You can’t swing a dead Enlightenment philosopher around the public sphere these days without hitting an opinion piece lamenting the coddling of the American mind. First in line to be thrown under the bus in articles like this are university students, whom the genre routinely paints with its distinctive blend of sanctimonious alarm and zoological fascination (see Lukianoff and Haidt 2015). These particular kids-these-days are shrill, needy, vindictive tripwires who love hashtags and hate free speech. As it happens, this fashionable genre of cultural criticism—which Sara Ahmed (2015) has deftly described as “a moral panic about moral panics”—is hardly limited to a sententious liberal commentariat. Radical historian Robin Kelley (2016), for instance, has recently given students a talking-to in the Boston Review. Among the newest generation of student activists, Kelley writes: “Words such as trauma, PTSD, micro-aggression, and triggers have virtually replaced oppression, repression, and subjugation” (14). This sinister new vocabulary list risks, even invites, ensnarement in that tangle of neoliberal logics (diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion) that have crept like ivy into the American university over the past few decades. For Kelley, neoliberalism abridges volumes of structural violence into pamphlets of personal pain, with the result that where Kelley’s generation critiqued the system and fought the power, today’s students just complain about having their feelings hurt. What the kids need to get through their heads, writes the radical public intellectual, is that “the personal is not always political”.
By Andrea Long Chu, 2017