One criticism of college students today is that they’ve fallen into a kind of fundamentalism in their efforts to call out racism, sexism, and other forms of intolerance. When they pressure university officials to un-invite conservative speakers, or demand that heads roll for insensitive comments, conservative critics argue that they too are engaging in intolerance. Even some liberal voices have urged students to dial back their outrage. John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, argued last month that student activists are tackling legitimate issues, but they go too far when they ban speakers from campus in a belief they will “pollute the space with their words,” or when they hector those ignorant of the politically correct way to express their thoughts.
At the core of the issue is a troubling tendency, on both the left and right, that goes well beyond college campuses: a consuming obsession with sin. Given the right’s religious base, it’s not all that surprising that conservatives focus on moral transgressions—whether they violate God’s divine law, America’s founding ideals of liberty, ’50s-style norms of sexual behavior and good housekeeping, or other codes of conduct. But the left can be prudish and judgmental about the evils it holds in special contempt, too. On college campuses in particular, activists often take an almost religious approach to politics, rooted in a belief—sometimes stated, sometimes implied—in the irredeemable sin of America and its mainstream. Their work on vital issues gets diverted from real-world objectives and takes on the character of a church revival, with rituals to express its believers’ sin and salvation, and a fundamentalist attention to language and doctrine.