Here is where people I know may get upset at me. But seriously, this echoes what I am feeling in life right now. Significant parts of Oberlin, like much of higher education and culture in general, appear to be going off the rails.
I’ve spent my entire life as a left-leaning person. But there are, in fact, two lefts. The sensible, empirically grounded one that seeks to improve practical living conditions of creditable body and mind for real people on actual earth by addressing social and economic structures, and this one, the identity politics left, which is nuts.
At its core is a foundational evisceration of both epistemology and ontology as social currents. First, it implicitly claims there is no moral basis for ontological consensus whatsoever, and in fact quite the opposite—it is rather morally proper that all “things” be individualized as epiphenomena of selves. And next, it implicitly claims that the only justified epistemological position is also an appeal to individual phenomenology. It is the claim, in other words, that sharing is deeply unjust. Knowledge and being are rightly individual, as are experience, and it is wrong to transmit, share, or conjure with them—as their moral justifications are essentially singular, particular, and interior, intrinsic only to a self and its inner states. This is what I wrote about years ago in the best thing I’ve ever written (keeping in mind that the camera man of record is most often now the self), all without realizing just how right I was.
In short, this other left, which has now come to dominate the entirety of the left and is increasingly dominating society, argues that there is no practical or moral basis for society at all. Any properly ontological claims are covertly a form of warfare, as are any attempts at communication of any kind. Moral utopia is an aggregate of discrete and entrenched human atoms, as sociability itself is a ruse whose only purpose is to disguise exercises of will by other incommensurate and essentially foreign selves. Utopia is borne of repulsion, rather than of cohesion. Hence the return of the conservative impulse toward segregation and segregated “safe spaces,” this time under the claimed banner of enlightenment and progressivism.
At the core of my political, intellectual, and even personal discomfort these days is something that goes well beyond the “two parties” or the “culture.” It is the fact of disconnection that all of this implies. “Tune in, turn on, and drop out” has taken on a new, and more acute meaning. It now refers not just to society, but in fact to the very foundations of being and knowing. It is a canonizing of the process of checking out from social being, despite full credit that others exist.
Why is it not mere solipsism, full stop? Because it concedes the multiplicity, while saying that it this multiplicity is morally unimportant; it is not that “the self is all that can be known” but rather “morality is to justify the self, and screw the rest, even down to the atoms that make the world.”
The students in this article are angry because they already know everything that can legitimately and morally be known by anyone, so far as they’re concerned—by virtue of their own untranslatable and incommunicable experience. Everyone, so far as they are concerned, already does—and this knowledge practically can not be and morally must not be reconciled or shared. Under such conditions, all education is oppression, and indeed all encounters with other person(s) are oppression. Jean-Paul Sartre’s lament that “hell is other people” has here been turned into an affirmative project, a battle cry.
The highest goal is to travel through life not merely unchanged, but in fact untouched as the mere bundle of sensations that we already are, in order to valorize the victimhood that we and those that bore us unquestionably experienced; the rest is the rest, open warfare included. I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s reflection that
“Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.”
These people are at war with everyone else—literally—because the nature of “others” is that of having the utter and inexcusable moral cheek to not be them and to not share their own lineage—biological, intellectual, historical, personal. Nothing else matters; it is a purely moral play, a kind of toxic idealism, the self-as-essence-of-justice run amok.
In any case, nihilism and narcissism are winning. Because Oberlin in this article looks very much like what is going on everywhere.
In an age of global warming, food crises, and nuclear proliferation and dispersion, identity culture and politics may just end up killing us all. This is what happens when you put Foucault and intersectionality in the hands of small-minded and deeply hurt people, in a culture lacking rites of passage into adulthood. “A little enlightenment is a dangerous thing,” indeed.
It’s a dead end, folks. If we begin with the assumption that we can’t ever understand each other, grow, or learn—and that it’s a grievous moral wrong to try to accomplish any of these things—then the human race is done for.