Culture Wars and Decolonizing the University

Two very different books show the present state and future possibilities of struggles over the place of universities in society.

Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nişancoğlu (Eds)
Decolonising the University
Pluto Press, 2018

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure
Penguin, 2018

On the day I finished this article, three things caught my attention. The first was an article from the Daily Mail, reporting on a speech given by Sam Gyimah, the then-Universities Minister, at an HE event, in which he reeled off the usual lines about ‘student monocultures’ stifling ‘debate’, and how ‘white people are not allowed to talk about race’. Next, Quillette - the online magazine which has recently gained prominence as a conduit for fascist apologetics and semi-nude Toby Young beefcake photos - launched its inaugural podcast, in which Young and Jordan Peterson talk about Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind, Peterson’s plans to set up a new university and “the baffling resilience of Hard Left ideology.” Not long after that, an acquaintance in Canada reported that a man in a MAGA baseball cap had appeared - not for the first time - on the university campus where he and his boyfriend both teach, and asked for his boyfriend by name. He had, he said, some things he wanted to say to him about immigration and homosexuality.

With things happening this fast, It can be difficult to write anything about the current state of the culture wars being fought in, around, and over universities - but, despite the pace of events, very little really changes: it’s the same stuff, just worse every week. I read Lukianoff and Haidt’s book (full title: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure) almost two months ago now, and it’s no more or less craven and mendacious a piece of gaslighting than it was at its inception as an article in the Atlantic a year ago.

Coddling is less interesting as a standalone book than as part of a large, well-organised and lucrative economy of culture-war content. The authors miss no opportunity to refer readers to their website, where a quick browse of their events page discloses gigs at the Brookings, the AEI, and the CATO Institute; their interlocutors, in live events and in print, include Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Fareed Zakariah, Jonathan Sacks, Ben Shapiro, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb; the media that give them space are the Federalist, the National Review, Reason. They’re regulars on the circuit of post-TED Talks ideas festivals, podcasts, and contrived confabs that are so central to the ecosystem of sensible both-sidesism.

If you’re even passingly familiar with this culture, very little in Coddling will come as a surprise. It frames itself as a counterblast against the “culture of fragility” which threatens free enquiry both in universities and the liberal-democratic dispensation more widely: it goes after the usual suspects of trigger warnings and microaggressions policies, efforts to decolonise the curriculum, and campus antifascist organising. It’s written in the language of Petersonian pop psychology, in which a smattering of social and behavioural research are thickened with references to the timeless wisdom of the Ancients and spiced with a grab-bag of 20th-century theory, usually wheeled out as an object of execration. (Here this honour goes to Herbert Marcuse, who, in an exploration of what Lukianoff and Haidt never quite get around to calling ‘Cultural Marxism’, is described as having advanced a ”pathological dualism” in which “groups seen as powerful are bad, while… groups seen as oppressed are good.” That this should elicit horror is taken for granted.)

Coddling as a whole is structured around what it calls “the Three Great Untruths”. These are: “The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker”; “The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Instincts”; and “The Untruth of Us Versus Them.” The first third of the book lays out the ground of what these untruths have produced: an etiolated, whining generation, addicted to its own hysterical grievances and resentments, imagining itself beset on all sides by enemies. A middle section studies the effects of these untruths as played out in universities, in chapters with titles like “Intimidation and Violence,” and “Witch Hunts.” These contain a few selective accounts of campus unrest and antifascist resistance, and plentiful comparisons to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Salem Witch Trials. The third section is entitled “How Did We Get Here?”, and throws together some largely inoffensive child psychology, some middlingly offensive analyses of institutional cowardice, and some thoroughly offensive invocations of the mental health crisis amongst young people, concluding that we (meaning well-to-do white people) have made our children mad, and that is why they are going round shouting plainly insane things about punching nazis. A final section, “Wising Up”, consists of some fairly bland prescriptions for breeding children who are more resilient and less likely to take exception to “opposing views” when they encounter them in the big wide world, and ends - breaking a long streak of more-or-less restrained insinuation - by directly comparing antifascists to ISIS.

If Coddling has one point that it belabours more than other books of its ilk, it is to link this notional culture of fragility to trends in upper-middle-class parenting and the generational mental health crisis. In Lukianoff and Haidt’s account, college students aren’t distressed because they’re facing unprecedented debt and insecurity, because those safety nets they had are being stripped away from them, because they can no longer look forward to a recognisable future - or indeed because white supremacists keep trying to gather on their campuses to intimidate them, while their parents’ generation stands around finger-wagging about the importance of robust debate - but because they’re decadent, attached to their phones, full of self-pity, over-indulged and lacking in will.

If only these kids would toughen up, the authors complain, they’d flourish. To illustrate this, the book cycles through a series of analogies about resistance and resilience, some of them several pages long, all of them arguing that young people must be exposed to “opposing views” to prevent them becoming weak and fragile. The ideal university is a gym for the mind, in which constant exercise with heavy weights strengthens the mental muscles. Children brought up largely in nut-free environments become more likely to develop crippling nut allergies. Astronauts who live for a long time in low gravity find that their muscles become wasted. As anyone who’s spent any time around these debates knows by now, those “opposing views” usually turn out to be some variation of exactly the same one, and the “people who disagree with you” are always some variation of the same person: a well-paid white man who isn’t sure where all these women and brown people and queers came from but has some ideas about where he’d like to send them. Patriarchal white supremacy isn’t gravity and fascism isn’t peanuts, although to tenured white liberal professors they may seem that way.

Lukianoff and Haidt are obviously frightened - but of what, precisely? Mostly it would seem to be microaggressions policies, and the disarming possibility that some day, while they are teaching or otherwise interacting with a student or colleague, their interlocutor will denounce them as a racist for some harmless verbal slip or gestural quirk. There is probably an argument to be made that the manner in which microaggression theory has been popularised has opened it up, on occasion, to a insidiously liberalising turn - whereby a theory about how structural oppressions are manifested at the most granular levels of everyday communal life became a means of policing individual behaviour, with too little attention paid to the structures of domination and acculturation which shape it. Student union policies are mostly careful to frame it properly, with an implicit awareness that it’s not a theological test of individual virtue so much as an exercise of awareness, conscience and care that, in however small a way, liberates everyone involved. But Haidt and Lukianoff’s view is more or less in tune with how these policies have been framed in the culture at large, in which the hunt for microaggressions is a hunt for the racist or sexist or ableist heresy that lurks in the sinner’s heart, a kind of thoughtcrime. It’s possible that the campus left, in presenting itself to the world, could’ve been more careful not to make microaggressions available to this kind of wilful misunderstanding; it’s more possible that however carefully they handled it, an establishment determined to defeat them was never going to pass up the opportunity to represent them to the world at large as kindergarten Torquemadas. Anyway, here we are: the possibility that a professor might be accused of racism or misogyny stands as synecdoche for a fear, widespread amongst those who are used to deciding what the discourse is going to be, that the discourse might be getting away from them, and that the deference which used to give decorous cover to power is suddenly in short supply.

This terror triggers in this book, as it does in much of this kind of literature, a denial of the existence of power structures that is pushed to hysterical scale. Hence the use of Marcuse as a straw man: what really seems to bug Haidt and Lukianoff about his work (and, they make clear, Marxist theory in general) is its suggestion that humans interact in ways that don’t all resemble the free and equal movement of liberal subjects coming together for a nice chinwag. The possibility that violence from below might be a legitimate counter to violence from above is unendurable, since it presupposes the embarrassing fact of a violent relation existing in the first place.

This does some interesting things to the authors’ attempts to historicise their claims. As good liberals, they have to acknowledge that injustice has appeared in the past, and that people have organised to resist it; but how to do this, if politics, power and collectivity don’t meaningfully exist? They enlist Martin Luther King - a conveniently dead black man - as the avatar or patron saint of a “common-humanity identity politics,” a thing that is like identity politics except that it doesn’t believe in either identity or politics. The basis of his activism, the authors argue, was to make an appeal to the essential goodness of Americans’ hearts, and to persuade them that black people deserved justice precisely - and perhaps solely - because their oppression betrayed the founding principles of the Constitution. The same goes for equal marriage, which in this reading was simply a matter of reaching across the aisle and persuading homophobes of their own constitutionally-endowed liberal benevolence.

This is obviously grotesque and stupid and evil for a lot of reasons, but it gives some insight, I think, into the implicit theology that underlies this noisily rationalist book. In Lukianoff and Haidt’s world, morality is ahistorical: the purest shape of justice has always been the liberal republican free-market state in which black people can vote and homosexuals can marry. If certain forms of justice weren’t available at certain junctures it was because they were merely latent, and wanted drawing out. This state is a kind of still point of truth amidst the hysterical lies and disorder of the unenlightened world; it is exempt from power, structure and process. To insist that structure and power exist within it - to suggest, say, that state violence and young black men might be a foundational national characteristic rather than a temporary absence of natural republican justice - is, well, heresy. Which explains why Coddling, notionally a crusade against inquisitorial politics, is structured around its mission to name and root out those “Great Untruths.” More broadly, it explains why Haidt and Lukianoff frame campus radicalism and antifascism as outbreaks of pathological madness - infectious, atavistic, subversive of human reason itself - and why they take such care to link them causally to a generational mental health crisis. It also explains - and this is true, probably, of most productions of this strain of mystical reactionary centrism - why they’re so eager to burn out the left’s merely theological violence with the real violence of the radical right.

That instinctive friendliness towards exterminism isn’t merely a matter of strategy and positioning: in Coddling, as anywhere else in this genre, the implication that order looks like a liberal arts college staffed by white male well-to-do professors with hygienic minds, and that the demonic hordes storming the walls generally look like the opposite of those things, is never far beneath the surface. Breathlessly disgusted accounts of the disorder at Berkeley, when students and local citizens organised themselves to deny Milo Yiannopoulos a chance to speak, and of student anti-racist activism at Evergreen and Clermont McKenna colleges (sourced almost entirely from accounts in Quillette, The Liberty Hound, and the website of the Heterodox Academy, an organisation that Haidt himself is heavily involved with), purport to show how the activism of the campus left resembles the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the European and New England witch hunts, or the French Terror. Committed to both-sidesism, the authors don’t leave out the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, but they do note, of the spectacle of tiki marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us,” that “[I]f you were looking for an example of us-versus-them identity politics, it doesn’t get much clearer than this.” To Haidt and Lukianoff, the murder of Heather Heyer is instructive mainly for the way it forced the left into a destructive cycle of polarisation and binomial thinking: the authors look from one to the other, from the neo-nazis promising imminent genocide to the community groups risking their lives to resist them, and find it impossible to tell which is which. If only America had taken the “great opportunity” Charlottesville offered to “draw larger circles” around these tragically polarised political communities, some good might have come from it. Instead - and here you can sense the authors shaking their heads in paternal disappointment - students only seem more eager since these events to “exercise the heckler’s veto.” Lukianoff and Haidt counter this unwisdom with a recommended reading from the stoics: “[a]s Marcus Aurelius advised, ‘Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed–and you haven’t been.” If only they could tell that to Heather Heyer.

Haidt and Lukianoff - distinguished, sensible men of the centre who deplore Donald Trump and seek only to find the truth that nestles, snug as an egg, directly between the twin poles of Left and Right - would probably be mortified at anyone bringing anything as crassly material as murder into a review of their book. Murder, though, is what it boils down to. Beyond all its pious mealy-mouthed both-sidesism, its concern-trolling about mental health and its bizarrely anxious disavowal of all politics, The Coddling of the American Mind’s only real argument boils down to this: that students must be exposed to people who want to kill them - who have already begun to kill them - every day if those people so choose, and must meet with them and debate them and respect their sincerely held beliefs, for only thus can Lukianoff and Haidt feel safe from the danger of being called racist.

It’s tempting to want to peer, inquisitor-fashion, inside the authors’ souls and find out whether they actually believe this shit, or whether they’ve realised yet what they most likely are. But after a while spent reading this short book which feels so very long, the question of intentionality ceases to matter. Structure trumps individual virtue, and the lucrative gaslighting industry of which The Coddling of the American Mind is only one exquisitely-realised production carries on. I can’t hope to tell you what’s in Haidt and Lukianoff’s hearts, or what kind of atrocities they’d be willing to put up with so as not to have to endure the spectacle of powerful white academics like themselves having to concede an iota of moral or intellectual or institutional authority, but I can tell you: this book is pernicious. Don’t let your kids read it.

If you’re looking for an antidote to Haidt and Lukianoff, you could do worse than Gurminder Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nișancoğlu’s edited collection Decolonising the University. It’s an academic collection, written largely by and for scholars active in or around decolonial movements; less a manifesto or a polemic than a report from within the movement, aimed largely at those already sympathetic to it but crystallizing many of the arguments that now need to be communicated to outside audiences. Most of the contributions to are short, and many are wildly different: it’s a reactive grab-bag of a book, organised into broad themes but still a snapshot of a movement that by its nature is proliferatingly various. It’s likely that most of them will be read in isolation, but reading the whole book yields something of a snapshot - partial, messy, occasionally self-contradictory, in places richly detailed - of academic decolonisation as an ongoing struggle.

This struggle has sometimes struggled to articulate a single unifying aim - Robbie Shilliam notes cautiously in his contribution that some expressions of campus politics can seem “rhetorically powerful yet analytically weak” - and a generalised anxiety about defining aspirations and ways of achieving them is a recurrent theme throughout the volume. Often, of course, this is a matter of the tools available, the ways in which the disciplinary languages and institutional structures make demands for certain kinds of justice unspeakable. Carol Azumah Dennis’ “Decolonising Education: A Pedagogic Intervention” explores this problem, and defines the larger nest of theoretical binds and methodological challenges within which it sits, with a concision and grace which should put her at the top of all good reading lists for a long time to come.

In fact, one of Decolonising the University’s strengths is its careful and critical parsing of how the academy sits within wider structures of power. One of the interpretive challenges posed by the the higher education culture war industry is the way it construes the relation between universities and wider politics: how exactly does curricular reform or no-platforming pose a threat comparable to the Islamic State? For all their strategic anti-intellectualism and liberal aversion to thinking structurally, the Haidts and Lukianoffs take the academy very seriously indeed. For them, it is both a repository of a society’s values - a citadel where a culture’s codes can be kept inviolate even as the suburbs fall to the barbarians - and a place from which epistemic power flows: let the barbarians in and they needn’t bother with the fire and sword bit, because they can rewrite your code at the source. The movement (or movements) that produced Decolonising the Academy takes the academy seriously too, but does so by situating it squarely in its social and historical context: not as a citadel of virtue and reason, nor as a source of all repressive power, but as an institution amongst others, endowed with certain means of wielding power and curiously lacking in others. It also shows powerfully how the current crisis isn’t a spasmodic and unreasoning eruption within institutions which have sat unchanged at the heart of the intellectual world for decades, but only part of a long process of continuous change in the structures of financing, privilege and access and that undergird the university sector, of challenges to traditional or reactionary practices of knowledge and pedagogy, and of attempts - always in the face of similar resistances - to remake the university in the ways we would like to remake society. Haidt and Lukianoff - or, for that matter, the Times might come across as hysterical when they insist that no-platforming Milo Yiannopoulos poses a threat to Western Civ, but Decolonising the Academy leads you to much the same conclusion, albeit slightly altered. Relatively small demands and redefinitions of common decency within the academy have radical implications for the culture, and do indeed threaten a whole civilisation—if by that you mean the civilisation Haidt and Lukianoff imagine themselves to inhabit, run by and for themselves.

Amongst the more squarely historicising contributions, Robbie Shilliam’s outstanding chapter, ‘Black/Academia’, is a short and polemical historicisation of black presence (and absence) in UK academia since the post-war era. Shilliam articulates in a few short paragraphs the exact structure of feeling that underlies the public reaction to decolonisation campaigns:

They see the base of the pyramid growing relentlessly blacker, browner, poorer. They seek to preserve the whiteness of elite cultural production in sites that are currently most detached from the pyramid’s base. There is a melancholic, reactive mood to an inevitability born of empire, namely, that the fantasy of a pristine West could not hold for too long. That is the identity politics we should be addressing.

This reaction, Shilliam reminds us, has gained far more political and discursive traction than the decolonisation movement itself; but, again, this isn’t new, and positive change continues to happen nonetheless.

In a similar historicising vein, John Holmwood contributes a chapter on race and the neoliberal university, laying out a solid structural genealogy of the racialised academy and how it has been sustained by marketisation and the deceptive neoliberal rhetorics of post-racialism. Kehinde Andrews, the academic who helmed the foundation of the first School of Black Studies in the UK at Birmingham City University, shows how this structure can be challenged, co-opted, and accommodated in carving out a space for counter-colonial disciplinarities, how to do it, and what it can cost. Andrews is brilliantly clear on the enabling role of marketisation and diversity quotas, on the danger of co-option - “a course like Black Studies,” he writes, “can easily become a token gesture … the sprinkles of chocolate on the vanilla ice cream that is the white university” - and equally clear on the strategic and structural lessons learned over the course of the Centre’s creation. He balances a scepticism about his profession - “a bourgeois class who cannot be trusted to transform the nature of the beast that both nurtures and sustains us” - with a fierce insistence on the potential of black studies as a radical political programme which is fully open about its aims: to “colonise the master’s house … [to take] resources from the institutions and put them in service of the black liberation struggle.” Dalia Gebrial, in her masterful opening essay on Rhodes Must Fall, concludes similarly: “To do this kind of work in the university,” she writes, “is to dig where you are - where you have access - rather than to view the university as the primary space where transformation happens. It is to enter the university space as a transformative force, to connect what is happening inside the institution to the outside, and to utilise its resources in the interest of social justice.” It’s a prospect that would make Lukianoff and Haidt shudder.

Where concrete demands are made, they’re often quite prosaic, and all the more thrilling for being not only doable but in process—things that, if you’re in the academy, you can put your personal and institutional weight behind. You end up with a list, however partial or provisional, of imperatives: contextualise, historicise, study the institution and the various resistances to it whose traditions you’re taking up; challenge the curriculum, force entry to it, divest from certain visible and invisible structures, vacate the spaces of the colonial academy and fill them up with decolonial and decolonialising content. (Re)make institutions, design courses, practice radical pedagogies (the latter point boiling down, often, to (A): sort the curriculum out, for God’s sake; (B): think about who’s speaking, who’s learning, and how; (C) act accordingly, with decency and imaginative generosity.)

Exploring the implications of that project of remaking the academy—of seizing, however politely, the means of discursive and epistemic production—is where Decolonising the Academy becomes most thrilling. Epistemic justice demands that we develop new tools for our work, since we can hardly achieve it using those of the old regime. Accordingly, many of the best contributions are those which resist the procedures of academic style and structure, or those which dispense with careful enunciations of theoretical positions and focus on praxis, material histories, and the situated work of making institutional change. In ‘Meschachakanis, a Coyote Narrative’, Shauneen Pete presents a dialogue between herself, alone and frustrated in her office, and the traditional trickster figure of the Coyote, who sashays in, steals her clothes and glasses, and makes smartass replies. Playful in the most serious sense, funny, and fully at ease with the apparent disorder and conflictedness of her thinking, her grief and tiredness and defiance, her essay communicates the complexity of the terrain, its urgency and its affective loads as well as the most careful academic phrasing could. It conveys an intimate sense of being present at the moment of something being just about to emerge.

If decolonial movements are making headway in the academy, their opponents are winning in the wider culture, and doing so in ways that threaten the whole context in which decolonial academics work. When the Universities Minister starts consciously deploying the language of fragility, triggering and censorious threats to free speech, more is at stake than the policy and curricular debates that are notionally on the table; and there’s always the guy in the MAGA hat sniffing around the campus gate. The academy increasingly finds itself the site of an outsize share of the culture wars’ battles, where student union policies, painted-over posters, and what an undergraduate magazine editor might or might not have said about trans people all stand metonymically for much bigger, less nameable forces in the grim psychodrama of a culture in crisis.

The fact that the UK has imported much of this reactionary anti-student discourse from the US - a country where the politics of the academy articulate to the politics of society at large in far more legible ways - should give us pause. The panic evident in productions like Lukianoff and Haidt’s betrays an anxious awareness that what happens in the university happens outside it too, and that if students aren’t prevented from demanding dignity and chasing fascists off the streets, pretty soon your neighbours might be doing the same. This articulation of the academy to the street is a bit more complex in the UK, with our intractable cultural pathologies around class, language and education, and our 800-year history of walling off higher education behind enormous bastions of mystification and entitlement. The ways in which we address race, too, make it difficult to find common languages in which to make radical demands: the structure of postcolonial melancholy affords few points of purchase for the living. It’s all too easy for any necessary call for epistemic justice to be diverted into another week-long confected national freak-out about whether, say, a black historian can be rude about Winston Churchill on breakfast TV.

We have to wonder, now, how the decolonial turn can be communicated to larger audiences, and how the relentless agitprop of Lukianoff and Haidt and their like can be countered. In the UK, those decolonial scholars dedicated to making universities more a part of communal life - accessible, responsive, inclusive - might play the most crucial part. The injunction to turn the master’s tools against him, and to transform the academy as part of a wider project of transforming society, has to start with an open door.