it is not simply pacific. Inquiry can satisfy both the longing for peace and the desire for war.

By subjecting first principles to more fundamental inquiry, each side could elevate the campus culture wars to something of genuine significance for Canadian cultural politics. No longer would each side just assume what the other disputes on the basis of positions taken for granted. However, we are likely to see merely a continuation of the campus culture wars on a lower battlefield, since the highest ground is hard to reach, and the lower battles are difficult to ignore. The point of the following reflections is to help ensure we don’t forget about the existence of a higher ground.

Lindsay Shepherd, the graduate student who was told by her superiors that showing students a clip of Jordan Peterson debating on The Agenda was akin to showing a Hitler speech neutrally, recently posted to Twitter a photograph of a flyer handed out at a panel discussion she attended at St. Mary’s University, Halifax. The flyer, which she rightly admits is “kind of funny,” is an “alt-right bingo” card. Some of the squares on the bingo card are the terms “safe spaces,” “triggered,” “social justice warriors,” “fragile,” “whining,” “cultural Marxism,” “leftist academics,” “postmodernism,” and “viewpoint diversity.” The idea, of course, is that if you get together in a room with people like Shepherd and Peterson and those who support them, you’ll likely hear at least someone talking about how postmodernism and cultural Marxism have created a class of fragile, whining, easily triggered social justice warriors needing safe spaces like pacifiers to protect them from the big, bad wolf of viewpoint diversity (bingo!).

The words on the bingo card do hang together to form a conceptual universe that distinguishes one set of ideas and principles from another set of values and commitments. Shepherd and her supporters could easily make a “commie bingo,” too, with terms like “systemic racism,” “intersectionality,” “patriarchy,” “cis-gender,” “privilege,” “social justice,” and “#resistance,” for instance. The “bingo” terms in either case are the threads of semantic web that forms a worldview.

On all sides of the political spectrum, there are those who use the terms in their worldview-webs with an understanding of their history, meaning, and rationales, and who know more or less the history, meaning, and rationales of the opposing terms, arguments, and ideas. There are also those, on all sides, the much larger group, who have been born and bred into these worldviews, taking them with their mother’s milk, as it were, or at any rate in that intellectual nursery called university. For instance, some people just talk of “values.” Other people know that the introduction of the concept of “values” in the history of moral and political philosophy was a watershed moment of great polemical significance, and they use it, or oppose it, in light of that significance.

That means there are two basic sorts of perspectives on the bingo-ideologies. The perspective of someone who has been habituated into the performance of moral norms automatically, as it were, is as distinct from the perspective of someone who has weighed those norms in themselves and against the alternatives as the perspective of those raised under the basic laws of a community is distinct from the perspective of the founder or law-giver of that political community, who, as founder, had to dare to break boldly with the habitual and customary to produce something new. One group is like a political community. The other group, infinitely smaller, comprises the founders of such communities, i.e. those who know the first principles and the alternatives to them comprehensively and originally.

Right now, the campus wars are in large part a war of political communities. That is to say, they are wars where the law is already given and thus does not have be earned through a struggle of the sort the lawgiver had to go through. Each side has relatively well formed and deeply ingrained worldviews, constituted by a semantic web of terms that one can rightfully expect to hear over and over again in the presentations of either side. That’s why there can be a Peterson/Shepherd/Shapiro bingo, and a bingo of the left, and a few other bingos, besides. The words do recur. They do form, more or less, a whole. And that whole is in large part something taken for granted (e.g. read Ayn Rand for one arsenal, read Locke for another, read Lacan and Zizek for a third, Arendt for a fourth, Aquinas for a fifth, etc.).

It’s good that these wars are wars. Engagement is better than capitulation or retreat, whereby one community cedes semantic ground to the other from weakness, cowardice, ignorance, or indifference (some peoples, as has been said, who have not been conquered on the battlefield have been conquered on the semantic field). Peace at all costs is not the motto here, and if there were not a war of minds on campuses, we’d have to wonder why not. As the Federalist Papers argue, you can extinguish a dangerous fire by abolishing oxygen, but then the very thing you wanted to preserve, your life, would be snuffed out, too. Peace for the price of justice or freedom is too high a price to pay, if the consequent peace is neither just nor free. Since factional strife is the result of the liberties to think, speak, and associate combined with natural diversity of political opinions, absence of strife raises suspicions that a tyrannical force stands over our actions and minds, enforcing conformity and homogeneity. So war can be a good sign.

The campus culture war will help better define the political, ideological, intellectual, moral communities (hence the relevant alternatives), and protracted engagement will improve the weapons of war – words, ideas, arguments, insinuations – on both sides, until, perhaps, a tense state of mutually assured destruction culminates in a fragile, fecund equilibrium. The tension of a semantically bipolar world is healthier than a unipolarity that relaxes the bow, the more so since in the cold and hot wars of the mind people who wish to migrate from one community to another are free to do so. At any rate, the implicitly multipolar notion of “viewpoint diversity” is inherently incompatible with unipolarity, so at least one side should not wish too eagerly for victory, and each side needs the other to sharpen its self-definition.

But if the semantic struggles occur in a field of battle, the battle is perhaps best viewed from higher ground. Of course, to view it from higher ground means to leave the field of battle. But since to leave does not mean to run away, and since even a general, and not only an idle thinker, needs the bigger picture, there ought to be no shame in trying to gain something like a comprehensive overview of the situation of a sort that is not completely available to those who find themselves too much involved in it.

From a higher perspective, the campus culture war looks a little like a losing battle for both sides. The defense of free speech is often enough understand by one side as the defense of a classical liberal perspective. Yet one of the greatest friends of liberal democracy in the twentieth century, a man named Leo Strauss, had to acknowledge that the great anti-liberal German philosopher Martin Heidegger had successfully rendered all rational liberal principles problematic. “I am afraid,” Strauss said, “that we shall have to make a very great effort in order to find a solid basis for rational liberalism. Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight. But here is the great trouble, the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger.” Taking up the battle cry against the left, the classical liberals have failed to adequately register the threats to their own position posed not by the left, but by Heidegger. Moreover, they have their own sort of cartoonish “alt-right,” or “far-right,” or “neo-Nazi bingo” card that they play when it comes to Heidegger, and to that sort of challenge to classical liberal principles that does not stem from a leftist tradition (“destiny,” “heritage,” “authenticity,” “resoluteness,” “Dasein” – bingo!). There are classical liberal professors in Canada who have resorted to the lowest tactics in aiming to discredit the Heideggerian challenge, and who in that regard are no better than the leftists whose low tactics they despise, and who are even worse, since whereas the left does not, they do pretend to be defenders of free speech and free inquiry, and sometimes even of philosophy proper.

On the other hand, the proponents of social justice are worse than Pontius Pilates of justice. He asked, “what is truth,” and did not stay to hear the answer. They don’t even ask, “what is justice,” for then they’d have to read The Republic, at least, without doing a reading of it that approaches the question with an answer ready to hand. Nor, of course, do they ever radically “problematize” the notion of “the social.” If at their self-parodying worst they betray the inherent inegalitarianism and injustice of their commitments to equality and justice, at their best, they betray an all-too-partial interpretation of human existence, and thus exhibit a lack of genuine human sympathy.

Everywhere the noisy battle of the moment clamors and echoes through the landscape. But at a distance from that noise, if one listens, one can hear a summons to a higher confrontation. In the higher confrontations, the victory comes, if it comes at all, from laying down arms, not from taking them up. Laying down arms? Peace, then? A peace worth pursuing, far from the battle, but not devoid of confrontation? Are there those who can still hear that above the din? Alypius could not avoid looking at the gladiators in the Colosseum once he heard their cries, though he knew better than anyone that by doing so, as Augustine put it, “he received a greater wound in his soul than the gladiator had received in his body.” Who among us can keep our eyes and ears averted from the ideological gladiators battling in the campus Colosseum?

Still, we must know that when we follow the silver threads of the semantic webs that comprise today’s campus culture wars and trace them to higher ground, where there are no longer spiders or flies, we pass beyond the confused domain of cultural ideology to the clear and august domain of essential confrontation, in which we confront or face up to the questions that lurk like chaos behind the ordered façade of our self-understanding. For if there is a chaos against which we need an antidote, there is also that chaos one must have in oneself to give birth to a dancing star. Canadian cultural politics carries within in both potentials: to fight on the battlefield or ascend to a more comprehensive perspective; to spin the spider’s web for flies or trace the silver threads to the heights where eagles fly; to play bingo or give birth to a dancing star. Is the decision a foregone conclusion?

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