Are Campus Activists Too Dogmatic?

They often take an almost religious approach to politics, rooted in a belief in the irredeemable sin of America and its mainstream.

A protester holds a sign that reads "Make Fascists Afraid Again!" during a demonstration against far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at the University of Washington on January 20th 2017. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

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.

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty famously argued in his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country, that this inward-looking dogmatism and zealotry was a major problem for the left. To a self-destructive degree, activists rejected dissent and criticism of their hallowed principles. They alienated the uninitiated with their join-us-or-else self-righteousness, undermining public support for the important causes they cared about. They turned away with disdain from any whiff of political power, elitism, or national pride, thus depriving themselves of some of the tools they needed to bring about tangible changes to policy.

The left, Rorty claimed, had become too enamored with ideas of purity and sin. The sin at issue, though, was not about violating biblical commandments. It was the sin of bigotry, imperialism, and power: the accumulation of heinous acts in America’s history that, in some critics’ eyes, had moved the nation beyond redemption.

The New Left of cultural warriors that became influential in the 1960s, he argued in Achieving Our Country, led America on a very different path than the one blazed for them by union organizers, progressive activists, and the other architects of the New Deal state and postwar economy. The “cultural left,” as he called it, took concerns over Jim Crow and the Vietnam War and transformed them into a fiery jeremiad against American society and its principles. A kind of political nihilism emerged, Rorty observed, as anti-war activists arrived at the view that the Vietnam War “not only could never be forgiven, but had shown us to be a nation conceived in sin, and irredeemable.” At the same time, the new generation of activists did not follow through on the egalitarian economic agenda and savvy political strategizing of their predecessors, which would have provided a useful counterweight to their idealism. As a result, Rorty claimed, America’s left became trapped in its own indignation and skepticism, substituting sound and fury in the secular pews over the sorts of constructive, pragmatic, and unabashedly power-hungry action required to change an oppressive system. Importantly, it gave up on the white working class, neglecting their concerns about the disappearance of good jobs and the growth of economic inequality, and leaving that crucial voting bloc to be wooed by America-first conservatives like Pat Buchanan—and, later, Donald Trump.

The cultural left, Rorty emphasized, made people far more sensitive about matters of identity and language, bringing about an “enormous” change for the better in the way Americans treated each other and making America a “far more civilized society.” At the same time, it “reinvented” sin—taking a concept often employed by its counterparts on the right to attack morally undeserving Americans who lived on state largesse, and using it to decry a morally undeserving America that abused state power and victimized weaker nations. Yet, the new generation of activists, progressive and conservative alike, often seemed oblivious to the idea of forgiveness that figures so prominently in Christian understandings of sin, he argued.

The identity politics that thrives on today’s college campuses continues to use the language of sin adopted more broadly by the cultural left of the ’60s. Students are taking on urgent issues like women’s rights, racial profiling and police brutality, climate change, and economic inequality. And while they spend a lot of their time refining politically correct forms of speech, these can be helpful learning tools, especially for young people making their way into society. When their approach becomes judgmental and unyielding, however, it backfires, leaving activists vulnerable to apathy, infighting, and ineffectiveness.

Among other things, their focus on sinfulness turns politically useful activism into useless performance. On college campuses, for example, candid and necessary discussions about race among well-meaning students can degenerate into something less productive, according to McWhorter. “For white people, it is a great way to show that you understand racism is real,” McWhorter said last month. “For black people and Latino people, it is a great way to assuage how bad a self-image a race can have after hundreds of years of torture.” In this way, activism becomes more about an insider conversation and competition, and less about effecting change. “White privilege is real,” McWhorter said. “The issue is that it shouldn’t be used as something to shut down conversation, to inculcate unreligious people with a new sense of original sin.”

In the absence of a practical vision for political change, today’s left opens itself up to the criticism that it speaks only to lightweight matters of language. A relentless focus on sin worsens this problem. The idea that bigotry is, as Rorty puts it, a “diabolical stain on every human soul,” unforgiven and unforgivable, does not inspire action. As Rorty understood two decades ago, the left would be more effective in achieving the better world they hope for if they could move past their preoccupation with dogma and sin—their focus on “ineradicable stigma” and indulgence in “bottomless self-disgust” that he finds, in the end, to be self-defeating.