Colleges’ “Group Purity” Crisis

<ɫTV>A decades-old sociological concept explains much about this spring’s campus upheavals.

Higher-education administrators remain in a tight spot regarding the recent spate of antisemitism on campuses. They have allowed, and in some cases encouraged, a system that has an untenable moral tension where the treatment of Jews is concerned. The war in Palestine has brought this tension to light.

Students and faculty on elite campuses tend to see the world in terms of opposing groups: us and them, black and white, good and evil, and, most importantly, oppressor and oppressed. The oppressed can be identified among the poor, black, female, homosexual, etc. The oppressors fall into the opposite groups: the rich, white, male, and heterosexual. Oppressors are powerful, while the oppressed are weak and need to gain power.

Students and faculty on elite campuses tend to see the world in terms of opposing groups.Given the dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed, one might traditionally classify the Jews as the latter, since, historically, they have been persecuted and continue to face significant persecution all over the world. On the other hand, since the Jews of Israel are considered white by campus radicals, as well as wealthy, generally heterosexual, and more powerful than the Palestinians, the Jews are classified as oppressors. This conflict has been playing out across the university landscape as an ethical tension that has no clear resolution. One ethical precept maintains that violence is bad; another maintains that Jews are oppressors and therefore evil. The problem for administrators arises when students call for violence against Jews.

Why has this conflict become so pervasive in universities and colleges? The issue is complex and has a long history, but one critical part of it stands out: our human propensity to desire group purity, a concept described by sociologist Émile Durkheim.

Group purity is the idea that members of a particular group—whether it be religious, ideological, geographical, or racial—must have complete loyalty to the precepts of the group, whatever those precepts may be. Almost always, such rules have a strong moral component, but what is most important is conformity to the group itself. No one is allowed to criticize, for to do so endangers the coherence and strength of the body. Internal conflict threatens the group’s “way of being,” its ability to accomplish its purposes, or even its existence. Criticism causes internal conflict, which results in unpleasant feelings of fear and anxiety. Thus, internal criticism must be eradicated.

To ensure group purity, members use stories and rituals. But they also use shame and the threat of force. Ostracism is also common—either by excluding or ignoring people. The main method used by individuals to maintain group purity, however, is the promotion of fear and moral outrage among group members. Adversaries are portrayed as a threat to “goodness” in general and the group’s way of life in particular. There are no shades of gray; you are “with” the group or against it.

In its early stages, group purity calls for censorship and propaganda. A legitimate argument made against the group’s precepts endangers group purity, so the group replaces argument with emotional appeal and censorship. Slogans and shaming replace dialogue. In more extreme cases, the group will resort to violence. If external threats to the group increase, or if the group faces severe internal pressure, some members of the group may physically attack outsiders, as happened on more than one American campus this spring. Many members may feel personally uncomfortable participating in the violence, but they condone it for the sake of the group.

Many may feel personally uncomfortable participating in violence, but they condone it for the sake of the group.There have been many examples of such groups throughout history. Many extreme religious groups fit this picture. In a larger political context, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Hitler’s Nazi Party are horrific examples of group purity in action. But there are also many less extreme groups whose propensity to group purity is mitigated by other ethical priorities, such as freedom of speech or loving one’s enemy.

Most if not all of the features of group purity are present on elite university campuses. The “stories” of the group are the teachings of the classroom, where the oppressor/oppressed viewpoint is ubiquitous. Students see oppressors as evil, not as people who share a common humanity and heritage. Conformity is also important. Students protest—often with violence—against invited speakers with alternative views. Shaming and ostracism are imposed on students and faculty who voice alternative perspectives. Students fear for their grades, or that their friends will look down on them, if they speak against the status quo. The faculty fear becoming the target of a social-media attack or campus protest.

All of these are hallmarks of group purity. Thus, when we see student groups protesting Israel and calling for death to Jews, we can understand their behavior not as an unusual or surprising aberration but, rather, as a desperate attempt to preserve group purity. The phenomenon of group purity is widespread and harmful to our students, for, in the end, it turns education on its head.

University administrators are in a bind because their desire for group purity conflicts with the ideal upon which their universities were founded: the free exploration of truth. Group purity and the free exploration of truth are incompatible; they cannot live in peace. One will win out. My hope is that university administrators will choose genuine intellectual freedom.

But, as great as freedom of thought and expression are, the only true antidote to the phenomenon of group purity is loving our neighbor. Jesus admonished us to care not just for our group but for our enemies as well. In 2 Samuel, we see that King David exemplified this behavior. Throughout his life, David was surrounded by enemies. Saul, Saul’s friends, and Saul’s family all made war on David. David’s own son Absalom usurped his throne and tried to kill him. Shimei followed David around cursing him. In each case, David desired mercy for his enemies. He did not seek to kill or convert them. In some cases, he even meted out punishment—not reward—to those who killed his enemies. His mercy was a sign that he was “a man after [God’s] own heart.”

The need to belong and have a group that believes as we do is a strong motivator in our lives—and even in our churches. Associating with a group of like-minded people is not wrong, but we should recognize zealousness for group purity (which often manifests as a zealousness for group victory) as unseemly behavior. If we see signs of it, we should encourage love and kindness toward our enemies. And, most of all, we should guard our own hearts against it.

Chris Swanson is president of Gutenberg College, a Christian “Great Books” institution in Eugene, Ore.