Students across the country continue to attack and shut down speakers at a steady pace, from Christina Hoff Sommers to Jordan Peterson. I confess that I find their behavior awful. My gut reaction is that these student mobbists manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.
But empathy is the essential character trait for our moment. So I thought it might be a good discipline to try to see things from the students’ perspective – to not just condemn or psychoanalyze them but try to understand where they are coming from. So here goes.
I would begin my stab at understanding by acknowledging that I grew up in one era and they grew up in another. I came of age in the 1980s. In that time, there was an assumption that though the roots of human society were deep in tribalism, over the past 3,000 years we had developed a system of liberal democracy that gloriously transcended it, that put reason, compassion and compromise atop violence and brute force.
There was also an assumption that while we might disagree on the means, we all wanted basically the same things. For example, though America was plagued by economic divides we all wanted a society in which social mobility and equal opportunity were the rule. Though America is plagued by racism, we all wanted more integration and less bigotry, a place where talent and character mattered more than skin color and prejudice.
Given those assumptions, sophisticated people in those days wanted to be seen, to use Scott Alexander’s term, as mistake theorists. Mistake theorists believe that the world is complicated and that most of our troubles are caused by error and incompetence, not by malice or evil intent.
Mistake theorists also believe that most social problems are hard and that obvious perfect solutions are scarce. Debate is essential. You bring different perspectives and expertise to the table. You reduce passion and increase learning. Basically, we’re all physicians standing over a patient with a very complex condition and we’re trying to collectively figure out what to do.
This remains my basic understanding of how citizenship is supposed to work.
But two things have happened since my worldview was formed. The first is that the conversation about race has changed. The idea for decades was that racial justice would come when we reduced individual bigotry – the goal was colorblind individualism. As Nils Gilman argues in The American Interest, that ideal reached its apogee with the election of Barack Obama.
But Obama’s election also revealed the limits of that ideal. Now the crucial barriers to racial justice are seen not just as individual, but as structural – economic structures, the incarceration crisis, the breakdown of family structure.
Today’s students grew up in this different racial conversation. Progress is less about understanding and liking each other and more about smashing structures that others defend.
The second thing that happened was that reason, apparently, ceased to matter. Today’s young people were raised within an educational ideology that taught them that individual reason and emotion were less important than perspectivism – what perspective you bring as a white man, a black woman, a transgender Mexican, or whatever.
These students were raised with the idea that individual reason is downstream from group identity. Then along came the 2016 election to validate that point of view! If reason and deliberation are central to democracy, how on earth did Donald Trump get elected?
If you were born after 1990, it’s not totally shocking that you would see public life as an inevitable war of tribe versus tribe. It’s not surprising that you would become, in Alexander’s terminology, a conflict theorist, not a mistake theorist.
In the conflict theorist worldview, most public problems are caused not by errors or complexity but by malice and oppression. The powerful few keep everyone else down. The solutions to injustice and suffering are simple and obvious: Defeat the powerful. Passion is more important than reason because the oppressed masses have to mobilize to storm the barricades. Debate is counterproductive because it dilutes passion and sows confusion. Discordant ideas are not there to inform; they are there to provide cover for oppression.
Some people I admire see today’s student mobbism as an outbreak of an ersatz religion, but I’d say their theory of social change is at least comprehensible given the era they inhabit.
If I could talk to the students I’d try to persuade them that mistake theory is a more accurate and effective way to change the world than conflict theory, but I probably wouldn’t persuade them.
So I’d just ask them to take two courses. The first would be in revolutions – the French, Russian, Chinese and all the other ones that unleashed the passion of the mob in an effort to overthrow oppression – and the way they ALL wound up waist deep in blood.
The second would be in constitutionalism. We dump on lawyers, but the law is beautiful, living proof that we can rise above tribalism and force – proof that the edifice of civilizations is a great gift, which our ancestors gave their lives for.