Our universities under threat (I) - Politicsweb

12 December 2018 - Universities have been the bastions of the freedom of expression in Western societies. They are the ultimate milieu in which freedoms can be experienced, expressed and tested. But the ability to express views freely has diminished on some South African campuses, and the potential consequences for society are chilling.

Sara Gon

Universities have been the bastions of the freedom of expression in Western societies. They are the ultimate milieu in which freedoms can be experienced, expressed and tested. But the ability to express views freely has diminished on some South African campuses, and the potential consequences for society are chilling. This first of a series of five articles explores the erosion of freedoms on our campuses.

The spirit of the university has been abandoned on many of our campuses. The genesis of this erosion of freedom of expression, however, is to be found in America. We have just followed that trend and overlaid it with our own history. In the mid-1960s, students at the University of California, Berkeley formed a mass movement to demand more freedom of speech. Their success led to the student anti-Vietnam movement. 

Fifty years later, Berkeley students and students at other elite universities became standard bearers in violently opposing the free speech and thought of those with whom they disagree. By the early 1970s, change had suddenly arrived with the ideas of the Deconstrutionists, French academics of the late 1950s. Deconstructionism is a philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth. It asserts that words can only refer to other words and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings.

A recession in the 1970s caused the job market in academe to collapse. According to Camille Paglia, academic, author and feminist, who started university in the late 1960s, Post-structuralism was “the ticket to ride” for ambitious young careerists.1.

Post-structuralism, together with identity politics, made huge gains in the 1970s. “The older academics proved helpless against a rising tide of rapid add-on programs and departments like women’s studies and African-American studies. The tenured professoriate seemed not to realize that change of some kind was necessary, and thus they failed to provide an alternative vision of a remodeled university of the future.”

Paglia says that assisted by “a swelling horde of officious, overpaid administrators”, North American universities became “political correctness camps”. Old-school professors were not prepared for the guerrilla warfare necessary to defend basic scholarly principles, or deal with defamation and harassment.

Privileged students in private Ivy League universities indulged in forms of protest, both physically and verbally violent, against opinions and people they didn’t like.

Some commentators have been surprised that student bodies that previously demanded freedom of expression have absorbed the victimhood culture and insisted that administrations clamp down on views of which they disapprove.

Social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt of New York University attributes some of it to the parenting of the 1980s when children had no unsupervised time; there was always an adult around. Thus children didn’t get to deal with issues like insults and exclusion.2.

Haidt also cites the effect of social media on the peer group obsessions of teenagers in ramping up mob punishment.

Haidt identifies the victimhood culture as largely being a feature of the Ivy League “four year residential” universities. He describes them as “Lord of the Flies”-type environments, which ultimately require large complements of therapists and administrative staff to deal with disruptions.

The phenomena of political correctness, identity politics and victimhood culture create this toxic brew of intolerance, censorship and self-righteousness.

“But so much of political correctness is not about justice or creating a safe environment; it is about power. It’s about power and control.”3.

‘Politically correct’ was coined in the late 1920s by the Soviets to describe why the views of certain of the party faithful needed ‘correction’ by the party to accord with the party line.

Pablo Picasso’s artistic style didn’t conform to Stalin’s demand for the ‘Soviet realism’-style of art. However, Picasso belonged to the French communist party and Western communists wanted to exploit his name to recruit followers and support communist initiatives. So his art was deemed to be ‘politically correct’.4.

‘Identity politics’ was coined by Barbara Smith, a member of the black feminist group, the Combahee River Collective, in April 1977.

‘Identity politics’ is based on the interests and perspectives of the social groups with which people identify. The most common being race, gender and sexual orientation.

An aim of identity politics is for those feeling oppressed to articulate their experience of ‘felt oppression’ through a process of consciousness-raising.

The third phenomenon is the culture which grants ‘victimhood’ special moral status. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, associate professors of psychology, describe the three main moral cultures: ‘honour’, ‘dignity’ and ‘victimhood’.5.

In an ‘honour culture’, if a victim breaches the strict code of the culture, it brings dishonour and great shame to their family. Victims are tainted and often punished, sometimes even murdered, for inflicting such dishonour.

The ‘dignity culture’ created a set of moral values and behavioural norms designed to promote each human life as possessing immutable worth. This is irrespective of individual brutalisation or of existence at the bottom of the social order.

The ‘dignity culture’ developed amongst the farmers, master craftsmen and artisans of Northern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their tolerance of others helped them to sell their goods and they stood to lose from engaging in reckless violence.

‘Victimhood culture’ inverts the norms of the other cultures. Victims are not shamed; they are fiercely protected and awarded status for being victims. Ironically this culture has emerged at the wealthiest universities in America such as Yale, Columbia and the University of Southern California. The median family income currently at these universities is calculated at nearly R3,500 000.

‘Victimhood culture’ breeds resentment and hostility, but, at the same time, deference to prevailing ideas of ‘progressive’ academia. It crushes the dignity both of the alleged aggressor and of the accusatory victims. The mere assertion of hurt feelings and threat of conflict suffices to silence, and being silenced leads to self-censorship.

A manifestation of these current political concepts is ‘no-platforming’ – a crude negation of the right to freedom of speech in favour of a tyranny, which trashes a dignity culture for a victimhood culture.

In order to stop or ‘un-platform’ speakers from speaking, crowds shout at them, disrupt their lectures or even physically assault them. Students also take control of the administrations and the Student Representative Councils, setting the rules to determine who may speak and how.

The victims of ‘no platforming’ are often unexpected – feminist Germaine Greer, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Brandeis University withdrew granting an honorary degree on women’s rights to Ayaan Hirsi Ali after a petition by 6 000 people accused her of “hate speech” against Islam because she denies that it is “a religion of peace”.

In The Closing of the American Mind, written in 1986, Allan Bloom, philosopher, academic and author, said that in modern nations “which have founded themselves on reason in its various uses more than did any nations in the past, a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis they face”.6.

Protests that began at Yale University from 2014 objecting to free speech, played a defining role in the extreme intolerance we now see, as the phenomenon erupted at South African universities soon afterwards.

Universities must stand up for the idea that it’s wrong to censor anyone or stifle debate, no matter who is offended and how many claim to be outraged. This culture of American university elites, however, crossed the Atlantic.  

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the first of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.


1. Camille Paglia: It’s Time for a New Map of the Gender World, Quillette, Interview by editor Claire Lehmann, 10 November 2018;

2. Jonathan Haidt: The 3 Factors that Caused the Fragile Generation, Interview on ‘HiddenForces.io', edited and published by YouTube on 7 September 2018;

3. William Deresiewicz: Power, class and the new campus religion, The American Scholar, Essays•Spring 2107, 6 March 2017;

4. A little history of 'politically correct’, The Washington Times - Editorial, 15 November 2015;           

5. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning: Understanding Victimhood Culture, Quillette, Interview by editor Claire Lehmann, 17 May 2018;

6. Allan Bloom: THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND - how Higher Education has failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987.