Flat White

How identity politics programs for failure

22 June 2018

4:14 PM

22 June 2018

4:14 PM

Safe spaces. Cry closets. Emotional support animals.

While Australian campuses are yet to import such features the notion of restricting free speech to avoid causing offence, Professor Frank Furedi warns, will soon cripple our universities.

Graduating from an international relations degree just under a decade ago I feel I got out of the woods. But only just.

My time at university was at the peak of the Iraqi insurgency, where students would almost gloat at the numbers of American dead because they didn’t like George W. Bush, or conveniently blame Fox News at every turn for any conservative strategic or political success.

As heated as discussions were, however, there was no one leaping for a cry closet or groping for an emotional support animal. No Youtube videos were being posted of distressed students crying and then yelling at their faculty administrators. And there was no chance of witnessing a speaker or lecturer being ‘shouted down’ by my truculent esteemed peers.

Today, however, I suspect I would not be so fortunate. Only one out of 42 Australian universities, according to former deputy prime minister John Anderson, places no restrictions on freedom of speech. From 2013 to 2017, the painful lesson of QUT students Callum Thwaites and Jackson Powell show what’s in store if I accidentally walked into, and then dared challenge, affirmative privilege. And, careless in my use of ‘non-binary pronouns’, I would almost certainly be penalised for not carefully deploying politically-correct language within submitted written work.

Thankfully, against these currents, ideas of free speech and free thought, along with the concepts of self-regard, resilience and self-responsibility, appear to be coming back into vogue.

Nearly everyone is now aware of the globally iconic Jordan Peterson, speaking out against proposed Canadian laws on compelled speech and running full steam into difficult public discussions on gender and masculinity. His defiance on such issues has, understandably, caused a global firestorm.

But the other component to his work – his bestselling12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos – centres on elements of self-help which, in plumbing history and human nature, seeks timeless lessons on meaning and purpose from religion, spirituality and philosophy. As Peterson says, “getting yourself together” and “transcending your suffering” is “the oldest story of mankind.”

But in sharing such messages of personal responsibility one immediately runs into obstacles. It was no accident, for instance, that Peterson’s opening questions from journalist Leigh Sales on his recent trip to Australia drilled straight into Peterson’s ‘privilege’, implying that his (and even Sales’) success should temper his calls for those less fortunate to ‘tidy up your room’ – a core teaching of 12 Rules. Recently, in a Munk Debate, Michael Eric Dyson – a hero of progressive and identity politics – took this to its maximum, labelling Peterson a “mean, mad, white man.”

Another curious obstacle I have found, in the thread of ‘transcend your suffering’, is how successful individuals from our past are curiously left aside. In undertaking research for my book Winners Don’t Cheat I found countless examples of strangely under-celebrated figures – black World War 1 servicemen like Douglas Grant and Frederick Prentice, or conservative pioneers like Neville Bonner. Many of these individuals, like others who we’ll likely never hear about, faced real and not imagined discrimination, taking steps to organise their landscape, ‘transcend’ their difficult settings and take their own path toward success.

They possess a wonderful message. Not one of ‘feel good’ optimism but one that confronts the seductive ideas – victimhood, grievance, identity politics and inequality – that young people today are packaged and then absorb.

In Winners Don’t Cheat I write that the motivators of success and prosperity – hard work, self-sufficiency and persistence – remain the core turbines of progress despite the comings and goings of new technology, trends or attitudes. They are, after all, key characteristics one notices in all individuals throughout Australian history – features that appeal across complexion, income or political orientation.

Ultimately, it is a fine occurrence that ideas of self-regard, resilience and responsibility are re-emerging. I feel that many Australians will find accord with such messages and, the more they are broadcast, keep our demand for cry closets and other such features remaining offshore.

Sean Jacobs is the author of Winners Don’t Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian published by Connor Court.

Illustration: Australian War Memorial/Department of Defence.

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