Campus Wars: A Culture of Decadence?

By now, most of us are familiar with the controversies, starting back in the fall of 2016, surrounding gender and race on college campuses in Canada and the US. One fairly recent incident bears mentioning: the conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald gave a speech at Claremont McKenna College. The site where the speech was to be given, the Athenaeum, was obstructed by protestors, and the speech was ultimately given before a small audience presumably consisting of members who were able to make it inside. Protestors outside claimed that she was racist while Mac Donald insisted that her right to free speech had been violated. Other incidents, I suggest, would follow logic that closely resembles this one.

What are all these heated incidents about? Those to the right of center frame the debate as pitting the apologists for free speech against the PC police and social justice warriors (or SJWs). Meanwhile, those to the left of center construe these events as a conflict between the forces of hate (hence calls for hate speech as well as the penchant for shaming) and the claims of justice and respect. Who is right?

As things stand, they could, if viewed from a distance from those of us who are independently minded, appear to be what the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard called a “differend”: the sort of conflict in which the vocabulary of group X is not only heterogenous but also unintelligible to group Y. Both, speaking two different languages, are also, and necessarily, speaking past one another.

Calling this a differend invites us to go further still in our thinking. Suppose we were to take an aesthetic interpretation of these ongoing events. Then what might we notice? One would be the farcical quality of the phenomena. Somehow, the magnitude of the matters under debate is exaggerated by the feelings associated with those matters. If the word farcical seems inapt, then sentimental could be a good substitute. It’s hard to see, provided one remains rather literal-minded about the whole thing, why everyone is so charged up to such a feverish pitch. Another would be the accumulative tedium of the back and forths, of the protests and counterclaims, of the campaigns and counterattacks. One not so involved can’t help feeling rather weary with all of it. So, one might reasonably feel that there’s something farcical about this ongoing controversy, only then to feel a sense of tedium set in, only then to return to sense of its being farce, and so on.

These reflections lead me (aesthetically, not necessarily in strict logical fashion) to think about what these “campus wars” (as I’ll now wryly call them) may be signs of. And I want to suggest, in a word borrowed from Nietzsche, that they are signs of decadence. One of the things that concerned Nietzsche about modernity was that after the death of God there would come, as he saw in the German culture from which he was alienated, a culture of decadence. This culture would be unable to create life-affirming values, to say yes to life. If one were such as “diagnostician” viewing matters from Nietzsche’s perspective, then such a culture would appear as if it had lost its vitality, its creative potency, its ability to say yes and to herald and shepherd the new.

My view, then, is that the farcically feverish and tedious pitch of these campus wars–whether it is the right’s version or the left’s–provides evidence for the decadence of college culture at this stage in history. Both sides are weary, are tired out of ideas. Classical liberal defenses of free speech stretch back to the eighteenth century. Do we really need to make such an Enlightenment-based defense today? Isn’t this old hat? The voice of the left could be traced, at least, back to the birth of the New Left of the 1960s. Is the defense of a small set of unrecognized groups really cause for such vociferousness and, in some cases, physical violence? Are these not signs of things having grown comfortable, too comfortable, too–bourgeois? 

Where, in brief, is the energy associated with creating life-affirming values? Where the breath of natality? Perhaps we should turn our attention away from institutionalized education and look elsewhere–in educational experiments existing at the margins, in artistic and entrepreneurial pursuits springing forth from out-of-the-way places–to find vitality, verve, struggle, real heat, heart. Somewhere earnestness, wholesomeness, and affirmation of life must dwell. Somewhere… Somewhere… Elsewhere…