Fabio Rojas writes for the Martin Center about the forces that stoke outrage on college campuses.

The academy seems built for public controversy because professors are encouraged to question ideas and popular beliefs. It shouldn’t be surprising that academic outrage has a long history.

In the past, scholars could find themselves in trouble, like Galileo, who defended Copernican astronomy and then proceeded to attack Pope Urban VIII, a position so unpopular that he was literally tried for heresy by the Inquisition and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. The philosopher Bertrand Russell had his job offer at the City University of New York revoked in 1940 when religious leaders disagreed with his liberal attitudes toward sex.

Anti-academic outrage continues today. A wave of digital “outrage mobs” have appeared, demanding that professors lose their jobs and academic articles be retracted. This trend differs from the past in ways that merit close attention.

Rather than being about academia’s conflict with religious or political forces outside of the university, as Galileo and Bertrand Russell were, the current conflict seems to be about the internal policing of academics by other academics. This development is dangerous, not only for those professors targeted by outrage mobs, but for a broader intellectual environment that nurtures academic inquiry.

The focus of this policing is racial and gender inequality. Some call these inquisitors the “intersectional Left” because of the movement’s reliance on intersectional social theory that emphasizes the overlapping categories of gender, race, and class. Others merely use the phrase the “Academic Left” or the “Critical Theory Left.” This academic subculture is an important shift in the way that many academics think of their mission. Inequality is no longer seen as a problem to be studied and addressed through academic research. Instead, inequality has become a master framework for discussions of institutional legitimacy and academic merit.