Every society, even the most humane, has a dark underside in which its victims reside, and a history of atrocities for which survivors or descendants demand apologies. Despite exaggerations by critics from both the Left and the Right, America has its own victims, some going back in time, others quite recent. Black slavery is the worst crime in the history of the country, and gays are fully justified in claiming victimization more recently. The Right and the Left of American politics have much to apologize for, not least for the current nightmare in the Middle East. George W. Bush started an unnecessary war in Iraq, ended it prematurely, and then failed to plan for the future in either Iraq or Afghanistan; Barack Obama carried on a foreign policy with the overriding imperative of “no American boots on the ground,” announced a red line in Syria with almost Texan hubris, and then, when the line was crossed defiantly by Bashar al-Assad, effectively said to Vladimir Putin, “over to you!” It may take a very long time before American promises or threats are credible once more.
Yes, there are also victimologists, who study and evaluate different categories of victims. Often their certification or lack of it influences legislation and government policies. Of course, if there are policies in place to help or recompense victims, the status of victim is desirable. In the United States today women, gays, African Americans and Hispanics are federally certified victim groups. Asian Americans and Jews are not (regardless of past discrimination or persecution)—and therefore are not eligible for inclusion in victim quotas. India has set up a generous system of quotas (”reservations,” or favored access to jobs and university admissions for official victims). These are oddly described as “scheduled castes, tribes, and other backward classes”; those not included in the category of “backward classes” (notably Muslims today) are clamoring to get in. The “schedules” (pronounced “shedules”) were prepared by the British to make sense of the Hindu caste system; I don’t think the British Raj worried about apologies or reparations.
The focus of this blog is religion. Americans love to litigate. (Two Americans stranded on a desert island will start three lawsuits.) Much litigation, both in Federal and state courts, involves the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Plaintiffs on the Right claim to be victimized by being deprived of the right to the “free exercise” of religion guaranteed in one clause of the Amendment, as when they are forced to violate their religion by, say, catering a same-sex wedding reception. People on the Left claim to be victims when they are subjected to an unconstitutional “establishment of religion,” for instance when their tax money is spent on a Christmas crèche erected in a public park. Either kind of alleged violation of freedom of or from religion seems rather trivial when compared with the genocidal persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by radical Islamists in the Middle East, or with the increasing threats to religious institutions in China, India, and Russia. Still, I am entitled to seek relief from a toothache even if my neighbor has come down with a life-threatening illness.
I cannot deal with everything here. I will focus on claims of victimization made from the Right. Not because I exclusively endorse them (my ideological antipathies are reasonably non-partisan), but because they are (somewhat) more plausible. I have just stumbled on a useful summary of complaints from the Right. Of course I cannot vouch for their accuracy, but they certainly agree with my own experience in liberal academia. The summary can be found in the winter 2016 issue of Libertas, a periodical of Young Americans for Freedom, an organization of college students that can confidently be classified as being on the Right (they hold regular meetings on the Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, California, where Ronald Reagan kept his horses, a sort of Shinto shrine to his brand of conservatism). The issue deals with repression of free speech by Leftist ideologues on American college campuses. It is worth recalling that free speech is also protected by the same First Amendment, in addition to and separately from the two clauses protecting religious freedom. But in any event religion is often involved in many free speech issues mentioned in the Libertas list of cases.
A red thread running through many of these cases is the quite recent concept of “hate speech,” often identified as “violence.” The concept has entered criminal law as an aggravating factor in physical crimes of violence, as when a conviction for murder incurs a more severe penalty if the murderer can be shown to have voiced hatred for the racial, ethnic, or religious group to which the victim belonged. This has turned out to be a significant change in the understanding of protected speech. I can remember the famous incident in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago with a large Jewish population including many Holocaust survivors. In 1977 a group of American Nazis decided to march through the town in full storm trooper uniforms and sporting swastika regalia. The town of Skokie tried to ban the march, the Nazis claimed First Amendment protection, the case finally ended in the Supreme Court—which decided in favor of the Nazis. The result was a strange scene—a tiny group of marchers dressed in their approximation of storm trooper uniforms (U.S.-style khakis substituted for brown shirts), protected on both sides by a very large contingent of police holding off an equally large crowd of demonstrators hurling insults at the marchers. (I was very impressed at the time, but not sure—I still am not—whether the Supreme Court made the right decision). The American Civil Liberties Union, by the way, defended the Nazis. The pertinent law was clear at the time: You had the right to anti-Semitic speech, even denying or possibly defending the Holocaust; you did not have the right to incite the crowd to burn down a synagogue. This principle is now being weakened by considering some speech as being violence.
The right to free speech has also until now been included in the understanding of academic freedom. This has been part of the thinking of the American Association of University Professors. Founded in 1915, the AAUP was vigilant in defending academic freedom. At that time and for long afterward, threats to academic freedom came typically from the Right—professors being harassed, denied promotion or tenure, or even fired. Today threat—by administrators, student demonstrators, and even fellow professors—typically come from the Left. There are now speech codes on many campuses: Some classroom speech is odious enough to be banned for content, or for being psychologically threatening or “uncomfortable.” This involves a certain infantilization of students—they are now seen as so fragile emotionally as to be threatened by even objective description of dissonant ideas or facts: Making them thus uncomfortable is a form of “violence.” Probably feminists started this, with their talk of adult women being emotionally “violated”—making fluid the lines between off-color jokes, sexual harassment, and physical rape.
In the course of 2015 there was a string of cases in which conservative ideas were considered inappropriate for presentation in the classroom because some students were made “uncomfortable.” Evangelicals and Roman Catholics were often targets for criticism, for voicing their views on homosexuality, abortion, or contraception. Often targets are physical or linguistic symbols—a statue of Thomas Jefferson being removed (University of Missouri) and the name of Woodrow Wilson being erased from the name of a school (at Princeton) for their views on race. African-American students have been particularly vocal in voicing victimization because of racist symbols or actual discrimination. Missouri was a particularly hot spot, with several days of turmoil by African-American students leading to the resignation of President Timothy Wolfe. A linguistically surreal episode began at Yale, with the demand that the term “master of college” be removed because it is associated with sexism and racism; while the Yale case was still being debated, Harvard and Princeton hastened to substitute “head” for “master.” Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, said that the change was made to “move the university into line with the values and demands of the 21st century.” (To my knowledge, nobody demanded that his title also be changed to “head,” because “dean” had ecclesiastical associations suggesting an unconstitutional establishment of religion—perhaps not so unreasonably. Somebody once explained to me that joining the Harvard faculty was like joining a church.)
Among the actions enumerated by Libertas is the defunding of Young Americans for Freedom (George Washington University and Virginia Tech); the canceling of a film for supposedly encouraging Islamophobia, though that action was subsequently reversed (University of Michigan); a particularly egregious case—the withdrawal of an honorary degree from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the noted ex-Muslim critic of Islam (by Brandeis University); a physical assault on students distributing pro-life literature (University of California, Santa Barbara).
In all of this I’m especially intrigued by the linguistic innovations that go with particular ideological movements. Confucians had a name for this: “Rectification of terms.” The imperial government had a department of weights and terminology; it regulated weights, to make sure that commerce could rely on their accuracy, and regarded the accuracy of words as just as important, because language must convey truth. If weights and words were not accurate, there would be confusion under heaven. Confucianism was a profoundly conservative system of thought and therefore of political order. If one wanted radical change (which Confucians rarely wanted, and actually feared), one had to change the language. Every modern revolutionary movement has done this (the Nazis actually used the term—Sprachregelung/”regulation of language”). The term in English, “politically correct language,” meaning correct according to the party line, was first used in a positive sense within the Communist party. It was appropriated on the Right in a satirical sense—as in mockery of the changes in common usage to correct/rectify the alleged sexist bias of conventional English (for example, by refusing to use the generic masculine—such as “man” for all humans). Feminist English has now become generalized, having entered editorial practice and even computer spell checks. The University of California has pioneered a “speech code” for the state system, covering both prescribed and proscribed language (in Catholic parlance, both a “catechism” and a “syllabus of errors”). The location of this is ironic: The student revolution began in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. At that time it involved the freedom to use obscenities barred from conventional English; today’s equivalent of forbidden obscenity is the use of “gendered” language. The new California speech code, while quite tolerant of previously barred obscenity, bans “derogatory language reflecting stereotypes or prejudice.”
There is an emporium of other neologisms in the current language normative in American academia: “Free speech zones”—where those who promulgate ideas that belong to the syllabus of errors are officially allowed free speech, but only within these separate localities on campus (isolation wards for infectious diseases). Thus they are symbolically ostracized. It seems that Penn State pioneered this method of speech control. Conversely, “safe spaces”: locations on campus where students can be assured that no words or ideas that make them uncomfortable will be allowed (like smoke-free areas). “Triggers”: ideas or words that will stimulate anxiety or discomfort—including many genres of humor and irony. “Micro-aggression”: what individuals, often unintentionally, cause by using the aforementioned “triggers.” “Cultural appropriation”: Adopting elements from a culture other than one’s own in ways that natives of that culture might see as mockery—that one too originated at Yale, when individuals who are not African Americans, Hispanics, or Native Americans try to rap, wear sombreros, or put on a Pocahontas costume, were officially advised not to do any of these things in celebration of Halloween.
Finally, most sinister of all: Requiring faculty or students to attend sessions of “mandatory sensitivity training.” I suppose that staff from Chinese “re-education camps” might be brought as visiting faculty to American academia, though they would probably have to attend long training themselves, to become cognizant of all relevant American sensitivities (not to mention, at least temporarily, to put away their own).