By M.L.R. Smith
What is going on in modern universities? Campuses seem to have become the theatre for an increasingly toxic struggle for control over what can and cannot be said within the confines of the educational environment. Protecting vulnerable minorities from offensive behaviours and hate-speech versus the right to express one’s opinion freely is a tussle that is now commonly referred to as a ‘culture war’, especially in the United States, where tensions are running high in the aftermath of a polarising presidential election campaign one year ago.
The widespread use of the term ‘culture war’ should attract the attention of students of war to discern in what ways this state of affairs can be usefully dissected and analysed. As a concept, ‘war’ can be conceived in the terms of Prussian soldier-scholar, Carl von Clausewitz, who enunciated it as an ‘act of force to compel our opponent to fulfil our will’: or more prosaically, as a clash of organized armed force to achieve political goals. The actual use of physical force, however, is merely the overt manifestation of conflicting passions, again as Clausewitz perceived. War ultimately originates in the mind, and it can express itself in thoughts, intellectual dissent, language, argumentation, and ultimately violence.
If we try to bring a dispassionate, Clausewitzian, understanding to what is becoming an increasingly hostile setting, we might be able to detect some evolving trends and strategies in these culture wars. In particular, attention can be drawn to one thus far little remarked on phenomenon, which is the growing militarisation of the rhetoric on campus. Terms like ‘offence-taking’, ‘word weaponisation’, ‘triggering’, and ‘micro-aggressions’ are now commonplace in higher education. They illustrate that the vocabulary of war is increasingly infiltrating university life. Let us examine, then, the rise in the militarisation of the language within the university context and its implications.
The rhetoric of war
To some degree, war-like language and analogues are integral to understandings of the modern university. As Lady Bird Johnson once remarked: ‘The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom’. The quote highlights the belief that intellectual ‘combat’ is an entirely healthy enterprise. Sparring between different viewpoints based on facts, argument, and robust debate is the foundation of scientific investigation and the mainstay of a just and free society. It is also regarded as the handmaiden of progress more generally because only through the testing of ideas through disputation can positions be clarified, refined, improved, disproved, and ultimately overthrown. This last term will be especially familiar to the observers of Clausewitz’s wrestlers. It is the classic rendering of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, which is premised on notions of disagreement, contention, and conflict of a non-violent kind.
In recent decades peaceful debate and intellectual exchange within the academy have been slowly giving way to something altogether less peaceable, which is the remorseless constraining of speech. It is the growth of this phenomenon that is exacerbating the militarisation of campus rhetoric. Trends toward this direction have been in evidence for years. Though, for many, the ‘no platforming’ of oppositional speakers began as a movement within student unions only recently, this tradition in Britain stretches as far back as the 1970s. This essentially ‘passive’ idea of denying speakers a forum for expressing their views has over time been extended to the ‘disinviting’ of speakers and disruption activities aiming to prevent speakers from having their voices heard. These actions have systematically reduced the potential for contending viewpoints to debate each other. Indeed, the rise of the idea of ‘safe spaces’ explicitly denies the very notion of intellectual scrutiny and challenge.
Designed to limit intellectual space on campus, these acts have followed a logic that Clausewitz might recognize. Were he perhaps to be an exceedingly ‘mature’ postgraduate student looking on at these events, he might point to the tendency of passions, once inflamed, leading towards the escalation of even ‘passive’ measures into threats of physical intimidation. To illustrate, in September 2017, ‘serious and credible threats of personal violence’ were directed towards the editor of the journal Third World Quarterly, which published an article that questioned whether colonialism was necessarily all bad. The publisher, citing a ‘duty of care to all our academic editorial teams’, withdrew the article. In this manner the traditional belief that universities exist to advance understanding through the ‘clash’ of ideas, appears in some quarters to be giving way to censorship and the erosion of viewpoint diversity.
The decline of viewpoint diversity, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, has also been in evidence for a number of years. According to one study, in U.S. universities ‘liberal’ professors outnumber conservatives by a ratio of 12 to 1. A less pronounced but similar trend is identifiable in Britain with eight in ten academics being reported as ‘left-wing’, according to a survey conducted by the Adam Smith Institute. This is a concern that does not only worry conservative critics. Academics and commentators on the free-speech left are equally uneasy with what they see as the collapse of competing opinions and the consequent infantilisation of the university system, its retreat into regressive identity politics, and the return of paternalism. In 2015 Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at New York University, helped found the Heterodox Academy network, which aims to strengthen the plurality of thought and expression in U.S. universities. The association possesses a membership of over 1,300 professors, adjunct professors, and post-doctoral researchers from across the political spectrum, highlighting the disquiet about the ideological homogeneity of U.S. campuses among a wide range of constituents.
Escalation into physical force
Central to Haidt’s project is the belief that there is an increasing tendency for students on campus to interpret certain words as ‘violence’, leading in some cases to actual physical violence. What we are witnessing, it seems, is acceleration in the culture wars away from simply the clash and disagreement of ideas towards something less benign. As the Marxist editor of Spiked, and free speech advocate, Brendan O’Neill argues: ‘If you say speeches are violence you justify violence in response to speech… Because how should violence be met? Violence…. often need[s] to be met with violence. So the more we tell young people that speech is violence, the more we encourage a culture of violence designed to prevent speech’. Nor are such views merely impressionistic. Survey evidence indicates that on U.S. campuses about 19 per cent of students endorse the use of violence to close down speech deemed to be hateful and offensive.
In a sense, therefore, it is possible to observe the operation of an escalation dynamic. Clausewitz’s theories hold that once a conflict has been initiated it would contain its own irresistible momentum that begins pushing towards a theoretical extreme. The reported musings of one college professor that ‘The only answer to a microaggression is a macroaggression’, are a classic demonstration of this point. If words and speech are now perceived as ‘violence’ then physical force is the next logical step. Overt armed force to attain political objectives has thus been visible in the actions of those taking part in the far left ‘Antifa’ movement, which resists what it claims to see as ‘fascism’ through violent protest. Its black clad, hoodie wearing members were in evidence at University of California, Berkeley, in February 2017. Armed with batons, pepper spray and bike locks Antifa activists rioted against a speaking event by conservative free speech activist Milo Yiannopoulos (of whom more later), causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and resulting in the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’ appearance. Further anti-free speech violence and disruption has occurred at Evergreen University, California State, and Middlebury College among others.
A Dangerous Strategy?
What this underlines is that ‘war’ is an entirely appropriate lens through which to interpret what is happening. The growing use of threats and violent protest to disrupt speaking engagements or force the withdrawal of articles from journals illustrates that the conflict is real and that the notion of a ‘culture war’ is far from a euphemism. If the Clausewitzian concept of war is an accurate frame of reference, then what strategies, it may be asked, are being employed to counteract the rise in anti-free speech protest?
To consider this question we might examine the case of Milo Yiannopoulos. Known simply as Milo, he is a prominent personality in the American free-speech movement that has seen conservatives and libertarians pushing back at what they see as the political correctness and stifling leftist conformity on college campuses. Milo embarked on a lecture tour of U.S. universities in 2016 and 2017. His fruity language and willingness to face down audience disruptors won him a legion of fans in conservative circles on campus and on YouTube, whilst simultaneously earning him the villainy of many on the left. The mere prospect of his appearance on campus provoked the mayhem that broke out in Berkeley.
Milo is flamboyant and controversial. His political opponents interpret his views as highly provocative. It is not the intention of this article to offer an assessment of his views and the manner in which he chooses to express them. Readers can make up their own minds about that. However, the point about him is that he is at the centre of these campus culture wars, which is exactly the way he likes it and where his significance resides. He is not the perpetrator of violence and not an advocate of censorship. His ostensible interest is the promotion of free expression: the right to say and to do anything within the law. Given that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution enshrines the right of free speech, he sees his role as defending legal and constitutional propriety against those who are attacking and undermining this principle.
Although undoubtedly articulate, by his own admission Milo is neither the most erudite or learned critic of the social justice left. There are any number of commentators, both on the right and left of politics, who are more established. Equally, he is but one of many activists in the online space who also promote free speech, libertarian, and conservative causes. Yet, he is interesting for two reasons. First, he was a vocal supporter of the Donald Trump candidacy in the presidential election of 2016 and by calling the election correctly and being empirically validated, he can claim credibility over his detractors who uniformly predicted that Trump did not stand a chance.
Second, he has evidently thought about how to counteract the influence of the left and has developed a clear idea – a strategy – about how to intensify the ‘war’. This puts him at the forefront of a countercultural movement that already existed but which both he and his backers have now, largely successfully, escalated. Yet, interestingly, as we shall discover, the weapons he advocates using to counter-escalate the culture war are not those of violence.
Earlier in 2017, Milo published his book, Dangerous. In this volume and his other media pronouncements it is possible to discern the stages of thought that inform his thinking about how to prosecute the culture wars:
1 – That the conflict should categorically be conceived in terms of war. Milo explicitly uses the term ‘war’ to frame his understanding of what he sees as the clash of values, a battle for the pre-eminence of ideas and arguments over what can and cannot be said in the public square.
2 – That the battle space is the cultural domain: that is, one that is concerned about the ideas, customs, and social behaviours of a particular society. Politics, he perceives, is downstream from culture (a view extolled by the conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart, the Breitbart news organization being Milo’s former employers). Once ‘politics’ begins to be framed in cultural norms – be it identitarianism, collectivist ethics, etc. – then the space for dissenting opinions is systematically constrained.
3 – That traditional conservatives – and especially establishment Republicans – have manifestly failed to engage in the cultural battle, ceding ground to the identitarian left without a fight, and retreating into a world that speaks only to itself. The lack of effort to persuade a wider audience, especially amongst the young, thus warrants a rejection of the conservative establishment and the embrace of new forms of resistance and leadership.
4 – That the key battlefield is the university campus, and the American one in particular. It is here where Milo holds that future opinion formers are indoctrinated by an academy that is increasingly imbricated in the ideas of a leftist cultural orthodoxy, which is antagonistic towards the notion of free speech.
5 – That it is therefore necessary to confront the opposition directly on the college green. ‘You have got to fight it where it lives’, he states. ‘And conservatives before me have failed to make significant inroads in culture because they haven’t shown up and fought where the enemy is’. ‘What I try to do’, he continues, ‘is go and park my glittery pink tank on the lawns of the enemy. Take the fight to them’.
6 – That the fight can be escalated and won with the application of humour. Indeed, laughter and ridicule are the principal means in his strategy. ‘They hate the sound of you laughing at them. They hate it more than anything else’, he maintains. ‘It’s why they hate me so much because I will just stand-up and crack jokes about them… They can’t bear being laughed at, and it is the most powerful weapon’.
Whether one finds Milo funny or entertaining is likely to depend on where one stands politically and what one understands to be the role and source of comedy. As a gay immigrant of Jewish background, married to a black man, he rejects the categories of victimhood into which – he argues – the social justice left classifies people like himself. It is this rejection that enables him to rile and bait his political adversaries mercilessly. There is no doubt that part of his modus operandi here is to use trolling tactics that initially aim to shock, exaggerate, and disgust with a view to opening up the space for ideological argumentation. In that sense, one can dispute any number of his positions. He claims, for example, that university subjects that end with ‘studies’ are all useless. Plainly, he’s wrong on that point (at least in one instance). To reiterate, whether one finds these assertions humorous is a matter of perspective and taste. It is nevertheless interesting to detect in the rhetoric the unambiguous articulation of the political context as war where words are intended, not as a prelude to physical violence, but certainly as weapons of provocation, as one Milo sponsored YouTube post starkly relays: ‘leftists want us silenced. We choose war’.
The teasing, jesting and trolling is not, however, seeking amusement for its own sake. Larking around is, pace Clausewitz, intended to fulfil a purpose. As Milo explains: ‘if you tell lots of good jokes, all of which contain a little kernel of truth, as I try to do, suddenly you find huge numbers of people reconsidering positions they have held for years and re-evaluating how they vote in elections, what books they want to buy and how they want to interact with other people’. Milo is, in this respect, conducting a war of the mind, aiming to change people’s views of the world. He is not, of course, the first to understand the potential power and political symbolism contained in comedy. As George Orwell noted, being funny can be highly subversive and a means of expressing dissent. A ‘joke’, Orwell said, can be a ‘sort of mental rebellion’.
Laughter as rebellion, jokes as escalation?
Is a rebellion of sorts going on? Twenty years ago the liberal-left philosopher, Richard Rorty, predicted that ‘badly educated’ Americans would eventually revolt against ‘having their manners dictated to by college graduates’. Of course, a mutiny of the left-behinds may explain part of the Trump phenomenon, but the audiences Milo speaks to at universities are plainly not ill-educated. They are college students who are themselves fed up with the speech codes and political conformity on campus. Moreover, with social trends suggesting that the youngsters moving up behind them – Generation Z (those born after 2000) – are more willing to challenge the values of the ‘millennials’, those like Milo might well be riding the crest of a new political wave.
None of this is to say that an inter-generational revolt is inevitable. Who knows how the future will unfold in this volatile political environment. Whether the kind of plan and tactics that the likes of Milo are offering will be effective in opening up the discursive space for intelligent dialogue (rather than merely fuelling emotions on all sides), is of course arguable. For all that, he concludes in Dangerous that people should disagree with him. The challenge he throws out to his opponents is that they should turn up and debate him with facts and arguments rather than with slogans and riots that aim to shut down speech.
To answer the question, then, set out at the beginning about what is going on in modern universities, the explanation can be said to be simple: it is a case of Clausewitz’s process of escalation. As the contending arguments engage, and passions are stirred, the momentum to push to the extremes is established. However, if jokes as an accompaniment to fact based debate represents an escalation then perhaps it is possible to hope that further turmoil on campus will be avoidable, and that the culture wars will resound to the healthy clash of ideas and not violence.
M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory and Head of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He specialises in the nature of dissent and the strategies of non-state actors. Along with David Martin Jones he is author of ‘Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age’ (Palgrave/Macmillan 2014), and ‘The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles and Paradoxes’ (Columbia University Press, 2015). He would like to thank the authors and editors for their comments and suggestions.