Some might call it a case of reaping what you sow: A liberal college professor in the midwest has called out young social justice warriors on the progressive Vox website, complaining that their hypersensitivity to perceptions of injustice — whether real or imagined — is making it impossible to engage in the deep discussions that have traditionally formed the basis of higher learning, for fear that social media backlash will cost them their jobs.
"Things have changed since I started teaching," wrote the professor, using the penname Edward Schlosser, out of fear of retribution from the mob. "The vibe is different. I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones."
Schlosser, in his ninth year of teaching at a "midsize state school," says that the internet has given students unprecedented power over the content and tone of their class discussions. Not only is it easier than ever to complain about anything that might have rubbed a student the wrong way, making that complaint "viral" is just a catchy hashtag away. Meanwhile, colleges and universities, concerned with their bottom lines, give student reviews and hashtag-fueled online activism much more weight than they probably deserve. Gone are the days of staying after class to speak to the professor, or going through official channels to file a formal complaint. Today, students can tweet their displeasure from the comfort of the lecture hall before their professor has even finished his thought, and by the end of the school day, he might be halfway to the unemployment line.
"The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best," Schlosser wrote. "This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate. What if this hurts my evaluations and I don’t get tenure? How many complaints will it take before chairs and administrators begin to worry that I’m not giving our customers — er, students, pardon me — the positive experience they’re paying for? Ten? Half a dozen? Two or three?"
Schlosser recounted an incident in 2009 — just six years ago — during which a student challenged his opinion (presented as fact during a freshman writing class) that "Wall Street’s recklessness had destroyed the economy." The student brought up subprime loans and the government’s requirement that banks make more home loans available to minority borrowers. "Government kept giving homes to black people, to help out black people, white people didn’t get anything, and then they couldn’t pay for them. What about that?" the student asked, according to Schlosser.
Schlosser was dismissive of the student’s comment, calling it a "simplification" and "pretty dishonest." A week later, he was called into his boss’s office. The student had complained via e-mail, accusing Schlosser of injecting his political bias into an unrelated class discussion. Schlosser wasn’t worried. "My director rolled her eyes," he recalled. "She knew the complaint was silly bullsh*t." He wrote a rebuttal to the student’s complaint, which was "placed in a file that may or may not have existed," Schlosser wrote. "Then … nothing. It disappeared forever; no one cared about it beyond their contractual duties to document student concerns. I never heard another word of it again."
Those, Schlosser wrote, were the good old days, back when the only complainers on university campuses were conservatives annoyed by their professors’ pervasive liberal biases — and no one took them seriously at all. But over the past several years, something changed. Schlosser’s colleagues in the feminist and minority studies departments, it seems, were too good at their jobs, and suddenly, it was the liberal students he risked offending — not necessarily with his politics, but with his perceived insensitivity … perhaps the worst sin one can commit, according to the feelings-based progressive worldview.
"I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to ‘offensive’ texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain," Schlosser wrote. "His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either."
"Hurting a student’s feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble," Schlosser added. This tyranny of emotion, he said, stems in large part from the growing influence of radical social justice ideology on both traditional and social media.
"The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media," Schlosser explained. He criticized the movement’s propensity for trying to reduce complex social issues to 140-character hashtag-friendly soundbites, saying it "has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice," a "climate of fear" on university capuses, and "a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience."
"It’s not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period," Schlosser wrote. "Engagement is considered unnecessary, as the immediate, emotional reactions of students contain all the analysis and judgment that sensitive issues demand."
"This sort of perspective is not confined to Twitter and the comments sections of liberal blogs," Schlosser wrote. "It was born in the more nihilistic corners of academic theory, and its manifestations on social media have severe real-world implications." He recalled an incident in which two female professors took to social media to accuse and publicly shame a male professor they claimed acted "creepy" at conferences, and spoke with open bloodlust about their desire to end his career.
"I don’t doubt that some men are creepy at conferences — they are," wrote Schlosser. "And for all I know, this guy might be an A-level creep. But part of the female professors’ shtick was the strong insistence that harassment victims should never be asked for proof, that an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict. The identity of the victims overrides the identity of the harasser, and that’s all the proof they need."
"This is terrifying," Schlosser asserted. "No one will ever accept that. And if that becomes a salient part of liberal politics, liberals are going to suffer tremendous electoral defeat."
Schlosser warned his liberal colleagues that if the social justice thought police are allowed to continue their reign of terror unchecked, political backlash will be the least of society’s problems. But he acknowledged that he and his fellow lefties are too cowardly to fight back against the extremists in their midst. "Right now, there’s nothing much to do other than sit on our hands and wait for the ascension of conservative political backlash," Schlosser wrote. He said he and others like him will more than likely go along to get along, "hop[ping] into the echo chamber, pil[ing] invective upon the next person or company who says something vaguely insensitive, [and] insulat[ing] ourselves further and further from any concerns that might resonate outside of our own little corner of Twitter."
To read the rest of Edward Schlosser’s eye-opening essay, click here.
For a list of authentically Catholic colleges published by the Cardinal Newman Society — where faculty members might possess a bit more courage than Schlosser and his ilk, click here.