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Taking on the Social Justice Warriors Tracing the origins of the culture wars

(Credit: Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

December 20, 2018   4 mins

Even if Remain wins out and Trump is defeated in 2020, one thing is pretty certain: we will continue to live in polarised times. In my new book Whiteshift I argue that one of the main forces driving this fracturing is the perfectionist creed of multiculturalism, whose shock troops are the so-called Social Justice Warriors (SJWs).

Spearheaded by radical staff and students, and leveraging twitter to harass and intimidate opponents, SJW excesses provide fodder for the Right-wing media, and continue to raise the temperature of the culture wars. Are the SJWs a wholly new product, brought to life by social media and a coddled generation, as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue? While I love their book, the headwaters of this movement lie further back in time.

The 1960s brought many societal advancements, such as the extension of civil rights to blacks in the American South and a new push for gender equality. Protests helped draw attention to injustices and mobilise public support. However, in the heat of the moment it’s tricky to know how far to push things.

Legitimate protest tipped, at elite universities, into a frontal assault on intellectual merit and the norms of rules-based deliberation – the foundations of the university. Protest, occupation and emotional release came to be sanctified as equivalent or even superior to the Socratic or Popperian models. Moralistic poses could trump evidence and logic.

Sixties radicals cited their resistance to power and hierarchy, championing narratives of liberation and equality to justify a radical revolution in the curriculum. The first generation of writers to dissent from this cultural radicalism were largely New York Jewish, ex-socialist, figures like Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, who shifted Right in disgust at the anti-intellectualism of the students.

Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) is a classic of conservative cultural thinking. In the book, he traces the origins of what he termed the ‘antinomian’ strain in western culture. Originally contained within utopian socialism and anarchism, the expressive-individualist impulse to reject tradition and community became the dominant force in western art and high culture between 1880 and 1930.

This sensibility was contained within small circles of bohemian intellectuals before bursting forth in the 1960s onto the stage of mass culture due to the rapid expansion of universities and the television media. Capitalism co-opted bohemianism, leading to a working arrangement in which people were encouraged to work hard during the day like disciplined puritans, then switch masks to become indebted hedonistic bohemians by night and on the weekend. For Bell, this cultural contradiction defined the modern West but rendered society unstable, ripe for a ‘great instauration’ of tradition.

Where New York intellectuals like Bell reacted to the first wave of student revolts, the second upwelling of progressive unreason took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This period gave rise to speech codes and attacks on the western canon in philosophy and history. Some scholars favoured a new Afrocentric or multicultural curriculum, fingering Eurocentrism as the fount of all problems.

The use of the word ‘postmodernism’ in English-language books exploded. ‘Political correctness’, ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ enjoyed similar takeoffs, as a Google Ngram Viewer makes clear. In this febrile atmosphere, Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) exposed the fatuousness of many of these trends while criticising my generation (‘Generation X’) for its superficiality, lack of intellectual curiosity and narcissism.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt take a similar approach in The Coddling of the American Mind, published earlier this year, remarking on the fragility of the social media generation (born after 1995) known as ‘Gen Z’ or ‘i-Gen’. Raised by helicopter parents and sheltered by protective teachers and counsellors, these youngsters have not developed the resilience to take risks and deal with uncomfortable ideas. According to the authors, many of the new generation seek protection and safety over freedom and exploration.

Meanwhile, the post-1980s saturation of the academic humanities and social sciences by the Left, and the rise of zealous diversity administrators, has emptied the academy of the intellectual diversity which acted as a check on the wilder impulses of New Left ideologues. Together, these twin forces have produced today’s lexicon of ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’, ‘microaggressions’ and ‘bias response teams’.

Once speech is equated with violence, no quarter can be given to purveyors of dangerous ideas, while nothing must stand in the way of the noble mission of equity and diversity. The disturbances at Evergreen State College (where whites were effectively ordered off campus for a day) and Middlebury College (where Charles Murray was forcibly prevented from speaking) are examples of the new campus fundamentalism.

You know a non-academic has struck a chord when, at the last count, his book has accrued 562 academic citations, far more than anything I’ve managed as a longstanding professor. In 2017’s The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart helps make sense of our post-UKIP, post-Brexit world. He nicely lays his finger on the key divide in modern western societies between ‘Anywheres’, whose identity is tied to their credentials and achievements, and the ‘Somewheres’, whose identity is rooted in place, ethnicity or nationhood.

In Britain, about a quarter of the population are Anywheres, many of whom attended residential universities and voted Remain. Somewheres, about half the population, tended to vote Leave. About half the UK population lives within 20 miles of where they were born, and this group exists a world away from the bubble of those who form opinions in the media and academia, or play a leading role in politics and finance.

Somewheres have stronger national identities than Anywheres, view change as loss and tend to want less immigration and economic change. Their interests are ill-served by an Anywhere elite, whose mobility and lack of connection to place renders them tone-deaf to the longings of those with a Somewhere worldview. Goodhart suggests the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum was a democratic expression of discontent from the Somewheres, whose cultural and economic interests have been repeatedly ignored by governments since Blair. He urges more Somewhere input into culture and politics – and a new accommodation between Somewheres and Anywheres that better balances the desires of each – in order reduce the pressures driving populism and polarisation.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and author of Taboo: How Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press, 4 July).


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