By Nick Whigham at News.com Australia
THERE’S something in the water and it’s turning America mad.
Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), groups of mostly young, mostly university students, are waging a bitter war with the cultural establishment of the nation and it’s turning increasingly nasty.
Those who proudly adopt the title express a mix of sensitivity to social issues coupled with an aggressive and almost militant outrage at any perceived injustice. But their incendiary tactics have sparked a huge backlash from professors, journalists and commentators around the country as a culture war that has been bubbling under the surface for some time is on the verge of exploding.
Those on the other side accuse SJWs of using fear mongering and bullying to police language, enforce censorship and unfairly discredit those who deviate from their position.
“If there is any silver lining in this dark cloud, it’s that the social-justice faith is so grim, so angry, and so arrogant that it can prosper only through intimidation and coercion,” conservative columnist David French wrote in the National Review this week.
The American political landscape is sharply divided with those on the fringes commanding a vast portion of commentary. While Australians may have viewed the extreme right wing as holding a monopoly over membership to the mad hatters, the SJWs, considered to be on the extreme left, seem intent on balancing the scale.
‘IT IS NOT ABOUT CREATING AN INTELLECTUAL SPACE’
The latest headline-grabbing incident that’s been played out in this war is the cancellation of free yoga classes at Ottawa University because of concerns of cultural appropriation.
The weekly class had been running since 2008 and was enjoyed by both disabled and able-bodied students. The backlash to the decision was biting with an online torrent of criticism levelled at the student union’s victory.
Even though it took place in Canada, it’s just one of many bitter disputes dividing university campuses across North America.
This month, protests erupted on the campus of Yale University after the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to the student body asking them to avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” Halloween costumes that could offend minority students.
In response, Erika Christakis, a faculty member and administrator at a student residence wrote an email to her resident students on behalf of those who felt “frustrated” by the official advice.
“Increasingly, it seems, they (universities) have become places of censure and prohibition,” she wrote.
Her email sparked a firestorm of anger and spurred protests that became a massive news story in the US.
A video posted to YouTube on November 6 showed a student screaming in the face of Nicholas Christakis during, husband to Ms Christakis and a faculty member who works in the same residential college.
“Other people have rights as well as you,” he can be heard telling an angry crowd in the video.
“Who the f*** hired you?” a female student screamed in retaliation. “This is not about creating an intellectual space, it is not, do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.”
An open letter penned by upset students which accused Ms Christakis’ email of supporting stereotypes that “further degrade marginalised people” attracted a number of perplexed and ridiculing comments.
“Stupidity beyond words. So much for free speech, eh?,” wrote one commenter.
“As a father I am seriously reconsidering the wisdom of investing in my children’s higher education,” wrote another.
Also this month, ongoing protests at Missouri University by students irate over what they saw as insufficient action on stopping racism led to the resignation of both the university president and the school’s chancellor, in what the New York Timesdescribed as a “coup”.
Bitter protests lasting months were a product of a number of issues, and at the core of these was a grievance from a group of students that the university didn’t take racial slurs directed at a black student president seriously enough because of institutional racism.
A video emerged of students and a faculty member ejecting a student journalist from covering the protests, claiming the photographer was impeding on their “safe space”. The footage sparked heated debate with many accusing the protesters of censorship and bullying.
These two campuses have dominated the headlines but there has been no shortage of battles being fought across American universities in the name of social inclusion.
In April, administrators at Stevenson college in California were forced to apologiseafter a “space-themed” school event served burritos and a student complained that it inferred an insulting link between Mexicans and illegal aliens.
University of California Santa Cruz administrator Dr. Carolyn Golz swiftly issued a public apology for serving Mexican food saying: “This incident demonstrated a cultural insensitivity on the part of the program planners and, though it was an unintentional mistake, I recognise that this incident caused harm within our community and negatively impacted students.”
It has also become more common for speakers with different views from SJW groups to be banned or disinvited to talk on university campuses. According to advocacy group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) the number of speakers that were disinvited due to student concerns over their views reached “unprecedented proportions” in 2014.
Earlier this year, a male student at an Oregon University was reportedly prohibitedthis year from having contact with a female student — denying him access to his classes, residence, and job — because he resembled another man who had committed a sexual assault against her.
TEACHERS ARE RUNNING SCARED
The term “Social Justice Warrior” first started appearing online around 2009 but has only been commonly used in the past couple of years to describe the rabble-rousing political collectives that are predominantly concerned with identity politics, such as topics of race and gender.
And many of those who adopt the self-appointed title take the “warrior” component of the name seriously.
Some have explained the rise of the SJWs as a product of any new generation’s desire to rebel – that the movement is simply born out of a timeless compulsion for the youth to revolt against the status quo.
But as seen in the events at Missouri University, it can be high stakes and those who feel wronged are out for blood, and teachers are running scared.
In June this year, a professor at a “mid-size state school” writing under the pseudonym of Edward Schlosser, wrote an article for Vox claiming his liberal students “terrify” him. He said he no longer discusses contentious issues such as abortion in class out of fear of offending or “triggering” the emotional sensitivities of a student and losing his job as a result.
“While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate,” he wrote.
He is not the only one.
“The safest route is always to be quite and give students what they want,” academic and university lecturer Fredrik Deboer said.
Sociology Professor at University of North Carolina, Wilmington, Mike Adams,wrote in August that “if we don’t reverse this dangerous trend in our society there will soon be a majority of young people who will need to walk around in plastic bubble suits to protect them in the event that they come into contact with a dissenting viewpoint.”
“Even those who agree entirely with the presumed politics of campus activists should be concerned.” Mr Deboer wrote in a recent essay.
On Tuesday, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Dr Everett Piper, joined the growing chorus. He penned an article decrying hyper sensitivity on campuses and telling students, “this is not a day care. It’s a University!”
Schools: University of North Carolina – Wilmington University of California, Santa Cruz University of Missouri – Columbia Yale University Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech Yale University: Protesters at Yale Threaten Free Speech, Demand Apologies and Resignations from Faculty Members Over Halloween Email