I’ve been thinking lately about one of the eye-opening experiences of my university life, and what it tells us about today’s world.
In 1981 I arrived at Victoria University of Wellington as a bright-eyed eighteen year old, filled with the idea that university was the place where people could express their intellectual ideas constructively.
I was wrong. The mood on campus was one of affronted anger, driven by a small but noisy part of the student community. Their indignance was directed at the world in general; but in practise their rage was always vented on the people in front of them. They were relentlessly ‘against’, never ‘for’. Alas, the causes they chose to ‘fight back’ against were social trends, so they had about as much chance of succeeding as of holding back the tide with a toothpick. That only made them angrier, particularly because they believed their views made them morally superior. In truth it was rage at their own sense of insecurity, which they assuaged by externalising their anger against all around them.
Not all students were like this, but the ones that were drove a vicious bully culture. A lot of the causes they professed to champion were well worthwhile. The problem was the intellectualised polemic around which the students wrapped their expression of it, coupled with their demands for utter conformity to their views. Anybody who didn’t expound their particular approach, who even tried to discuss the issues, was liable to be treated as an advocate of whatever issue they demonised, whether that was true or not. Almost anything served to trigger them. Even pronouncing words differently from the prescribed ‘correct’ way was proof of advocating what they had defined as their enemy. Anybody who didn’t toe their ‘party line’ was decried as ‘arrogant’, dismissed as ‘from the right’, or labelled (wait for it) a Nazi.
The fact that it was possible to agree with the causes these self-righteous little hypocrites had latched on to – but without buying into their authoritarian subculture – was lost on them. Dunning-Kruger ruled. Lampooning their thin-skinned priggishness (which I did in the student newspaper, for which I was writing) was easier than catching fish in a barrel. It was also asking to be treated like a war criminal – they had no sense of self-deprecation or hyperbole. But, really, who cared?
I suppose some of them grew up and got jobs.
The problem was that the students doing this were able to drive a very nasty culture on campus, which leaked into academic life – certainly in the history department, which also had its own brand of this thinking.
Now, I thought this was merely a symptom of half-educated, deeply insecure youth. Except – e-e-e-x-c-e-p-t it’s back. Maybe it never went away.
Not the same people. Not the same place. Not even the same country. It’s in humanity generally, worldwide. These days I see that same combination of self-righteous anger, polemic, and asserted truths buoyed not by reasoned argument, but by unproven factoids, false-premise assertions, even blatant lies. Sorry, ‘alternative facts’.
What gives? In many respects that long-gone student community was a microcosm of the human condition. The way a sub-culture emerged on that campus showed how societies can be twisted by a minority, how the majority find themselves having to conform or suffer, and how that majority then start behaving like the minority leading them. It showed how the tactics of authoritarianism play out. And it showed how authoritarianism is linked with intolerance.
That was certainly the issue at Victoria University, where late-teenaged students made others suffer as they raged at their powerlessness before a real world they neither understood nor could control. Campus life created an arbitrary structure that facilitated the bully culture. But really, the behaviours that drive such toxicity happen all the time in any society – it’s part of the human condition. And many of the institutional structures we build, from large to small, are vulnerable to being hijacked.
The lesson, to me, seems clear: we must have faith in ourselves, as individuals. Only then can we have the strength to tolerate others – other views, other ideas – with which we may not agree. But that’s OK. People are entitled to their opinions. What difference does their opinion make to our own sense of place? The question is ‘what threat is that person’s belief to me?’ And the answer should be ‘none, because I am secure in my own beliefs’. Once we we accept that point, it becomes possible to genuinely care for others – to recognise that they, too, are human; that they, too, feel love, hurt, and that they care.
Getting there is the harder road. It is too easy to simply get angry and hurl self-justifying assertions at others. But that path does not lead to anything constructive or useful, merely to more anger, more opposition, and war.
We need to take the harder road, the better road – the road of tolerance, reason and care, if we are to survive as a species. It’s time.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017