All of these explanations have merit, and most of them have become familiar as cultural commentators continue to wrestle with the problem of college students, who should know better, mobilizing to prevent invited speakers from having their say. The problem doesn’t stop, however, with shout-downs, speech codes, bias-reporting systems, and the wide assortment of formal and informal techniques aimed at ensuring conformity to prevailing progressive opinions. It doesn’t stop there because, first, it has spread to other cultural domains: Facebook, the National Football League, and the mainstream media, among them. And it doesn’t stop there, second, because the New Censoriousness has been ready for some time to jump the divide between the political left and right, as it did at Whittier College.
These incentives and conditions help explain why the adults nominally in charge often seem so feckless. More eager to pacify their protesting student and faculty critics than to protect the abstract intellectual values which they claim to revere, they equivocate. As for students, most surely oppose the extremists — but like most silent majorities, they exert less influence than their numbers might warrant.
If the professional associations wish to help graduate students, alternative careers are not the first solution. Instead, they must produce the condition that will create more jobs in the annual listings, namely, undergraduate demand. The reason administrators don’t approve more lines for humanities departments is that enrollments don’t warrant it. When the numbers go down, so do jobs. If a dean sees that history courses are only half-filled, requests for new lines are met with a chuckle. But if he has lots of undergraduates on his hands who can’t get into the courses they want, then new lines will follow.
The shout-downs, speech codes, bullying of conservative students, efforts to intimidate faculty members who defy the edicts of political correctness, are all breakdowns in civility. The governing principles of intellectual exchange collapse as the rancor rises. But these events are also eruptions of ego. They display a particular kind of self-assertion that merges the individual into a collective will. This isn’t always immediately apparent. , Emma Sulkowicz, lugging her mattress around the Columbia University campus for a year to protest how the university handled her rape accusation against a fellow student would seem outwardly to be engaged in a completely individualized spectacle—and one that didn’t touch the freedom of anyone else’s expressive rights.