The Deepening Divide on College Campuses, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The latest news in the ongoing saga of campus protests is yesterday’s resignation of Erika Christakis, the Yale lecturer whose Halloween email set in motion the major media narrative that merged with the Mizzou protests. This news provides a good excuse to take stock of the many unaired emails from Atlantic readers over the past few weeks. Here’s one quoting Sally Kohn’s recent piece:

“Indeed, what students from Yale to the University of Missouri and beyond are protesting is a pervasively one-sided definition of offensive behavior that these colleges and society in general still propagate.”

No. The students at Yale are protesting because a member of the staff [Christakis] had the poor judgment to suggest that students might be able to make more meaningful change, and grow more as human beings, by trying to resolve cultural differences through personal interaction rather than through top-down administrative action. Whether or not this belief is naive, it certainly doesn’t warrant physical threats, the loss of a job, or attempts to censor speech. The only one-sided standard being propagated is by the protesters.

Students at Missouri were protesting the unwillingness of the administration to treat claims of people saying mean/racial things as seriously as they might treat allegations of violent crimes like rape and assault. Their proposed remedies (the president should apologize for being a white man and resign, the school should hire disproportionately high numbers of black administrators, school should subsidize an expansion of “safe spaces” that allow minority students to nurse grievances unopposed, school should force indoctrination in “sensitivity” training designed exclusively by non whites, etc) are not the demands of some one seeking to tear down a double standard. They are the demands of those who desperately want a one-sided standard with which to bludgeon others.

Speaking of Missouri, here’s a reader addressing a recent piece from Adrienne on whether historically black colleges provide the “safe spaces” many students seek:

... but they appear less moved to ensure they serve as spaces that are inclusive for the students they work so hard to attract.

Exactly how was Mizzou not inclusive? No one ever provides any concrete examples. Heck, the student body president is a black gay man. The student body executive council is primarily black. The university has 600 different student organizations, including 27 that are categorized as “Minority.” I counted 14 different student groups that are for the direct benefit of black students only. And if a black student doesn’t see something he/she likes, they can start their own group. On the Mizzou website, there is a whole list of services and support information for black students only.

It seems that when people say “inclusive,” what they really mean is “a majority of people like me.”

Another reader gets literary:

There is historical (or rather, fictional) precedent to these current protests: Dostoevsky’s novel Demons. One glaring similarity is how the son of Stepan Verkhovensky, Pyotr, is far more radical than he is—much like how students today are seemingly more “progressive” than their professors (as evident at Yale). Stepan considers himself a good, liberal, enlightened man while Pyotr mocks him throughout the book for holding old views. Students are shouting down professors, spitting on those they disagree with, and demanding the resignations of those who do not fit their ideology. [Update: A reader provides solid pushback at the bottom of this note.]

This reader makes an appeal for perspective:

One thing that strikes me more than anything about these protests is the word “privilege.”

If you live in a country in which you can protest without fear of being arrested, can afford to go to a respectable university, and feel that you deserve to be heard, you’re pretty privileged. I’m sure there are those with more privilege, but you aren’t exactly living a rough life. You are privileged enough to have the opportunity to help change the world. Do not squander it demanding everyone who slights you is punished.

Please do not misunderstand; I know there are racial inequalities and tension, and we should do something about that. But lobbying for the resignation of everyone who makes a mistake or voices an opinion you dislike is not the solution. Engage your critics with an open dialogue, and try to understand their side while you explain yours. Once upon a time, an exchange of ideas was a big part of what universities were about.

Another reader also examines the idea of privilege:

One rarely remarked upon effect of this campus rhetoric is a general desensitization that is occurring with regards to the politics of race, gender, and sexuality. Everything is racist. Everyone is bigoted. Gay men who dress in drag are privileged compared to transexuals. Feminist film professors enable rape culture by being dismissive of its power. The Vagina Monologues isn’t feminist; it’s hurtful to women without vaginas. Hollywood actresses calling attention to the pay gap need to be educated on intersectionalism. And so on and so forth.

Once upon a time, if you were left leaning and wanted to consider yourself a good citizen, maybe you’d take inventory and consider whether your thoughts and feelings were racist or bigoted. Now, you can’t pin down what virtuous behavior is. It’s whatever an apoplectic 20 year old on campus says it is, with some critical theory thrown in.

This reader points a finger at the changing landscape of online discourse:

This is what happens when a generation who came of age on Internet bulletin boards, comment sections, and social media tries to join in the real world discourse. They seem incapable of understanding nuance and that not all issues are black and white. They have valid grievances, but they lack the experience and perspective to translate their ideas to constructive and ideologically consistent solutions.

Another reader zooms out:

The First Amendment, at its core, is a protection for unpopular ideas. The corollary to that is that one should never assume that someday your ideas won’t be the ones that are unpopular. Censorship is a dangerous game in a world where power and influence are ever-changing, and lasting change isn’t enforced—it’s persuaded, thoughtfully legislated when necessary, and a function of time.

Forcing someone to be a “better person” by any standard doesn’t make them better. It just makes you an oppressor in your own right.

This reader makes a similar point:

There’s a real risk in depending on authoritarian solutions to social issues. What happens when you grant your leaders increased power to force your enemies to capitulate, and then your enemies gain that increased power after their candidate wins the next election? It’s extremely dangerous to sacrifice civil liberties on the altar of social gains, no matter how righteous the cause.

If you strongly disagree with any of these readers and want your voice heard, please email The vast majority of the emails we’ve received are critical of the campus activists to varying degrees, so the more views we get in the mix from different sides, the better. Update: Here’s that literary critique I referenced above:

Dear Note Squad,

One of things I love about ya’ll’s project is the high quality arguments you tease out from readers. This the only place I’ve seen good dissent to Between the World and Me, a book that deserves a better class of critic. The Demons = Mizzou critique really missed the mark, however,

Like many of Dostoevsky’s novels, Demons ends in murder because the radical protagonist’s ideology is permissive of, or outright demands, murder. This is why the analogy breaks down. Unlike the young radicals of the great writer’s most boring novel, many of the Mizzou protesters are from a group of people shaped by being on the business end of a violent philosophy.

Beyond the lack of murder and the inversion of the social positions, the list of dissimilarities goes on: the son Verkhovensky is the head of a cohesive group, not an amalgam of interests that outsiders are keen to judge by the most shocking parts; the “demons,” who are all from upper part of Russian society, desire to create a world in which they have even more power; the sociopathic nature of the leaders, etc.

The collegiate no-goodniks, apart from being unimpressed with their parent’s generation, bear no resemblance to the Demons in philosophy, action, or standing. But if frustration with grown-ups is sufficient to be evil, we must also admit the hellish nature of the Fresh Prince.

I know you were excited to get an email from somebody comparing Missouri to a book other than 1984, but that email was frankly not worthy of this space.

Update from a reader who pushes back more generally:

Hi! I'd like to make an argument for the legitimacy of trigger warnings. I sometimes have episodes of severe anxiety. During those times, I’m anxious nonstop for no real reason, except for when I’m asleep, and I feel generally miserable.

Once they’re over, remembering certain things associated with what I did during an episode can send me right back into that state of mind. It’s like coming home after a vacation (except much worse); the familiar setting puts you back into the mindset of everyday life. I’ve found from experience that waiting a while to stabilize myself before I revisit unpleasant memories has been extremely helpful. The experience seems more distant and easier to think about critically—as just an event that’s passed rather than the end of the world.

I would hope that this is the intention of trigger warnings in universities: to help people who have recently experienced trauma and are especially sensitive to painful memories for a short period of time—not to permanently let people avoid thinking about topics they believe are offensive.