Beyond its entertainment value, mockery plays a useful role in a society as riven and weary as ours: it substitutes for understanding. Confronted with incomprehensible public rage, the quickest way to survive is simply to denigrate it from a safe distance. Diving down the rabbit hole, sinking into the morass, seems an act of cultural suicide.
But as the deepening of our campus culture crisis should alert us, the strategy is leading to mutually assured destruction.
On and off of campus, fighting reflexive disparagement with reflexive disparagement has entrenched the belief that our cultural enemies are not just irrational but unthinkably so. Yet it is on campus where the political theater of hatred is at its most visceral. There, accounting for the madness of one’s enemies is now as worthless and misguided an exercise as trying to account for evil. Their hypocrisy is assumed to be so violent and so deep that trying to explain it becomes almost an act of treason.
The quads have yet to run with the blood of the infidels, of course. Christina Hoff Sommers, for instance, author of Who Stole Feminism?, has survived her latest encounter with a hostile student body—this time, at Oberlin. Despite a torrent of virtually panic-stricken opposition, she managed to complete a lecture on rape, wages, and other women’s issues, leaving trauma, if not a body count, in her wake.
Students now known as “safe spacers,” for their insistence on dialogue protected from “triggering” psychic and verbal assaults, sank into a delirium of invective. Convinced that Sommers participates in the reality of rape culture by peddling “bullshit” facts, they offered jeers and mockery throughout her remarks, on one occasion shouting down what Sommers described as a “kindly philosophy professor” who “urged students to be civil.”
Meanwhile, in response to Sommers’ address, the Oberlin Review ran a letter to the editor entitled “a love letter to ourselves,” complete with a “content warning” cautioning readers about an impending discussion of, among other things, harassment. “Her talk is happening,” it read, “so let’s pull together in the face of this violence and make our own space to support each other.”
From a traditionally liberal standpoint, the intellectual inconsistency displayed by Oberlin’s outraged students is frightful. When they harass, they are freedom fighters; when they feel harassed, they are victims of terrorism. One group of students who organized an alternative to the Sommers event warned that any “toxic, dangerous, and/or violent” people would be screened out. “We’re pretty cool,” said one, crystallizing the apparent hypocrisy with a knowing half-joke. “We only bite people we dislike.” Trigger warning indeed!
But rather than mocking Oberlin’s rancorous undergrads, it’s imperative, in spite of it all, to understand them. At stake is not just our niceness or meanness, but our ability to make sense of the world we live in. Fact: We really do not want the culture war to become a fight between demonized, depersonalized, thoroughly “othered” camps.
We hesitate, however, to embrace such forbearance, because traditional liberalism has failed so hard in explaining the source of our mutual rancor. From the standpoint of traditional liberalism—what with its cherished “values” like “openness,” “tolerance,” and “conversation”—there is just no way to access the phenomenon of today’s culture war, or the psychology of its frenzied combatants.
With apologies to liberalism, it’s time to hark back to a much earlier philosophical framework in order to escape the black hole suction of the culture wars.
Lucky for us, one flare up in particular at the Sommers event shows how more ancient wisdom can explain our fury. As Sommers recounted:
Told students that women could narrow wage gap by changing majors from, say, sociology to engineering. Room erupted. Horrified gasps & jeers.
From the perspective of mainstream, old-school philosophical liberalism, this is inexplicable. From Plato’s perspective, however, it makes perfect sense.
In the Republic, Plato presented Socrates as claiming that different types of political regimes follow one upon the next in a depressing slide from the rule of the best to the rule of the worst. Plato’s Socrates theorizes that society declines this way because we humans imitate each other even in spite of ourselves. Although succeeding generations reject the flawed models of their forebears, their attempts to improve those models can’t help but smuggle in the flawed ideals at their heart. By trying to fix what’s broken, we only get better at brokenness.
Plato’s Socrates explains that one generation’s love of honor strikes its children as too warlike, cruel, and hard a life to secure happiness. So the children replace it with a love of money. But their children see oligarchic life as too materialistic, shallow, and all-consuming to secure happiness. So they replace it with a love of all things equally. From there, says Plato’s Socrates, this “democratic” taste for respecting all values causes a new generation to embrace tyranny in political life and trivia in cultural life—where, in the parlance of our times, “lol nothing matters.”
Another way of putting this is that the democratic “soul” wants to defend the equal value of everything because only that kind of equality protects our ability to choose what to love in accordance with what we find meaning in. From this standpoint, both money and trivia are too crass and empty to give our lives meaning. We need to make life safe for meaning. And in a world where the triumph of money and the triumph of trivia threaten it at every turn, extremism in the defense of meaning is no vice at all.
Why would a call for more women in engineering provoke a hideous outcry? Because, Plato might say, although the longing to close the wage gap is strong, it is not as strong as the longing to protect and privilege the meaning of experience. It is an attack on the primacy of meaning for people like Sommers to propose that sociology (which today is almost synonymous with the study of how to politicize meaning) must be sacrificed to increase monetary equality. By giving up the study of sociology in favor of playing the patriarchal game by its own rules, the logic runs, women risk achieving marginal higher wages at the cost of dismantling the apparatus of social justice.
The politics of meaning is a brutal fight, ancient philosophy counsels, and it’s a powerful reason democratic life is destined to fail. Of course, ancient philosophy failed, too. It left democratic souls to their own destruction—unlike Christianity. But that’s a culture-war scandal for another day.