Back in 1993, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, warned against “defining deviancy down.” He was talking specifically about crime, about our getting used to it and not taking serious measures to fight it. But over the years since, is there any realm of American or European life where acceptance of ever-increasing deviancy has not become “the new normal”?
America’s universities are a distressing case in point. They were once places where young people went to read great books, learn to reason logically and acquire the skills necessary to become productive citizens. Countless hours in the library and classroom were required to become a real scholar — or even someone whose opinions deserved consideration.
Today, many campuses are dominated by students who spend more time nursing grievances than studying. They demand “safe spaces” and protection from ideas and language that might bruise their tender sensibilities. They suppress — belligerently and sometimes violently — the free speech of anyone they deem “privileged.” They stage protests for “social justice” — a concept they have neither the knowledge nor experience to understand. Professors indulge them. University administrators appease them.
One notable exception: Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, who earlier this month received the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the American Conservative Union.
“In a time when university administrators are giving in to what amounts to student temper tantrums, Everett Piper stands out for his adherence to the tradition of academic integrity and open inquiry,” said Bradley Foundation President Michael W. Grebe. “Dr. Piper’s stand for open discussion, and genuine mutual tolerance of dissent on campus is both rare and overdue.”
Dr. Piper has famously told the tale of a student who, following a university chapel service, complained that he had been “victimized” by the sermon. “It appears this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love,” Dr. Piper wrote. “In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.
“Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic,” he continued. “Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them ‘feel bad’ about themselves, is a ‘hater,’ a ‘bigot,’ an ‘oppressor,’ and a ‘victimizer.’ “
Dr. Piper went on to offer a bit of advice to the student: “This may not be the university you’re looking for. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up. This is not a day care.”
Academia has not been undermined overnight. It has been a longtime objective of the extreme left, starting with the Orwellian-named Free Speech Movement (FSM) of the mid-1960s.
“The claim that the FSM was fighting for free speech for all (i.e., the First Amendment) was always a charade,” according to journalist Sol Stern, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute who, back in the day, was a member of the FSM at Berkeley, where it was born. “Within weeks of FSM’s founding, it became clear to the leadership that the struggle was really about clearing barriers to using the campus as a base for radical political activity.”
“We distorted the plain meaning of words to gain political advantage and power,” he added. “Movement radicals turned on American liberalism (which we renamed “Cold War liberalism”) as the evil empire. Liberalism, unfortunately, retreated.”
These radicals were so self-deluded as to see “something hopeful and progressive in Third World dictatorships.” Among them: North Korea, today a hellhole for the vast majority of its people, one which we’ve allowed to become nuclear-armed, and the Castro regime in Cuba, with which President Obama has now restored diplomatic relations in return for nothing and despite its abysmal human rights record.
As Mr. Stern recalls, it was not long before a “once-idealistic student movement crossed the line to antidemocratic ideologies and undermined the possibility of a decent Left in America.” Nevertheless, those responsible were given refuge on campuses, not to mention the opportunity to indoctrinate the next few generations of students. The unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayres, Mr. Obama’s old friend, is only the most obvious example.
Sixties radicals-turned-professors also have been successful in denying teaching positions and tenure to scholars with more conservative views — their ostensible commitment to tolerance and diversity notwithstanding. Indeed, in recent years, anyone attempting to articulate perspectives the far left opposes can expect to be banned from campuses. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, anti-Islamist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde are just three examples.
What used to be institutions of higher learning have become, in Dr. Piper’s words, “bastions of speech codes rather than free speech” where “disagreement is now synonymous with hate” and “propaganda and power now reign.”
The situation is unlikely to improve — not until university presidents who value freedom and refuse to define academic deviancy down are once again so common that no one would think to give them awards. How we get from here to there is by no means apparent.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.