The normalisation of savagery
Societies that give up on freedom will soon find it replaced by violence.
Since the Hamas pogrom of 7 October, there’s been a storm of commentary on how unhinged campus culture in the West has become. Politicians and writers are bewildered that at universities where it’s a ‘microaggression’ to ask someone where they are from, and where you can be subjected to a Salem-like grilling for wearing an offensive Halloween costume, actual genocidal violence doesn’t seem to bother people. The same fresh-faced Maoists who will weep and stomp their feet if you say ‘women don’t have penises’ have collectively shrugged their shoulders over the mass murder of Jewish women and children. Some have even justified it. ‘Glory to our martyrs’, said a projection on to the wall of a building at George Washington University.
Touch an African-American student’s hair and you’re a white supremacist, but murder Jews in cold blood and you’re a martyr. Wear your white-people hair in cornrows and you’re a racist thief, but invade a country with the express intention of killing Jews and you’re the ‘resistance’. Serve up bad-tasting sushi – as the cafeteria at hyper-woke Oberlin did a few years ago – and you’ll be damned as a cultural appropriator. But kill hundreds of revellers at a peace festival in southern Israel and the same kids who wail over Japanese fare being served by white chefs will make excuses for you. Israel is ‘entirely responsible’ for ‘all unfolding violence’ in the Middle East, said student activists at Harvard before the bodies of the 1,400 Israelis were cold.
Our woke universities hold forth on ‘every topic under the sun’, said former Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, yet they’re chilled out about the ‘most grave grotesque attacks on Jewish people since the Holocaust’. College kids kick up a fuss about ‘stupid’ things like ‘microaggressions and gender pronouns’ yet they erm and ahh – or worse – on ‘the slaughter of innocent Israelis’, says one columnist. When Jewish students at Cooper Union in New York City had to be locked in the library to save them from a mob of ‘pro-Palestine’ activists, Robert Pondiscio of the American Enterprise Institute said: ‘Not another word – ever – about safe spaces, microaggressions or “erasure” on a college campus. Not one more damn word.’
These angry critiques of the moral infants on our campuses are understandable. It is not only irritating but infuriating that youngsters who think ‘misgendering’ is an act of violence are relaxed about literal violence. That these cloyingly sensitive sons and daughters of privilege will demand a safe space, complete with colouring books and dogs they can pet, when a controversial speaker darkens the door of their Ivy League college, yet they don’t seem to think Israeli Jews deserve a safe space from Hamas’s neo-fascists. Wound their self-esteem? Sacrilege. Wound and kill unarmed Jews? Martyr shit.
And yet, it’s important to say that this creepy sympathy for Hamas, this misanthropic disregard for the safety and dignity of Jews, doesn’t actually contradict the ideology of the safe space. The woke set’s cavalier attitude towards the macroaggression of massacring civilians is not really a break with their obsessive policing of the microaggression of hurting someone’s feelings with a disagreeable idea. No, there is a logical line from the furious denunciation of certain forms of speech as ‘violence’ to the implicit acceptance of actual violence if it is directed against ‘bad’ people. That line is what we might call narcissistic savagery, where almost anything can be justified in the name of protecting one’s beliefs and one’s psychic sense of security from harm. Censorship, harassment, even physical assault – when the self and its emotional health is sacralised above all else, above every other moral and social consideration, anything becomes permissible in its defence.
What we have witnessed over the past few weeks is the latent violence in the ideology of the safe space. That safe-space activists on the 21st-century campus seem fine with one of the worst acts of violence of modern times is not proof that they’ve betrayed the principles of the safe space, but rather that the safe space lends itself incredibly well to intolerance, even of the murderous variety. A few years ago I gave a talk at the University of California, Irvine on ‘the violence of the safe space’. I argued that the most striking thing about safe spaces is how unsafe they feel. Yes, this new ideology justifies itself in the language of keeping students safe from ‘intimidation’, but in truth safe spaces are ‘ugly, authoritarian zones’ that are ‘propped up by menace’, I said. For in the very act of promising protection from transgressive people, the safe space puts transgressive people in the crosshairs, exposing them to severe forms of both social and physical reprimand.
Violence has long attended the campus cult of the safe space. People have been shamed, attacked, even subjected to assault by urine, all in the name of ‘safety’, all in the name of preserving the holy safe space from their malign moral influence. At UK universities, meetings of pro-Israel students have been invaded by student officials and leftists, who essentially damn such gatherings as ‘unsafe’ for Arab students and other ethnic minorities. These meetings of mostly Jewish students have even been physically attacked: windows smashed, chairs thrown around. This is the terror of safety. In decreeing that such gatherings are unsafe, a threat to students’ emotional wellbeing, campus ideologues green-light extreme action against them.
Or consider the treatment of ‘unsafe’ gender-critical academics. One had piss splashed on her office door. Others have had to hire security guards just to get around campus. Kathleen Stock was roughly hounded out of Sussex University by so-called trans allies. They said she was ‘harmful and dangerous’ to their mental health. The Orwellianism is off the scale. In the name of our safety we will rob Professor Stock of hers. To maintain Sussex as a ‘safe space’, her sense of safety had to be eradicated, in order that she might leave and take her malevolent ideas – such as that men cannot be lesbians – with her. When Stock spoke at the Oxford Union earlier this year, mobs of students raged. We deserve to feel ‘safe from bigotry and harassment’, they said, and with Stock around, we don’t. Shorter version: we must attack Stock to feel safe.
Intimidation is in-built in the ideology of the safe space. The very idea that some individuals and ideas are so detrimental to one’s spiritual health that special measures are required to keep them at bay actively incites hysteria and violence. I was prevented from speaking at Oxford University in 2014 on the basis that my presence would ‘make students feel unsafe’. Student protesters threatened to turn up to the debate with ‘instruments’ if it went ahead – and they didn’t mean musical instruments. So convinced were they that my words – in this case on the issue of abortion – would cause irreparable harm to their self-esteem that they were willing to take up cudgels against my liberty. To maintain their safety, they had to compromise mine.
The ideology of the safe space nurtures existential dread. Like villagers in medieval times who drove themselves mad with visions of wolves and monsters skulking at their borders, the student who lives in a safe space comes to convince himself that everyone external to that space is unsafe, which is to say wicked. This is why, as I argued in California in 2016, the safe space must always be ‘fortified by a simmering threat of force against transgressors’, against anyone who transgresses against ‘the new cult of psychic safety and moral conformism’. It is a mistake to think of campus radicals as ‘snowflakes’, hyper-vulnerable creatures liable to melt upon contact with alternative thought. For there is a darkness, a ruthlessness to safe-space activism. It is tyranny masquerading as therapy.
So it is not surprising, or contradictory, that campus ideologues who fume against un-PC words now welcome, or at least excuse, neo-fascistic violence. They are projecting their ideology of safety on to events in the Middle East. In their minds, Israelis are violators of the Palestinian safe space, and thus vengeance against them is not only justified but good. It is striking how much the Western language of mental dread is being used to explain the crisis in the Middle East. There will be a ‘tsunami of mental-health woes’ as a result of the latest Israel-Gaza conflict, reports NPR. The assault on Gaza is having a terrible impact on the ‘mental health of Palestinian children’, says a US-based psychologist. Many campus radicals also read every event through the prism of Western notions of vulnerability. It would not be surprising if they viewed Hamas’s pogrom of 7 October less as a racist onslaught against the Jewish people than as an act of therapeutic vengeance against a ‘privileged’ neighbour – cathartic payback against those who make Arabs feel ‘unsafe’.
Since the October pogrom, anti-Semitism has soared on campuses in the US, and much of it is underpinned by the self-regarding cult of safety. Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, reports a student saying to him that ‘what would make her feel safe’ in his law school would be ‘to get rid of the Zionists’. In short, to flatter my narcissistic feelings of psychic and ideological security, certain Jews must be kicked out. The safe space clearly licences racism, too.
The hate has been relentless. A professor at Columbia University said the Hamas assault on Israel was a ‘stunning victory’. A Yale professor said 7 October was an ‘extraordinary day’ and a great blow to the ‘genocidal settler state’ of Israel. An art professor in Chicago said ‘Israelis are pigs. Savages… Irredeemable excrement.’ A professor at the University of California, Davis ominously said ‘Zionist journalists… have houses [with] addresses, kids in school’, and ‘they should fear us’.
Note the vicarious thrill these people seem to derive from faraway acts of unimaginable violence. The cult of vulnerability – and its ugly cousin, vengeance – has robbed them of their humanity. Viewing Israelis as pigs and shit, and Western Zionists as suspect creatures who deserve to live in fear, speaks to the inhumanity of constantly abstracting individuals. Of treating people either as ‘oppressed’, and thus good, or ‘privileged’, and thus bad. It is a short step from academic theories of ‘white privilege’ to demeaning Israelis as excrement whose murders should be celebrated. The reason some in American universities are taking second-hand pleasure from Hamas’s pogrom is because they believe it fortifies their privilege / oppressor worldview and gives physical force to their own contempt for the merchants of unsafety. They welcome the pogrom as a kind of primal therapy.
It is chilling how many young people seem relaxed about Hamas terrorism. A Harvard poll in the US found that 52 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds support Israel but a staggering 48 per cent support Hamas. Fifty-one per cent said Hamas violence against Israeli civilians is justified. As a headline in Newsweek said, ‘An insane number of Gen Zers support Hamas’s slaughter of innocent Israelis’. Polls in the UK suggest significant numbers of young people reject the idea that Hamas are terrorists. There can be no greater indictment of our education system, and of all the new systems of socialisation, than the fact that many in the new generation witnessed the worst act of anti-Semitic violence since the Holocaust and thought: ‘Maybe Israel deserved it.’ We can now see, clear as anything, what a pernicious impact the politics of identity and cult of pity have had on the souls of the young. It has torn them from the values of our civilisation, to such an extent that they feel more affinity with the regressive, anti-Western barbarism of Hamas than they do with the Jewish civilians and democratic state that were desecrated by that barbarism.
We are living through a normalisation of violence. The decimation of the ideals of freedom, especially among millennials and Generation Z, has given rise to a situation where debate is discouraged on account of its hurtfulness, where brute force is wielded against dissenters, and where even genocidal terror can be celebrated if it silences the ‘privileged’. In the absence of freedom of speech, the pre-modern rituals of humiliating and punishing transgressors against orthodoxy have returned with a bloody vengeance. Surely the bleak and tragic month of October 2023 will be a wake-up call for the West.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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