July 10, 2020

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Coddling of the American Mind – Part 2 (Divest This!)


As I mentioned at the end of the first part of this review of Lukianoff and Haidt’s 2018 Coddling of the American Mind, the book does not specifically deal with the how the conflict over Israel is playing out on campuses, apart from some examples of pro-Israel speakers being disrupted at talks given at certain colleges.

While their choice to provide a general analysis, rather than diving into one particular controversial issue, is perfectly reasonable, I suspect the role anti-Israel forces have played on campus over the last few decades helped catalyze what we’re now seeing in many places today.
New forms of behavior rarely spring from nothing, nor are they the result of careful analysis then translated into action. Rather, they tend to rely on precedent. For when someone behaves in ways no one else would have ever considered previously, that makes something once unthinkable thinkable. It is only after people start doing things that criticisms as well as justifications of what they are doing get formed, leading to misbehavior either getting shunned or establishing new norms.
Precedent can provide an explanation for many phenomena, such as mass shootings like the horror show in Pittsburg last month. If places like schools, synagogues and other places of worship have been outgunned since the invention of the gun, where did the idea of shooting up lots of innocents in such places originate? This response provides some potential answers based on individual psychology and societal change. But another factor is that it only became possible for an unstable individual to consider opening fire on a schoolyard when someone else had already set the precedent.
If you look across the increasingly radicalized campus landscape, featuring intersectional mobs making demands on administrators, faculty and fellow students based on allegations of systematic racism and other crimes, an eerie familiarity kicks in the more attention you have been paying to how the assault on Israel has proceeded on campuses over the last several decades.
The aggressiveness of the campus campaigns covered in Coddling is one source of such déjà vu. I’ve lost count of the number of incidents of violence that accompanied pro-Israel events, especially during the era of BDS. Where did this form of behavior spring from? At some point (maybe Michael Oren at UC Irvine), a group of anti-Israel activists got it into their heads to try a new innovative tactic of shouting down a speaker they didn’t want anyone else to hear.
Once that precedent was set, justification followed in the form of claims that the protestors were simply taking advantage of their free speech rights, ignoring the fact that those “rights” were being used entirely to shut down the free speech of everyone else. When those responsible for preventing such travesties decided to sit out making hard choices (i.e., when school administrators soft peddled responses to the behavior of SJP and similar groups), a precedent was fully established that said disrupting others through tactics that dance right at (and occasionally over) the line of criminality was justified and would go unpunished.
Today, the mobs are falling on many more than Jews and non-Jewish supporters of Israel. But if precedent had not been set beforehand it is not clear where they might have gotten the idea to do so.
The language, and psychology behind the language, used to explain modern radical politics also owes a debt to the Palestiniaization of campus political discourse.
To begin with, there is the unwillingness to entertain (or even listen to) any fact or opinion that falls afoul of “the narrative.” This reaches extremes in anti-Israel politics, up to and including the need to invent pretend phenomena (like Pinkwashing) to avoid and prevent any thought about the chasm between Israel and her foes regarding treatment of homosexuals. But whole swarths of history, countless demonstrable facts and one of history’s most enormous paper trails detailing Palestinian responsibility for their own fate must also be dumped down the memory hole, or buried beneath mountains of propaganda (some of it written by PhDs) that says black is white, and anyone who disagrees is a bigot.
Does America have a lot to answer for regarding it racist pass? You bet it does. But is racism and white supremacy more prevalent today than ever before? There are fact of the matter and arguments to be made that could be brought in to answer that question. But those touting the narrative underlying today’s campus protests are unable to listen to facts or engage in arguments that conflict with their beliefs, and are ready to stop anyone else from doing so.
Then there is our old friend ruthlessness that needs to be brought into the equation. When the concept of intersectionality (which says all oppressed people are fighting a common struggle and thus should unite) first came on the scene, questions came up regarding who gets to join the struggle (can Jews who support Israel partake, for example?) and what standards will be used to determine a hierarchy of more vs. less oppressed groups.
Today’s campus coalitions provide answers to those questions by establishing which oppressed people and issues can and cannot be discussed. As I’ve noted a number of times before, feminist groups joining such coalitions must fully embrace the Palestinian cause, while the treatment of women throughout the Middle East (including Palestine) seems to be permanently off the table.
In discourse I once heard used about the topic of intersectional priorities, the phenomena I just described was boiled down to “Palestine trumps woman,” an especially ironic twist, given that the ruthless actors from SJP and elsewhere who women activists must submit to are mostly men.
I was completely convinced that the psychological and social phenomena Lukianoff and Haidt describe in Coddling are real, and the mechanism they lay out to describe changes they observed is compelling. But remember that there are always ruthless actors ready to take advantage of developing trends, including unhealthy ones, to magnify their own power.
The Palestine Uber Alles cru has managed to establish themselves as the arbiters of what constitutes true belief within this new order, and they have every reason to want damaging trends to continue and spread, regardless of the cost to the rest of the world.

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