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Opinion The Cultural Revolution (read: the triumph of hysteria) comes to campus

I used to think that political correctness on campus was no big deal. After all, kids will be kids. They'll grow out of it.

Then came the rape crisis scare. Logic, facts and common sense went out the window as students learned to view life as an ideological struggle of helpless victims against vicious predators who are enabled by the sexist, racist, capitalist class structure. As activist professors stoked their students' fantasies of oppression, campus administrators caved.

I thought this stuff would burn itself out. Silly me. Yale University, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, is in chaos after students got upset over – I'm not kidding – an e-mail about Halloween costumes. The University of Missouri is making headlines after student activists forced the president to resign because he ignored what they call pervasive racism. The common denominator in these stories is the triumph of hysteria and illiberalism.

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At Yale, as at many other enlightened universities, there is now an extensive administrative apparatus devoted to the vexing question of dressing up for Halloween. This year students were advised to avoid "culturally unaware and insensitive" costumes, with examples.

Enter Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika, whose academic futures are now in jeopardy. The couple, who teach at Yale, are also masters at one of Yale's residential colleges for undergraduate students. In response to the administration, Erika Christakis wrote an e-mail to her students with some reflections of her own. She was mild and deferential. She ventured the opinion that students who are mature enough to attend Yale might be capable of sorting out this matter for themselves. "If you don't like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are hallmarks of a free and open society," she suggested.

Then all hell broke loose. Minority students said the e-mail was racist and hateful and made them feel unsafe. Hundreds of other students and faculty supported them. They marched in the streets and demanded the Christakis's removal as masters of the college. More than 700 undergraduates, graduate students, alumni and faculty signed an open letter denouncing Erika Christakis's e-mail.

Mr. Christakis met with several dozen students in an effort to be conciliatory. They were having none of it. Some were hysterical. "It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students," shrieked one particularly unhinged young woman. "You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!" In a campus publication, another student wrote, "I don't want to debate. I want to talk about my pain."

So how did Yale's higher-ups react? They grovelled. Yale president Peter Salovey said he was "deeply troubled" by the students' distress, which he vowed to move mountains to address. The dean wrote an obeisant letter.

On Sunday, Mr. Christakis held another meeting with students, in the presence of the dean. This time he practised the ritual self-denunciation that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. "I have the same beliefs that you do," he said, sounding crushed. "I'm genuinely sorry, and to have disappointed you. I've disappointed myself."

At the University of Missouri (also known as Mizzou), student activists forced the president to quit because he hadn't done enough to address racism on campus. Someone in a pickup truck hurled a racial epithet. Someone smeared feces in the shape of a swastika on a bathroom wall. Most of the other complaints were vague. But things got really serious when the football players threatened to boycott further games. Football is a substantial revenue generator for Mizzou, and that was the last straw. The president abruptly quit and said he was very, very sorry. The chancellor quit, too. Meanwhile, campus activists mobbed a journalist who was attempting to cover their demonstration because he was violating their "safe space." One of the activists was a professor of communications.

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The new "politics of powerlessness," as one commentator calls it, is not just some silly campus indulgence. It is a real threat to tolerance and free expression, in the very places where these values are supposed to be transmitted to the next generation. One core belief is that hurt speech is just as bad as hate speech, and demands the same response. All dissenting views must be suppressed, because only one truth matters – the truth of the person who believes he or she is oppressed and marginalized. Marx and Mao couldn't have said it better.

An entire generation of campus radicals has learned that they can bring the authorities to their knees simply by denouncing them. Welcome to the new Cultural Revolution.

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