Cultural Anthropology, BDS and the University
Jonathan David Haidt is a Professor of Ethical Leadership and a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business; he specializes in the psychology of morality. In a dialogue about his concern with how communities bind together and, in that binding, also close their minds, he “began to see the social sciences as tribal moral communities, becoming ever more committed to social justice, and ever less hospitable to dissenting views.” He claimed that universities have developed into a monoculture. “Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.”
Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.
As Jonathan replied, “They’re so devoted to social justice, and they have accepted the rule that you can never, ever blame victims, so if a group of victims makes demands [however ill-conceived], you cannot argue back. You must accept the demands.” “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists. They’ve taken the first step towards censoring Israel. They’re not going to have anything to do with Israeli scholars any more. So it’s now – it’s the seventh victim group.” In addition to African-Americans, women, the LGBT community, as well as Latinos, Native Americans and people with disabilities, the seventh group does not consist of the Israelis ostracized, but Muslims. These seven groups, whatever empathy they deserve – and most deserve a great deal – become immune to criticism and occupy a protected status. Further, under the concept of “intersectionality,” each group is strengthened in the blindmindedness in dealing with it by seeing the oppression of each as a manifestation of a singular larger evil force.
When values other than truth become primary in universities, when truth gets thrown under the bus in favour of perceived social justice, the university has lost its way. “What has happened is the normalization of bad ideas, thanks mostly to identity politics.” I personally first experienced this years ago in a union meeting of our faculty at York University. I was shocked to hear faculty shout abuse and shut up an esteemed colleague who was raising questions about a proposal to give the union authority to call a strike. He was not even disagreeing, just asking a question. And he was shouted down. I felt very ashamed to have been part of organizing a union where members not only behaved in that way, but were allowed to behave that way.
When I appeared on a panel on the Middle East in Osgoode Hall’s Moot Court at the university about fifteen years ago, the situation had become much worse, the language more degrading and the sense of a mob culture much more apparent. Categories of oppression multiply and certain language was placed off limits at the same time as a new callous and rude language became more prevalent. I have been told that over the past thirteen years since my retirement from York University, the situation of creeping censorship combined with enhanced callous language has become even worse. As Haidt said, “Far from embracing free debate of challenging ideas and the free speech necessary to pursue them, university life today is characterized by policies governing every aspect of college life, in the classroom and out, and offices to enforce them.” So one kind of speech, discourse and behaviour that fosters a free exchange of ideas is ruthlessly suppressed while another alternative form of discourse or repression and angry rhetoric displaces it in the name of “social justice’ rather than truth. Bullying of gays, of blacks, of women has correctly been countered only to see bullying for “free space” rather than free speech moved to centre stage.
But there has been a growing backlash. It is coming from students who graduate with a great deal of debt from studies in the humanities and social sciences but lack marketable skills, even of political thinking as they have increasingly been submerged in ideological thinking. The backlash is coming from business leaders who find that many of the students who graduate lack the most basic skills required to work in the corporate world. The backlash is coming from parents who end up supporting their children well into their twenties and then find that the jobs they get are as bell hops and desk clerks, receptionists and waitresses or waiters, chefs and salespersons. They ask why they sent their children to university in the first place and why, after they get a degree, they have to go back to study at a community college in a skills-based program. And the backlash is also coming from government torn between one huge part of a province’s obligations to health versus the increasing costs of higher education. As the electors age, concessions shift to that segment of the population that is getting larger, those who are older.
But worst of all, the students are uneducated. This past weekend I spent three days with three different university graduates who did their undergraduate studies in different parts of the world, one at York University. All three were exceedingly nice and decent. They were pleasant, trustworthy and eager to please. They were hardworking and willing to carry out anything asked of them. But they lacked initiative. They were also cut off in a peculiar way, more attached to communication with their cell phones – with texting and messaging – than with interacting with each other and with me on a deeper level, even as they told stories of their travels and adventures in the world and their love of different kinds of food. Patrick Deneen in his essay, “How a Generation Lost its Common Culture” in Minding the Campus: Reforming Our Universities, called his students who matched the three young people I spent a long weekend with as “know nothings.”
These graduates of universities had only the vaguest sense of politics. They knew little about not simply the Hebrew and Greek classics, but of the development of the enlightenment. They had only the vaguest notion of sociology, though that was the major of one of these young people. But none of the three had gone to an A-grade university. Deneen’s students, by contrast, were from Princeton, Georgetown and Notre Dame. Yet, though they were superb test-takers – which perhaps only one of the three I spent time with probably was – and earned A’s, they were neither passionate nor invested in a specific issue or subject. They were like the three I spent the weekend with – somewhat detached and deeply involved in their own personal search for adventure and a desire to taste and experience the world, but with no depth of historical knowledge evident of that world.
Do not get me wrong. They were a delight to talk to. They were respectful and cordial both to one another and to me. They loved hearing narratives based on experience, but were not interested in narratives rooted in literature or history. One no longer really read. Another had been reading the same book for six months, but was too busy with work and having experiences to spend much time with it. And it was a title and author I did not recognize. A third when asked whether he saw movies and which ones, replied that he saw an excellent children’s cartoon that I think was made by Pixar.
They were extremely tolerant of differences – racial or sexual – and genuinely respected differences, but without a passion for exploring those differences. Tolerance for them meant not judging the other. Not one was religious. They grew up on three different continents, yet seemed to have far more in common with each other than with any of the students with whom I went to school. At the same time, they were terrifically decent. They exhibited a sense of caring for each other and helping one another in work and chores. They were very fair in sharing food and responsibilities. They were liberal and two who met a year ago through me had kept in touch on Facebook. In my contact with them, what each valued most in the world was their personal liberty to explore that world on their own terms.
Though each respected the family that raised them – and each seemed to have devoted parents – not one seemed particularly loyal and attached to their parents or their siblings. Every one of them respected people who requested them to do something, but disliked being told to do something; respect for others did not include respect for authority. Most of all, not one of them seemed to have a religious bone in their bodies in the sense that they thought some place or some person worthy of regarding as sanctified. One loved Dubai of all places; another loved a day flight to Miami; a third found what was most exciting was what was under the sea that she explored through deep diving.
I write this, not because I carefully selected the three as a sample – the choice of these three was somewhat arbitrary. I write about them because, other than the fact that probably not one of them could come close to competing with Patrick Deneen’s A-students from top universities, they otherwise seemed remarkably like his description of his own students. They loved peer gatherings, but not standing and fixed communities. They detested hierarchy and not one of them had any respect for tradition. Mass killings, genocide, wars in Syria all seemed far away, yet each was drawn to treating strangers well. In other words, they were the ideal liberal students that Jonathan Haidt described in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. But they were not ideological liberals who seemed to be very bothered by Donald Trump or very interested in the American race for the presidency.
Most of all, they were filled with trivia, and what they do not know, they look up on their cell phones by the minute. Want to know what the population of Barrie is? Want to know the density of the traffic flow returning to Toronto? Want to know about the life of a tent caterpillar whose nests we were eagerly destroying? All could be learned with great acuity and fluidity by pressing a few buttons and reading what they found.
In one of my very early books, The Holiversity, I described how the university we were attending was evolving from a discipline-based Sanctuary of Method into a Social Service Station focused on solving problems out there in the real world. I anticipated that in 50-60 years that type of university would also morph into something very different again, the Consumer University, the university not so much a market place where great ideas clashed, but the university as a collection of market stalls like those in small town fairs or those at a local market where people bring items to sell. The university was evolving faster than I ever thought possible into a cafeteria university where students come to taste the various wares on offer, and, like those attending Deneen’s great universities, each had studied a different social science only to become ignorant that their civilization had become committed to “civilizational suicide” in Deneen’s words.
Clyde Kluckhohn described five options in structuring time. All three of these young people lived in the fleeting present while updating their skills and trying to improve their positions. Why? To get as much as possible out of life while aging without a past and where the future is a foreign country that lies around the next corner to experience. They were very different than the dominant culture that had constituted America and its devotion to a greater future.
“In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice”), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps.” And if there is anything they value more it is the negative value of not being limited or handicapped. They are committed to detachment and mutual indifference except to their own tastes and sense of wonder at what the world has on offer.
They are not members of a res publica, but non-members engaged in a race individula. And if a student wants to escape this solipsistic world, where does he or she or it go? Into engaged ideology rather than engaged intellect, whether that ideology be the anti-Zionist pursuit of an ephemeral sense of social justice or a more conservative ideology with far fewer members defensive of family, community, respectful of status and protective of those closest to them in need. Most of all, the latter are very defensive of an older social fabric rather than the happenstance mini-shorts of the present. As Haidt describes it, one ideology – the dominant liberal one – is at war with a minority more cultural communitarianism, even if liberal in a different way. The ideologues each have an heir that tries to lead the rest into battle, but most abhor activism of this sort, though the call for social justice has a greater appeal to their moral tastes.
Are Deneen and Haidt but the intellectual heirs of Alan Bloom decrying like Cassandra the end of the world we once knew? In part. In good part. But they also offer an explanation for why the university is at once an excellent breeding ground, not just for cultural anthropology as an engaged discipline and for BDS, but why that call for engagement and support of BDS falls on essentially instinctively empathetic but also deaf and dumb ears. The students quietly accede to the appeal, but in their passivity ensure BDS falls on dry and sterile ground where only mummies walk. In the vacuum, universities, particularly those with an activist history, habitually drift toward an activist left monoculture according to Richard Vedder attacking from the right as the university drifts into a place where faculty are wards of the state, anyway at least 50% of them who have gained tenure in an average public university, where administrators are now their bosses and where students have become their customers.
The fight becomes one between different ideologies of attachment, an abstract one versus very personal ones and the central issue becomes which group has suffered the greatest victimhood, us in defence of the whole world or us against the whole world, whether that us be Zionists, members of Islam fearing Islamophobia, or evangelical Christians repelled by the solipsism of the new dominant ideology. Even within Israel and Israeli academic institutions, the battleground of identity politics becomes the dominant hegemonic discourse among activists. The ideological uncompromising radical activists disdain dialogue in favour of confrontation while the soft liberal ideologues prefer dialogical interchange between different groups in promoting evaluative rather than engaged scholarship, in promoting an understanding of differences rather than a clash between and among differences, but neither side providing any more general ground for resolving those differences.
One of the results of this radical shift is that, as Leonard Saxe documented at the AIS meeting in Jerusalem from his empirical studies, Jewish students on campuses in North America are subjected to an increase in verbal abuse as a fact of life at the same time as more Jewish students, though still a minority, feel connected with Israel, and more than half of the Jewish students, like the students described above, remain blissfully ignorant of the BDS effort to boycott Israel. Most of those who are aware are, perhaps less blissfully, ignorant of the anti-Zionist foundation of BDS. BDS is not simply a movement opposed to settlements in the West Bank. Further, campuses with the most perceived anti-Semitic and anti-Israel atmosphere were Canadian, with the only close completion coming from Mid-Western state schools and the California state system.
Even more significantly, while Zionism now occupies a central place in collective Jewish life, most Jewish students were dramatically ignorant about Israel. Of the 60% who even check into current events in Israel, the vast majority of these do not follow the policy debates there. So even if they feel a connection, there is very little intellectual connection. As indicated above, this is but a reflection of the state of mind of the majority of students on campus about public affairs more generally. Thus, the students are ill-equipped to deal with comments that Jews have too much power, that Israelis are Nazis and practice apartheid, and even that the Holocaust is a myth. Most Jewish students, surprisingly, often know little more about the Holocaust than they do about Israel. They are certainly unable to review the different sides of the argument claiming anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism. Ironically, the more liberal they were, the less capable they were of defending Israel from many extant criticisms of Israel.
Thus, Saxe concluded that countering Jewish ignorance was the great problem, not engaging in conflict with BDS. But how does one conduct an educational program on campuses that revere historical ignorance and where community leaders see the strife on campus only in ideological defensive terms?
With the help of Alex Zisman