This past week marked the second anniversary of the Nicholas Christakis mobbing. It was a shameful event for Yale as a community. Christakis stood up for good academic discourse and common humanity. He is one of Yale’s most accomplished professors, whose research has probably saved thousands of lives. Yet, his ideals made students uncomfortable, so they saw fit to demean, denounce and call for him to be fired. Worse, they were supported by the University, which awarded one of the protestors the prestigious Nakanishi Prize. Seven hundred students and faculty members signed a letter condemning Christakis as racist, ostracizing and character assassinating him. This bullying is reminiscent of a Maoist cultural revolution.
Unfortunately, the Christakis incident is still relevant today because it was only the tip of the iceberg. Social movements at universities seriously undermine good academic exchange. The biggest culprit is an extreme form of postmodernism that we term “criticalism,” as it elevates criticism into an ideological end goal. An extreme form of postmodernism, it combines aloof irony with ideas from critical theory: Foucault, Lacan and Derrida. According to the resulting ideology, power relations determine all social constructs. The intent of those with power is, cynically, always to oppress. Values or social cohesion are only for the naive. Therefore, all social constructs should be deconstructed. The second culprit, neoliberal social ideology, elevates economic credentials to the holy grail of all social endeavors. Networking and fancy degrees become a way of life while social service, normalcy and real education fall by the wayside. The result of these two ideologies is a deconstructed cultural wasteland where the only remaining value is the vacuous notion of oppressed groups’ specialness.
Universities where criticalism holds sway cannot have good academic exchange. First, simple labels like “social democracy” are poorly understood. One of the authors of this column is a Bernie Sanders supporter but admits that many fellow supporters do not realize that social democracy inherently means higher taxes.
Second, discussions at these universities miss the core of the issue because they are full of platitudes like, “cops are just murderers.” Professors either support these trivialities or are afraid to challenge them.
Last and most importantly, criticalism creates a perverted moral hierarchy. At Yale, a biologist is forbidden by University policy from teaching that a biological disorder is common among a certain minority group. But it is socially acceptable to advocate murdering police. Next, personal concerns and identity politics take precedence over important endeavors that transcend division. All the while, criticalists’ means of enforcing this morality are atrocious; they use repression, character assassination and slander against those who challenge the orthodoxy. In one telling incident, a Yale administrator prevented one of the authors of this column from talking about his Afghan deployment in a residential college because it might exclude one Afghan student. As an infantry officer deployed in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, the author did intensive cultural outreach and governance development work. His talk would have only excluded the Afghan if he was hardcore Taliban. Yet in the administrator’s mind, these perspectives are entitled to repress the US military’s because of oppression.
The implications of this cultural wasteland are wider than we would think. Not only is the lack of good academic discourse undermining academic vitality at universities, but it is also harming larger American society. First, it is furthering our social polarization. Universities are becoming unmoored from important social realities and focusing on narcissistic entitlements rather than social service. This naturally provokes resentment among those with less privilege. Moreover, it is creating an elite that can only think in terms of identity politics. Upon deploying to Afghanistan, one of the authors of this column was shocked to find out that not all social conflict is driven by racial oppression. Further, this culture is not preparing students for the challenges of life outside the academy. Students will break society, or society will break them. Last and most important, academia is losing its ability to fulfill its important social purpose of providing fresh ideas and mediating national discourse. Normally, it sets the parameters of debates and provide solutions to pressing problems. But in many fields that is not possible, especially policing.
Many are resisting this trend. The Heterodox Academy, a politically diverse group, has come together to reinvigorate academic exchange. It promotes viewpoint diversity, the values necessary for good exchange and the sense of common humanity underpinning such endeavors. Just like any worthwhile goal, reaching for truth among diverse perspectives involves difficult feelings. And it involves standing firm behind our values. Professor Christakis, although an admirable professor, made the mistake of backing down by apologizing rather than calling out the attack for what it was — illiberal slander. Having 700 signatures does not make something legitimate; it makes it toxic groupthink. Just as with many worthwhile endeavors, supporting academic exchange has become the resistance.
Esteban Elizondo is a senior in Davenport College, Alexander Frank is a third-year law student and Samuel Sommaruga is a post-doctorate student in the Department of Neuroscience. Contact them at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .