Around 2 a.m. on December 12, four students approached the apartment of Omar Mahmood, a Muslim student at the University of Michigan, who had recently published a column in a school newspaper about his perspective as a minority on campus. The students, who were recorded on a building surveillance camera wearing baggy hooded sweatshirts to hide their identity, littered Mahmood’s doorway with copies of his column, scrawled with messages like “You scum embarrass us,” “Shut the fuck up,” and “DO YOU EVEN GO HERE?! LEAVE!!” They posted a picture of a demon and splattered eggs.
This might appear to be the sort of episode that would stoke the moral conscience of students on a progressive campus like Ann Arbor, and it was quickly agreed that an act of biased intimidation had taken place. But Mahmood was widely seen as the perpetrator rather than the victim. Hiscolumn, published in the school’s conservative newspaper, had spoofed the culture of taking offense that pervades the campus. Mahmood satirically pretended to denounce “a white cis-gendered hetero upper-class man” who offered to help him up when he slipped, leading him to denounce “our barbaric attitude toward people of left-handydnyss.” The gentle tone of his mockery was closer to Charlie Brown than to Charlie Hebdo.
The Michigan Daily, where Mahmood also worked as a columnist and film critic, objected to the placement of his column in the conservative paper but hardly wanted his satirical column in its own pages. Mahmood later said that he was told by the editor that his column had created a “hostile environment,” in which at least one Daily staffer felt threatened, and that he must write a letter of apology to the staff. When he refused, the Dailyfired him, and the subsequent vandalism of his apartment served to confirm his status as thought-criminal.
The episode would not have shocked anybody familiar with the campus scene from two decades earlier. In 1992, an episode along somewhat analogous lines took place, also in Ann Arbor. In this case, the offending party was the feminist videographer Carol Jacobsen, who had produced an exhibition documenting the lives of sex workers. The exhibition’s subjects presented their profession as a form of self-empowerment, a position that ran headlong against the theories of Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor at the university who had gained national renown for her radical feminist critique of the First Amendment as a tool of male privilege. MacKinnon’s beliefs nestled closely with an academic movement that was then being described, by its advocates as well as its critics, as “political correctness.” Michigan had already responded to the demands of pro-p.c. activists by imposing a campuswide speech code purporting to restrict all manner of discriminatory speech, only for it to be struck down as a First Amendment violation in federal court.
In Ann Arbor, MacKinnon had attracted a loyal following of students, many of whom copied her method of argument. The pro-MacKinnon students, upset over the display of pornographic video clips, descended upon Jacobsen’s exhibit and confiscated a videotape. There were speakers visiting campus for a conference on prostitution, and the video posed “a threat to their safety,” the students insisted.
This was the same inversion of victim and victimizer at work last December. In both cases, the threat was deemed not the angry mobs out to crush opposing ideas, but the ideas themselves. The theory animating both attacks turns out to be a durable one, with deep roots in the political left.