If you have followed youth and university politics over the past few years you have almost certainly encountered horror stories of a new illiberal generation, as seen in cases of de-platforming at universities and the embrace of identity politics. This makes Robby Soave’s Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump a timely investigation into the current wave of Zillennials—a portmanteau of leftist millennials and Generation Z activists— including their peculiar beliefs and the movements that have sprung from them.
Soave is an associate editor at Reason.com, a Novak Fellow at The Fund for American Studies, and serves on the D.C. Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He identifies two major differences between Zillennial activism and leftist movements that preceded it: the newfound scepticism towards free speech and the adoption of intersectionality.
To some extent this newfound scepticism of free speech has an intellectual origin in Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist intellectual in the mid-20th century who in Repressive Tolerance (1965) compared the expression of right-wing ideas to shouting “Fire!” in a movie theatre. However, Soave sees the larger trend as an extension of the safety culture of the 1980s, which included trends such as zero tolerance in schools and helicopter parenting, which have resulted in a generation accustomed to sacrificing liberties in exchange for protection from harm. This underpins some of the infamous behaviour of Zillennial activists on campus such as no-platforming, which is justified as an important measure to ensure the emotional wellbeing of marginalised students and to prevent the spread of hateful ideologies that inspire violence against them.
The significant intellectual change has been intersectionality, which holds that the various types of oppression (racism, sexism, etc) are both distinct and linked to each other, and should all be opposed with equal fervour. In an interview with James Bolt and Peter Gregory on the Young IPA Podcast earlier this year (Episode 118: 18 July 2019), Soave tracked the roots of intersectionality back to the 1980s and the work of sociologist Kimberlé Crenshaw, and her:
“… way of talking about the fact that there are different sources of oppression, and they can stack for people who have more than one category of oppression or marginalization working against them.”
This idea underpins the demands placed on current left-wing Zillennial activists: to be intersectional. A feminist cannot just be concerned with female empowerment but also must be an advocate for people of colour, the LBGT community, and other marginalised groups. Under this logic, a protest against one specific issue must also be a protest against every oppression in modern American society. One famous example was the 2017 Women’s March, a protest against Trump’s disgraceful history with women that became consumed by intersectional infighting. Conflicts quickly began due to the movement’s leadership being dominated by white women. Trump’s policies were held to be more threatening to women of colour, and there was simmering anger over the perceived betrayal of white women who had voted for Trump in larger numbers. The New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist group founded by Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa (pictured left), was decertified as a partner due to the conflict between being intersectional and “anti-choice”. Despite such measures, activists Soave interviewed for the book claimed the Women’s March was a failure for being “too inclusive”, despite being the most attended mass march in decades. Those activists saw the failure to appropriately centre the march around marginalised groups—such as women of colour or the trans community— had stripped any value from the action.
As Soave observes, this intersectional ideology is crippling to Zillennial activism. It frustrates progressive activists by demanding perfection from them in how they approach an array of issues, while simultaneously rejecting the notion that the marginalised should be made to educate the privileged or that the privileged should dare to speak in the place of the marginalised, making the necessary education almost impossible. More importantly, however, it makes the formation of coalitions to achieve specific policy goals impossible, as there is so little tolerance for individuals who fall short on any issue, whether a pro-life or trans-exclusionary feminist or a pro-Israel gay activist. This has seen multiple campaigns, including the Democratic Socialists of America’s push for “Medicare for All” and Women’s March, set back by intersectional infighting among activists.
Intersectionality also creates perverse incentives, as Soave said when interviewed on the Young IPA Podcast:
“… to have the most power and authority in an activist circle, you have to be the most marginalized person, it actually encourages people to see themselves as victims even when they aren’t actually victims. People who are perfectly fine, they might say, “Well, I have a history of PTSD and trauma. I have mental health as my victim card.” And that can be unhealthy to give people a reason or an incentive to see themselves in victimized terms. I think that’s just very bad.”
The remarkable abilities of these Zillennial activists to undermine their own campaigns isn’t necessarily something to cheer. As Soave notes, there’s often significant common ground between his libertarian beliefs and what Zillennials are concerned about, whether that’s the pressing need for criminal justice reform highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, the unfortunate presence of sexual predators on US college campuses, or the concerns Zillennials have about the state of the modern US economy, which underwent the global financial crisis just as Zillennials entered the workforce out of college. Where Zillennial activists fall short isn’t their intentions or often the issues identified; rather it’s how their presentation of issues alienates allies and retards vital progress or how the acceptance of faulty premises misleads debate and results in poor policy proposals.
A key question is how Panic Attack relates to the Australian context. The description of Zillennial activists will be familiar to anyone who has spent time with these activists on campus, including the influence of safety culture and the acceptance of intersectional doctrine. Some issues covered by Soave have parallels in Australia, where our Zillennial activists also have found themselves confronting rape culture on campus, transphobia, mistreatment of indigenous Australians by police, climate change, and other issues. Even the chapter dealing with the emerging Alt-Right—which, like other Zillennial movements, opposes free speech and embraces identity politics—has unfortunate parallels in Australia with groups such as the Antipodean Resistance. However, these individual issues can differ in key ways.
One example is the campaign to highlight and reduce sexual assault on university campuses. There are key parallels between this issue in Australia and the US in that it is a vital issue for university administrations, but one sidetracked by debate over questionable statistics put together by activists. From my personal experience at Murdoch university the student guild even screened the American film Hunting Ground to draw attention to the issue: even though it had become infamous for its misrepresentations and exaggerations. As I unfortunately discovered, Australian activists can be as quick as their American counterparts to characterise any questioning of statistics or narrative as an effort to undermine the safety of students. Yet, thankfully, there is currently no Australian equivalent to the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter, which stripped away the rights of American students accused of sexual assault, led to several significant miscarriages of justice, and as a result has dominated the conversation about how to discuss sexual assault on campus in the USA. Instead, the battlelines in Australia are focused on pushing universities to do more to protect students, rather than to scrap already implemented policies.
Even given these differences between the US and Australia, Soave’s Panic Attack holds up as a vital analysis of the roots of Zillennial activism and the issues as they exist in the USA. It’s a sympathetic yet critical look at this phenomenon, and you could do far worse to understand it than to read Soave’s book.
Kyle Williams is studying a BA in counterterrorism at Murdoch University, and is a campus coordinator in the Generation Liberty program.