There's a new generation gap, with the middle-aged and college kids scorning each other. Both sides are wrong.
Thanks, Sahil. I look forward to the next installment. Meanwhile, I found this to be an unconvincing justification for self-censorship. A “shut-up-to-get-along” culture, enforced by a tiny minority, is a pretty depressing and potentially harmful proposition. “Well, don’t worry. The majority don’t really believe that stuff, but just don’t want to take the risk of speaking out,” is just as bad. And no, it wasn’t like that in our day. We actually took pleasure in arguing and listening and learning from a pretty wide spectrum of opinions. I’m afraid that rather than make me feel better about the woke folk, you’ve made me think worse of them.
I find none of what you wrote surprising; in fact, it's about what I expected. That's not a criticism - if this is the situation, people should know.
That said, this small group of dedicated bullies (not your term, but it fits), together with the supine posture of those around them, gets people fired, disinvited, ostracized and harassed. Moreover, they narrow the range of what can and can't be said to a perimeter that leaves way too little space.
I am an old person who remembers the Sixties with fondness. What strikes me as the greatest difference between the activists of my era and the current generation’s “woke” and even those who remain silent, is that we had much more fun. I am concerned by how earnest and worried they seem.
I’m happy to see this dialogue begin. But since you are representing both sides, I thought a bit of history might help. I was at pretty much every protest at U.C. Berkeley from fall ‘65 to spring ‘69. You ask:
“Once upon a time, weren’t hippie protests—their demands for free love and the rest—a conformist movement among the young of the day, albeit one more palatable to classical liberals now?”
Well no. Hippies didn’t organize protests — they would only tag along in the marches. There were no protests for free love. Politicos organized protests. Mainly against daily mass killings in Viet Nam and against up to 1,000 a month of American youth. Hippies = “drop out.” Politico = “revolution.”
We had it easy — first, there was the KKK-police enforced segregation to protest and then the war. We didn’t have to invent micro-aggressions we had honest-to-god mega-aggressions. Simple.
I’ve heard too main complaints from us old-fogies about your generation. (1) We hate the canceling stuff, done, as you make clear (thanks for that), by a tiny crazy minority. And we sympathize with the damage it causes the rest of you. (2) We are distraught to see the Berniecrats making the same mistake we made. This is our Albatross. But we do wish your generation would at least hear our Ancient-Mariner warnings.
And one more “no,” The conformism of the ‘60s was nothing like what you describe today:
“...few among the remaining 95% would want to risk gaining a reputation as a bigot that could ruin their precious few years at college—and dog them on social media during job hunts and long after.”
Not conforming to hippie or politico counter-cultures would have helped, not hurt with job hunts, and would never have ruined our college years let alone our life “long after.” We conformed because it felt good, not out of fear. That is what scares us about wokism.
I too am not surprised by the idea that small group is creating much of the noise. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. I think parenting styles also contributes to many of these student arriving on campus with a predilection towards wokeness. As a parent of college-aged children, I worry about the long-term impact of being driven to silence by fear of retribution.
A vigorous minority can still wreak havoc, when the majority is too confused or scared to squelch them.
I know that USSR comparisons are overblown by right-wing media, so I mention this one advisedly. (Insert your eye-roll here.)
The Bolshevik Party was named for “bolshinstvo” (“the majority”) but in reality it was anything but. It was a small band of intellectuals who used shaming and intimidation to convert listless workers and illiterate peasants to accept its ideas, “or else.” We all know what happened after.
When my mother (a child of the ‘60s) told me not to worry about censorship on college campuses, she assured me these kids would snap out of it when they got older.
Well, the kids have gotten older, but they haven’t snapped out of it. They’ve only turned up the volume as they bring their illiberal ideas to more and more institutions.
I enjoyed this article and look forward to the next, but forgive me if I’m not reassured.
Dear Sahil, if I may call you by your given name,
I look forward to your book and I do not doubt premise that conformists are vast majority of most generations - and classes and parties- and people generally
I do however strongly disagree with Louis Menand that it does not matter if students are taught Milton by victim studies bigot (of either sex) who dwells on his purported misogyny rather than by scholar who values - or at least knows about - his defense of religious and intellectual liberty during English Civil War. There is no more wonderful defense of press freedom in English than his Aeropagitica, 1644, which an academic- not I am happy to say teaching at Harvard - told me a year or so ago is rarely assigned now because it is too difficult. If you have not read it I urge you to do so. Also his work On Education, liberal education: should fit student “to perform justly, skilfully (sic), and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.”
I am appalled by much of what is
done and not done by faculty and administration today but I am Radcliffe ‘63 and taught at Harvard for a bit so I am very old-fashioned. Many of my teachers were of the Greatest Generation and several were exiles from a variety of totalitarian regimes
Every good wish for your brilliant future
Love hearing the incisive perspective of someone with a front-row seat of the campus woke spectacle. Many heads will fall on the woke guillotine, but just you wait. Kids who are understandably cowed today are quietly taking it all in. And one day, those kids will be all grown up and have their hands on the levers of power. What today's woke thugs can't see is that they are sowing the seeds of a seismic shift down the road. Everyone remembers the name of their playground bully.
I think left unsaid as well is that large percentage of this woke cancer comes from the grievance studies departments (ethnic studies, gender studies, etc). I think the core problem with the woke is the incentive structure it has created that causes it to increase with no end in sight. Glenn Loury talks about this a lot. The grievance study crowd pushes for lower standards, these lower standards let in more ethnic minorities under qualified which gives them a sense of inferiority which pushes them to go more woke as defense, which then lets in more, which continues this cycle. All other fixes, points of interest that ignore this cycle are fruitless. Gotta attack it at its heart.
I belong to the older group. Now 85. Spent 35 years as a college professor retiring as an Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering in 1997. Don’t remember having many students involved in protest, at least not on the technical side of campus. They left that up to the arts and humanities people. Still, many from the engineering side went on to become “Titans of Industry.”
People in positions of power but lacking in liberal education. Time and again I listen to my students debate which humanities courses to take. Not because the saw the courses as an opportunity of learning but instead as a waste of time. That failure is not unique to engineering, and I see it as a near impossible problem to solve. A kid trying to develop an integral of some third order differential equation before an exam in the morning has little time to consider much else.
Looking forward to the next article but doubt it will solve the problem. Face it. The human mind has it’s limits and, as a consequence, we program ourselves not to listen to those we don’t agree with, understand or appreciate. The outcome is often sad, but it just seems the less complicated way to go.
It is a great article, but I think you miss the degree to which academic administrators use the somnambulant woke to help them fire faculty, particularly older faculty who are more expensive. Tenure helps us to survive but in the end we are vulnerable. So in academia woke is much more a cynical tool of universities than an authentic progressive movement. Universities now are extremely top heavy and all those administrative drones and mini-deans need to make a place for themselves by reducing faculty pay and actual faculty with tenure. Oh, and the sad news about our so-called sexual revolution, well we talked about it, but we did not have tinder. The licentious nature of your generation is beyond us old Woodstocker's wildest wild and crazy dreams.
Interesting viewpoints here. A few thoughts in reading: While administrators and their readiness to fold at the first sign of struggle is perhaps a larger problem - especially when fellow tenured faculty target their peers - evidence in the journalistic ranks seems to kill off your conclusion that "wokeism does represent a few students' true ideals." Additionally, it's too facile an argument to claim your/our parents actions in the 70s represents an analogous and sympathetic situation. Finally - the battle of wokeism isn't among "elites". This completely misses the point. The illiberal left shooting down opposing viewpoints held by 50% of the country is an 'upper class' vs. 'lower class' dynamic. One side is fighting for liberty and viewpoint diversity - the other is fighting for conformity. It's not obvious from your post which side many of your 'quiet' colleagues would land on if forced to admit an opinion. I do sympathize with wanting to get through life unscathed. That's a driving factor for many of us.
Hi Sahil Handa: I take it your central argument here is that "the woke" on college campuses aren't the majority of students. I'm not sure if most folks believe they are, but you're right about this. And I agree that there's a great deal of conformity around most of the issues centrist or dissenting faculty (and citizens outside the university) would find illiberal. But I'll echo James L's point that knowing this about wokeness in the university shouldn't make us feel much better. In short, groups whose ideology is anti-democratic or illiberal don't have to constitute a majority to be effective and destructive. This is true of the Bolsheviks (James L's example) and of countless other groups, movements, and ideologies, including white supremacists and Christian nationalists in the US. Another thing to keep in mind is that whole sectors of the academy have been selecting for ideologues in grad students and faculty and training undergrads as ideologues such that the woke are clustered in particular fields and disciplines. And yet these relatively small numbers of illiberal students and faculty are spreading their particular brand of cultural authoritarianism in a way that worries people who are also concerned about the authoritarianism of the right. As someone who's been on the front line of this struggle since it was just a twinkle in the eye of tenured aspiring left-wing authoritarians, my take on this is that you may not fully grasp its significance.
It's surely a complex, fraught issue -- thanks for taking a stab at it. But I think you're talking past it rather than engaging directly. While you seem to have some sense that the actual machinations of contemporary political theater are something other than street-level, you only nibble around the edges. I understand why - I did the same for most of my adult life. It's complex and dauntingly anti-everythingyou'veeverknown. But it's necessary, especially to make headway on issues like those that now confront us.
It would be rewarding for both writers and readers if Persuasion entertained more skeptical views of how a "liberal democracy" actually works. Especially in terms of idea filtering, public discourse, funding for science, etc.
Fantatsic. Refreshing to read something not trying to divide along generational troupes. Looking forward to Part2.
I read all the articles, listen to all the podcasts provided by persuasion. I have enjoyed and learned from all of them. This article, its meaning and purpose eludes me.