Does “Blasphemy” Help?

How are we to understand them? Some of the recent college blow-ups seem to defy traditional common sense. Most recently, for example, students at Evergreen State College have taken to attacking biology professor Bret Weinstein. As in earlier cases, the violence of the reaction doesn’t seem to match the alleged offense.

Over at Heterodox Academy, Jonathan Haidt calls this a kind of “witch hunt,” a modern efflorescence of blasphemy trials, a type of “fundamentalist religion.” Does that kind of parallel help us make sense of these campus controversies?

Here’s what we know: In cases from Yale to Claremont McKenna to Middlebury to Berkeley, protesters have exploded—sometimes violently—in order to demonstrate their disagreement with certain forms of speech.

In some cases, the protesters have insisted that harboring hurtful language does harm to the campus community. At Middlebury, for example, students protested the presence of Charles Murray. Murray was accused of perpetuating racist ideas.

And, in some cases, the ferocity of the student reaction seems out of proportion to the alleged crimes. At Claremont McKenna College, for example, an administrator inadvertently implied that there existed a racial norm at the school. At Yale, an instructor downplayed the seriousness of offensive Halloween costumes. In each case, the student response was enormous and militant.

How are we to understand the violence of these student reactions?

I’ve tried a few explanations myself. Recently, I suggested that we look not at the “college” part of these protests, but at the “elite” part of them. A while back, I suggested that we should celebrate this kind of student activism. I even suggested a better way for protesters to accomplish their stated goals.

Jonathan Haidt writes that we need to take a different perspective. The vitriol and intensity of recent campus flare-ups, Haidt argues, is best understood as a kind of religious impulse, a witch-hunt, an anti-blasphemy campaign.

There are some parallels. First, many of today’s campus protesters feel that merely allowing certain forms of speech constitutes grave harm. Like many sorts of religious speech, merely encountering certain words is perceived as harmful. Second, there is a definite in-group feel to recent campus demonstrations. Many participants seem to want primarily to demonstrate their position on certain issues. The main goal does not seem to be humdrum policy change, but rather a literal demonstration of morality. Plus, the language of recent protests is often starkly black and white. Anything besides total agreement is seen as an utter betrayal.

What do you think? Does it help you understand the Evergreen State protests if you think of them as a kind of blasphemy trial? If you take it out of the realm of secular policy deliberation and into the realm of good vs. evil?

Or is that just a way for us to downplay the seriousness of the protests? Calling something a “witch-hunt,” after all, is yet another way to cut off dialogue.

Leave a comment


  1. Haidt is the kind of left hating liberal who is so open-minded toward the right, there’s nothing meaningfully liberal about him. If you support an unregulated “the marketplace of ideas” that admits vendors who want to demolish it, you may as well admit you’ve joined them.

    Similarly, your descriptions of the Yale and Claremont debacles attempt to spin blatant white supremacist assumptions with the fig leaf of ignorance and good intentions.

    Don’t be a Haidt who supports hate in the name of tolerance.

    • So I gather you DON’T consider Haidt’s label of “blasphemy trial” a useful or good-faith attempt to understand the reasoning behind these protests? You’re saying that the protests are, instead, a rational and moral response to administrative attempts to sneak white-supremacist thinking in through the back door?

      • That’s an absurd way to spin it. The colleges aren’t sneaking white supremacist thinking in through any back doors; it is their embedded legacy. It is already there. Can you think of a better example than an administrator who mindlessly, “inadvertently implies” that there is a white “racial norm” on their campus? In the context of public admonishment to conform to that norm! Do you really not understand structural racism and the way dominant ideologies work their way into people’s assumptions and institutions? You sound increasingly reactionary yourself.

        Yes, these are rational and moral responses to shut down oppressive idiots whether they “mean it” or not. Kindergarten notions of fairness as “I get to say/do whatever I want, because you did” are not moral or rational, if that even needs to be said.

  2. Agellius

     /  May 30, 2017

    There’s no question that in these situations there is an orthodoxy that has been violated, and that the response to the violation of orthodoxy is to either shout down the violator or to use physical force. The argument is very much like those used by the Catholic Church for why heresy should be punished: That the very ideas themselves are harmful since they may lead people into falsehood and ultimately, endanger the well-being of souls. You could hold these ideas internally, but to try to disseminate them or express them publicly was forbidden.

    The difference is that the Church would give you a chance to defend yourself at trial as to whether your ideas were in fact heretical, before silencing you. Granted, the Church was judge and jury and the question was never, is the Church right or am I right. The Church was right, period, there was no question about that. The only question was whether you violated orthodoxy. And that’s also the case with the student protesters.

    • …and that’s one of the things that has me stumped. For many orthodox-type activists, as you mention, the threat of heresy is that it might prove attractive to fence-sitters. The quasi-orthodoxy we’re talking about in these campus protests, though, seems to worry about a different kind of harm. The words themselves will cause harm, true, but not because they will attract fence-sitters. For many of today’s campus protesters, the “heretical” words must be stopped because the words themselves directly hurt people. It seems to me like a different sort of worry.

      • Agellius

         /  May 30, 2017


        I’ve heard that but I’m skeptical that that’s really it.

        If they’re saying that hurtful words are like stones, and someone is threatening to move through campus hurling stones, which may hurt people, then yes, it may be necessary to use force to stop the stone-throwing. But for a talk or speech to be analogous to this, it would have to be a situation where the speaker is threatening to walk through campus spewing his words through a bullhorn, where people have no choice but to be exposed to them. But what’s actually happening is more like someone announcing that they’re coming to campus on such-and-such date to throw stones, but only within the confines of a certain auditorium. Anyone who wants to be avoid being hurt by flying stones only has to stay away from that place at that time.

        But the protesters don’t want ANYONE throwing stones, even when the stones are easily avoidable to those who don’t want to be hit by them.

        So, I think they’re against the ideas as ideas, as unorthodox doctrines, and not as harmful projectiles.

      • @Adam — Of course the words and ideas are potentially attractive and influential to fence sitters. Are you unfamiliar with the Overton window strategy? The Milgram and Asch experiments? Have you never seen individuals and groups change their views, or nominally adopt new views to conform to others around them? From where I sit, you’ve moved steadily rightward over the years, evidently influenced by the words and ideas of your subjects within a larger cultural context where this drift is general,

        What possibly justifies your assumption that views expressed by faculty and administrators (or anyone) have no influence? That words somehow do not matter in these situations?

        Every groups defines its heterodoxies by squashing them when people cross a line that threatens to move the center on what the current orthodoxy admits. The range of tolerance tends to diminish in times of high stress and conflict. When things get pulled hard one way, there is a reaction the other way.

        This is how all institutions and groups work. It’s how politics has always worked. When it gets really intense, you are forced to pick a least worst side. Wring your hands if you want, but there’s no higher set of rules, no moral law written in the sky or guarded by some mystified secular magisterium for you to appeal to. Ultimately conflict gets settled by naked power, often in the streets. Pick any European country; mass protests with extensive property damage have always been the norm. Even by American standards, these student protests are very, very mild.

        In Canada currently there has been a rash of mouthy WASP male neoliberals who just don’t get it losing their academic and literary establishment jobs for making stupidly offensive and/or ignorant remarks about French Canadians, Aboriginal Canadians, and cultural appropriation. Except for the far right minority seething in resentment about “self-loathing white liberals” (just say it: we’re “race traitors”) there is about ZERO sympathy for these knobs. There’s a national process of truth and reconciliation messily underway though, and a heck of a lot healthier social-democratic activity than in the US. If you worked here Adam, you’d be down with this program. People who are really thinking rationally and morally for themselves and others (especially those who don’t resemble them) are down with this program, I’d argue. But I’m sure actual progressive will settle for peer-pressured conformity, and not wait for universal enlightenment.

  3. Maybe your second link gives us a word to use – heterodoxy. “Any opinions or doctrines at variance with an official or orthodox position”. I guess it is used contra doctrine and heresy is used contra dogma. Also – I feel sorry for those who are hurt by words.

    • You mean that to be insincere and sarcastic, right? Suppose these words were trained on you or someone close to you?

      • Nope. I have often said that talk is cheap but words are important. What I was trying to get at was the principal definition of hurt which is to cause injury or pain. I also distinguish between being personally offended and finding something offensive, which may be splitting hairs in some folks’ opinion. Many equate being offended with being hurt, but I do not. And whether or not one is offended is the response/responsibility of the hearer. Thus I find many things offensive, but I am not hurt by such things. Of course a big problem is that if offensive words are not effectively countered, indeed they may lead to physical pain and injury – hence words are important. Peremptory note – don’t spend too much time countering my perception – I am over 70 and unlikely to change my mind 🙂

      • Your inability to change your mind is probably rooted more
        in a lack of experience outside environments where you’re in a majority or dominant cultural group. If you paid attention to minority perspectives, including the complaints of conservative groups that feel marginalized, you would know the issue is not about feelings or pain but injury and anger at loss of a voice, loss of influence, loss of cultural power, a sense of oppression and exclusion, a violation of rights and values foundational to society. When things like race, gender, and sexuality come into play it is about intrinsic traits being singled out for prejudice and discrimination. The objection is political; it is a claim about over-reach and oppression that makes their world more dangerous and threatening in terms of basic safety and enfranchisement.

  4. Let’s acknowledge that a conservative US Congressman backed by a president who is in, let’s say “highly agitated” circumstances, was just elected days after bodyslamming a a liberal journalist in front of conservative journalists. Yet we’re fixated on a few campus protests where arguably more moderate (but definitely borderline) conservative perspectives (e.g., no bodyslamming) are stridently rejected as legitimate participants in various campus communities.

    • And then another lawmaker threatened to shoot s colleague in the Texas legislature over a disagreement about immigration enforcement. But yeah, let’s keep our eye on the real threat: students agitating against racism where they encounter it on campus.

  5. Dan – you obviously don’t understand the meaning of 🙂 And you obviously don’t read carefully – I said unlikely, which does not equate to inability. Pay more attention. Also, a lot of us white folks are also in a minority class of some sort and have experienced what you say we have not experienced.

    • No, I reject the idea that smiley faces indicate non seriousness and non responsibility for ones comments. It’s you who are being obtuse. As I noted, nearly everyone — including those most likely to share your views — can claim to be a victim of insensitivity, and even oppressive more dominant cultures. But that doesn’t make it a moral equivalent or even relevant. Systemic racism in academe rearing its head matters a lot more than the claim of fundamentalists and pseudo-scholar polemicists that their alt-fact reality is being repressed.

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