When I arrived at Cambridge in the autumn of 2001, there were of course a number of welcome and induction events, ice-breaking activities and Fresher’s Fairs to attend. But at no point did the University of Cambridge consider it necessary to run a remedial workshop for new students, teaching us how to function in society and engage in civil discourse with our peers. That basic level of understanding was taken for granted.
And this wasn’t just a snobby Oxbridge thing. When I first arrived at Warwick University a couple of years later, I was likewise expected to be able to take care of myself and conduct myself like the fully grown adult that I was. The Warwick Student Union (then a bit loopy but now apparently one of the most snarlingly authoritarian in the country) gave us each a welcome bag which I recall contained a Cadbury Boost bar, a Wilkinson Sword razor and a pack of condoms to help me on my way, but was otherwise happy to stand back while I enjoyed varying degrees of success with each of these gifts without feeling the need to further intervene in my life.
And as it was for me, so it was for thousands more people who went to university as little as a decade ago. Which is partly why it is proving so hard to raise the alarm about what is happening on university campuses today. People see the odd sensationalist headline about comedians being banned or campaigns against statues or the replacing of applause with silent jazz hands, and think that they are puff pieces based on isolated incidents. After all, many people think, I only graduated a few years ago myself, and I never witnessed any of this craziness.
Well, things have changed a lot in the space of a decade, and the alarm is very much justified. Sure, the inexorable growth of statist big government and authoritarian crackdowns on free speech have been going on for much longer than a decade , but to deny that something uniquely concerning has recently started to take place on university campuses in Britain and America is to bury one’s head in the sand.
One of the most troubling aspects of this new environment has been the number of universities which, hoping to avoid being embroiled in a wave of hysterical social justice protests such as those which consumed Yale and Mizzou last year, are deciding to come out ahead of the trend and pre-emptively embrace the new Cult of Identity Politics, weaving it into the fabric of their institutions before they are pressured to do so by crazed protesters.
A case in point: California State University San Marcos, which has opened what it calls a “Civility Cafe”, less of a laid-back study lounge and more of a hectoring seminar where any hopeful expectations of free speech are swiftly recalibrated by campus authorities.
The aim is to turn all students into “civility champions”, as the university’s website explains:
CSUSM recognizes students, faculty and staff who display Civility on our campus by conducting themselves with care, respect, and empathy while acknowledging the culture and humanity of others. Like waves through the ocean, our vision is that one simple act will have a ripple effect and a tsunami of civility will take over our campus. We encourage you to identify and nominate students, faculty and staff on campus.
Students are then “invited” to take the following pledge:
As a member of the CSUSM community
I will conduct myself with care, respect, and empathy
while acknowledging the culture and humanity of others.
The university’s student newspaper, the Cougar Chronicle, elaborates:
The Civility Cafe, a skill-based workshop, aimed to encourage and educate students on how to engage in civil discourse with their peers.
John Loggins, University of San Diego’s Director of Community-Based Student Leadership and Learning, facilitated the event on Feb. 25 in USU 2310.
[..] Students then participated in an activity designed to increase their empathy and listening skills. Students partnered up and were invited to tell their partner a story about an instance in which they either excluded someone from a community or felt excluded themselves. After students shared their stories, their partner had to tell another student the story they had just heard, but from a first-person perspective.
Loggins then played a video for those in attendance. The film featured Dan Savage, a known advocate for LGBTQIA rights and creator of the It Gets Better foundation. After watching the video, students were asked to reflect and share actions, words or ideologies that trigger negative emotions.
“How we react to triggers says more about us than what triggers us. Try to reflect before speaking out of hurt or anger; this can create more civil discourses,” Loggins said.
Note Loggins’ use of the term “triggers”. It is now difficult to recall that the concept of trigger warnings originated in online discussion forums for rape and sexual abuse victims, as a means of flagging explicit discussions for those suffering from legitimate PTSD. But we have come so far from that limited usage now – and trigger warnings are now so widely used in academia and even the media – that the expert sent from the University of San Diego to run the Civility Cafe talks about “how we react to triggers” as though every single one of us is a victim of some kind.
Sure, we may not have been the victims of sexual violence. But we can nonetheless be “triggered” by the most minor perceived cultural slights, goes the theory, and we must attend special seminars to train us to manage our reactions when we are so triggered.
What literally every generation of human beings before us managed to do (with a little trial and error) since the dawn of history now must be taught as a specific Life Skill by universities more obsessed with micromanaging the lives and daily interactions of their students than imparting a rigorous, valuable academic education.
This is incredibly corrosive, part of a wider narrative whereby everyone is treated as being sick – or a victim – by default, rather than by exception. But we should expect to see more of this, and more Civility Cafes (or similar devices) popping up at college campuses everywhere. Why? Because university administrators are risk-averse.They saw what happened to Tim Wolfe, former president of the University of Missouri, who was unceremoniously forced to resign at the hands of mob justice. They saw what happened to legions of university professors and administrators who found themselves rooted to the floor, being screamed at for largely imaginary offences recast as capital crimes under the law of identity politics.
And so, as a perverse form of liability insurance, some universities are now leaning into the trend, making Identity Politics indoctrination a mandatory or strongly encouraged part of the student experience so that they have a defence to fall back on should protests erupt on their own campuses over some future scandal, real or imagined.
Unfortunately, this only adds legitimacy to what the identity politics practitioners and the new age censors are trying to do, giving it the official imprimatur of the university and its leadership team. Rather than obsequiously bowing down to these demands and establishing two safe spaces for every one that was originally demanded, universities should be pushing back on the student activists and telling them that as adults, they are each responsible for managing their own human interactions, and must get out of the habit of looking to an external authority figure to mediate every single dispute or to mete out punishment for what often amounts to thought crime – daring to hold or articulate beliefs which are in any way contrary to the prevailing Identity Politics narrative.
None of this is to say that genuinely racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory incidents do not occur on college campuses. Clearly they do. But the sense of panic and “danger” is completely out of proportion to the issue, and overlooks the remarkable strides which have been made in overcoming prejudice and discrimination in our societies.
The American university system went from mass segregation to full integration in little more than a decade – precious gains which were made possible by exercising of unrestricted free speech, it should be pointed out. Why, then, do we need the most draconian measures – campus speech codes, re-education classes, social probation sentences for giving arbitrarily-taken offence to other students – to travel the last ten percent of the journey?
This is the case that the identity politics practitioners and new age censors need to answer. Why should freedom of speech, expression and thought be more severely curtailed now than ever before at this late stage, when most of the victories for tolerance, civility and equal rights have already been won?
Don’t expect an answer from them any time soon – for they have none. But do expect to see a lot more Civility Cafes popping up, serving flat whites with a sanctimonious side of social justice. It’s what the petty campus tyrants want, and many university administrations – like that of California State University San Marcos – either fully agree with their toxic agenda or are simply too spineless to stand up to them.