Rough Thoughts on ‘Wokeness and Myth on Campus’

Alan Jacobs has a thought-provoking piece in The New Atlantis in which he explores some of the underlying dynamics of protests surrounding controversial speech on campus. You should read his piece before you read the rest of this post, which will be some hastily assembled remarks on his argument (I’ve given myself a time limit of two and a half hours in which to write this post).


The Irrationality of Woke Thought

There is a common impression that ‘woke’ progressives are relativists. This impression is understandable, yet mistaken. Jacobs’ emphasis on the distinction between the ‘mythical’ and the ‘technological’ helps to explain why. Progressives are in fact absolutist zealots, yet their position does not find its centre of gravity in the realm of rational theory. However, due to the pull that the mythical exerts upon the realm of the technological and the need to articulate oneself technologically to lay claim to public recognition, they will speak in ways that appear illogical or relativistic.

The sacred duty to support and validate the victim leads to technological discourse being established as a façade over the mythical conviction. Yet, the technological discourse is treated as an extension of the mythical, so that one cannot challenge the theoretical rationalizations advanced for the sake of victims without violating the sacred victims themselves. To seek to protect the designated victim without affirming the truth of the ideology by which they validate and assert their identities would be to become complicit in their oppression. Hence progressives fawn over people like Ta-Nehisi Coates or certain Muslims, without considering just how inconsistent their values are with liberal values in many respects.

This can produce a host of inconsistencies at the level of technological discourse. However, we would be mistaken to think that these inconsistencies are of pressing concern to those who hold them. What appears as technological discourse is chiefly a veiled extrusion of mythical values into a more public realm. The technological discourse is not revelatory of the underlying posture of the ‘woke’ themselves, but rather a means to present their sacred values in the form of the high language of science and theory—the language of rule in our society.

Inconsistencies are often seen surrounding issues of gender and sexuality, where the ‘woke’ will advance positions that are at one point radically constructivist and the next radically biologically determined. If you highlight typical brain differences between the sexes, you will be attacked as a ‘neurosexist’ by Cordelia Fine and other such feminists. [It should be noted here that the differences in view are akin to the differences between male and female faces: not absolute, but cumulative slight differences in distributions that can produce readily distinguishable kinds when regarded in the aggregate, i.e. men and women are distinguishable despite extensive similarities and that the differences between them will be most pronounced at extremes.] To recognize significant brain differences between the sexes is to threaten the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between men and women are merely socially constructed, without any basis in biology.

However, when it comes to trans persons, the concerns are very different, so many of the ‘woke’ will leap on supposed evidence that trans people have the brain of the sex with which they identify. Likewise, many of the same people who are outraged by the idea that biology might be related to behavioural differences between the sexes when it comes to women as victims of the patriarchy will assert that LGBT persons are ‘born that way’ and will point to differences in childhood toy and play preferences as evidence of their atypical sex or sexual identities. There isn’t a coherent theory of sex and sexuality here, even though there are plenty of ways in which the more complicated picture presented by the actual science can be selectively and inconsistently appealed to in support of positions that are in fact contradictory.

The sense of relativism is further strengthened by the fact that the sacredness of the victim, coupled with a sense of the psychological threat presented by contrary viewpoints, means that the woke constantly tether their more distinct personal convictions to the stake of individual choice and self-expression, so that their convictions don’t get loose and run into their neighbours’ yards. While the woke feel the need to push both the ideology of victimhood and the validating ideologies of victims into the public realm, they will carefully withdraw and privatize other convictions.

For instance, the progressive Christian will be wary not to assert the Lordship of Christ in a manner that seems to threaten, invalidate, or challenge the strongly held beliefs of other persons. They will observe a strong ideological non-aggression pact, expressing their own beliefs in a manner that presents them as private expressions of their personal choice, while carefully downplaying the objective force of those beliefs.


A Self Without a Skin

When you look closer at the sacred values of the woke, a lot of them arguably boil down, not to communally held quasi-religious convictions, but to fundamentally existential concerns. Of course, these concerns get expanded into or related to more mythical notions such as ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘whiteness’, but it seems to me that even the concept of the ‘mythical’, with its sense of an essentially metaphysical posture, doesn’t quite go far enough in analysing the situation here. At the root in a great many cases is something much more raw, existential, and emotional. The categories that woke persons routinely reach for, categories of safety and violence, should be considered here.

Equality, non-discrimination, tolerance, inclusion, affirmation, safe spaces, etc. are all values that ultimately seem to relate to the most primal needs of unthreatened existence and secure belonging, to the desire of everyone for a recognized, valued, and protected place in relationship with those around them. The primal force of these values needs to be appreciated, as does the profoundly felt vulnerability of many of the people who express them. The woke often speak as if their existence and the safety of their community (or those of the people for whom they are ‘allies’) were under direct threat or assault: we should take this expressed sense seriously.

The behaviour of many such persons is indicative of a sort of self without a skin, a self that is hyper-sensitive to its environment and neighbours. Having a skin enables us to operate in unsterile environments, because there is a barrier between our flesh and the environment around us, protecting us from most infections. The self needs a sort of skin too, a barrier between it and the environments in which it finds itself, enabling it to function in environments that would harm the self were it not so protected. The self without a skin will either be engaged in constant immune reaction against threats in its environment, will quarantine itself off from the environment, will seek to sterilize its environment, or will be broken down by its environment. Such a ‘pristine self’ must be exposed to nothing but affirmation and support and protected from all threats.

What would it mean for a self to have a ‘skin’? The ‘skin’ for the self is anything that enables the self to differentiate itself from its environment and other persons around it. The self’s skin could be a person’s robust agency, which is closely related to self-differentiation. It could be a secure, stable, and loving home that provides a sense of unthreatened belonging and acceptance at the heart of a person’s life, something immune to the assaults that the self might experience elsewhere. The skin of the self is formed by the many ways in which the self is distinguished from its neighbours. By the maintenance of temporal intervals between action and response. By physical space between people and between their communities. By spaces of solitude and retreat from socially saturated or emotionally charged environments. By a measure of segregation without general separation of the sexes, generations, communities, etc. By the differentiation of realms of life and activity from each other (e.g. work life from home life). Etc., etc.

It is easy to lament or bemoan the existence of highly sensitive selves, and there is a wealth of literature doing just that. Others, like Jacobs, highlight some key aspect of the dynamics of such persons. I think we should press the question further and ponder whether there might be contemporary social, cultural, and technological factors that are ‘fragilizing’ selves, thereby creating a situation in which ideologies of victimhood, extreme vulnerability, and hypo-agency have considerable traction.


The Technological Production of Fragilized Selves

An issue to which Jacobs’ piece didn’t give close enough attention is the close connection between our culture’s prevailing technological posture and the rise of the mythical posture as its obverse. As I’ve argued recently, contemporary society is powerfully formed by the essentially technological values of universalism, de-particularization, commensuration, and abstraction. It seems to me that such a regime fragilizes selves in a host of different ways, eroding, weakening, or destroying the conditions that selves need for self-differentiation, thereby creating a society that struggles to sustain robust and challenging interactions.

Our technological regime collapses distance through advanced communications and cheap mass transport. This both weakens our roots and the boundaries between communities, weakening communities themselves. A world of mass migration within and between countries produces detached individuals without secure belonging or given identities.

The extreme integration, fragmentation, and circulation of people and peoples by the modern economy produces highly pluralistic societies of increasingly atomized individuals, thereby intensifying certain antagonisms as each group feels that their space is threatened or encroached upon. The belonging of many people in such a society is highly tenuous, especially if they are seen as interlopers in others’ patrimony. The influx of other peoples to our nations and communities also fragilizes the peoplehood of those who have deep roots, encouraging the insecure reactivity of nationalist sentiments we are currently experiencing in the West.

When people are in the multicultural and highly pluralistic societies formed by liberalism, they will tend to feel besieged or constrained by the many other differing identities around them. Progressive values are in large measure a regime of politeness, deference, and inclusion designed to negotiate environments where we all have to live alongside people with whom we strongly differ in various ways (which is one of the reasons why progressive values tend to predominate in cosmopolitan cities, or in the less organic contexts of institutions such as universities or larger businesses, which bring people from a great many disparate groups together). By sacralising victimhood and vulnerability and stigmatizing judgment, exclusion, discrimination, intolerance, prejudice, ‘shaming’, etc., we might just be able to make it work.

It shouldn’t be hard to work out why highly pluralistic and ‘diverse’ societies really aren’t conducive to free speech and vigorous debate, and to speculate that, as our societies become even more diverse, free speech will become an ever-weaker value. The sense of a need for some form of non-aggression pact in such societies is considerable.

The universalism of the market de-particularizes persons and places, steadily scouring away those features that make one place different from another and devaluing and privatizing our deepest convictions. Public space is neutralized of particular values, becoming a realm of the universal values of technique. As traditional forms of differentiation weaken, the self becomes an increasingly performative one, needing to secure its own identity through its choices, self-expression, and bespoke identity. Yet such selves are brittle and vulnerable, and easily threatened by those of others.

Social media further fragilizes the self by abstracting it from the concreteness of its natural communities, local contexts, and its bodily condition, placing it into socially-saturated contexts of mutual surveillance, where it must constantly perform its identity and be subject to social judgment, with fewer places to which to retreat. The modern self is increasingly publicized by social media, exposing it and thinning the skin of its natural obscurity. Social media also undermines the differentiation between groups, persons, and their various contexts, while diminishing the mediating function of shared activities and contexts. It places persons on collision courses, by making natural social differentiation and belonging harder to attain. It collapses the distance between people, encouraging the social dynamics of the stampeding herd or the ‘viral’ spread of emotion or sentiment. The differentiation of time, space, and context is much harder to come by online. Differentiation of sex, age, office, and social status are all also undermined by social media.

One especially important result of this loss of differentiation is the collapse of the realm of agonistic interaction and the realm of communal belonging into each other, producing a sense of perpetual anxiety, social judgment, or besiegement. Everyone feels that they are under attack in the current environment.

A technological society also produces fragilized selves by weakening the social, communal, and familial bonds that exist between people. The weakening of the family and the breakdown of family culture produces a great many young people who are psychological vulnerable. They lack the security of an intact and stable home and strong and enduring community, so must seek psychological security elsewhere.


The Problem of Gender

It is important to recognize the significance of gender as part of this whole picture. Men and women typically relate quite differently to these matters. Our culture, like most human cultures, was historically built around a public realm that was essentially male. More domestic and communal realms were predominantly ordered around women and children, while the public realm was largely a realm of male struggle. Within this realm of male struggle, manly virtues were expected of participants: strength, mastery, courage, and honour.

Our public institutions almost invariably arise out of male spaces and interactions. Traditional honour culture was a male phenomenon, which had to be tamed in order to create a more peaceful public square, without duels, riots, and that sort of thing. To avoid the eruption of the male agonism of the public square into violence, a dignity culture had to be forged. Structures had to be provided to resolve disputes without violence and men needed to learn a code of tolerating a certain amount of unreasonable treatment without violent reaction or litigious response. Dignity culture existed to control the unruly excesses of agency within an agonistic male realm.

Over the last century, however, women have entered in large numbers into the realms created and ordered by male agonism. The result has been a steady yet radical transformation of their spaces, a transformation which is by no means complete. The rise of ‘victimhood culture’, described by Jason Manning and Bradley Campbell is difficult truly to understand without considering this huge change. Institutions that formerly existed primarily to keep the excessive agency of men from boiling over into violence have greatly increased in their number and size and increasingly play the more maternal role of nurturing and protecting vulnerable selves. While the paradigmatic individual of classical liberalism was the agentic, independent, and educated white male, the paradigmatic individual of progressive liberalism is the vulnerable woman, who is weak in her agency and dependent upon other agencies to ‘empower’ her.

It is important to recognize, for instance, that the advance of feminism has generally not occurred by means of true political agonism, but by means of petitioning other agencies to act on women’s behalf. A relationship between ‘empowering’ agencies and women cast as dependents upon their action is integral to the dynamics of most feminism, which is why the rise of women in public life and the rise of the managerial state and a sort of maternal capitalism—both of which stifle lesser agencies as they increase their power through taking on the mantle of women’s empowerment—can’t easily be separated.

Unwelcome though this point may be, I do not believe that society has found a sustainable and healthy way of maintaining an open and vigorous public realm in which men and women are participants in an undifferentiated fashion. While a masculine public realm can workably include the many women who can largely conform to its norm, a workable egalitarian ideal has yet to be demonstrated.

There are various problems that must be dealt with, relating to key differences between men and women on average (and, yes, there are exceptions, but the exceptions weigh little relative to the general tendencies). As individuals and as groups, men typically exert more direct power than women. They are more forceful and agonistic in their agency than women. They are less socially and physically vulnerable than women. They are more inclined to rougher interactions. Men are typically cast as combatants, while women are generally seen to be non-combatants and to be protected from the sort of treatment that to which men are exposed. Men are much ‘thing-oriented’ than women, who are much more ‘person-oriented’ than men. The effect of this particular difference can be seen in a host of areas, but it is significant here as those most sensitive to conflict and threat will largely be women, while men will tend to dominate movements concerned with the agonism of free speech.

It is not at all accidental that the ‘woke’ movement is a movement in which women are the leading voices and most committed participants. Nor is it surprising that its routine forms of engagement with opponents are those characteristic of the indirectness of female intrasexual competition: freezing them out, socially stigmatizing them, attacking their reputations, appealing to third parties to act on their behalf, leveraging social consensus against them, etc. Movements such as the New Atheists, by contrast, which valorize combative discourse, violation of stifling sensitivities, pursuit of truth over all else, the hard sciences over other disciplines, etc., are predictably overwhelmingly male, and it was to be expected that their key figures would move into anti-SJWism. The key gender differences at play here are to be seen even in the abstract contexts of the Internet, and lead to larger conflicts that play out in ways that accentuate gender differences.


Forming Complex Spaces

Nothing I’ve said in this post is something I’ve not said several times before. However, it can be helpful to be reminded of the social problem that we face.

Jacobs concludes his essay by highlighting the problem as he sees it. A point I’ve made before is that the possibility of the free exchange of ideas is itself dependent upon the existence of realms of common life and belonging. Vigorous ideological exchange needs to be buffered, lest it be experienced as an existential threat. The traditional realm of public discourse was a heterotopic male realm: a realm of male agonistic interaction set apart from other realms of society. Whether the parliamentary chamber, the law court, the debating chamber, or some other realm, the ‘free’ speech of these realms was generally carefully choreographed. People knew that effective discourse doesn’t merely happen naturally: it must be cultivated, its dynamics understood and regulated, and its participants carefully vetted.

Such past arrangements had important strengths, but also significant weaknesses, not least in the marginalization of women within or exclusion of women from much of the discourse of society. Given the differences between men and women, our institutions, which have been ordered around male discourse, need to change to accommodate increasing numbers of women within them. A pressing problem is that forms of discourse that are more typically male are often more congruent with their institutional ends. For instance, public discourse that does not have an agonistic character can easily produce leaders that cannot be strongly questioned and challenged. Societies built around the protection and empowering of the vulnerable can easily become oppressively conformist and destructive of people’s agency.

Here it is important to recognize that vigorous ideological exchange requires realms of secure belonging as its precondition. People who don’t feel secure or have a well-defined and differentiated self don’t think or discourse well. They lose their heads, act on instinct, or speak reactively, rather than in a responsive and considered fashion. Without well-differentiated contexts, people lack the space for reflection, meditation, and deliberation and are far more vulnerable to crowd dynamics or peer pressure. They cannot attain to a greater degree of objectivity as they cannot differentiate themselves from others and their environments enough to stand back and gain a clearer perspective upon them.

If such a person is stronger in agency and oriented to combat, they become reactively belligerent and antagonistic. The lost and angry boys on the Internet, who go around spoiling for fights, are an example of this problem. If a person has weaker agency, by contrast, they will tend to huddle closer to the herd and stampede when spooked. Whether it is the reactive antagonism of provocateurs or the reactive hypo-agency of the victimhood cults, such approaches reveal an unhealthy self.

How do we solve this problem? I believe it must start by giving people their space, by re-establishing differentiated yet interconnected realms and respecting our differences. It must involve valuing the differences between us. Male agonism, for instance, is hugely important for a healthy society, and must be given spaces to thrive and develop, without being undermined by those who feel vulnerable within it. Sometimes this will involve male-only spaces. Sometimes it will involve masculine spaces in which women who can work well in such contexts can also participate. Mutatis mutandis, the same should hold for women: they must be given room to thrive as women, and the realms created by such sociality must be given their full weight in determining the shape of society at large, without consigning them to a marginalized realm or cutting the sexes off from each other more generally. We must find ways to maintain the differences while improving the engagement between various communities, and exploring and developing commonalities.

A deeper attention to these matters, I believe, holds the potential to improve the health of many of our institutions. In discussing the importance of the agonism of our universities’ ‘free speech’, for instance, the dangers of an overemphasis upon agonism have easily been forgotten. Combative debate is hugely important, yet important as just one part of, and as dependent upon, a much larger practice of communal discourse.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget that the very agonism that is characteristic of a certain type of free speech is of a kind that can stifle the expression of many others, constraining their speech. Where they know that discourse will have a combative character, many people with less forceful or confident agency close down and don’t feel able to participate. The agonism is important, but it is no less important that it is limited to appropriate places and times, rather than treated as the universal norm. Certain crucially important ways of thinking are also prevented in highly agonistic environments, which push participants towards arguments that promise to overturn opposing positions or more deeply entrench one’s own. Yet we often also need to engage in imaginative and exploratory thought and more defeasible reasoning and the suspension or minimization of agonism is often necessary in order for this to occur.

Rather than approaching the organization of institutions such as the university as if they were universal machines to be fine-tuned, within which all individuals were to be included as interchangeable members, abstracted from their particularity, I believe that we need to appreciate ways in which each university is like a specific dance, which has to be carefully choreographed. To make such a dance work, you need to appreciate, value, and maintain both the differences and the commonalities between different people and groups, while also recognizing ways to elicit and explore the remarkable dynamics that can occur when they are brought into effective interactions. While this is complicated, it is far more likely to produce effective societies than approaches that collapse all of the differences between people.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Rough Thoughts on ‘Wokeness and Myth on Campus’

  1. Ben Wheaton says:

    Alastair, you’ve been hammering this point home for a while now, but I think you need to pay a little more attention to the many historical situations which seem to contradict the paradigm of “agonistic male” spaces being naturally open to free debate. I wonder if you are not assuming a Northern European (with a few Greek and Roman precedents) framework of history for your claims in this matter. That is, a public space where free male citizens determine laws and the like. Your analysis of the advantages of homogeneous, male-dominated public discourse may well hold for such places, but the majority of male-dominated, homogeneous societies in history have not been characterized by these values.

    The political advice contained in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes seems, for example, to be immediately applicable to the ancient Near Eastern norm of an absolute monarchy, and the main theme is: “Be very careful what you say, dummy.” Thus Ecclesiastes 10:20: “Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words and a bird on the wing may report what you say.” Agonistic discourse before the king is discouraged: “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone (Prov. 25:15);” “Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?” Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure (Ecclesiastes 8:4-5).” Absolute monarchies, which have been the norm throughout most of human history, are both heavily male-dominated and very restrictive of public speech. Flattery seems to be a predominant means of getting one’s way in these arenas (or bribes).

    In my own area of study, Late Antiquity, it is striking to note the centrality of the panegyric to interacting with the king (or emperor, as the case may be). On the face of it, they are simple praise (or lying flattery, as Augustine cynically points out in Confessions 6.6); but they also had the purpose of putting before the king a course of conduct that he should aspire to. This is not, to put it mildly, agonistic discourse, but rather a very careful roundabout way of hinting to an absolute monarch what you want him to do. Any more direct, and there could be dire consequences. I reject the idea that male spaces are necessarily freer of consequences for blunt speaking than female spaces. Perhaps your distinction between “dignity” cultures and “honour” cultures provides a better basis for these comparisons; but I wonder if “dignity” based cultures aren’t fairly rare and short-lived compared with “honour” cultures. In which case male forms of discourse are better characterized by the latter than by the former.

    A more recent example I want to bring up that makes this distinction clearer is the case of Imperial Japan in the ’20s, ’30s and early ’40s. A society that was very much male-centred, homogeneous, and characterized by a strong “honour” culture. Agonistic discourse was not present in any significant degree, which helps explain the catastrophic errors made by Japanese leadership (e.g., going to war with the United States). Or the immense male peer pressure that was absolutely necessary for Kamikaze tactics to succeed. There were no structures in place to contain this “honour” culture, which was of long standing.

    I think you need to ground your discussion of abstractions more in historical realities, in short. Andrew Gordon’s “The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command” might interest you (if you haven’t read it already), since it discusses (dysfunctional) male social dynamics in a concrete setting.

    I know you don’t claim that homogeneous, male-centred groups are without their peculiar pathologies, and I appreciate your conclusion about the need to better integrate and stimulate distinctive male and female modes of discussion. But I think your analysis lacks some crucial ingredients.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ben.

      The primary context of my discussion here is a Western one. While there are cross-cultural gendered patterns, it is important not to confuse the culturally-specific dimensions of the picture with those elements which are more general.

      Here it is important to distinguish between the cross-cultural tendency to have a public square principally forged by male agonism and the specific forms of male agonism that Western societies have largely been forged around. The value of free speech is not one universal to male sociality by any means, but the form of free speech that we practice in the West does rest strongly upon male dynamics. I am writing for people who value free speech, yet who also value a gender-neutralized public square and suggesting that, while male agonism may not be sufficient for a culture of free speech as we generally conceive of it, it is not entirely clear how to have one without it.

      What does generally characterize male sociality is agonism, hierarchy, and shared thing- and task- orientations. These factors can take many different shapes, but they are all almost invariably present. The modern idea of the ruler as one subject to challenge and criticism is related to dignity culture, which, as I have argued, is a particular configuration of agonism.

      Absolute monarchy is no less of a configuration of agonism. It is an order founded upon the strength and honour of the king, upon his right and power to crush those who oppose or seek to usurp him. The honour and strength of the king gives security to his kingdom, discouraging people from attacking it. In an honour culture, male agonism is definitely present, but it is visible between peers and discouraged by the power of the king as an agonist. Male agonism is almost always dampened by the presence of a much stronger party that weaker men will fall behind, but this is not an absence of agonism so much as an agonistic order founded upon a balance of power that tilts strongly in favour of one party. Furthermore, within such a society there would be a great deal of agonism between male peers and within their public discourse, even if not against the king or other authorities upon whose honour the stability of the society rested.

      Dignity-based cultures generally need to be fairly developed. A dignity culture is one in which the society is secure and stable enough and its institutions robust enough that the much more brutal agonism of honour culture can be abandoned. The society no longer depends so much upon the honour and extreme power of its ruler, but the ruler can be challenged directly without provoking a devastating response.

      My claim is not ‘that male spaces are necessarily freer of consequences for blunt speaking than female spaces.’ Far from it, in fact. My claim, rather, is that male sociality is forged by and oriented towards agonism in a way that female sociality generally is not. This does not mean that blunt speaking is freer of consequences. Injudicious blunt speaking can get you killed! You must learn to pick your fights if you want to survive. However, male sociality is generally more combative in its framing and oriented towards strength. The king doesn’t hold his position because everyone is nice, polite, and gentle to him, but because he is really strong and people must flatter him or face the consequences. If the king were shown to be weak, he and his kingdom would be placed in great jeopardy.

      Men are expected to function as combatants in a host of ways. As combatants, they are expected to prove their mettle. They are to be placed in jeopardy in ways that women aren’t. Male sociality is far more likely to be ordered around relative strength, with the strong coming to the fore as potential challengers step back, while those who are weaker continue competing among themselves. The king is a combatant too, just one who is too powerful to challenge. Female intrasexual competition exists too, but its dynamics are less direct and less focused upon direct power. Women aren’t treated as combatants in the same way.

      The problems you mention with Imperial Japan are problems of weak ideas being underwritten by the power of strong men. The ideas couldn’t be challenged without seeming to challenge the strong men, who could crush challengers. Male agonism, handled properly, can be a great mechanism for stress-testing ideas. However, handled poorly, it can underwrite weak ideas.

  2. Physiocrat1 says:

    Do you think there can be non-agonistic elements in Universities and if so how to conceive of them working for those who aren’t suited to highly agonistic environments? I could possibly see a focus on extending an existing paradigm rather than challenging the foundations and any critiques to only be dealt with on paper and not in live debate. Beyond this however I can’t see it aiding the pursuit of truth. Also many of the snowflakes (whilst their upbringing may partially explain their behaviour this is an apt term) would not even engage with different readings – I can’t even imagine them reading Charles Murray. So by allowing some cordoning off could lead to an hermetic seal and becoming a breeding ground for unreflective zealotry.

    • I do. Part of what might be needed is a movement away from an individualistic and uniform model of university students to models of learning that develop different sorts of intellectual gifts and people’s abilities to function as members of communities of thought, playing distinct roles within them, like players in a football team.

      The Church provides examples of this. There are certain forms of intellectual activity that I am not especially gifted in, so leave to others. I am not an apologete or defender of the faith, although I could do it in a pinch. I also rely upon philosophers to make up for my weaknesses in that area of thought and engagement. I am not a popularizer, nor am I much of a specialist. I can debate, but don’t do much of that either. However, there are many Christian thinkers who can make up for my weaknesses in those areas.

      The fact that someone is sensitive and emotionally vulnerable doesn’t mean that they can’t be an invaluable participant within a specific intellectual enterprise. We shouldn’t all have to fight on the front line.

  3. Geoff says:

    I’m unsure whether I’ve missed it, as I’ve not read it thoroughly, so apologise if I have, but unless it is hidden in Jacobs referrences to myth, as philosophically described, while may be sufficient to distinguish the combination of core myth and technological myth from the atheistic and scientific view of myth being akin to legend and pagan formulations, these descriptions do not appear to address myth as addressed by CS Lewis and set out in summary here:
    part of which is abstracted :

    “To substantiate this, one must look closer at the idea of myth. Lewis delves into the difference between contemplation and enjoyment of an experience. “Human intellect is incurably abstract” (Myth 140) he says, but the reality we experience is concrete. Thus in experience, we are faced with a dilemma, “either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace… nor analyze humor while roaring with laughter” (Myth, 140). We are incapable of both enjoying an experience and contemplating it at the same time; we may do one or the other, but not both. This perplexity presents us with a dilemma: How do we know real pain or pleasure? If we’re unable to conceptualize ideas concerning an experience until after the fact, do we not lose much of the integrity of our argument?

    To this difficulty Lewis presents the solution of myth: “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction” (Myth, 140). But this is often not what one looks for in a myth; frequently one reads a myth for the experience of ‘tasting’, not knowing a principle, “but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment that we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely” (Myth, 141). While we cannot truly experience both contemplation and enjoyment at the same time, the event which brings us closest to that experience is myth. Furthermore, our acquaintance with myth brings us closer to the truth of reality. Lewis writes that myth is “the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley” (Myth, 141). Myth transcends human thought; it is something that is so wonderful and deep that it at once provides a sense of joy and conveys upon us some great truth. Additionally, “as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth” (Myth, 141). The myth of God coming to earth actually happened, without ceasing to be myth and transcend human thought.”

    In that regard what is/are the myth/s of human discourse and discourse analysis, the myths of human reltions and communication with and between wokes of social justice and gender in a fallen world, even in the “technological myth” Jacobs highlights, which, in its growing preponderance, has a tendency to be a catalyst to exacerbate?
    As a former lawyer I’d propose there is no justice, no “myth” of human relationships outside the law, which begs the question of whose law, in time, place and space time, so this is no contemporary “woke”. It is ultimately God’s law, as applied in, by and through our triune God, grounded in incarnational Truth.

  4. Geoff says:

    Yes, Alastair. From the above:
    “Human intellect is incurably abstract” (Myth 140) he says, but the reality we experience is concrete.”

    And again:
    “Myth transcends human thought; it is something that is so wonderful and deep that it at once provides a sense of joy and conveys upon us some great truth.”

    In the context of universities, in the context of gender, what are the longings and desires that transcend human thought? Is not the most wonderful, concrete but, nevertheless, smidgen of transcendence, in human communiction and relations, when someone thoroughly understands us and accepts us, to know we are not alone. If I remember correctly, in the film “Shadowlands” a student in a tutorial explained to CS Lewis that his dad said that he read books, “so that he knew that he wasn’t alone.”
    Herein, lies the lie of the fallen, humanly constructed modern myth, exponentially generated by technology, that we can know and be known at the level of our deepest longings, which can only be fulfilled and satiated in our union with Christ, a union that conflates the concrete and transcendent, a union, where there is the only true “university”, only true unity in diversity.

    When looked at in this light, gender conflicts, safe places, spaces, can be understood. It is the heat generated in seeking to make the transcendant concrete, that burns up the protagonists and agonists so that the concrete may not be reinforced with truth, reality.

  5. Geoff says:

    And it is to be recalled that in scripture, Cities were to be largely safe spaces/places, a foreshadowing of the concrete, transcendent, City of God on earth. So there is indeed the “myth”, the transcedent reality of student longing for safe places. But it can not be built by fallen human hands.

  6. Hi Alastair,
    I have read your post with interest and also the comments here, but I have not responded until now because I know little about current campus life. However, I have found myself wondering, ‘When is a victim not a victim?’, and I remembered something that happened a few years ago. It was not on a campus, and not on social media – it was on a plane! I fell asleep and woke up feeling as if I had swallowed some strong perfume. In my dozy state I said to my daughter, ‘I can’t cope with that perfume – I feel sick.’ I heard an indignant voice behind me say, ‘Do you mind! My perfume is a top-class perfume – I paid a lot of money for it.’ Later, I managed to explain to the other passenger that it had not been my intention to ‘insult’ her perfume 🙂

  7. Bruce Charlton says:

    Alastair – This is one of those ‘stalking horse’ issues – about which the motivations are more important than the issues themselves (a debate which takes place against a background of college corruption so extreme as to make the college experience overwhelming harmful for most participants, most of the time). Indeed, to become focused on the issues as presented is to lose.

    It is clear that linked campus issues of safe spaces, trigger points, wokeness, microaggression etc. are merely excuses for ramping-up the general societal totalitarian agenda (bureaucratic micro-surveillance and micro-management).

    But as Christians, the objection to totalitarianism ought not to be libertarian, but that it is evil in motivation. Social institutions (including regulations, censorship etc) ought to support Christianity, and not support the mainstream aggresively-atheist/ anti-Chrstian political agenda of moral and aesthetic subversion and inversion, and systematic dishonesty.

    Alasdair MacIntyre made this issue clearer for me in Three Rival version of Moral Enquiry – that a truly educationally coherent university muct have a positive and comprehensive philosophical, indeed religious, framework – one that links to the framework of society at large – the ‘educated public’.

    (MacIntyre further and specifcially argues that only Thomism can fully provide this – which perhaps neither of us would agree upon – but he does make a reasonable case; and explores some alternatives including the Scottish Presbytarianism of the 18th century ‘enlightenment’ era).

  8. Jennifer Mugrage says:

    OK, I am nowhere near as well read nor as philosophically sophisticated as you or most of your commenters. Still, I read and enjoyed both Jacob’s article and yours.

    I do have a bit of a problem with the assumption that the technological and mythical approaches to the world are and have to be incommensurable.

    Wanted to say this, though:
    The term “witch hunt” has recently been ruined by men who are actually guilty of the things they’ve been accused of. However, I have been thinking for about a year that the hunt for racists has a LOT in common with the Salem Witch trials.

    In both cases, a mere accusation is enough to ruin a person.

    In both cases, so many innocuous human actions are said to be signs of either witchcraft or racism, that in effect, once an accusation has been made, “proof” is always forthcoming. A person could be shown to be a witch because she was nervously twisting her hands together during the trial, which was supposedly her way of torturing her victim. A person can be shown to be a racist because he or she partakes of white culture (living in a bubble!), or of culture that has been deemed to belong to a minority group (cultural appropriation!). Many actions are also offered as proof of racism, that could also be caused by someone’s being nervous or socially awkward.

    Racists, like witches, are regarded as being present everywhere, all-powerful, and being the most likely cause of anything that may happen to go wrong in any innocent person’s life. Therefore, sometimes just the fact that something bad has happened, is considered proof that witchcraft/racism is at work, and kicks off a hunt for the culprits.

    It is believed to be possible for a person to be a dangerous witch or racist without consciously being aware of it. Therefore, ironically, the only way to refute a charge of witchcraft or racism is to confess to it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jennifer.

      There is definitely an unhealthy dynamic at play in these situations. Part of the problem is that of becoming so sensitized to a particular sin or dysfunction that we start to perceive it even in innocuous situations and for the attendant ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ to lead us to distrust any attempt at explanation or to ‘see through it’ as proof of the crime.

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