by Ryan McIlhenny
The number of white supremacist incidents, including racially-motivated hate crimes on colleges campuses across the country, have increased over the last few months. Many of the leaders of such hate-saturated gatherings, as in the case of white nationalist and UVA alum Richard Spencer, have had a strategic interest in spreading their message via academia, seeking perhaps to legitimize this extreme form of nationalism and remove it from the anti-intellectual fringe where it’s often assumed to reside. Such gatherings have ended in violence to one degree or another. An education, to borrow from Martha Nussbaum, “is no guarantee of good behavior, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior.” Ignorance is either a matter of not knowing, which may include either not wanting to know, as in the case of an individual’s willful suppression of truth options, or being deprived of the opportunity to know, as in the efforts of those in power to keep the knower in the unknown. There has been a lot of bad behavior on campuses throughout the country, and the question is, if we take Nussbaum seriously, whether such behavior is connected to that latter form of ignorance.
An additional question needs to be raised as to whether the increase in violence is symptomatic of a society that has become comfortable with its lack of interest in public discourse. The dilemma that university leaders face in deciding whether to allow such activities to occur on their respective campuses begs the question as to the central telos of higher education. The university stands at a crossroad, and a decision is needed as to which direction it will go, whether it will cast off its foolish consistency in preserving the hegemonic forces that have arrested the development of the mind or renew itself as the last place to question and possibly upset the status quo. The zealous efforts of administrators to create “safe spaces” has consumed the university’s intellectual task. It seems as though everything in academia, including ideas, are now potentially “unsafe.” With the number of unforeseeable “triggers” that bind the intellectual freedoms of teaching faculty, it is increasingly difficult for students to understand how to engage saliently disturbing manifestations of hate against humanity. In the absence of words and in the suppression of dialogical skills that some in the past have referred to as argumentation, one way to get an idea across is by force, whether through overt violence on campus or the more creative disciplinary methods utilized by administrators.
Neoliberalism depends on forms of discipline and violence, so it should be no surprise that violence is, to borrow from Monty Python, “inherent in the system.”
There seems to be something lacking, however, in the notion that the appearance of violence on the college campus (not to mention the wider public and private world) is symptomatic of the failure to develop communication skills. It seems equally misguided to think—especially given the increase in the number of public shootings over the last few years—that such outbursts of violence are unaccountable aberrations. The argument presented here is not that the loss of what a university education should provide beyond simply job placement leads inevitably to violence, but that the neoliberal-driven institution, where power is concentrated in the hands of dictatorial professional administrators, should not make outbreaks of violence all that surprising. Neoliberalism depends on forms of discipline and violence, so it should be no surprise that violence is, to borrow from Monty Python, “inherent in the system.”
Modes of violence are an essential part of these ideologically-driven institutions that seek to create passive, docile, and zombie-like slaves to serve the interests of the market. The move from dialogue to violent “bad behavior” on the university campus is partly the result of the corporatization of higher education, where consumers (students) are trained by predominately contingent laborers (faculty) under the all-powerful conspicuous hand of management (administration) for an education that serves the interests of a corporate neoliberal establishment. Since the 1970s an increasing number of universities and colleges have corrupted higher education in this way—becoming vocationally focused, obsessively outcomes-based, and consumer oriented. Students, parents, and power-hungry top-level administrators demand textbook answers that can be quickly measured by a simplistic internal rubric as well as assumed profitability. Educators from elementary school teachers to tenured professors are compelled to produced bite-sized consumable and market-conducive facts, spending more time tied up with the latest pedagogical fad rather than exploring ultimate concerns about the self, the world, and one’s place in it.
The information age has intensified this packaged pedagogy, calcifying half-baked ideas communicated through a restricted number of characters and sealing them off from much larger interconnected vistas that produce not only meaningful dialogue but meaning itself. Speed, efficiency, immediacy—these seem to be the bench marks of a “healthy” economy and hence the success of a developed society. Spending time in dialogue without instantaneous results (assessment) or a commercial end is a fiscal waste of time. Communication outlets like Facebook and Twitter, with their context-absent status updates, do not provide the format for critically engaged communications, despite the views of users to the contrary. And niche news feeds also allow individuals to stay within the confines of their own political ideology (FOX News, MSNBC, etc.), speaking only with like-minded people and pointing out the flaws of “others,” never speaking with them. Deep down we accept as free speech only that with which we agree. Popular media is a navel-gazing spectacle where audiences regurgitate the same herd speak, applauding or jeering what appeals to their passions. Outcomes-obsessed administrators have allowed the information economy to shape the intellectual culture of higher education. Knowledge comes to us by way of individually wrapped yet incoherent morsels. And if communication shapes the way society thinks, then members of society will continue to think in tweets, hashtags, and rehearsed political rants. There’s no cultivated organic thought or meditation on difficult issues, and hence very little dialogue.
Another symptom of the corporatization of higher education is top-down managerial authoritarianism, which has created a context hostile to public discourse. Helicopter administrators, the primary champions of the neoliberal model, have dictated the terms of academic life for both students and professors. (Indeed, the corporate model allows those at the top to strengthen their power. At many schools, administrators have become absolute, going so far as to enslave inept and herd-minded board members.) For instance, professors who instruct beyond the time-restrictive parameters of fifteen minutes or who fail to use poster-board and a motley array of sharpies are deemed ineffective and therefore pressured to employ the latest popular convulsive methods that exacerbate a fractured mind. Likewise, administrators have the tools readily available to retaliate against anyone who dares question their decisions. Few administrators, especially the pseudo-intellectual hyper-social justice types, focally obsessed not with educating but preserving their own positions, have an interest in dialogue. Absorbing the neoliberal model has reinforced their managerial authoritarianism, becoming the raison d’etre of contemporary academic governance.
The move from dialogue to violent “bad behavior” on the university campus is partly the result of the corporatization of higher education.
The corporate model with its authoritarian elite class has transmogrified most campuses not into places of safety but of fear. Management does not like to see its directives interrupted by those who would slow it down by spending time asking critical questions about their management styles. An increasing number of students and faculty members are becoming less and less interested in speaking freely on campuses for fear of retaliation by administrators. According to Greg Lukianoff, author of Unlearning Liberty, “[a] study of 24,000 students conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2010 revealed that only around 30 percent of college seniors strongly agreed with the statement that ‘It is safe to have unpopular views on campus.’ The numbers are even worse for faculty, the people who know campus the best: only 16.7 percent of them strongly agreed with the statement.” “Many faculties,” according to Henry Giroux, are “governed by fear rather than by shared responsibilities, one that is susceptible to labor-bashing tactics such as increased workloads, the casualization of labor, and the growing suppression of dissent.”
And this is what many administrators want: the creation of compliant and docile drones who will slavishly preserve to the capitalist status quo. A corporate culture is always already hostile to dialogue. Management hates to be questioned, and it has creatively used its authority to silence those who do. It’s no wonder that students lack the skills of critical dialogue and that faculty members have either avoided addressing administrators or fear teaching the skill of argumentation: people are hesitant to speak for fear of backlash. It is much easier for those in power to dictate and not discuss, hence the reason why administrators will employ various means of discipline (e.g., the use of police, campus safety policies, austerity measures, or abusive administrative inquiries) to neutralize—not engage—those with whom they disagree. Many administrators have successfully relegated the dialectics of thought, enabling the “bad behavior” that refuses to address the critical issues of today.
The university should equip students for critical reading, listening, and thinking for the purposes of drawing soft conclusions about how to live in the world. Such an education, especially one drawn from the liberal arts, invites students to listen and meditate on the works of a variety of writers across time—writers who have offered a rich (and often dangerous) perspective on the world. Critical thinking begins with listening. Yes, even listening to what we may consider irrational nonsense as in the case of Alt-Right supremacists. And true active listening cannot be done without empathy. In Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael Roth writes, “Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.” Empathetic listening itself advances the health of the world. Listening leads to reflection; both empathetic listening and reflecting constitute thinking.
With empathy as its guiding function, thinking is done within a social context with the goal of advancing the health of both self and others. To say it differently, dialogue is the process of self-becoming; it’s what makes us human. What’s lost on the racist, and in some cases the antiracist, is a concern—an empathy, if you will—for humans. This means that listening, reflecting, and thinking, the necessary starting points for dialogue, are also lost. Let’s consider the disposition of the racist. Racism, in all its forms, is contrary to the goals of higher education, since it seeks the destruction of humanity. One may qualify this by saying that technically racism seeks to destroy a portion of humanity, to elevate one group above another. But this will not do. Destroying a portion of humanity is to threaten discussions on what it means to be human in general; elevating one group over another eliminates humanity itself. The racist who privileges his or her own “civilization” is complicit in their own self-dehumanization, since they seek to become meta-human, attempting to position themselves in a godlike status. (They have, in essence, rejected the humanities, as so many in society have done.) It is not that dialogue is humane; rather, dialogue is the very process of becoming human. There is no humanity without it; avoiding dialogue, regardless of where a person stands on the political spectrum, comes at a great price to humanity. Neoliberal administrators are likewise guilty of harming the development of humanity when they suppress dialogue, when they act as de facto dictators.
Deep down we accept as free speech only that with which we agree.
Empathetic listening and thinking should inspire courageous—and at times confrontational—communications. Faculties need to speak truth not only to the dehumanizing hate that comes from without, but also the dehumanizing neoliberal authoritarianism from within. The only way to preserve free speech and inquiry is not just to do more of it, but to speak directly to those in authority who have worked to relegate such freedom. Academia seems to be coming closer to abandoning its chief end and with it the opportunity to explore the richness and complexity of the human condition. Contests between politically charged groups like the Alt-Right and Antifa will remain essentially meaningless (and no less harmful) performances if intellectuals continue to ignore the conditions that have kept more citizens from a radical engagement of society. At its core, neoliberalism is fueled by degrees of discipline that will not tolerate open discussion for fear that it may threaten those at the top and disrupt the status quo. Intellectuals have a high calling to pursue truth, however difficult or messy such a task may be. And, indeed, dialogue is messy, offensive, and threatening, but offensive and threatening to those in power. Faculty members need to muster the courage to challenge the “bad behavior” of administrators who have allowed ignorance and violence to denigrate higher learning.
Ryan McIlhenny, Ph.D., is a liberal arts professor living, teaching, and writing in Shanghai, China. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 80.
 Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (New York: Encounter Books, 2014), 9.
 Henry Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 16.
 Michael Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 23.