In this post in my series “God and Man at Yale Divinity,” I discuss the social justice warriors on Yale’s campus.
Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes
Another week has passed here at Yale Divinity School. The semester seems to be flying by. It’s hard to believe that nine weeks are already behind me.
I have touched on the politics at Yale over the last few blog posts because they occupy such a prominent place within the campus culture. The social justice warriors that are caricatured in the media are alive and well, and I reflect on that here.
It is just a small aspect of this wonderful place, however, and I hope that nothing I write is taken as an expression of dissatisfaction. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even as a conservative on campus, I love it here.
(I also recognize that some people will enjoy this aspect of a Yale education.)
(Still) Writing Papers
I have previously written about writing papers here and the extraordinary effort and time commitment it requires. As I head into week ten, I am still writing papers, having already devoted untold hours to the endeavor.
I finished the first draft of my Early Christianity paper at the beginning of the week, and it was more than twice as long as the page limit. I was able to pare it down to thirteen pages by the end of the week, though it was difficult determining what to cut out.
I should end up with a pretty tight paper, but I’m afraid that I have removed too much to develop my thesis well.
I am arguing that the Council of Chalcedon resulted in the concentration of power in the Church into two major bishoprics—Rome and Constantinople—which set the stage for the eventual Great Schism of 1054 and the rise of the modern papacy.
This topic is probably more appropriate for a book than a twelve-page paper.
There is a skill in figuring out beforehand how to limit the topic to keep it within the page constrictions, and I clearly did a poor job this time. Had I done better, I would have saved myself a lot of time.
Given how far I overshot, I have been thinking about how I can do better in the future, which is particularly important as I prepare to begin my New Testament and World Christianity papers.
I have just about a month to get those two done, and if I write them the same way I wrote the Early Christianity paper, I will have a tough time finishing them on time. I need to learn how to write more efficiently.
The Value of Self-Denial
Amid my studies, I have been able to take some time to reflect on the topics of conversation I encounter in class. This week, I have been thinking a lot about the value of self-denial and self-discipline.
There was a discussion in one of my classes about how a form of self-denial pushed in some parts of the church today has hurt a lot of people.
An Ascetic Faith
I understand the argument, and I agree that the exaltation of the type of self-denial whereby all things physical, especially that which is related to the body, are declared bad has indeed been harmful.
Such a notion has its roots in Gnosticism, and there are good reasons it was declared a dangerous heresy from the start. Besides, Jesus, in taking on flesh, demonstrated the goodness of the body.
Nonetheless, self-denial is a tremendously important part of the Christian faith. The Christian faith is an ascetic faith, and I don’t think that we can dispense with that without creating a greater evil than the one which we seek to address.
In many cases, the proposed cure is worse than the disease. What can seem like legalism proves to be wisdom once established norms are transgressed and their purposes revealed.
There is rabbinic teaching about “building a fence around Torah.” That is, we should put rules in place to ensure that we stop significantly short of violating the divine law. Unfortunately, many Christians equate such an idea with the “legalism” of the Pharisees that Jesus supposedly attacked.
The Value of Social Morality
Nonetheless, in light of this classroom discussion, this teaching brings to mind a story about a village living in fear of man-eating tigers.
These tigers terrorized the villagers. Only a very few of the village’s strongest warriors could capture and kill these tigers, as the tigers were powerful, both very aggressive and very stealthy.
So, to solve this problem, the community built a fence of tremendous strength. Those who stayed behind the fence were safe. Those who wandered beyond it were frequently consumed. So, the people resided within the fence in peace.
As generations passed, however, the younger generation, which had no memory of the tigers and the full extent of the damage they wrought, began to resent the fence.
The fence was constraining, constricting. It denied a full view of the surrounding beauty. It even attracted vermin, which irritated the villagers and occasionally brought disease.
The imaginations of the villagers went wild as they saw the potential delights that lie just beyond the fence and the freedom and joy transgressing its boundaries could bring.
So, slowly, the community decided to deconstruct the fence, and they rejoiced in their new-found liberation.
And the tigers returned.
We are now in the process of deconstructing our fences. We have adjusted our views about truth, about sexual morality, about the family and the indissolubility of marriage. We have replaced the village with the “I.”
Now, the tigers have returned, and I fear it will be some time before we realize just how much removing those fences will cost us.
The Social Justice Warriors
I have also been struck by the activities and rhetoric of the social justice warriors on campus. I previously wrote about cancel culture as a manifestation of this phenomenon.
What Is Justice?
Social justice activism in its current form on college campuses has taken on a bizarre twist with the social justice warriors high-jacking the word “justice” and attaching it to whatever cause they are currently perpetuating.
At first, this seemed benign, if somewhat obnoxious. If they want to call everything they’re doing, “justice,” fine. More power to them.
It cheapens the word and inoculates the populace against attempts to bring attention to real instances of injustice. But in the Jacobin obsession with the manipulation of language, it’s par for the course.
On further reflection, however, I have begun to recognize the more sinister ramifications of the practice. If everything you do is “justice,” then everyone opposing you must, by definition, be fighting for injustice.
And just like that, ideological opponents become mortal enemies.
The Enemy of Social Justice Warriors
As a result of this framework, these social justice warriors are no longer pro-choice. Rather, they’re fighting for “reproductive justice.”
Those fighting to protect the lives of unborn children, therefore, do not simply disagree with them about the value of life or when it begins. Instead, they stand for injustice and, consequently, oppression.
And this is how you have nuns in their habits standing before the Supreme Court in a desperate fight against those who would use the full force of government to squash their peaceful resistance to what Pope Francis has called the “throwaway culture.”
Consequently, in this area and many others, there is no room for honest disagreements about social policy.
So, with “economic justice” as another example, the social justice warriors vilify conservatives as patsies of the rich, while glorifying some of the world’s greatest perpetrators of real injustice—Che, Stalin, Mao—as social justice heroes.
It is not difficult to see how civil discourse is impossible in these situations, not because conservatives refuse to have the conversation, but because leftists, in their pursuit of “justice,” do.
A Desperate Counterattack
It is also not difficult to understand how, after being subject to such vitriolic attacks and insults for so long, conservatives—including traditionally Democratic middle Americans—selected their own crass spokesman.
They found in Donald Trump someone who would go toe-to-toe with these self-styled social justice warriors, trade insult for insult, call out leftish hypocrisy, and rain down the same disdain upon the left that the left has for so long rained down on them.
Donald Trump is antithetical to every conservative sensibility. I am a conservative, and I could not bring myself to vote for him.
I nonetheless understand why others did, and the bafflement among the left over his election itself leaves me baffled.
Social Justice Warriors and the Need For Purpose
On some level, I understand this leftish drive.
Everyone wants to do something meaningful with their lives, particularly those privileged enough not to have to worry solely about their own survival. So, the social justice warriors look back on those in the past who did great things and see specifically the civil rights movement as something to emulate.
The problem, however, is that, in this effort, they attempt to turn every situation, every social condition, into continuations of Jim Crow or other similar evils.
So, every hurt feeling, every insult, becomes equivalent to grave injustices of the past.
Every conservative politician becomes George Wallace, every authority figure becomes a caricature of firehouse wielding, dog-handling police, and every ideological opponent becomes the grainy photographs of hateful whites lining the entrance to Little Rock Central.
No one perpetuates violence upon these activists, as authorities of the past did upon their heroes, so words become violence. The First Amendment itself becomes a tool of the oppressor.
I can appreciate this attitude from my time in the military. Every zealous, gung-ho soldier and airman among the rank and file attempted to turn every conflict into World War II and every bureaucratic task into some mission-essential assignment with Medal of Honor potential.
Yet, just as it was hard to take seriously someone who refers to creating PowerPoints for the wing commander as “the mission,” so it is difficult to take these campus activists seriously.
The Need for Maturity
At some point, it’s time to shake off fantasy and start acting like adults. Arrested development, however, seems to be not only the unfortunate norm but a glorified condition.
Yale is a fascinating self-contained world. The social justice warriors here decry privilege, but it is privilege that allows them to behave the way that they do. Adults behaving like children is generally not tolerated in other contexts.
Don’t get me wrong. I have loved my experience here so far, and I am so glad to be a student at Yale University. But it’s also an uncomfortable place at times.
I can see how people come to places like this and change their worldview dramatically.
If I were younger, more impressionable, and had not experienced as much as I have, it would be easy to be taken in, to want to feel like I was part of the ingroup, and to sacrifice my identity for the cause du jour.
As it is, however, I’ve seen too much to think much of it. After seeing a child get raped as a prosecutor, it’s hard to take too seriously students crying over the Yale endowment’s investing in energy companies.
The Need for Perspective
The bizarre worldview pushed here, the obsession with identity politics, and the intense pessimism about the future and disdain for the past, are natural products of those who have experienced so little of the world as to take their current perspective on it so seriously.
We are so very small. History is so very long. This perspective is invaluable for a healthy, happy life, yet it is also such a scarce resource at a place like this.
I find it so strange that I have seen greater evils than the vast majority of these students ever have or ever will see, and I have a more optimistic outlook on life than they do.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has been here for millennia. It survived the persecutions and oppressions of Islamic empires and the genocidal efforts of communist regimes. It will be here long after the woke-scold fades into history as another flash-in-the-pan fad of an intellectually shallow movement of adolescent elites.
The Futility of Debate
My perspective, however, is a minority one, and I don’t really care to raise my voice to discuss the issue.
Debate for the sake of debate, particularly at a place like Yale, is exhausting and would only make me enemies. I don’t care to go down that route.
Even though I disagree with many people here about a great many things, I enjoy their company and appreciate their friendship.
The fact is, however, that progressive positions at Yale are not really subject to debate. They are simply assumed. I recognize that and move on. I’m happy to speak with anyone who wants a different perspective, but I feel no need to force one on them.
The Importance of Dialogue
I would caution progressives, however, to remember that many of the beliefs considered gospel today were deemed to be radical not that long ago. Consider how these beliefs gained widespread acceptance.
The modern abhorrence of overt racism, for example, came about as a result of decades—and indeed centuries—of argument.
(Even if you argue that systemic racism still permeates society, few people are willing to propagate explicitly racist beliefs now, which has not long been the case.)
The abolitionist movement and the destruction of Jim Crow could not have been achieved if the proponents of these causes had asserted their beliefs without argument, without engaging with their opponents, and then attempted to silence any opposition.
Indeed, it is doubtful that the North would have rallied around Lincoln had the central cause of the Civil War been only preservation of the Union.
Northerners, with the same heritage from the country’s founding that stressed consent of the governed, were not excited about forcing states—that wanted to be left alone to govern themselves—to remain part of a country of which they had no desire to be a part.
The decades of brilliant and persistent abolitionist debate and argument, however, persuaded a society that slavery was an evil worth fighting to eliminate.
You cannot skip ahead to the place of widespread acceptance, however. You cannot permanently bully people into keeping silent in acquiescence to causes in which they don’t believe. Obtaining ideological victories requires toil and effort. It requires persuading others to your cause.
Yet, progressives have attempted to bypass all of that. Therefore, whether right or wrong, their positions will not take hold but will instead produce a tremendous backlash that is now starting to play out.
Feelings carry the moment. Logic carries the day.
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