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Common Humanity Politics

Of all the subjects to weigh in on, free speech in US universities provokes perhaps the most fervid reactions.

In recent years, we have become used to new terms – trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, intersectionality among others – which are shaping the way students relate to one another and to their tutors. Speakers who offend certain norms are disinvited or no-platformed.


It is courageous of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (author of the hit book, The Righteous Mind) to expand an article published on The Atlantic’s website in 2015 into a whole book, The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin 2019) on the theme of academic free speech. As self-described liberals, they are well placed to critique campus developments and offer a nuanced and empathetic analysis of the subject. This is, however, unlikely to protect them from the self-appointed arbiters of woke. Even the impeccably liberal can suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of a debate.


The authors cite the work of Jean Twenge, who specialises in the study of generational differences and has identified some big ones between millennials and iGens (born between 1995 and 2012). This generation suffers much higher rates of anxiety and depression than their predecessors, especially among females, and Twenge notes the introduction of the smartphone as a key driver of this trend, especially among those with high screen use.


They are also subject to two societal trends which, though present before, have intensified. The first is political polarisation, which is reaching unprecedented heights in the US; the second is a culture of over-protective parenting. The tribal posturing of US political parties has become poisonous, unashamed and intentional in its desire to hurt rather than to heal. This was not so a generation ago, but little thought is given to its impact on those who are forming their first political opinions in this new landscape.


Lukianoff and Haidt describe two kinds of identity politics: common-humanity and common-enemy. The former was practised by Martin Luther King, who appealed to the humanity in those who opposed racial equality and found grounds in shared values and codes, like the US Constitution, to win them over in debate. Common-enemy politics is the milieu in which iGens are growing up and it encourages them to believe that life is a battle between good people and bad people (and that good people can never be bad and bad people never good).


iGens are not responsible either for political polarisation or helicopter parenting. Neither did they create the social architecture of the smartphone. But they are getting all the blame for the strange culture of intolerant wokeness creeping across the campus.


The whole debate has intensified following the riot at Berkeley in early 2017, when the provocative Milo Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking by acts of violence which physically harmed a number of people. It helped to establish the view that violence is justified to prevent speakers whose words would be violent. The notion that words are as violent as fists permits physical self-defence against people who will say things we find offensive. This is not a good place to arrive at.


Lukianoff and Haidt liken these developments to witch hunts that take different forms in new eras (from Salem’s witches to McCarthyite show trails to modern campuses). A common feature of the witch hunt is the way bystanders are intimidated into silence even when they know an injustice is being done or even join the crowd in self-protection.


Whether this campus phenomenon will die down or be inflamed remains to be seen. Either way, it is likely to have an effect on a generation of leaders who will inherit power in two or three decades from now at the most.


We seem to be entering an era of stigmatisation, where people are increasingly demonised if they don’t believe the things we do. As Christian people, here are some ways we might respond. The common-humanity position starts with God’s love for the people we don’t agree with. It suggests we should listen and be willing to have our own views probed. If we refuse to learn from people who disagree with us, we put our own development as human beings and as Christians at risk. It seems such a prosaic thing to state, but contemporary righteousness (wokeness, if you like) denies any need to do this.


A second response is for each of us to articulate and live by a set of values when posting online. The Church of England produced social media guidelines in July 2019. They elicited surprise in some quarters, as if the nanny Church was telling people how to live. But everyone who uses social media does well to reflect on the values they bring to it, for these values exist whether articulated or not. As Jesus might have said: message, as you would be messaged.


Finally, there is the wider public debate. Broadcast and print media love to focus on the peccadillos of so-called Generation Snowflake. No generation raises itself, but is enfolded in the culture and values of its parents. Older generations would do well to reflect on the political and social polarisations they have entrenched. iGens are simply picking up this baton and running with it in their chosen direction. If there is one quality we seem to lack together, it’s humility. This is not a bad place from which to reconcile with others.



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