Perhaps when literary critic C.S. Lewis despaired of “omnipotent moral busybodies . . . who torment us for our own good,” he was speaking about those well-meaning, but naïve college students who “torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” Lewis’s observation seemed to have been given credence in the past weeks by the very public, tendentious rants of two coeds, one at Harvard University and one at UCLA, as they railed against a world in which their dreams of social justice for the oppressed and weak was not being realized, despite their best efforts.
In the first instance, in an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson entitled “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom,” Sandra Y.L. Korn, majoring at Harvard, tellingly, in the history of science and studies of women, gender and sexuality, decided that academic freedom was undeserved by those who hold beliefs different than hers and her fellow “moral busybodies”— those who have decided what is moral, what is right, and what is acceptable speech and behavior on Harvard’s campus and in the world beyond. “Why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom?’,” she asked, seemingly without embarrassment. Academic freedom, she contended, should be put in check so that unwelcomed viewpoints can be suppressed. As an alternative virtue, she suggested “a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’”
One example of how that justice might be applied, at the expense of academic freedom, was the recent academic boycott against Israeli academics called for by the American Studies Association (ASA). Though the boycott was subsequently denounced by over 200 university presidents and scores of academic organizations and scholars, Ms. Korn thinks that the loss of academic freedom by Israelis is of secondary importance to her notion of “academic justice;” that is, justice for the oppressed, the victimized, the marginalized, the weak. “The ASA, like three other academic associations,” she wrote, “decided to boycott out of a sense of social justice, responding to a call by Palestinian civil society organizations for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions until Israel ends its occupation of Palestine.” Despite universal protestations from many people far more insightful than Ms. Korn, in her mind, any critics of the boycott are, by definition, morally wrong, and, she asserted, “only those who care about justice can take the moral upper hand.”
The UCLA incident revealed a similar Leftist obsession with obtaining social justice for the Palestinians, even if it necessitates the weakening or destruction of the Jewish state. On February 26th, the UCLA undergraduate student government voted 7-5 against a Students for Justice in Palestine-proposed “Resolution to Divest from Companies that Violate Palestinian Human Rights,” including specific corporations: Caterpillar, Cement Roadstone Holdings, Cemez, General Electric, and Hewlett-Packard. After the charged hearings, which included some 500 people in the audience and went on for ten hours, an identified UCLA undergraduate, who was serving as a note taker for the hearings, broke down and railed at the cameras with an expletive-laden rant about how disappointed she was that the resolution failed, how ashamed she was of the racists and bad people who voted against divestment, and how Palestinians would now continue to be “hurt” because of their inaction. For two minutes the hysterical woman can be seen screaming “I’ve never been so f***ing disappointed” and complaining that “we just f***ing blew it” by not passing the corrosive divestment resolution.
Many pro-Israel commentators gleefully parodied the whimpering student when the video went viral, suggesting that her behavior typified the dangerous liberalism which elevates the Palestinian cause at the expense of Israel’s survival. But the reality is more troubling than that: this woman, like the Harvard undergraduate who wishes to live in a world where only her predetermined virtues and worldview prevail, feels quite strongly that, in the case of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, at least, the answers are black and white, there is a moral side and an immoral side, and that anyone who does not, or cannot, see things as clearly and unambiguously as these gifted undergraduates do is a racist, an oppressor, an imperialist, a colonizer, or a supporter of an illegal, apartheid regime trampling the human rights of a blameless indigenous people.
As commonly happens when liberals appraise the relative merits of their own countries and others, one set of expectations is used to measure Third-world countries and their leaders, and a totally different, far more stringent (if not unreasonable) set is used when evaluating the behavior and values of the United States, the EU, or Israel. This cynical, nearly hypocritical, view has meant that the Left frequently denounces Western democracies as imperialistic, racist, militaristic oppressors, precisely because they wish them to evolve to a purer, newly-structured society and feel that they have the collective insight and moral strength to effect this change as they strive for the social justice, or its intellectually-flaccid offspring, “academic justice,” a nebulous term lifted from Marxist thought which empowers Left-leaning administrators, students, and faculty with the false ethical security derived from feeling that they are bringing positive moral and ethical precepts to campuses.
For that reason, Israel is continually slandered as a racist state, an aggressive, militaristic regime that inflicts disproportionate suffering on the hapless Palestinians, lubricating the argument that this inequality is inherently and inexorably wrong, that it must be corrected and made just. Thus, when such radical campus groups as Students for Justice in Palestine have as their core mission, as their name implies, bringing their own vision of justice to the Middle East, it is justice only for the oppressed, the Palestinians, and not for the perceived oppressor, Israel, whose position of power was made possible only because of military strength and imperialistic tendencies.
For the Left, social justice is solely for the disenfranchised, the ‘victims’ of unjust Western societies, those whose suffering is ostensibly caused by and is the fault of imperialistic, capitalistic, militant, hegemonic nations—America and Israel foremost among them. And on campuses, where liberal professors have nearly made scared the politics of race and class and have identified specific sets of favored victim groups for whom justice will be sought, the cult of “victimhood” has even led to compulsory instruction on the mechanics of achieving social justice for the weak in society.
The new academic dialogue over the concept of social justice obviously has found a fitting locus with concern for the Palestinian cause, since the concept of social justice is particularly applicable on highly-politicized campuses when, as in the case of the Palestinians, the absence of a new Arab state is perceived to be the fault of Israel alone. Compassion for the dispossessed and the weak on the part of the Left has also seen the growth of a whole different set of ethical standards by which the actions of powerful nations — primarily Israel and the U.S. — are judged as compared to weaker, developing, sometimes clearly inferior nations, based on their political and international behavior.
In their mission to protect the sensibilities and emotional well-being of identified campus victim groups, universities, often violating their own written guidelines and codes of behavior, have also instituted speech codes to prevent what is generally called “hate speech” now, but which has become a perverse tactic to marginalize, and exclude, the speech and ideology of those with whom liberals and Leftists do not agree, those individuals who express ideas that offend the sensibility of Ms. Korn, for example. Because they feel they have the moral high ground and a much more profound insight into social justice and the rights of the oppressed victim groups with whom they share an intellectual affinity, Leftists are fervent in their belief that they, therefore, have a right to unfettered speech to promulgate their own high-minded views; in fact, the speech of their ideological opponents, simply by virtue of the fact that it contradicts the moral principles that the Leftist holds dear, is regularly regarded as “hate speech” that can be ignored, punished, or, as happens with increasing regularity, shut down completely and excluded from the campus conversation.
That core sentiment has come to define the Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and was on full display at UCLA during the divestment debate: it is the notion that the repeated defamation of Israel will result in its eventual expulsion from the supposed civilized community of nations. But the call for divestment is merely a tactic through which Israel will be marginalized, and eventually extirpated, as a pariah state with no moral justification for existing.
The acting out and vitriolic language against Israel that so often defines campus anti-Israelism may make the activists feel good about themselves for striving for social justice, but, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh has contended, these are hollow efforts, that “[i]nstead of investing money and efforts in organizing Israel Apartheid Week, for example, the self-described ‘pro-Palestinians’ could dispatch a delegation of teachers to Palestinian villages and refugee camps to teach young Palestinians English. Or they could send another delegation to the Gaza Strip to monitor human rights violations by the Hamas authorities and help Palestinian women confront Muslim fundamentalists who are trying to limit their role to cooking, raising children and looking after the needs of their husbands.” What was Abu Toameh’s conclusion about this misdirected effort to support the Palestinian cause? “What is happening on the U.S. campuses,” he wrote, “is not about supporting the Palestinians as much as it is about promoting hatred for the Jewish state. It is not really about ending the ‘occupation’ as much as it is about ending the existence of Israel . . ,” and “we should not be surprised if the next generation of jihadists comes not from the Gaza Strip or the mountains and mosques of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but from university campuses across the U.S.”
“The whole problem with the world,” observed philosopher Bertrand Russell, “is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” That these two undergraduates display a certainty that is so stringent and so contrary to intellectual inquiry should give us all pause, and might make us question if we are teaching a whole generation of college students what to think instead of how to think.