In a recent post I spoke of what we might call the Defiling of the Memes, and suggested that Paul Ricoeur’s work on The Symbolism of Evil might be relevant. Let’s see how that might go.

In that book Ricoeur essentially works backwards from the familiar and conceptually sophisticated theological language of sin to what underlies it, or, as he puts the matter, what “gives rise” to it. If “the symbol gives rise to the thought,” what “primary symbols” underlie the notion of sin? Sin is a kind of fault, but beneath or behind the notion of fault is a more fundamental experience, defilement, whose primary symbol is stain. Before I could ever know that I have sinned (or that anyone else has) there must be a deeper and pre-rational awareness of defilement happening or being. I think of a passage from Dickens’s Hard Times:

‘Are you in pain, dear mother?’

‘I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind, ‘but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it.’

First we know that defilement is, “somewhere in the room”; then we become aware that we have been somehow stained. From those elemental experiences and their primary symbols arise, ultimately, complex rational accounts that might lead to something like this: “I have defiled myself by sinning, and therefore must find a way to atone for what I have done so that I may live free from guilt.” But that kind of formulation lies far down the road, and there are many other roads that lead to many other conclusions about what went wrong and how to fix it.

Ricoeur writes as a philosopher and a Christian, which is to say he writes as someone who has inherited an immensely sophisticated centuries-old vocabulary that can mediate to him the elemental experiences and their primary symbols. Therefore one of his chief tasks in The Symbolism of Evil is to try to find a way back:

It is in the age when our language has become more precise, more univocal, more technical in a word, more suited to those integral formalizations which are called precisely symbolic logic, it is in this very age of discourse that we want to recharge our language, that we want to start again from the fullness of language. Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.

But what if you have not inherited such a sophisticated moral language? Might you not then be closer to the elemental experiences and their primary symbols? That might help to account for the kind of thing described here:

The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

So here’s my (highly tentative) thesis: when you have a whole generation of young people whose moral language is severely attenuated — made up of almost nothing except Mill’s harm principle — and who have been encouraged to extend that one principle to almost any kind of discomfort — then disagreement, or alternative points of view, appear to them not as matters for rational adjudication but as defilement from which they must be cleansed.

And this in turn leads to a phenomenon I have discussed before, and about which Freddie deBoer has written eloquently: The immediate turn to administrators as the agents of cleansing. This is especially true for students who have identified themselves as marginal, as social outsiders, as Mary Douglas explains in Purity and Danger: “It seems that if a person has no place in the social system and is therefore a marginal being, all precaution against danger must come from others. He cannot help his abnormal situation.”

And yet another consequence of the experience of defilement: the archaic ritualistic character of the protests and demands, for example, the scapegoating and explusion of Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College, and the insistence of many protestors upon elaborate initiation rituals for new members of the community in order to prevent defiling words and deeds. (Douglas again: “Ritual recognises the potency of disorder.”)

I have described the thinking of these student protestors as Baconian — a notion I develop somewhat more fully in a forthcoming essay for National Affairs — and while I still think that analysis is substantially correct, I now believe that it is incomplete. The anthropological account I have been sketching out here seems necessary as well.

Again: these are behavioral pathologies generated by simplistic moral frameworks and a general disdain for rational debate. The sleep of reason produces, if not always monsters, then a return to a primal experience of defilement, and a grasping for the elemental symbols and rituals used from ancient times to manage such defilement. And in light of these recent developments, the world of criticism seems less like a desert than an elegant and well-furnished room.