"Let's engage in some radical, beautiful community care and love. Let's make space for everyone to engage at whatever level they want/need."
So went an open letter in the Oberlin College student newspaper protesting an upcoming lecture by writer and scholar Christina Hoff Sommers. Titled “In Response to Sommers' Talk: A Love Letter to Ourselves” and signed by more than 100 students, the missive called Sommers a “rape denialist” and characterized Oberlin as “laden with trauma and sexualized violence and full of victims/survivors.” It suggested students keep themselves safe and render Sommers irrelevant by doing anything other than listening to her.
I don't know whether Oberlin — a well-regarded liberal arts college — is, in fact, a predator-infested house of horrors, but I'm pretty sure Sommers is not a rape-denying misogynist.
Yes, Sommers is affiliated with a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and yes, she publicly questions the accuracy of certain bandied-about statistics regarding sexual assault and the gender wage gap. But it's difficult to say how hearing her speak could present a threat to anyone's physical or emotional well-being. Sommers does the very thing that public scholars are supposed to do: present an evidence-based point of view and invite people to agree or disagree.
But as we see every day in social media, the blogosphere and the shout-o-sphere of cable news, ad hominem attacks and self-righteous posturing are the new disagreeing. Take the commonly cited statistic that 1 in 5 women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted or raped. Sommers (and plenty of others of various political stripes) has called it into question. Once upon a time, her position might have encouraged spirited debate. Today, having to engage an ideological opponent in such debate, particularly if the issue is related to sexual trauma, is perceived as a trauma in and of itself.
And it's not only sexual trauma that can make debate impossible. Sometimes it's vocational. When Sommers suggested that young women pursue STEM fields rather than careers in the humanities to close the gender wage gap, she was met with shouts of “Don't tell me what to do!”
I'm hardly the first exasperated feminist-of-a-certain age to inveigh against the “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” that caricature campus activism now — think of us not as embattled but “embaffled.” When (trigger alert) Fox News' Megyn Kelly wrapped up an interview with Sommers by excoriating young people for being oversensitive whiners, she was echoing countless baby boomers and Gen Xers who complain about the apparent fragility and narcissism of millennials (which, of course, is an enormous cohort that can't be labeled with a single name tag).
Maybe the indignation and dripping sanctimony we see from so many young activists isn't narcissism, or even the storied self-esteem that this generation has been ostensibly mainlining since birth. Maybe it has undergone some sort of chemical conversion into something even more dangerous: self-righteousness.
Self-esteem, the kind that comes from finding the sweet spot between a healthy fondness for yourself and healthy self-skepticism, tends to get harder to come by the older we get. For a kid, self-esteem can be as close at hand as a sports victory or a sense of belonging in a peer group. It's a much more complicated and elusive proposition for adults, subject to the responsibilities and vicissitudes of grown-up life.
For college students, caught in that muddy crossing between childhood and independence, going through a phase in which they can't tell the difference between caring for themselves and declaring their own importance at every turn may actually be something of a rite of passage, albeit one as ridiculous as returning from a semester abroad with a foreign accent.
But if, in fact, this confusion is more than just a phase, if what we're dealing with is a generation — and, increasingly, an entire culture — for whom self-righteousness and self-esteem are essentially interchangeable, we're in trouble. Because self-righteousness, when you think about it, is a contra-indicator of self-esteem. It's what sets in when genuine righteousness eludes us. And if we spend our lives inside safe spaces writing love letters to ourselves, just about everything else will elude us too.