“The appeal to ‘social justice’ has by now become the most widely used and most effective argument in political discussion. Almost every claim for government action on behalf of particular groups is made in its name, and if it can be made to appear that a certain measure is demanded by ‘social justice,’ opposition to it will rapidly weaken…. It seems to be widely believed that ‘social justice’ is just a new moral value which we must add to those that were recognized in the past, and that it can be fitted within the existing framework of moral rules. What is not sufficiently recognized is that in order to give this phrase meaning a complete change of the whole character of the social order will have to be effected, and that some of the values which used to govern it will have to be sacrificed. It is such a transformation of society into one of a fundamentally different type which is currently occurring piecemeal and without awareness of the outcome to which it must lead.”
This selection may read like something written in the post-2014 milieu – perhaps published in an outlet like Quillette – perhaps referring to ‘SJW’ students run amok. In fact, the words are more than 40 years old, taken from Hayek’s 1976 The Mirage of Social Justice.
How about this:
“Leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led [some] to remark that in the United States the term ‘cultural studies’ means ‘victim studies.’ [This] choice of phrase has been resented, but [it makes] a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather, to do something for people who have been humiliated – to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable… Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies or trailer-park studies because these people are not ‘other’ in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely economic selfishness…
To step into the intellectual world which some of these leftists inhabit is to move out of a world where citizens of a democracy can join forces to resist sadism and selfishness into a Gothic world in which democratic politics has become a farce, in which ‘liberalism’ and ‘humanism’ are synonyms for naivete – for an inability to grasp the full horror of our situation.”
One would be forgiven for believing this was an essay riffing on the recent ‘Grievance Studies’ hoax. In fact, the term (victim studies), and the debate surrounding these lines of research, long predated Pluckrose, Boghossian and Lindsay’s stunt. This particular passage is from Richard Rorty’s 1998 classic Achieving Our Country (published roughly 20 years prior to the ‘Sokal Squared’ affair).
Similarly, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s 2014 paper “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” was met with great fanfare (and expanded into a book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, in 2018) — in large part because it ostensibly explained the sudden surge of student protests in the months that preceded (and the years that followed) its publication, as well as the new language and strategies that seemed to define these demonstrations.
Yet well before these transformations in student protests, others had identified a change in both the valence and salience of victimhood in American culture more broadly. For instance, in 1992 conservative author Charles Skyes wrote an entire book lamenting how the United States was becoming, in his words, a “nation of victims.” In 2009, two sociologists (Fassin & Rechtman) chronicled the emergence of what Campbell & Manning would later describe as ‘victimhood culture’ in The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry Into the Condition of Victimhood.
Here is their story in a nutshell:
Although the notion of psychological trauma goes back to the late 19th century (particularly via the work of Charcot, Freud and Janet) – even as late as World War II, trauma was not taken too seriously. Many argued that appeals to trauma were merely a means for soldiers to excuse their weak constitutions (unlike the ‘real men’ who could hold themselves together in war). It was widely believed that soldiers were exaggerating their symptoms in order to return home from the field, or avoid returning thereto. This widespread dismissal spurred a decades-long campaign among practitioners treating those soldiers, and veterans advocacy groups, to privilege testimony and subjective experience – to not only take these seriously, but to place them, in some senses, above meaningful scrutiny or reproach.
Nonetheless, trauma was not widely embraced until the Vietnam War. Most intellectuals and academics were against the war. Psychologists and psychiatrists, many of whom had been formerly hesitant or skeptical of the trauma framework, increasingly sought to ground their opposition to Vietnam in their domain of expertise — by arguing that the conflict was traumatizing our nation’s young men en masse. The image of the psychologically damaged veteran became an important component of antiwar advocacy — and PTSD was formally added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) III, following shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from the theater.
From there, the concept was gradually expanded beyond soldiers to include civilian survivors of war and terrorism, then police officers and other first responders, then victims of crimes including (especially) sexual assault and, eventually, those who had lived through natural disasters or other catastrophes. In this process, to be a ‘victim’ or a ‘survivor’ took on less of a negative connotation – and eventually became something like a source of pride. 9/11, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the valorization, even sacralization of those who were killed or wounded therein), played a pivotal role in this transition.
That is, both Vietnam and 9/11 were transformative episodes. And one important way in which they were both transformative was in shifting our social and cultural understandings around things like trauma and victimhood writ large, due largely to activism by the practitioners and advocacy groups mentioned here. These new understandings of trauma and victimhood – and the corresponding elevation of subjective experience or personal interpretations – have since been exported to much of the rest of the world.
Importantly, the ‘trauma’ construct is not uniquely informed by political considerations relative to other psychological concepts. There is an analogous story to be told about the emergence of our dominant paradigms for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, autism, extremism, etc.
Moreover, Fassin & Rechtman’s account is not necessarily at odds with that of Campbell & Manning. However, it does tie the valorization of ‘trauma’ and ‘victimhood’ to a set of actors and issues that have not been central to these conversations up to now… perhaps because it is far more satisfying for many to lambast college kids for privileging personal experience and subjectivity, for finding pride rather than shame in their struggles, etc. than it is to target war veterans, terrorism survivors and their supporters for advocating the same – even though it was the latter, not the former, who were most central in driving this transformation. Their account also places the emergence of victimhood culture far earlier than most seem to recognize — visible well before the emergence of ‘woke’ student protests (side note: the political use of the term ‘woke’ goes back at least to 1962).
Long Histories, Short Memories
As it is with ‘social justice,’ ‘grievance studies,’ and ‘victimhood culture,’ so it is with most of the other buzzwords that have come to dominate discussions about institutions of higher learning in recent years:
In short, literally none of this stuff is actually new. Indeed, as Oliver Traldi has pointed out, the entire contemporary debate around ‘free speech’ and ‘political correctness’ bears an uncanny likeness to 1990s controversies on these same topics. Perhaps George Santayana was right when he declared that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Nonetheless, even in a world where people were less myopic, there would be virtue in seeing all of these concepts and approaches – along with their histories – side-by-side. Patterns and lessons emerge which can help inform subsequent efforts at reforming institutions of higher learning (like Heterodox Academy). For instance:
Elite schools: The scholars, practitioners and activists who created and/ or popularized these concepts and approaches were generally affiliated with elite schools: the Ivy League, ‘public Ivies’ like UC Berkeley, elite private schools like MIT or Stanford, or elite liberal arts schools (for instance, The Combahee River Collective was based out of Wesleyan; Oberlin piloted the first university-wide trigger warnings policy).
This is no mere coincidence. When these schools set policies or precedents, other schools tend to follow suit (everyone wants to be like Harvard). Scholars at these institutions tend to set the research agenda for their fields as well – especially with respect to top journals. These schools produce a radically disproportionate share of all tenured or tenure-track faculty nationwide – and train a large share of future political leaders and journalists. They play an outsized role in shaping public opinion about students and universities too. In short, right or wrong, for better or worse, elite schools will be a critical front in virtually any successful campaign to reform higher ed writ large.
For this very reason, it should be no surprise that most of the major blowups and meltdowns that have occurred on campus post-2014 were concentrated at Ivy League institutions (Harvard, Yale), prestigious liberal arts schools (Middlebury, Evergreen, Reed), or other elite colleges (CMC, UC Berkeley).
Practitioners, lawyers and activists: While academics in the social sciences and (especially) humanities are most frequently attributed with the rise of the concepts and approaches listed above – they may be getting way too much credit. In fact, most of the people listed on the chart, who created and established these innovations, were practitioners in fields like psychiatry and law (and occasionally, activists outside the university, such as in the example of the ‘safe zone project’ or with the mainstreaming of ‘trigger warnings.’).
As Nassim Nicholas Taleb explained in Black Swan, this is par for the course: rather than being a font of innovation themselves, academics tend to systematize, rationalize, extrapolate from various innovations that were produced by people outside their field, or outside of academia altogether.
Understanding this dynamic helps us better understand how these approaches were so effectively institutionalized: lawyers, practitioners and activists tend to be very oriented towards applying ideas in concrete and impactful ways – particularly through leveraging institutions. This is not so much the case with other scholars.
This is not to say that academics in the social sciences or humanities played no role. They did, as we shall see shortly. But it was generally in the rear-guard, helping to consolidate, promote and legitimize gains made by others who had at least one foot in the ‘real world.’
One instructive case study may be Robin DiAngelo: she had been conducting diversity training since the 90s, and formed her ‘white fragility’ thesis on the basis of this experience. She went back to school and got a PhD in multicultural education to shore up her credentials and tighten the framing, then published her seminal paper on ‘white fragility’ in 2011 — which formed the basis for a new set of workshops aimed primarily at affluent and highly-educated whites (who pay upwards of $165 per head to talk about how they allegedly hate talking about race). More on the significance of workshops like these follows shortly.
Institutionalization is a process: By this I mean, there are no magic wands to create sweeping and durable institutional change. There were few revolutions. Instead, these approaches gained prominence gradually, through generations of advocacy and coalition building by scholars, practitioners and activists. These were campaigns that took focus, discipline and persistence in the face of consistent skepticism, dismissal and outright opposition. Those who wish to reform a complex system (like higher ed in the United States) must be prepared for a protracted campaign — punctuated by piecemeal gains (and occasional reversals) – rather than expecting some kind of total and imminent victory.
How, Specifically, Did They Institutionalize?
It was largely a grassroots campaign. It was very deliberate, but also decentralized — with actors from different backgrounds and interests, concerned with different causes, working different institutional levers — learning from, and building upon, the work of one-another over time. Some of the most important tactics included:
They set up tenure lines, degree programs, interdisciplinary centers, academic journals, professional associations, etc. One should notice in the chart above that many of these ideas took root in the mid-60s to late 70s. This was a period when many of the former “New Left” student activists were beginning work as professors, and were keen to find ways to institutionalize their political projects as scholarly programs — allowing them to navigate the often fraught academic career market without totally abandoning ‘the cause.’ See the work of Fabio Rojas for an excellent exploration of one such process: From Black Power to Black Studies (see also his HxA blog post and Half Hour of Heterodoxy interview on this research).
They were ecumenical. That is, as opposed to being territorial or puritanical about the specific domains their ideas and methods applied to. For instance, sensitivity training was originally developed specifically to bridge tensions around religion and race. It now includes gender, sexuality, you name it. Instead of just white privilege and male privilege (as originally formulated), there is now cisgender privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege, native-born privilege and many, many more (curiously underdiscussed, of course, is socioeconomic privilege – which is the stage upon which all these conversations take place to begin with). Microaggressions, which were initially about race (and the experience of African Americans in particular), are now implicated in gender, sexuality, fat shaming, ableism, ad infinitum. This was no accident: Derald Wing Sue’s 2007 paper, which led to a renaissance for the microaggression framework, explicitly called for others to adapt the concept in these ways.
Here, the notion of intersectionality is very important. It is the glue which holds it all together – encouraging advocates of any particular cause to see their work as complementary and interrelated with all other (left-aligned) movements. It should be emphasized that Crenshaw, who coined the term, never intended it as a “grand theory of everything” and has expressed some frustration with the way the concept has evolved, especially in the colloquial sphere. Nonetheless, as a result of this approach, concepts like microaggressions, the idea that words amount to violence, calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings, etc. have been able to build upon and feed off one-another despite their disparate origins – creating a complex that encompasses a broad range of causes, stakeholders and institutions (and is, consequently, difficult to displace). As I will demonstrate in a forthcoming essay, a parallel movement for viewpoint diversity, which dates back just as far as any of the other phenomena listed here, has followed a very different trajectory up to now — to its peril.
Editor’s note: the follow up essay described above has now been published: “Callosal Failure: 100 Years of Viewpoint Diversity Activism.”
They developed training programs for actors in the public, non-profit and private sector (rather than focusing directly on higher ed institutions from the start). For instance, training on microaggressions, white privilege, implicit bias (coined in 1993, fyi), etc. were institutionalized in the private sector, and even among government agencies, well before there was any kind of robust empirical literature validating these constructs or showing that the proposed interventions would be effective. Indeed, the available empirical evidence now suggests that there are deep problems across the board with these ideas and approaches (here, here, here, here, here, here, here for more on this point). However, these frameworks and interventions are already so deeply entrenched – including within institutions of higher learning — that the empirical research is now almost entirely beside the point.
How did they pull off this feat? They institutionalized themselves in non-academic sectors first (circumventing many gatekeepers and standards in the process). After these approaches were widely adopted elsewhere – for instance by corporations or nonprofits eager to signal they ‘get it’ and are ‘doing something’ (even if what they are doing is ineffective) — academia followed suit, so as not to appear ‘behind the times.’
They moved into university admin roles, and expanded the domain of university administration. Activism is not intrinsic to the role of being a university administrator. Historically, administrations have often operated as rather conservative forces within institutions of higher learning. Even today, there is significant variance as to how ‘activist’ college administrative bodies are across institutional types and geographic locations.
The idea of utilizing administration, etc. for promoting social justice goes back to prominent student activist Rudi Dutschke, who advocated a “long march through the institutions” as the most plausible means for his fellow student activists to realize change: those committed to the cause should entrench themselves as integral parts of the socio-cultural machinery, become expert operators of said machinery (actually do the work, and well), then leverage these instruments in the service of alternative aims. Dutschke’s proposal was celebrated and wholeheartedly endorsed by Marcuse and many others on the ‘new left,’ leading to its popularization.
And it has, indeed, been a ‘long march’ — Dutschke et al. began promoting this idea in the late 60s and early 70s — but it is hard to deny its impact within colleges and universities. Dutschke’s proposal has now become something of an orthodoxy within many administrative circles (especially at elite institutions): of course one should seek to promote social justice through one’s work within these institutions; this is increasingly the motivation for people to pursue such jobs to begin with — to wield institutional clout in the service of their preferred socio-political agenda (while undermining, marginalizing and disciplining those who refuse to ‘get with the program’).
Here is where academics in social research fields come into play – again, as the rearguard working to consolidate, legitimize and promote the ideas and approaches created by practitioners, lawyers and activists. As Sam Abrams’ research has shown, college administrators hail predominantly from the arts, humanities and social sciences. Graduates of these fields often have a distressingly limited understanding of how, concretely, many social institutions operate – and how, specifically, these institutions might be leveraged to achieve particular ends. However, those who gravitate towards administration often do understand, or come to understand, how to ‘work the (higher ed) system.’ And one of the key things they have done with this institutional knowledge is expand the size and influence of the administrative class itself.
The growth of university administration from 1989 to present is astonishing (see here). Many schools today have more administrators than faculty. A great number are continuing to expand their administration, even as they are raising tuition and cutting faculty — especially tenure-track positions.
According to the AAUP, the vast majority (73%) of all faculty positions today are non tenure-track. Contingent faculty are well aware that a single bad student evaluation, teaching evaluation, a single upset donor or trustee, a single witch hunt from right-aligned media, any meaningful conflict with an administrator or a senior faculty member — and they can be eliminated with no due process, no appeal, and in many cases, no explanation. Given the general lack of solidarity of tenured and tenure-track faculty with contingent faculty, practically speaking, the vast majority of instructors today are left with little-to-no academic freedom. They keep their head down and avoid challenging anyone, be they students, senior faculty or administrators.
Put simply: administrative bloat is directly tied to the erosion of faculty governance (and of academic freedom, more broadly). The accompanying proliferation of oversight, rules, procedures and intermediaries within higher ed institutions gives administrators greater influence over more-and-more of university life, with less and less accountability to anyone other than their fellow administrators.
They also developed curricula and entrenched themselves in ed schools – allowing them to shape primary, middle and high school teaching instead of merely higher ed — thereby molding future generations of college students and scholars before they even set foot on a university.
This is worth dwelling on a bit. As HxA co-founder Jonathan Haidt explained in Coddling of the American Mind and elsewhere, when he began his advocacy for viewpoint diversity, open inquiry and constructive disagreement, he thought it was the universities – faculty and administrators – who were proliferating the mindset he describes as ‘safetyism’ among students. However, as he continued to study the issue, he realized that he had the dynamics backward: students from more privileged backgrounds were coming into (elite) universities with these ideas and expectations already well-entrenched, and were often demanding conformity from university leadership and administration. They faced little resistance in an institutional environment where students are increasingly viewed as ‘consumers,’ and these customers are held to be ‘the boss.’ Consequently, Haidt has come to argue, universities may be culpable for doing too little to correct these tendencies (often exacerbating them instead), but they are actually downstream from the ‘root’ of the issue.
Perhaps the most genius aspect this approach (targeting ed schools) is the indirectness. This strategy was implemented in a very deliberate, systematic, forward-thinking way by a constellation of activists, scholars and practitioners (who were very explicit about the political goals of their pedagogical approach!). Nonetheless, when their efforts began to come to fruition, it appeared as though it was a spontaneous, organic, student-driven movement. Young people reached (elite) universities, and increasingly the workplace (in particular industries), attempting to mold these institutions in accordance with the logics that have been inculcated into them since primary school — by teachers executing the curricula designed by these activists, practitioners and scholars. Yet rather than taking up their disagreement with the people who had designed said curricula, who had laid out these modes of thought and engagement, critics were instead forced to contend with the students themselves — by then, true believers. The optics of this were not great (for the critics, that is, who came off as reactionary, out of touch, overly-judgmental, etc. for their apparent denigration of the students and their views).
In short, the move into ed schools was truly a masterstroke by people who understood the institutions of cultural (re)production and were playing the long game.
It is a daunting task to meaningfully change the culture or operations of a complex system… such as the one comprised of various constellations of higher ed institutions in the United States. Yet for issues that many reformers are interested in today — like open inquiry or free expression — organizational culture will be the main target of any successful reform movement. As David French pointed out in a recent essay, the legal battle for free expression, etc. on campus has already been waged, and pretty decisively won, decades ago. If people don’t ‘feel’ free in institutions of higher learning today, this is primarily due to institutional or disciplinary culture and norms. And these, as I’ve explained elsewhere, cannot be effectively legislated.
The good news is that changes happen all the time. Incalculably many changes are underway in the complex system of U.S. higher ed, even as we speak – and the people who comprise those institutions are in flux as well, with new students coming in, old students cycling out (ditto with faculty and staff — albeit at a slower rate). As sociologist Andrew Abbot put it, the more interesting empirical puzzle is not to explain institutional change, but rather institutional continuity.
Here, we have explored some of the pathways through which a particular set of ideas and methods have been able to persist and rise to prominence within institutions of higher learning (and beyond). Regardless of whether or not one supports the phenomena under consideration here, those who aspire to reform institutions of higher learning would do well to learn from these exemplars – and to put the current discussions about the state of higher ed into a deeper context.
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