The coming of age of the abuser-victim

You can tell a lot about a person or group by how they respond to wrongdoing. At the center of the spectrum of options is the golden mean: the proportionate and discriminate rectification of injustice through the recovery of what has been wrongly taken, the rescue or protection of the innocent, the appropriate punishment of the wrongdoer, and the pursuit of a sustainable peace. Not everyone responds to wrongdoing so maturely.

At one extreme are those who, believing themselves without any real power to respond or overwhelmed by not knowing how to do so, retreat into passivity, often building a pacifist ideology to justify their inaction. Others, like the campus protestors who are the subject of this post, respond at the opposite extreme.

The student-led protests erupting on campuses across the nation — most famously represented by the remonstrations at Yale, Missou, and Princeton — share in common a terroristic-like response to wrongdoing. Unlike the passively aggrieved, these students have learned to gather to themselves enormous power through playing the victim. In the overly-sensitized, politically-correct culture of the college campus, there is no greater source of strength than victim-status. It has given them the power to flout both law and campus policies by trespassing, assault, verbal abuse, and disorderly conduct; to call for the vocational ruin of those with whom they disagree; and to demand the purgation from campus memory bits of history or historical figures with whom they disagree.

But, surely, especially in light of the events of recent weeks, it must be irresponsible, even reprehensible, to compare a bunch of obnoxious kids to terrorists. But if we consider just their shared aversion to liberalism — that public good founded on devotion to pluralism, liberty of conscience, equity, and the free exchange of even contrary ideas — we see that any difference between these protesting students and real terrorists is one of species and not of genus, a difference only of degree not of kind. Both cast themselves as the underdogs responding to the great powers malevolently arrayed against them. Terrorists claim to be defending Mohammed, or righting the injustices of Israel or the United States. The campus protestors claim to be responding to intolerable levels of institutionalized racism, systematic exclusion, or other acts of subjugation by their privileged oppressors. For each, it is always someone else’s fault. Responding to grievance, each go on the attack through tactics neither proportional nor discriminate and absent any interest in peace or reconciliation with their opponents but instead infatuated with the idea of domination and the forced submission of contrary wills to their own.

Both are also profoundly narcissistic. The campus protestors, believing themselves in possession of storehouses of wisdom belying their tender years, refuse to engage in real conversation; “Shut up!” is their only explanation to those who seek to engage them on the merits of their complaints. It is tragically absurd that on a liberal arts campus dialogue has been rendered impotent because one side of the argument insists only on being heard and refuses to listen. Real disagreement is remedied through debate: one side speaks, the other listens and considers the claims, they then offer a response and it’s the first party’s turn to listen, and so on. Not so in the current climate. Now, dissent from the victim’s point-of-view is perceived as an actual assault, triggering deep reserves of hurt and humiliation.

In refusing to argue their assertions, one wonders whether deep down the protestors doubt their own grievance and, in their deep insecurity, are sticking to power rather than risking persuasion. It very often appears they have cause to doubt. Considering just the climate at Missou, one can look up the list of alleged incidents, but with only two recorded allegations of racial name-calling since the beginning of the year (on a campus of some 35,000) one might think that the incidents do not quite warrant all the vitriol. The recorded incidents include that of of Payton Head, a senior. As reported in numerous venues, the young, black man was recently walking on campus when he was verbally accosted by louts in a passing pickup — no one is sure whether they had any collegiate affiliation – shouting racial slurs at him. While Head acknowledges this is the first time he’s ever experienced anything quite so awful he nevertheless stresses, “For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times…making me not feel included here.” This is an odd complaint given that Head happens to be the student body president, elected by his peers to the highest post of student leadership on a campus that is 77% white. To be sure, even one incident of real racism is too much and ought to be effectively punished; but the only “proof” that there is anything approaching a systemic problem of institutionalized racism is the loud insistence that there is by the screaming students themselves.

So absurd has the protests on campuses been that a new lexicon has sprung up to give words to the phenomenon. “Cry-bullies” is perhaps the most astute, if also saddest, term coined to describe those abuser-victims who have weaponized the status of victimhood. But, of course, that’s all saying too much. These kids have been allowed to weaponize victimhood. We are tolerating the bullies. As Christians, we need to wonder why the adults in their lives are allowing the children to get away with all this. As parents, we are charged with early stewardship of our children’s moral lives. The inculcation of virtue in our kids, instructing them to love what they ought to love and to hate what they ought to hate, is a primary duty of child-rearing. Instead, it appears, in the words of one observer, that too many parents, with radical visions of their own, have raised their children “incubated in idiocy”.

Of course, this isn’t to say the children are, well, victims. But it is to say that too many of those who are supposed to be adults have abdicated their responsibilities and are colluding in juvenilia. The greatest tragedy, then, won’t be that the end of liberalism took place on liberal arts campuses, but rather that liberalism’s end started in the home.