When social bonds give some people an unfair advantage over others, the answer is to destroy those bonds. This is the message now institutionalised at Stanford University, and it should alarm us all.
One of the difficulties in a large university is how to find your place within the great mass of others. At Stanford, as many other US colleges, a key means of finding community has historically been via student-organised living, centred on “Greek life”, which is to say a fraternity or sorority, or on a “theme house” based on shared interest.
But such communities have come under attack in recent decades as problematic: socially exclusionary, historically-white hothouses for sexism, racism and homophobia. And via the social bonds that persist beyond university years, these problematic “Greek life” networks have been attacked as a silent-but-deadly means of perpetuating “white supremacy”.
A profoundly unsettling new essay at Palladium details the methodical way Stanford’s administration “has executed a top-to-bottom destruction of student social life” since 2013, in the name of preventing further such injustices. Harvard tried to take the “Greek life” houses on all together, but dropped the effort after being sued by alumni. Ginevra Davis outlines how Stanford has been devastatingly effective in picking them off one by one, via disciplinary investigations.
The endgame is, it appears, to “rid the campus of all distinct social groups”: a project greatly accelerated by the distance-learning interregnum of Covid-19. On returning, students found housing allocated at random in “neighbourhoods” differentiated by anonymous letter. Homes with decades or even centuries of oral tradition and organic culture are dispersed one by one, to one of the “dozens of now-cultureless dorms scattered around campus”. “Hallways are quiet and doors are locked” in such dorms, and “students come to the conclusion that no one would really notice if they disappeared”, while incidences of alcohol poisoning are at their highest for years among a lonely, atomised student body.
If this seems a lot of attention to pay to student life many thousands of miles away, it’s because elite universities are finishing schools for the ruling class. Such institutions don’t just shape their graduates via knowledge transfer, but also by instilling social templates and networks of friendship. Accordingly, what starts in universities inevitably percolates into public life. Far from pulling their socks up on contact with ‘the real world’, the ‘special snowflakes’ who drove the 2010s ‘campus wars’ are now rewriting mainstream politics in their own image: ‘cancel culture’ is increasingly how we do everything.
Unless America’s future ruling class rebels and seeks out alternative worldviews, the university-level war on social relationships all but guarantees a future overclass so howlingly atomised they’re unable to see, let alone value, any social bonds based on particularistic affection or shared meaning. Such a class would be able casually to concrete over more or less anything, if doing so could be made to look like it’s in the interests of social justice.
And America is the world’s cultural hegemon. Its elite undergraduates grow up to staff and steer that hegemon, and their preoccupations set the cultural weather in locations well beyond America. If the principal finishing-schools for America’s economic, cultural and political elite are now rolling out a methodical war on organic, particularistic social bonds, we can assume that in due course this war will spread to institutional politics well beyond universities, and well beyond America.
Anyone who values contingent social bonds is going to need a better defence of those bonds against the bulldozers of “equity” than “we’ve always had them”. For the war on relationships is only just getting into gear.