As I write, Facebook feeds me a story of a play at a prestigious university that satirized political correctness and was shut down for offending political sensitivities. It’s unclear why any political beliefs should be beyond mockery, but zealous indignation seems to be the spirit of the age.
The 1960s had their liberation, the ’90s their chemical utopianism, and today we have the tyranny of offense. It seems as if every week another speaker is shut down, bullied out of a college auditorium or drowned out by the shrill protests of pious 18-year-olds acting as our own morality police.
Enabled by feckless administrators, their inability to stomach ideas even mildly at odds with their facile dogmas is suffocating our public discourse. We’ve come to accept the shutting down of some discomfiting opinions as outright sacrilege, and the imposition of others as de rigueur. This, in the age of ISIS.
The yearning for soothing certitudes, for truths set in stone, is strong in our species. Our urge to organize around shared myths is hardwired in us, a product of evolution’s hardest-fought battles. But slavery to ideological idols is what characterizes the most shameful chapters of our past — as it does the worst societies of our present. The imposition of one group’s preferred ideology and the silencing of others by intimidation is what happens in dictatorships. It shouldn’t be happening on an American college campus.
Oceans of blood have been spilled and centuries devastated in humanity’s effort to extricate itself from the beguiling embrace of ideological conformity. The price of our evolution, of science and progress, is the ability to tolerate ideological diversity, slay taboos and brush off offense. Today, that sacred history seems to be forgotten, the 30-Year War eclipsed by the 30-second attention span, enlightenment with sanctimonious hypersensitivity and entitled imposition.
We are boldly going where man has been before, charging headlong into a past where truth is a slave to tradition, where humility and empathy are very much absent. Driven by those who would presume to impose morality on us, we are returning to where the most dysfunctional and repressive states on our planet still reside. How long before our fragile students start to riot in response to unflattering cartoons?
As in Middle Eastern tyrannies, some of our temples of learning are becoming the epicenters of the new, dogmatic obscurantism. College campuses have come to resemble inquisition courts. Rather than smashing idols as should be their calling, far too many professors seem instead to serve as high priests of the cult of conformity, sacrificing young minds on the altar of their dogmas. Brown has become our Riyadh, Berkeley our Karachi.
Enter stage left, the Antifa Intifada. In 2017 America, it is to be expected that people promoting the freedom to express unpopular ideas are routinely smeared as Nazis — the modern version of devil worshippers — and violently assaulted as heretics by masked mobs possessed by zealous righteousness.
And, not unrelated, university administrators are ever more eager to serve as guardians of gender virtue. The wave of revealed alleged assaults — by those Tinseltown folks most likely to be loudly preaching a new sexual morality to the rest of us — should not in any way be dismissed. It is a tragic thing to see so many women reputedly abused by so many men. But the answer to that abuse is not for the state to insert itself between men and women — in the bedroom, on campuses — as it has. Rather than teaching responsibility and respect to our young, we have let the state dictate how to manage youthful sexuality in our colleges. In an overreaction to the reported abuse of some, innocent flirting by the many becomes more risky, more threatening, more at odds with ever-narrowing and sanitized speech codes.
Undergirding this sorry spectacle is the new national pastime of collective schadenfreude, not unlike that of medieval mobs tossing rotten produce at the condemned or Middle Eastern imbeciles celebrating the murder of others by handing out oily sweets. So, too, today is it sport to watch from behind our monitors the others who crash and burn under public opprobrium, whether they deserve it or not.
And, of course, underneath this belligerent, subjective and arbitrary moralism is wall-to-wall anti-Zionism. In the East as in the West, attitudes toward Israel seem to be the litmus test for determining when people have lost their minds along with their humility.
Welcome to a Western caliphate, where good intentions buttressed by rigid dogma and moral posturing are turning disagreement into sin, sexuality into a minefield, and the future into the past.
And as in the past, the path to liberty and light must be paved but with deliberate desecration. For the only way to deal with those who fly into hysterics at any minor slight is to make them numb to offense by repeated exposure.
Those who love the freedom to think and feel as they wish would do well to find someone to offend, and quickly.
Philippe Assouline is a lawyer and doctoral candidate in international relations and political psychology at UCLA.