What is the oppressor/victim mindset and how did it conquer the academy?
A condensed version of Chapter 3 of The Coddling of the American Mind
[This is post #2 of a pair of posts. The first post was about the causes of campus antisemitism. It links over to this post so that readers can see Chapter 3 for themselves.]
A note from Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff
When we published The Coddling of the American Mind, in 2018, things were bad on campus. We chronicled the intimidation, self-silencing, and dishonesty that had become ubiquitous among students and professors as cancel culture spread in the years after 2014. We tried to be optimistic in the conclusion of the book, citing four “green shoots” suggesting that things might turn around soon.
Boy were we wrong! As Greg and Rikki Schlott show in their new book The Canceling of the American Mind, many universities doubled down on their commitment to speech policing, hypersensitivity, and widespread punishment of jokes, curiosity, or anything else that offended anyone in a way related to identity. Now, in the fall of 2023, we can see the bitter fruit of these policies: hypocrisy, loss of public trust, and overt antisemitism.
Chapter 3 of The Coddling is the main chapter that lays out the intellectual history behind this mess, calling attention to the “oppressor/victim” mindset.1 It’s a cognitive distortion (binary thinking) which divides everyone into two categories and then justifies “resistance” by members of victim groups, who are “punching up” against members of oppressor groups. The punching is sometimes not metaphorical.
We thought it would be useful to make a copy of the chapter available for everyone who is struggling to make sense of what is now happening on college campuses… and beyond. Jon abridged the text of the chapter. Places where text has been cut are indicated by [...]. To learn more about The Coddling of the American Mind, visit TheCoddling.com
— Jon and Greg
Chapter 3 of The Coddling of the American Mind [abridged]
The Untruth of Us Versus Them:
Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People
There is the moral dualism that sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose. But there is also what I will call pathological dualism that sees humanity itself as radically... divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad. You are either one or the other.
— RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS, from Not in God’s Name: Confronting religious violence
A protest is always a claim that injustice is being done. When a group forms to protest together, they jointly construct a narrative about what is wrong, who is to blame, and what must be done to make things right. Reality is always more complicated than the narrative, however, and as a result, people are demonized or lionized— often unfairly. One such case happened in October 2015 at Claremont McKenna College, near Los Angeles.
A student named Olivia, whose parents emigrated from Mexico to California before she was born, wrote an essay in a student publication about her feelings of marginalization and exclusion. Olivia noticed that Latinos were better represented on the blue-collar staff at CMC (including janitors and gardeners) than among its administrative and professional staff, and she found this realization painful. She wrote that she felt like she had been admitted to fill a racial quota. She suggested that there is a standard or typical person at CMC, and she is not it: “Our campus climate and institutional culture are primarily grounded in western, white, cisheteronormative upper to upper-middle class values.” (“Cisheteronormative” describes a society in which people assume that other people are not transgender and not gay, unless there is information to the contrary.)
In response to this essay, which Olivia sent in an email to “CMC Staff,” Mary Spellman, the dean of students at CMC, sent her a private email two days later. Here is the entire email:
Thank you for writing and sharing this article with me. We have a lot to do as a college and community. Would you be willing to talk with me sometime about these issues? They are important to me and the [dean of students] staff and we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold. I would love to talk with you more.
What do you think about Dean Spellman’s email? Cruel or kind? Most readers can probably see that she was showing concern and reaching out with an offer to listen and help. But Olivia was offended by the dean’s use of the word “mold.” She seemed to interpret it in the least generous way possible: that Spellman was implying that Olivia (and other students of color) do not fit the mold and therefore do not belong at CMC. This was clearly not Spellman’s intent; Olivia herself had asserted that at CMC, there is a prototype or pattern of identities that she does not match, and, as Spellman later explained, she used the word “mold” to express her empathy with Olivia, because it’s a word that other CMC students use in conversations with her to describe their sense of not fitting in.
Any student who was already feeling like an outsider might well feel a flash of negativity upon reading the word “mold.” But what should one do with that flash? There is a principle in philosophy and rhetoric called the principle of charity, which says that one should interpret other people’s statements in their best, most reasonable form, not in the worst or most offensive way possible. Had Olivia been taught to judge people primarily on their intentions, she could have used the principle of charity in this situation, as Karith Foster did in the situation described in the previous chapter. If a student in Olivia’s position was in the habit of questioning her initial reactions, looking for evidence, and giving people the benefit of the doubt, that student might get past her initial flash of emotion and avail herself of an invitation from a dean who wanted to know what she could do to address the student’s concerns.
That is not what happened. Instead, Olivia posted Spellman’s email on her Facebook page (about two weeks after receiving it) with the comment, “I just don’t fit that wonderful CMC mold! Feel free to share.” Her friends did share the email, and the campus erupted in protest.6 There were marches, demonstrations, demands given to the president for mandatory diversity training, and demands that Spellman resign. Two students went on a hunger strike, vowing that they would not eat until Spellman was gone. In one scene, which you can watch on YouTube, students formed a circle and spent over an hour airing their grievances—through bullhorns—against Spellman and other administrators who were there in the circle to listen.8 Spellman apologized for her email being “poorly worded” and told the crowd that her “intention was to affirm the feelings and experiences expressed in the article and to provide support.” But the students did not accept her apology. At one point a woman berated the dean (to cheers from the students) for “falling asleep” during the proceedings, which the woman interpreted as an act of disrespect. But it is clear from the video of the confrontation that Spellman was not falling asleep; she was trying to hold back her tears.
The university did not fire Spellman, but neither did its leaders publicly express any support for her. Faced with the escalating anger of students—amplified by social media and then by national news coverage— Spellman resigned.
As this was happening, another conflict over an email was unfolding at Yale. Erika Christakis, a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center and associate master of Silliman College (one of Yale’s residential colleges), wrote an email questioning whether it was appropriate for Yale administrators to give guidance to students about appropriate and inappropriate Halloween costumes, as the college dean’s office had done. Christakis praised their “spirit of avoiding hurt and offense,” but she worried that “the growing tendency to cultivate vulnerability in students carries unacknowledged costs.” She expressed concern about the institutional “exercise of implied control over college students,” and invited the community to reflect on whether, as adults, they could set norms for themselves and handle disagreements interpersonally. “Talk to each other,” she wrote. “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
The email sparked an angry response from some students, who interpreted it as an indication that Christakis was in favor of racist costumes. A few days later, a group of roughly 150 students appeared in the courtyard outside Christakis’s home (within Silliman College), writing statements in chalk, including “We know where you live.” Erika’s husband, Nicholas Christakis, was the master of Silliman (a title that has since been changed to “head of college”). When he came out to the courtyard, students demanded that he apologize for—and renounce—his wife’s email. Nicholas listened, engaged in dialogue with them, and apologized several times for causing them pain, but he refused to renounce his wife’s email or the ideas it espoused. Students accused him and Erika of being “racist” and “offensive,” “stripping people of their humanity,” “creating an unsafe space,” and enabling “violence.” They swore at him, criticized him for “not listening” and for not remembering students’ names. They told him not to smile, lean down, or gesticulate. And they told him they wanted him to lose his job. Eventually, in a scene that went viral, one student screamed at him: “Who the fuck hired you? You should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! It’s about creating a home here.... You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”
The next day, the president of the university sent out an email acknowledging students’ pain and committing to “take actions that will make us better.” He did not mention any support for the Christakises until weeks after the courtyard incident, by which time attitudes against the couple were entrenched. Amid ongoing demands that they be fired, Erika resigned from her teaching position, Nicholas took a sabbatical from teaching for the rest of the year, and at the end of the school year, the pair resigned from their positions in the residential college. Erika later revealed that many professors were very supportive privately, but were unwilling to defend or support the Christakises publicly because they thought it was “too risky” and they feared retribution.
Why did students react so strongly to the emails from Dean Spellman and Erika Christakis, both of which were clearly intended to be helpful to students? Why did students interpret the emails as offenses so grave that they justified calls for the authors to be fired? It’s as though some of the students had their own mental prototype, a schema with two boxes to fill: victim and oppressor. Everyone is placed into one box or the other.
Groups and Tribes
There’s a famous series of experiments in social psychology called the minimal group paradigm, pioneered by Polish psychologist Henri Tajfel, who served in the French Army during World War II and became a prisoner of war in Germany. Profoundly affected by his experiences as a Jew during that period in Europe, including having his entire family in Poland murdered by the Nazis, Tajfel wanted to know the conditions under which people would discriminate against members of an outgroup. So in the 1960s he conducted a series of experiments, each of which began by dividing people into two groups based on trivial and arbitrary criteria, such as flipping a coin. For example, in one study, each person first estimated the number of dots on a page. Irrespective of their estimations, half were told that they had overestimated the number of dots, and put into a group of “overestimators.” The other half were sent to the “underestimators” group. Next, subjects were asked to distribute points or money to all the other subjects, who were identified only by their group membership. Tajfel found that no matter how trivial or “minimal” he made the distinctions between the groups, people tended to distribute whatever was offered in favor of their in-group members. [...]
The bottom line is that the human mind is prepared for tribalism. Human evolution is not just the story of individuals competing with other individuals within each group; it’s also the story of groups competing with other groups––sometimes violently. We are all descended from people who belonged to groups that were consistently better at winning that competition. Tribalism is our evolutionary endowment for banding together to prepare for intergroup conflict. When the “tribe switch” is activated, we bind ourselves more tightly to the group, we embrace and defend the group’s moral matrix, and we stop thinking for ourselves. Independent thought becomes heresy, heresy leads to ostracism, and ostracism could be a death sentence. In tribal mode, we seem to go blind to arguments and information that challenges our team’s narrative. Merging with the group in this way is deeply pleasurable—as you can see from the pseudo-tribal antics that precede and accompany college football games.
But being prepared for tribalism doesn’t mean we have to live in tribal ways. The human mind contains many evolved cognitive “tools”; we don’t use all of them all the time. We draw on our toolbox as needed. Local conditions can turn the tribalism up, down, or off. Any kind of intergroup conflict (real or perceived) immediately turns tribalism up, making people highly attentive to signs that reveal which team a person is on. Traitors are punished, and fraternizing with the enemy is, too. Conditions of peace and prosperity, in contrast, generally turn down the tribalism. People don’t need to track group membership as vigilantly; they don’t feel pressured to conform to group expectations as closely. When a community succeeds in turning down everyone’s tribal circuits, there is more room for individuals to construct lives of their own choosing; there is more freedom for a creative mixing of people and ideas.
But people don’t have to live in tribal ways. The human mind contains many evolved cognitive “tools;” we don’t use them all, all the time. We draw on our toolbox as needed. Local conditions can turn the tribalism up, down, or off. Any kind of intergroup conflict (real or perceived) turns up tribalism immediately, and makes people highly attentive to signs that reveal which team a person is on. Traitors are punished; fraternizing with the enemy is too. Conditions of peace and prosperity, in contrast, generally turn down the tribalism. People don’t need to track group membership as vigilantly; they don’t feel pressured to conform to group expectations as closely. When a community succeeds in turning down everyone’s tribal circuits, there is more room for individuals to construct lives of their own choosing; there is more freedom for creative mixing of people and ideas.
So what happens to a community such as a college (or, increasingly, a high school) when distinctions between groups are not trivial and arbitrary; and when they are emphasized rather than downplayed? What happens when you train students to see others—and themselves—as members of distinct groups defined by race, gender, and other socially significant factors, and you tell them that those groups are eternally engaged in a zero-sum conflict over status and resources?
Two Kinds of Identity Politics
“Identity politics” is a contentious term, but its basic meaning is simple. Jonathan Rauch, a scholar at The Brookings Institution, defines it as “political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest.” He notes that “in America, this sort of mobilization is not new, unusual, un-American, illegitimate, nefarious, or particularly left wing.” Politics is all about groups forming coalitions to achieve their goals. If cattle ranchers, wine enthusiasts, or libertarians banding together to promote their interests is normal politics, then women, African Americans, or gay people banding together is normal politics, too.
But how identity is mobilized makes an enormous difference––for the country, for the group’s odds of success, and for the welfare of the people who join the movement. Identity can be mobilized in ways that emphasize an overarching common humanity while making the case that some fellow human beings are denied dignity and rights because they belong to a particular group, or it can be mobilized in ways that amplify our ancient tribalism and bind people together in shared hatred of a group that serves as the unifying common enemy.
Common-Humanity Identity Politics
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., epitomized what we’ll call common-humanity identity politics. He was trying to fix a gaping wound—centuries of racism that had been codified into law in southern states and into customs, habits, and institutions across the country. It wasn’t enough to be patient and wait for things to change gradually. The civil rights movement was a political movement led by African Americans and joined by others, who engaged in nonviolent protests and civil disobedience, boycotts, and sophisticated public relations strategies to apply political pressure on intransigent lawmakers while working to change minds and hearts in the country at large.
Part of Dr. King’s genius was that he appealed to the shared morals and identities of Americans using the unifying languages of religion and patriotism. He repeatedly used the metaphor of family, referring to people of all races and religions as “brothers” and “sisters.” He spoke often of the need for love and forgiveness, hearkening back to the words of Jesus and echoing ancient wisdom from many cultures: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” and “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” …
King’s most famous speech drew on the language and iconography of what sociologists call the American civil religion. Some Americans use quasi-religious language, frameworks, and narratives to speak about the country’s founding documents and founding fathers, and King did, too. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” he proclaimed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “they were signing a promissory note.” King turned the full moral force of the American civil religion toward the goals of the civil rights movement. […]
King’s approach made it clear that his victory would not destroy America; it would repair and reunite it. This inclusive, common-humanity approach was also explicit in the words of Pauli Murray, an Episcopal priest and civil rights activist who, in 1965, at the age of fifty-five, earned a degree from Yale Law School, and today, a residential college at Yale is named after her. In 1945, she wrote:
I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. . . . When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.
Common-Enemy Identity Politics
The common-humanity form of identity politics can still be found on many college campuses, but in recent years we’ve seen the rapid rise of a very different form that is based on an effort to unite and mobilize multiple groups to fight against a common enemy. It activates a powerful social-psychological mechanism embodied in an old Bedouin proverb: “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.” Identifying a common enemy is an effective way to enlarge and motivate your tribe. […]
There has never been a more dramatic demonstration of the horrors of common-enemy identity politics than Adolf Hitler’s use of Jews to unify and expand his Third Reich. And it is among the most shocking aspects of our current age that some Americans (and Europeans), mostly young white men, have openly embraced neo-Nazi ideas and symbols. They and other white nationalist groups rally around a shared hatred of not just Jews, but also of blacks, feminists, and “SJWs” (social justice warriors). These right-wing extremist groups seem not to have played significant roles in campus politics before 2016, but by 2017 many of them had developed methods of trolling and online harassment that are having an influence on campus events, as we’ll discuss further in chapter 6.
As for the identity politics originating from left-leaning on-campus sources, here’s a recent example that drew a great deal of attention. In December 2017, a Latino student at Texas State University wrote an opinion essay in his school’s student-run, independent newspaper under the headline YOUR DNA IS AN ABOMINATION. The essay began like this:
When I think of all the white people I have ever encountered—whether they’ve been professors, peers, lovers, friends, police officers, et cetera—there is perhaps only a dozen I would consider “decent.”
The student then argued that “whiteness” is “a construct used to perpetuate a system of racist power,” and asserted that “through a constant ideological struggle in which we aim to deconstruct ‘whiteness’ and everything attached to it, we will win.” The essay ended with this:
Ontologically speaking, white death will mean liberation for all. . . . Until then, remember this: I hate you because you shouldn’t exist. You are both the dominant apparatus on the planet and the void in which all other cultures, upon meeting you, die.
Right-wing sites interpreted the essay as a call for actual genocide against white people. The author seems rather to have been calling for cultural genocide––the end of white dominance and the culture of whiteness in the United States. […] In calling for the dismantling of power structures, the author was using a set of terms and concepts that are common in some academic departments; the main line of argumentation fell squarely within the large family of Marxist approaches to social and political analysis. It’s a set of approaches in which things are analyzed primarily in terms of power. Groups struggle for power. Within this paradigm, when power is perceived to be held by one group over others, there is a moral polarity: the group seen as powerful is bad, while the groups seen as oppressed are good. [...]
Writing during the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, Karl Marx focused on conflict between economic classes, such as the proletariat (the working class) and the capitalists (those who own the means of production). But a Marxist approach can be used to interpret any struggle between groups. One of the most important Marxist thinkers for understanding developments on campus today is Herbert Marcuse, a German philosopher and sociologist who fled the Nazis and became a professor at several American universities. His writings were influential in the 1960s and 1970s as the American left was transitioning away from its prior focus on workers versus capital to become the “New Left,” which focused on civil rights, women’s rights, and other social movements promoting equality and justice. These movements often had a left-right dimension to them––progressives wanted progress and conservatives wanted to conserve the existing order, Marcuse analyzed the conflict between the left and the right in Marxist terms.
In a 1965 essay titled “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse argued that tolerance and free speech confer benefits on society only under special conditions that almost never exist: absolute equality. He believed that when power differentials between groups exist, tolerance only empowers the already powerful, and makes it easier for them to dominate institutions like education, the media, and most channels of communication. Such indiscriminate tolerance is “repressive,” he argued; it blocks the political agenda and suppresses the voices of the less powerful.
If indiscriminate tolerance is unfair, then what is needed is a form of tolerance that discriminates. A truly “liberating tolerance,” claimed Marcuse, is one that favors the weak and restrains the strong. Who are the weak and the strong? For Marcuse, writing in 1965, the weak was the political left and the strong was the political right. Even though the Democrats controlled Washington at that time, Marcuse associated the right with the business community, the military, and other vested interests that he saw as wielding power, hoarding wealth, and working to block social change. The left referred to students, intellectuals, and minorities of all kinds. For Marcuse, there was no moral equivalence between the two sides. In his view, the right pushed for war; the left stood for peace; the right was the party of “hate,” the left was the party of “humanity.”
Someone who accepts this framing—that the right is powerful (and therefore oppressive) while the left is weak (and therefore oppressed)—might be receptive to the argument that indiscriminate tolerance is bad. In its place, liberating tolerance, Marcuse explained, “would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.”
Marcuse recognized that what he was advocating seemed to violate both the spirit of democracy and the liberal tradition of nondiscrimination, but he argued that when the majority of a society is being repressed, it is justifiable to use “repression and indoctrination” to allow the “subversive majority” to achieve the power that it deserves. In a chilling passage that foreshadows events on some campuses today, Marcuse argued that true democracy might require denying basic rights to people who advocate for conservative causes or policies he viewed as aggressive or discriminatory, and that true freedom of thought might require professors to indoctrinate their students:
[T]he ways should not be blocked [by] which a subversive majority could develop, and if they are blocked by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior.
The end goal of a Marcusean revolution is not equality but a reversal of power. Marcuse offered this vision in 1965:
It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don’t have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise, and that liberation of the Damned of the Earth presupposes suppression not only of their old but also of their new masters.2
How did a Marcusian vision of the world get transmitted to that student in Texas? Marcuse was known as the “father” of the New Left; his ideas were taken up by the generation of students in the 1960s and 1970s who are the older professors of today, so a Marcusian view is still available everywhere. But why does this vision continue to flourish fifty years after the publication of “Repressive Tolerance” in a country that has made enormous progress on extending civil rights to groups that did not have them in 1965, and in an educational system that cannot be said to be controlled by the right? Even if Marcuse’s arguments made sense to many people in 1965, can his ideas be justified on campus today?
In the decades after “Repressive Tolerance” was published, a variety of theories and approaches flourished on campus in humanities and social science departments that offered ways of analyzing society through the lens of power relationships among groups. (Examples include deconstructionism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, and critical theory.) One such theory deserves special mention, because its ideas and terminology are widely found in the discourse of today’s campus activists. The approach known as intersectionality was advanced by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA (and now at Columbia, where she directs the Center on Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies). In a 1989 essay, Crenshaw noted that a black woman’s experience in America is not captured by the summation of the black experience and the female experience. She made her point vividly by analyzing a legal case in which black women were victims of discrimination at General Motors even when the company could show that it hired plenty of black people (in factory jobs dominated by men) and plenty of women (in clerical jobs dominated by white people). So even though GM was found not to have discriminated against black people or women, it ended up hiring hardly any black women. Crenshaw’s important insight was that you can’t just look at a few big “main effects” of discrimination; you have to look at interactions, or “intersections.” […]
Intersectionality is a theory based on several insights that we believe are valid and useful: power matters, members of groups sometimes act cruelly or unjustly to preserve their power, and people who are members of multiple identity groups can face various forms of disadvantage in ways that are often invisible to those who are not. The point of using the terminology of “intersectionalism,” as Crenshaw said in her 2016 TED Talk, is that “where there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem, and when you can’t see a problem, you pretty much can’t solve it.”
Our purpose here is not to critique the theory itself; it is, rather, to explore the effects that certain interpretations of intersectionality may now be having on college campuses. The human mind is prepared for tribalism, and intersectionality has the potential to turn tribalism way up.
These interpretations of intersectionality teach people to see bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression as ubiquitous in social interactions. It’s not just about employment or other opportunities, and it’s not just about race and gender. Figure 3.1 shows the sort of diagram that is sometimes used to teach intersectionality. We modeled ours on a figure by Kathryn Pauly Morgan, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. (For simplicity, we show only seven of her fourteen intersecting axes.) In an essay describing her approach, Morgan explains that the center point represents a particular individual living at the “intersection” of many dimensions of power and privilege; the person might be high or low on any of the axes. She defines her terms like this: “Privilege involves the power to dominate in systematic ways. . . . Oppression involves the lived, systematic experience of being dominated by virtue of one’s position on various particular axes.”
Morgan draws on the writings of French Philosopher Michel Foucault to argue that each of us occupies a point “on each of these axes (at a minimum) and that this point is simultaneously a locus of our agency, power, disempowerment, oppression, and resistance. The [endpoints] represent maximum privilege or extreme oppression with respect to a particular axis.” She analyzes how two of those axes, race and gender, interact to structure schools in ways that privilege the ideas and perspectives of white males. Girls and women, she claims, are effectively a “colonized population.” They make up a majority of all students but are forced to live and learn within ideas and institutions structured by white men.
Figure 3.1. Seven intersecting axes of privilege and oppression. Each person’s lived experience is shaped by his or her position on these (and many other) dimensions. We created this figure as a simpler version of a figure found in Morgan (1996).
Morgan is certainly right that it was mostly white males who set up the educational system and founded nearly all the universities in the United States. Most of those schools once excluded women and people of color. But does that mean that women and people of color should think of themselves as “colonized populations” today? Would doing so empower them, or would it encourage an external locus of control? Would it make them more or less likely to engage with their teachers and readings, work hard, and benefit from their time in school? More generally, what will happen to the thinking of students who are trained to see everything in terms of intersecting bipolar axes where one end of each axis is marked “privilege” and the other is “oppression”? Since “privilege” is defined as the “power to dominate” and cause “oppression,” these axes are inherently moral dimensions. The people on top are bad, and the people down below are good. This sort of teaching seems likely to encode the Untruth of Us Versus Them directly into students’ cognitive schemas: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. Furthermore, there is no escaping the conclusion as to who the evil people are. The main axes of oppression usually point to one intersectional address: straight white males.3
In short, as a result of our long evolution for tribal competition, the human mind readily does binary, us-versus-them thinking. If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity. Instead, some theoretical approaches used in universities today may be hyper-activating our ancient tribal tendencies, even if that was not the intention of the professor. Of course, some individuals truly are racist, sexist, and homophobic, and some institutions are too, even when the people who run them mean well, if they end up being less welcoming to members of some groups. We favor teaching students to recognize a variety of kinds of bigotry and bias as an essential step toward reducing them. Intersectionality can be taught skillfully, as Crenshaw does in her TED Talk. It can be used to promote compassion and reveal injustices not previously seen. Yet somehow, many college students today seem to be adopting a different version of intersectional thinking and are embracing the Untruth of Us Versus Them.
Posts at After Babel that connect with this chapter:
We did not use the term “oppressor/victim mindset” in the chapter. We discussed the cognitive psychology of schemas “with two boxes to fill: victim and oppressor.” In retrospect, it seems more intuitive to put the “oppressor” first, and to separate the two words with a slash rather than a dash, so that the term shows, typographically, the dominance of the oppressor over the victim.
Note how Marcuse provides a justification for Ibram Kendi’s claim that “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Marcuse offers a group-based justification for committing any kind of injustice against individuals, even violence, if that individual is in a group that is said to be powerful.
Note how easy it is for students who had been applying the oppressor/victim mindset to white people or “whiteness“ prior to October 7 to just swap in Jews or “Zionists” after October 7.