As a child in Glasgow, I learned that sticks and stones might break my bones but words didn’t really hurt. I’m now at New York University studying journalism, where a different mantra seems to apply. Words, it turns out, might cause life-ruining emotional trauma.
During my ‘Welcome Week’, for example, I was presented with a choice of badges indicating my preferred gender pronouns: ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘ze’?
The student in front of me, an Australian, found this hilarious: ‘Last time I checked, I was a girl.’ Her joke was met with stony silence. Later I realised why: expressing bewilderment at the obsession with pronouns might count as a ‘micro-aggression’. Next stop, ‘transphobia’.
It was soon obvious to my fellow students that I was not quite with the programme. In a class discussion early in my first semester, I made the mistake of mentioning that I believed in objective standards in art. Some art is great, some isn’t, I said; not all artists are equally talented. This was deemed an undemocratic opinion and I was given a nickname: the cultural fascist. I’ve tried to take it affectionately.
After a year on campus, on a course entitled ‘Cultural Reporting and Criticism’, I still feel unable to speak freely, let alone critically. Although it doesn’t apply to my own course, friends have told me about ‘trigger warnings’ that caution they are about to be exposed to certain ideas; the threat of micro-aggressions (i.e. unintended insults) makes frank discourse impossible. Then there is the infamous ‘safe space’ — a massage-circle, Play-Doh-making haven — where students are protected from offence (and, therefore, intellectual challenge).
During class discussions, I’ve learned to discreetly scan my classmates’ faces for signs that they might be fellow free-thinkers. A slight head tilt at the mention of Islamophobia, a gentle questioning of what exactly is meant by ‘toxic masculinity’. I was thrilled to see a scribbled note — ‘This is utter shit’ — on someone’s copy of one of the reading requirements, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (an introduction to queer theory). In this way, I found the members of my secret non-conformist book club.
We met in a disused convent in Hell’s Kitchen and discussed campus-censored ideas. We read Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus and Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. We were a diverse group: a Catholic woman, a black conservative man, an anti-theist neoconservative, a Protestant libertarian, and a quick-witted Spanish contrarian. We were united in agreeing that we should be free to disagree. We made our own unsafe space, and at the end of each meeting, we were invigorated and parted on good terms.
It seemed to the members of my book club that academia is losing its way. It is riddled with paradox: safe spaces which are dangerously insular; the idea of ‘no absolutes’ (as an absolute); aggressive intolerance for anything perceived as intolerant; and censorship of ideas deemed too offensive for expression. It’s a form of totalitarianism and it’s beginning to infect British universities, too.
The morning after the US election, New York was bluer than ever. My classmates were in tears, including one professor. Protesters chanting ‘Not my President’ took to the streets as cries of ‘How did this happen?’ ‘What will we tell our children?’ and ‘What a terrible day for [insert identity group]!’ echoed down NYU’s hallways.
Two weeks later, I spent a slightly surreal Thanksgiving with my friend’s family in the DC area. My friend’s father is the former Republican senator and twice presidential candidate Rick Santorum. As I stuffed my face with turkey, I couldn’t believe my luck. Santorum’s insights into the new administration were as close to an insider’s scoop as any student journalist could hope for.
I was sure that, despite their differences in outlook, my classmates would be fascinated to hear about what he had to say. But before I had mustered the courage to share my experience, I received the following email from a professor: ‘Dear all, hope you are all recovering well from any encounters with Trump-supporting relatives over Thanksgiving. I should be all right myself in a day or so.’ Naturally, when this professor asked me, ‘How was your first Thanksgiving?’ I chose to speak exclusively about marshmallow yams.
This is daft, certainly. Even funny, in a macabre way. But it also raises a serious point: the university experience in America is now not one that will adequately prepare students for real life. In real-life democracy, people disagree — and normally they don’t die or suffer emotional injury because of it. In normal life, there’s no reason not to like someone with whom you disagree politically. On campus, opinions are often ontology: you are what you think. But this is dangerous logic: if I hate what you think, I must hate what you are.
At the end of the year I hosted a party in my grungy sixth-floor apartment in Washington Heights, where my classmates finally came face-to-face with some real-life conservatives. I had naively hoped people wouldn’t talk about politics. But my hopes were soon dashed. A friend’s boyfriend came wearing a Reagan and Bush T-shirt. When confronted about his choice of outfit, he shrugged confusedly: ‘It’s laundry day.’ Another friend, an African-American conservative, who was wearing a US military cap, was furiously berated from across the room by a liberal of colour, ‘How can you be a conservative and black?’
When two classmates pointed in horror to the (admittedly large) crucifix on my wall — my own identity signifier — I climbed out of the window and on to the fire escape. The game was up. An image of the dying Jesus had scuppered my intellectual, perhaps even moral, credibility. I would be returning to NYU in the autumn, the flag of ‘cultural fascism’ forever nailed to my mast. A highly intoxicated friend, who had been enthralled by the whole experience, soon joined me. Handing me a cigarette, he congratulated me on ‘bringing people together’.