One of the more colorful news stories of the past week was that of the Banana Peel Panic at the University of Mississippi that led to the early end of a Greek Life retreat in August. The kerfuffle started after a student could not find a trash can to properly dispose of the peel from his breakfast banana, so he hung it in a tree. Three black students attending the event saw the peel hanging in the tree and reported what they saw, launching a daylong discussion on symbolism and race.
In light of the racially charged incident earlier this year at American University involving bananas hung around campus, the banana peel debate is not as bizarre as it initially sounds. In saner times, however, once it became clear that the banana peel was just a banana peel, cooler heads would have returned to the business at hand. But these are not saner times, and the conversation became so heated that the remainder of the retreat had to be cancelled. The young man who put the banana peel in the tree was compelled to confess his sin and apologize in the school newspaper, and administrators reacted, as we have seen them do time and again, by giving out-sized credence to the aggrieved students.
Collective obsessional behavior, better known as mass hysteria, is as American as apple pie and Elvis sightings. From the Salem witch trials to today’s triggering microagressions and campus safe space culture, our history is littered with groups of people losing their collective minds. We’ve reached the point yet again where exposure to opposing viewpoints can unleash such a clamor that rational voices are drowned out.
In Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, the town of Salem, Massachusetts, is in the grips of a great uproar. It is 1692, and witchcraft is on everyone’s mind as a group of adolescent girls claims that members of the town are sending out their spirits to do all sorts of mischief. The girls are front and center in the court as their crying out and fainting is taken as proof the condemned are guilty of trafficking with the Devil. The only way the accused can save themselves is to confess; otherwise, they will hang. Local church leaders and court judges never question the motives of the girls, and the townspeople who insist the girls are faking find themselves accused of witchcraft as well.
The Crucible was Miller’s response to the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s, which by that time had taken on all the attributes of a classic witch-hunt. Senator Joseph McCarthy, intent on zealously rooting out anyone from the State Department to Hollywood who might have had the slightest bit of sympathy for the communist cause, waged an aggressive campaign. As a result, more than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs—despite a lack of evidence—and a blacklist of Hollywood writers, producers, and actors left many with ruined careers. A hint of an accusation was enough to convict, and to declare innocence was seen as a sign of guilt. Sound familiar?
We are in the grips of our own moment of mass hysteria. College campuses across the nation are home to young adults who insist that they be protected from people and ideas that make them uncomfortable. Outrage is a virtue, and the offended is awarded victim status no matter how slight, or unintended, the offense. In a memorable line in The Crucible, John Proctor asks, “Is the accuser always holy now?” It does often feel that way.
More concerning is the way many college administrators react to these demands, offering safe spaces and continuing campus “conversations.” Ole Miss’s vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement is planning to lead campus-wide follow-up talks about the Greek Life retreat incident. The silliness of being gravely concerned about trash in a tree and the condescension inherent in dealing with it at the administrative level makes a mockery of real racist incidents such as the one at American University.
These administrators, while well intentioned, are doing their students a disservice when they treat them like children. We coddle toddlers and validate their feelings because they do not have enough experience in the world to tell the difference between fact and emotion. College students should be able to make that distinction, and college administrators who kowtow to the emotional demands of their students are not expecting nor demanding adult behavior from them. We are in the midst of a time of great economic disruption on par with the time of the Industrial Revolution. To prepare our young people for this new economic reality, we need to help them develop the grit and toughness to navigate in the emerging job market. Coddling them in college leaves them woefully unprepared for what comes next.
From Ole Miss to Mizzou, colleges and universities need to nip mass hysteria in the bud and get back to the job they are paid so well to do—preparing their students for future success.