The Age of Offence
The politics of outrage, and the crisis of free speech on campus
Among those invested in the notion that higher education is currently collapsing before our eyes, fewer pieces of evidence are proffered more frequently (or more uncritically) than the modern university’s supposed tendency to nurture and promote “offence taking” as a default attitude toward the world. Our universities, we are told, have discarded their traditional raison in order to become incubators of moral outrage. Administrators, having abandoned time-honoured liberal arts ideals, today quiver to the cheap thrill of indignation; professors, having given up on Shakespeare and the “great books,” now indoctrinate students in radical Marxist ideology and seek to cultivate a generation of “social justice warriors.” Our campuses have become closed, ideologically insular places that are hostile to the freedom of speech and intolerant of dissent.
This opinion—broadcast by bilious media personalities who have never listened in on a faculty meeting, have no knowledge of universities’ academic priorities and have not set foot in an undergraduate lecture since Trudeau père occupied 24 Sussex—is, unsurprisingly, a grotesque parody of the complex, often internally conflicted reality of modern institutions of higher learning.
Yet this view, however exaggerated, is not entirely baseless. An increasingly sensitive and fine-grained vocabulary for registering and opposing forms of sexism, racism, ableism and religious intolerance has undeniably been developing within higher education. Recent events in Canadian universities suggest not only that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to offend, but that those who position themselves as “offence takers” currently hold the balance of power at all levels of campus politics.
Just ask Andrew Potter, who has resigned from his role as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada over a column he wrote for Maclean’s criticizing the “social malaise” that he argued currently festers in Quebec. The essay—which observed that Quebec has the largest underground economy in Canada, the lowest levels of measurable trust of any province, and residents with the smallest networks of family and friends—elicited the outrage and condemnation of officials including Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, who said Potter’s views were “based on prejudices.” Less than 72 hours after the publication of the essay, the McGill Institute board of trustees thanked Potter for his “various achievements” and confirmed that it had accepted his resignation.
It was the second fracas in a week to bubble up in the mainstream media involving a university and questions of free speech. Earlier in March, Danielle Robitaille, part of Jian Ghomeshi’s legal defence team, had abruptly cancelled a speaking engagement at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus. Robitaille had been invited by the Criminology Student Association to discuss the role of women in the legal profession. According to a group of student protesters, however, Robitaille’s speech posed psychologically harmful effects to victims of gender-based violence. “We knew and witnessed impacts regarding sexual violence and individuals feeling triggered,” said Sarah Scanlon, of Laurier’s Diversity and Equity Office. Robitaille withdrew from the event, citing concerns for her personal safety. This was the second time in recent memory that Laurier found itself in a very public debate over free speech on campus: last December, the administration famously defended the firing of a café operator who had posted a sardonic job ad calling for “a new slave (full-time staff member) to boss (mentor) around Veritas Café.” The school explained that Laurier’s commitment to “being an inclusive, welcoming and respectful community” justified the firing.
And the Laurier incidents recall for some a case at the University of Ottawa in 2015, where a free yoga class was cancelled by the Centre for Students with Disabilities due to concerns over “cultural appropriation.” An official with the centre explained that, as yoga comes from cultures that “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”
These incidents differ in some important ways, and the conflict of perspectives evident would not surprise anyone familiar with universities. Intersecting fault lines of argument indicate the diversity of opinion that can flourish on campus, and any argument that posits “the university” as a singular, monolithic entity betrays a basic ignorance of how these institutions operate.
Still, the cases offer a revealing index of current power dynamics in various contexts within higher education. Many students, administrators and student services organizations currently find it morally compelling or politically expedient to take the side of offence takers—particularly (though not exclusively) when those taking offence are members of racial, sexual or religious minorities. Taking offence, or aligning oneself with those who have, has emerged as a kind of credential, a way of claiming one’s place within a righteous inner circle. The firings and cancelled speaking invitations join news stories about suspensions, the barring of white students from “safe spaces” and campus events, the refusal of mainstream stand-up comics such as Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock to perform on campuses—where, according to Rock, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”
Although media coverage does its work of simplification and amplification, the fact remains that, in certain quarters within the academy, the threshold for causing (and taking) offence has never been lower. A bad joke can bring down a student government. The wrong word can get you fired. Practising yoga could make you complicit in histories of imperial rape. Simply showing one’s face in certain places could induce a micro trauma in students from vulnerable communities.
Of course, at the precise moment when some academics were finessing a new vocabulary of microaggression—calibrating their social microscopes to make increasingly fine-grained distinctions between subtle forms of offence—Donald Trump was presiding over the indiscriminate demolition of the norms of civic discourse and an unprecedented coarsening of the public sphere. In mirror opposition to what was happening on campus, Trump has perfected what we might call a politics of macroaggression.
Before the U.S. election, expert opinion assured us that Trump’s categorical smearing of entire nationalities and religions was bound to backfire. It was a simple matter of demography: the candidate’s spasms of vulgarity may have titillated his base, but they also irretrievably alienated vast swaths of the electorate, including women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Evangelical Christians and Reagan Democrats.
Well, we know how all that worked out. The basic dynamic has continued into his presidency: Trump continues to cast the “fake news media,” West Coast judges and political opponents as elites, while railing against the bad “hombres” and “dudes” that he intends to deport or incarcerate. When Trump goes low, his approval ratings go high.
As it turned out, the diverse coalition of Trump skeptics—the unlikely confederacy of GOP insiders, neoconservatives, public relations professionals and leftists who were so certain of Trump’s defeat—had all stumbled into committing some version of what literary critics once called the affective fallacy. They presumed that voters, confronted with Trump’s boundless vulgarity, would feel what they felt, hear what they heard: a churlish demagogue spewing loathsome nonsense. Instead, what many voters heard—and apparently continue to hear—is an authentic appeal for liberty from a corrupt authority. The more Trump goaded his opponents into denouncing his latest outrage, the more evidence he appeared to garner of an institutionalized elite creeping ever further into the sovereign terrain of the private self. The actual execution was closer to performance art than a coherent political strategy, and its stunning effectiveness derived from the perfect continuity of media and message. It was Marshall McLuhan as rewritten by Huckleberry Finn: vulgarity is freedom.
We live in an age of offence. This is not to regurgitate the familiar claim that the internet enables more of what some consider offensive speech than was available in more innocent times. Rather, it is to recognize that offensiveness and offendability have emerged as our distinctive form of cultural literacy. Never has the taking of offence (and the performance of offended-ness) enjoyed more widespread cultural legitimacy.
Our current culture of offence taking has a history and a context. The capacity to recognize and name sources of injustice was constitutive of every progressive structural change in modern legal and political culture, from the elimination of Jim Crow to the institution of human rights laws to the liberalization of marriage. This basic impulse toward equity and social justice—harnessed by the civil rights, feminist and queer movements—was then nourished and informed by strands of post-structuralist philosophy that emphasized the reality-shaping function of language. If a generation of undergraduates took anything away from “theory,” it is the notion that language does not passively reflect, but actively constructs our social environments, and that the old binary between speech and action is therefore suspect. Offence taking, as a habit of mind, combines the attention to historical injustice with a cognizance of the ways in which our apparently natural, inherited modes of communication can cause a kind of “innocent” violence. The culture of offence taking would disabuse us of this innocence. Thanks to overlapping strands in liberal education, social justice movements and digital media, we now have access to an increasingly rich vocabulary to identify, distinguish and denounce sources of injustice. As a direct result, offensive speech—a cavalier willingness to puncture the doilied sensibilities of political correctness—has acquired a new potency.
On the political left, the capacity to articulate outrage toward offence reads as a sign of progressive thinking: taking offence is a marker of cultural status. On the populist right, a willingness to offend manifests as a brave repudiation of orthodoxy, or as base-level authenticity. In our digital communities—what the social scientist Sherry Turkle calls the “online real”—how we situate ourselves in relation to the prohibitions against and injunctions toward offensive speech constitutes an inescapable facet of self-presentation. Those who take to social media to support Trump’s Muslim ban or Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian values” test portray sensitivity to offensive speech as a sign of elite decadence; the offence takers, in turn, often construe the mildest impropriety as a sign of crypto-fascism or incipient barbarism. A commitment to the force and reality of offensive speech thus unites the neo-Nazi with the gender studies major. It is a grammar that informs (consciously or not) their every Facebook post, every tweet, every public utterance.
But what is offensive speech? The fluctuating (and always contested) historical standard for identifying discriminatory or otherwise hostile speech reveals that such language is not offensive because of any measurable property inherent to the speech itself. Rather, the offensiveness of the speech registers in the emotional response of the audience. This much is common sense: a joke isn’t funny if it must be explained; a speech act isn’t offensive if it doesn’t offend. The most toxic expression of anti-Semitism is perfectly inoffensive when uttered in the exclusive company of neo-Nazis. Short of positing some omniscient, God-like arbiter of offensive language, we must recognize that such speech is a socially constructed category produced by particular communities of people in particular historical moments. There is nothing inherently offensive about certain combinations of words.
The unavoidable corollary is that, because offensive speech does not exist in the world, offence can only ever occur when another human claims to have been offended. And who could possibly validate the claim of offence other than the offence-taking party itself? In his London Review of Books essay “What Are We Allowed to Say?” the Yale scholar David Bromwich quotes Tariq Modood, the director of Bristol University’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, who argues that “the group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission already provides this subjective understanding of offence taking with juridical force: “Discrimination happens,” the commission explains, “when a person experiences negative treatment or impact, intentional or not, because of their gender identity or gender expression [or other protected grounds].” The violation resides not in the intention of the offender, but in “experiences” and “impacts” perceptible only to the victim.
We can recognize that offensive speech is entirely subjective while also recognizing that its effects can be empirically real. Warnings about the emotional and mental harm caused by offensive speech is backed by a body of therapeutic literature that highlights the link between psychological and physical injury. In Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, Timothy Garton Ash quotes law scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, who write, “the immediate short-term harms of hate speech include rapid breathing, headaches, raised blood pressure, dizziness, rapid pulse rate, drug taking, risk-taking behavior and even suicide.” What starts as speech often ends in something more concrete.
But what would it mean to take seriously the subjective definition of offence? If hate speech, discrimination and less overt (i.e., systemic, unintentional, institutionalized) forms of offence can traverse the boundary from speech into action, then some will insist that we have a clear social obligation to curb hostile expression. Taken to its logical conclusion, Garton Ash contends, this would give “everyone a right to exercise a veto simply by pronouncing the words ‘I am offended’.” David Bromwich believes that, for all intents and purposes, this veto has already been granted. Words such as “right,” “feel” and “offended,” he claims, “all are coming to have legal definitions that carry immediate force … Feeling counts because feeling in the offended person is a dispositive fact: proof (which needs no further support) that a crime was committed. We are not far in America—is it just America?—from evolving a right to feel good about ourselves.”
In short, there is no debating another human being’s psychological pain. When a student group claims that vulnerable students have experienced an offence, then that offence has taken place. If Quebecers were offended by Andrew Potter’s characterization of their province, there is no denying that fact either. The question is, what is to be done about it?
The rebuttal, offered by a tradition of free-speech advocates extending from John Stuart Mill to Salman Rushdie, is that no one has the right not to be offended. Political actors will inevitably claim to be offended, and use their veto, for the same reason that such groups do anything: because it is expedient for them to do so. This is why Mill thought that the alleged offensiveness of a given speech act was a poor excuse for regulating it. If the “test” of permissible speech is “offence to those whose opinion is attacked,” Mill wrote, “experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer,” will be decried as “offensive.”
Of course, there are many flavours of offending speech. Bromwich cites those lines without recognizing that J.S. Mill (an eminently privileged English philosopher and member of Parliament) never had to think very deeply or sympathetically about the experience of, say, hate speech; he was approaching these philosophical problems from the perspective of someone who already had his hands on the levers of cultural power. Mill is surely right to observe that the cry of “I’m offended” often operates as a political bludgeon with which to silence an opponent. But the more interesting and challenging questions involve the actual uses of that bludgeon. Some political actors have used their moral indignation to effect positive social change—and their desire to chill certain kinds of speech is perfectly compatible with (or necessary to achieve) a more just society. At other times, groups may use their veto for the most craven political purposes. (The triggering of the offence mechanism in order to shut down debate, say, or to elicit the resignation of a high-profile academic—who is surely entitled to argue a point of view in a national magazine, and even to retract parts of it later.) In either case, the actual uses of that veto are never morally neutral.
The broader question, in today’s academic culture of offence taking, is not whether the offended party is to be recognized as the sole judge of offensive speech (which was settled long ago), but whether instances of offensive language require an offended party at all. No sooner had the subjective understanding of offence taking (the idea that offence only ever exists in the minds of the offended) been accepted than academic theoreticians of offence began to insist the opposite: that forms of racial, sexual or gender-based offence exist—and even thrive—precisely where no one had ever registered the offence. From this perspective, exemplified by the Graduate Student Union at Laurier, casual use of the word “slave” really is offensive, regardless of whether anyone took offence. The presumption is that the use of the word slave perpetuated an unconscious or systemic form of racism that was all the more insidious precisely because no one had recognized it as such. After all, is it not true that, throughout history, many decent citizens—socially conscious, progressive, forward-thinking people—nevertheless participated in subtle forms of racist thought and action without ever recognizing their own racism? Isn’t there something particularly treacherous about the racist comment that does not offend?
The root of the university’s image problem lies in this final turn, from a common-sense understanding of offence as subjective to the idea that offence-causing speech is, in fact, objectively real—and that it is never more real than when it is operating at an invisible or ideological level. To the graduate student or professor steeped in Althusser, Gramsci, Fanon or Žižek, the suggestion that the worst forms of (say) racism are operating on such an engrained, unconscious level that we are not even aware of them as racist will be uncontroversial. However, to anyone outside those circles, including many classical liberals—the academic leftists’ natural allies in the fight for progressive values—the notion that we need a new professional class of exorcists to detect offensive speech and re-educate the public mind comes across as self-interested charlatanism.
The culture of offence taking arose from intellectual and activist traditions that have created tangible (and as yet only partially realized) social gains for historically marginalized communities. But we cannot afford to ignore that some contemporary adherents of those progressive traditions are easily cast as hucksters and snake-oil salesmen in the current political climate. Nor should we ignore the very real costs for those who, for whatever reason, fail to adapt to the new landscape of microagression. The question, today, is how to effect progressive social change without actively contributing to the right-wing parody of academia, leaving large numbers of well-intentioned people behind and bolstering the compensatory offensiveness of Trumpism.
One prominent way of conceptualizing the link between the offence-taking culture of microaggression and the offence-giving culture of macroaggression, in the days after Trump’s victory, was to blame the latter on the former. This is essentially Mark Lilla’s approach in “The End of Identity Liberalism,” an essay for the New York Times in which Lilla, a humanities professor, argues that “campus diversity consciousness” had percolated down through the liberal media into every facet of American politics. To understand their own complicity in the creation of Trumpism, Lilla claims, campus liberals need to recognize the ways in which “their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.” The vitriol of such voters, who live in predominantly white enclaves, is less a rejection of “real” diversity than it is a repudiation of the “omnipresent rhetoric of identity” whose principal origin is the university campus.
Lilla’s assessment of Trumpism overemphasizes the power of campus diversity consciousness and radically underestimates the role of the so-called alt-right media in actively stoking race and gender-based hatred. He gives short shrift indeed to the progressive social outcomes that have resulted from this “consciousness.” But Lilla is correct to push us to think about the actual political consequences of our intentions. One of the great rhetorical achievements of our time has been the right-wing media’s ability to bamboozle vast swaths of people into accepting that the recognition of minority rights is actually part of an “elite” political agenda: Muslim, African American and LGBTQ communities (among other beneficiaries of “diversity consciousness”) become manifestations of the cultural elite, and are therefore worthy of skepticism and contempt (if not deportation). In this populist perversion of reality, the university plays a vital rhetorical role in transforming the most disadvantaged communities into the most advantaged, the most downtrodden into the most privileged.
In short, the rhetoric of diversity consciousness has been weaponized in a campaign to subvert the political agenda for which it was originally fashioned. Nowhere is that clearer than in the word “diversity” itself, a once vaguely progressive sounding (and now meaningless) word that has been appropriated by the full spectrum of political (and corporate) operators. Consider David Duke’s “Paradigm for True Human Diversity,” available on his website, in which the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer affirms that:
every people and culture has the right to preserve its unique expression of Humanity, that every people has the right to maintain and enrich its unique culture, to nurture its particular expressions of art, music, literature, philosophies, architecture, religion, diet, traditions and values.
Today, neo-Nazis and university administrators can link arms and sing in celebration of diversity as a cultural value. But the lesson here is not only that the rhetoric of diversity and inclusivity has been weaponized in the promotion of white nationalistic propaganda (although Duke’s intended audience will immediately grasp that recognizing “difference” is a necessary first step in establishing more permanent racial hierarchies). To the contrary, words such as diversity and inclusivity were always weaponized—and never more obviously than when they are used by liberals themselves. When administrators at Laurier invoke inclusivity to justify the firing of an insufficiently race-conscious employee, they reveal that the primary function of such language always involves the consolidation of political power: inclusivity is predicated upon the violent expulsion of those identified as unfit for the enlightened new order. Inclusivity only becomes inclusive through repeated acts of exclusion.
In the late stages of the U.S. presidential election, the simmering conflict between the opposing sides of offence culture came to a head at the University of Toronto. On September 27, psychology professor Jordan Peterson posted a YouTube video called “Professor Against Political Correctness.” The video was an hour-long diatribe against Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. What really provoked the ire of his opponents, however—and turned the incident into a cause célèbre—was Peterson’s stated refusal to address his students by their preferred gender pronouns:
I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them … I think [gender-neutral pronouns] are connected to an underground apparatus of radical left political motivations. I think uttering those words makes me a tool of those motivations. And I’m going to try and be a tool of my own motivations as clearly as I can articulate them and not the mouthpiece of some murderous ideology.
It was characteristic of arguments against “political correctness” that Peterson’s most urgent case study—the coercion to use ze, hir, zhe, em and so on—existed in the realm of pure fantasy. No student had ever actually asked him to use those pronouns; no administrator had instructed him to do so. No matter: he would courageously refuse a request that had never been made.
In the course of the various protests and debates that followed, Peterson exposed himself as ignorant of many of the finer legal and scholarly facts upon which his case rested: Bill C-16 does not make it a hate crime to misuse a pronoun; there was not a “remote” chance that his infringement of the Ontario Human Rights Code could land him in prison, a Solzhenitsyn of our times; and there is a large body of scholarly literature recognizing the existence of non-binary sexual expression and orientation.
But despite the imprecision and falseness of much of what he spoke, Peterson could always revert to the fallback position that he was, after all, speaking, and should be free to do so. His basic message—that you could oppose a “murderous” radical-left ideology through boorish behaviour directed toward sexual minorities—was a message that some people were perfectly attuned to hear in the fall of 2016. Peterson was at his most persuasive when defending his argument in free speech terms—a defence that had nothing to do with gender, the law or the linguistic evolution of singular versus plural pronouns, and everything to do with the claim that his opponents wanted him silenced.
This claim was persuasive because it was true. Peterson’s adversaries were quite open about the fact that they wanted him fired or otherwise muzzled. In some cases, such as when protesters brought a white-noise machine to a rally, this silencing was literal. When the U of T agreed to host a forum about the debate, the Queer Caucus of CUPE 3902, a trade union representing 7,000 U of T sessional and contract staff, called for a boycott of an event that they claimed “questions the legitimacy of trans rights.”
In agreeing to hold the forum in the first place, the U of T had struck an uneasy middle ground between the two cultures of offence. On the one hand, the university allowed Peterson to undercut his own argument (that he was being silenced) by handing him a megaphone. Free speech was given its due. On the other, by “arranging for support” just outside the auditorium for those who felt overwhelmed by Peterson’s speech, the university gave credence to the suggestion that Peterson’s views really were psychologically harmful. And if that were the case—if Peterson’s speech did cross the line from speech into harmful action, if it constituted “hate speech,” as Professor Mary Bryson explicitly alleged during the forum—then the university had indeed provided a platform to a hate-monger.
Where do we go from here? Some will see the popular legitimation of Trumpist macroaggression (alongside the rise of right-wing media: Breitbart and Drudge in the United States, Rebel Media in Canada) as further evidence that now, more than ever, the university needs to be inclusive and respectful of difference—a safe space where diversity is valued and students are sheltered from the atavistic forces ascendant in the wider political culture. On our increasingly cosmopolitan, diverse and globalized campuses, we must remain ever vigilant against naturalizing our own assumptions and cognizant of the minor yet morally important ways in which offensive speech can be an impediment to learning.
This approach will involve the re-entrenchment and expansion both of implicit norms and explicit disciplinary measures for curbing the freedom of expression. There will be more cultural sensitivity training, more censorship, more calling out, more exclusions to preserve the purity of inclusivity. The right-wing media will continue to do its work. The university will appear increasingly ridiculous, brittle and irrelevant.
The classical liberal rebuttal is that we need more speech, not less, and that treating students as so psychologically delicate and fragile as to be traumatized by disagreeable speech is infantilizing. Here, the offence-taking student or group in question is told to grow a thicker skin. The proper response to offensive speech is additional speech, preferably in the form of a dignified and well-reasoned rebuttal. This is a position favoured by Timothy Garton Ash, when he asks: “Do we want to be the kind of human beings who are habitually at the ready to take offence, and our children to be educated and socialized that way? Do we wish our children to learn to be adults or our adults to be treated like children? Should our role model be the thin-skinned identity activist who is always crying, ‘I am offended’?”
Anyone who has attempted to converse with the online homophobe or neo-Nazi (whose utterances are typically clogged with hashtags like #WhiteGenocide or #AllLivesMatter) will immediately recognize the futility of the “more speech” argument. Bigots are not famously receptive to dispassionate ratiocination (“Yes, after further deliberation I have concluded that blacks are not sub-human after all”) and anyway, the notion that the pain and humiliation caused by racist or religious epithets are somehow ameliorated by additional speech is wishful thinking. This is Stanley Fish’s argument in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech … and It’s a Good Thing, Too, in which he argues that the freedom of any speech always emerges against the backdrop of what is unsayable. In Fish’s words,
when someone observes, as someone surely will, that antiharassment codes chill speech, one could reply that since speech only becomes intelligible against the background of what isn’t being said, the background of what has already been silenced, the only question is the political one of which speech is going to be chilled, and, all things considered, it seems a good thing to chill speech like “nigger,” “cunt,” “kike,” and “faggot.” And if someone then says, “But what happened to free-speech principles?” one could say … free-speech principles don’t exist except as a component in a bad argument in which such principles are invoked to mask motives that would not withstand close scrutiny.
Anyone opposed to the teaching of Holocaust denialism in public schools has already abandoned the fantasy of free speech; the truth is that what is sayable in any society always has to be balanced against what is unsayable, and what remains unsaid. Fish argues that we must be particularly wary of those who would cloak their own agenda beneath the veil of abstract principle—“I’m for free speech,” or “I’m for diversity.” Such slogans are almost always intended to conceal the actual political motives and stakes of the speech under consideration. The real question is: what is such speech intended to do?
The modern university’s provisional and tactical embrace of the logic of microaggression and offence taking did not (contra Lilla) cause the current eruption of Trumpist macroaggression. But the fetishization of moral outrage contributes to a social feedback loop that, in turn, construes offensive speech as a kind of incantatory black magic, capable of producing trauma and sickening minds. Students pick up on the institutional signals, which at this moment seem to confirm that racist, sexist, and homo- and trans-phobic language really does have the power to wound. Whether that message will equip students for the brutalities that await is one question. Another involves the ethical stakes of an education that encourages students to internalize language that constrains, circumscribes or unduly shapes their identity.
Students today, as Mark Kingwell argued in the Globe and Mail, are not “snowflakes.” Millennials are no more fragile or precarious than students of any previous generation. Rather, students today must be educated into their own unique sense of fragility, and some factions within the modern university have found it politically efficacious to provide that education. One can recognize that hateful speech must be chilled while also recognizing that offence taking as a default response to the world is politically nugatory and often self-defeating.
What is clear now—as Donald Trump prepares to unleash another round of executive orders, and as the likes of Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary fire up their populist engines, hoping to rekindle the latent forces of conservatism in this country—the culture of offence is here to stay. The urgent question for all of us is how to operate within that culture—how to advance a progressive political agenda without contributing to further polarization and fuelling the rise of aspiring demagogues. We can recognize that political correctness is a phantom construction of the cultural right while also recognizing that the popular perception of that phantom remains a politically charged force—and that we can play a strategic role in neutralizing it.
A first step will involve recognizing that the very distinction between offence taking and offence giving construes one side of the debate as fragile, responsive and hypersensitive, and the other as robust, active and resilient. The truth, as anyone familiar with the president’s Twitter feed can attest, is that Trump himself is constantly taking offence—from the New York Times, from the cast of Hamilton, from Meryl Streep. As an incubator of blind outrage and wounded indignation, the academy pales in comparison with what Trumpism has been able to achieve.
Cathartic as it would be to savour the countless instances in which Trump has proven himself to be congenitally thin-skinned and easily offended, squabbles over offendability will only distract from our most urgent priorities in the current power struggle. The defeat of Trumpism will be a long-term project, involving continuous judicial exertion and radical political innovation. But we also need to devise new ways of speaking to one another, new ways of communicating across difference, and this is a project for which those in higher education may be uniquely suited. At a minimum, we must refuse to contribute to a populist cultural support mechanism that feeds on our well-intentioned outrage. Short-circuiting Trump’s engine of resentment and indignation is not, of course, any sort of political end in itself; it is only the necessary precondition for reimagining the more equitable future that many progressives thought we had already achieved.