Video footage of Yale students losing the plot over a faculty head and his wife, who said everyone should calm down about Halloween, has caused much head-shaking in liberal circles. And it isn’t hard to see why. The head’s crime was that his wife sent an email suggesting academics and students should chill out about ‘culturally insensitive’ Halloween costumes. It’s okay, the email said, to be a ‘little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive’ on this one day. For his wife issuing this mildest of rebukes to over-sensitive over-18s, the head was accosted by a mob of students insisting the email made them feel unsafe. When he told the crowd that he thinks university is about providing education, not a ‘safe home’, they screamed at him to ‘step down!’. ‘Who the fuck hired you?!’, the most unhinged of the students cries.
It’s unnerving, odd, a terrifying snapshot of the new intolerance. We could see the culture of ‘You can’t say that!’ in all its swirling, borderline violent ugliness. It wasn’t a whispered or implied ‘You can’t say that!’, of the kind we see all the time in 21st-century public life, in response to people who criticise gay marriage, say, or doubt climate change. No, this was an explicitly stated ‘You can’t fucking say that, and if you do we’ll demand that you be sacked!’ That it was stated at Yale, and in response to a bloody email about Halloween, has added to the hand-wringing among liberals, who want to know what’s gone wrong with the new generation.
Okay, fine. It is indeed interesting, and worrying, that students are so sensitive and censorious today. But I have a question for the hand-wringers, the media people, academics and liberal thinkers who are so disturbed by what they’re calling the ‘Yale snowflakes’: what did you think would happen? When you watched, or even presided over, the creation over the past 40 years of a vast system of laws and speech codes to punish insulting or damaging words, and the construction of a vast machine of therapeutic intervention into everyday life, what did you think the end result would be? A generation that was liberal and tough? Come off it. It’s those trends, those longstanding trends of censorship and therapy, that created today’s creepy campus intolerance; it’s you who made these monsters.
Over the past year, there has been growing concern in the media with the campus crazies who demand trigger warnings on books (lest their content induce PTSD), who cultivate Safe Spaces in which no bruising word may be uttered, and who try to crush everything from Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ (it makes female students feel unsafe) to talks by Germaine Greer (she makes trans people feel unsafe). From Jonathan Chait’s New York essay in January, which bemoaned the return of PC to the Western academy, to the current eyebrow-raising over the Yale snowflakes and their cavalier attitude towards ‘the crucial liberal tradition of free speech’, an anti-PC backlash has emerged, with 40-plus observers looking with horror at the foot-stomping Stalinists of the younger generation.
But there’s a problem with this backlash: it tends to treat this campus tyranny as the handiwork of a new generation. In the words of Todd Gitlin, there is a new ‘generational norm of fragility’. The New Statesman goes further, claiming today’s intolerant yoof are ‘rebelling against their parents’ generation and its liberal deification of free speech’. Excuse me? What liberal deification of free speech? The older generation – including some of very people going pop-eyed over the Yale snowflakes – has been chipping away at free speech for decades. And in the process they nurtured the world we now inhabit, in which words and images are seen as dangerous and our sense of self-worth is viewed as so fragile that we must squash anything, or idea, that threatens it.