A North Korean defector provided some stunning headlines this week when she appeared on national television to contend that certain parts of America have a more censorious and authoritarian culture than North Korea.
Yeonmi Park was 13 years old when she and her mother escaped the Juche regime through its northern border with China in 2007, with the two eventually finding their way to South Korea. Park moved to the United States in 2014 and began attending Columbia University two years later.
On Monday, Park appeared on Fox News’ Hannity show to excoriate her college’s faculty and students for having “lost the ability to think critically.” She argued that they were “just dying to give their rights and power to the government” and that “North Korea was pretty crazy, but not this crazy.”
Ultimately, she opted to blend in and “learned how to shut up” so as to graduate with a respectable GPA.
Her remarks are worth watching in full. They are a forceful and much-needed repudiation of the kind of higher education insanity that outlets such as The American Spectator and Campus Reform have been covering for years.
Of course, some caution is warranted. Columbia University does not execute or imprison its students for holding the wrong opinions, and enrollees are allowed to walk out. The totality of the situation in North Korea is incomparably more brutal.
Nonetheless, Park’s comments serve to highlight how slight the distinction can be between explicit and implicit systems of conformity.
The tyrannies of regimes such as North Korea and China are explicit, with uniforms, barbed wire, portraits of the Kims on every wall, and objective social credit scores assigned to actions. They are easy to critique and lampoon; from a distance, such oppression seems almost comically evil.
The quiet authoritarianism of contemporary higher education culture is harder to conceptualize and therefore harder to criticize. Books such as The Coddling of the American Mind by psychologist Jonathan Haidt have made attempts at systematic critique. Haidt, for his part, identifies such methods as safe spaces, tone policing, ostracism, and the manipulation of language as means by which campus cultures exert control on student thought, speech, and action.
Park experienced some of these methods herself, and she related that she was once confronted by a staff member for stating that she enjoyed reading Jane Austen, supposedly a racist and a bigot with a “colonial mindset” whose work would place Park at risk of “subconscious brainwashing.” The threats in these kinds of encounters (decreased social standing, disfavor with staff, fewer opportunities) are always buried, but they are no less real.
While an insistence on beginning every conversation with an exchange of pronouns may not seem as scandalous as being forced to place images of dictators on the living room wall, both pressure individuals into performative acts in order to retain access to opportunities and avoid social and material reprisals.
The stakes at the moment are not quite existential; there is no equivalent to Fox News able to give voice to dissidents in North Korea. But insofar as higher education remains the gateway to America’s professional and ruling classes, the hidden tyrannies of academic culture must be called out for what they are.
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