I was recently present for a troubling exchange between two professors at my university, St. Mary’s College of California. One professor, coming from office hours, mentioned a student who advocated Nazi eugenics as a viable social solution for America. The other, unsurprised, said he regularly receives essays on race and gender theories championed by the alt-right. As the sun shone on our tiny campus tucked away in the hills of California’s Bay Area, I stumbled upon one of the darkest secrets of St. Mary’s: The college is unwittingly creating the male students it most fears.
Why should this surprise us? Throughout campus, posters advertise “Faster, Higher, Stronger: Climbing the Olympic Ladder as a Transgender Athlete”—a two-part series exploring “the possibility of playing sport without the restriction of the gender binary.” The lecture series designed to accompany St. Mary’s Great Books program this year bears the name “Places of Power, Voices of Protest,” and promises to address “questions of power, privilege, and dissent.” One lecture in the series, “On Gender and Education,” will cover “reinforced patriarchal values” in education, and will be followed by a discussion of “gendered views of knowledge and their implications for education.”
The dominant message on campus is that maleness is inherently oppressive and must be resisted. The Great Books reinforce patriarchal values, and the misdeeds committed by men of the past must be atoned for by men of the present. According to this view, the successes of my male peers can be chalked up to “male privilege,” and sports are a manifestation of “toxic masculinity.” Anyone who expresses discomfort with these messages is guilty of “preserving the patriarchy.” Even the most politically correct of my male acquaintances struggles to accept this perspective. Must males eternally repent of the oppression caused by their mere existence?
St. Mary’s adoption of progressive identity politics has activated the shadow side of this ideology: the alt-right. Both ideologies champion gender and race as an individual’s defining features, with the progressive narrative supporting female and minority identities to an extreme, and the alt-right upholding a distorted white-male identity. Taught on campus that identity is the most essential element of their personhood, disenfranchised young men who choose the alt-right are simply choosing the identity that validates them.
Meanwhile, there can be no forum for candid discussion of the campus climate, because administrators encourage students to equate opinions with personal identity. Disagreement is not just disagreement—it is an attack. Staff in the Mission and Ministry Center, the Intercultural Center, and the New Student and Family Programs encourage students to use the “oops/ouch” method. If someone forgets to use politically correct language or says anything deemed offensive, these staff members encourage bystanders to interject “oops” as a corrective, and “ouch” if they have been personally harmed. One male friend recalls being chastised for saying “you guys” instead of “you all” to a group of men. Especially offensive opinions may be reported to our Bias Incident Reporting Team (BIRT). More than fifty such reports were filed last year. It should come as no surprise, then, that so many male students retreat to online forums, where their views begin to lean toward the alt-right.
Ironically, the school founded by the Lasallian Christian Brothers in 1863 as an all-male college is now leaving my male peers without a place. The scarcity of men in student leadership reflects this: Males hold only 15 percent of positions. The average male student senses anti-male overtones in everyday interactions on campus, both inside and outside the classroom. Some cite social pressure to stay quiet during class discussions. Others say their opinions are belittled or disregarded due to their gender. Predictably, these experiences lead to deep frustration and frequently to disengagement. The alt-right preys on this sense of victimhood, stridently offering a warped masculine identity to those whose masculinity is stigmatized in daily exchanges.
On a recent sunny afternoon, I sat in the quad chatting with a professor. Near the end of our conversation, the professor started, declaring that a member of the alt-right had just walked past. Gazing across the quad, he wondered aloud how many other students strolling past us were “secret Nazis.” For every student confident enough to speak openly about eugenics or submit an essay on alt-right race theory, how many others were flirting with these ideas?
Young men have found a dangerous ideology that offers them masculine validation. It is more than the official campus ideology can offer. All the campus offers them is guilt, shame, and the role of oppressor in an unending identity-politics drama.
But students seeking to escape the identity idolatry of the alt-right and progressivism need only look up. Literally. Above every doorway at St. Mary’s hangs a crucifix, a constant reminder that all the oppression, shame, and guilt of the world have been laid upon one man already. The gospel leaves no room to identify as male or female, but insists that Christ’s body transcends identity politics. Small pockets of students already choose this alternative. Some gather in the dorms to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Others meet weekly for Bible studies.
Fortunately, no matter what transpires on our campus, the St. Mary’s administration has it covered, offering anxiety-reducing pet therapy on alternating Wednesday afternoons.
Kate Arenchild writes from St. Mary’s College of California.