Recent campus race-related demonstrations are often bizarre. Clearly, there are no rational, cost/benefit explanations for this agitation, especially considering that many student protesters are allocating time better spent on academic pursuits. Do black Cornell University protestors honestly believe, for example, that forcing their school to drop the term “Plantation” from Cornell’s botanical gardens name will help campus blacks? (This demand was part of a seven page compilation of demands.) How about the black law students at Harvard who are currently occupying the school’s student lounge so as to replace Wasserstein Lounge with “Belinda Hall,” the name of a former slave owned by Isaac Royall, a Harvard donor. Will their ongoing occupation somehow sharpen their legal skills? What can possibly explain these time-wasting theatrics?
Let me propose a mental health explanation: these activists are adrenalin junkies who suffer from a medically recognized condition though it has yet to be formally recognized in the official catalogue of psychiatric disorders. That is, when people find themselves in situation of perceived danger and excitement (e.g., extreme sports like sky diving) their adrenal glands release large amounts of adrenaline (also called norepinephrine), a chemical that resembles dopamine that plays a major role in addiction and pleasure. The chemical reaction hardly stops there—perceived threats can also trigger the pituitary gland and hypothalamus to secrete endorphins, a substance that mimics opiates such as heroin, cocaine and amphetamine (speed).
But while nearly everybody’s adrenalin level returns to normal once the danger has passed, some acclimated to this heightened level and have become addicted.
High on one’s own adrenalin can be wonderful—lots of energy, a heighted sense of competition, an upbeat mood, and a sharpened sense of humor. The addicted wake up rearing to go and, indeed, will often accomplish more. CEO’s of large firms and soldiers in elite units can virtually live on adrenalin highs.
In the case of campus activists, just compare standing on a platform, strutting about and fulminating into a hand-held megaphone, surrounded by a cheering boisterous crowed all demanding the cowering school President immediately resign with everything being covered on TV versus the lonely drudgery (and feelings of low self-esteem) of pulling an all-nighter for tomorrow’s dreaded Calculus final.
Particularly vulnerable to this chemically-induced rush as are those driven by hate and anger since increased levels of adrenaline and endorphins can soothe angst. Tellingly, as is true with many other drugs, it may require ever greater levels of dangerous excitement to “get high.” For sports junkies, sky-diving will give way to the more hazardous BASE jumping with wing suits. And, as curing drug-related addiction, recovering can be difficult, often requiring months of professional assistance. Withdrawal is also associated with depression, anger, feeling confused and low energy levels.
Treating black outrage as a chemical/medical condition offers an entirely new perspective on campus unrest. Clearly, any university administrator effort to cool tempers and negotiate reasonable compromises will be resisted for the simple reason that a rational settlement deprives activists of their adrenalin high. Quite likely, what might begin as a school administrator’s logical effort to find some middle ground will soon deteriorate to name-calling and threats of violence so as to keep glands pumping out dopamine.
Moreover, there will be a vicious cycle as activists increasingly fill their days with agitating while neglecting academic work. Hard to imagine those occupying the school President’s office taking a break to catch up on Calculus 101, so as the possibility of flunking out rises, their anxiety will correspondingly increase and thus necessitating even more soothing endorphins. It is no wonder, then, that these encounters will have black students shouting the most bizarre accusations at white administrators (“blacks built America”) while concocting even longer lists of demands.
Drug induced behavior understood, it is no wonder that appeasement strategies usually fail, especially since the menu of potential demands is almost infinite. A detailed administrative response regarding strained budgets, the illegal nature of a demand or their uncertain—if not negative—impact cannot cool the biologically-driven need to sustain the adrenalin euphoria. Concessions cannot be given fast enough so even the most hare-brained proposal is quickly put on the ever-expanding “non-negotiable” list. Who could ever predicted college students calling for written apologies for their school accepted money from long- deceased slave owners? Such behavior gives biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you a whole new meaning. That black students at one school monitor the actions of colleagues elsewhere means that any crackpot idea at some obscure college may instantly become the rage everywhere.
That university administrators are oblivious to this adrenalin-driven behavior can only exacerbate the strife. Being reasonable signifies weakness and like a dog sniffing the odor of fear, activists up the pressure and thus feel even better. Picture an alternative universe where elite schools were run by the Mafia. Students arriving with the catalogue list of frivolous non-negotiable demands would be met by “This is a nice campus. It would be a shame if you had an accident and were unable to walk to class. Do you get my message?” Under these circumstances, all the excreted dopamine would immediately inspire an adrenalin rush Plan B —run like hell, hide and never again bother Dean Gotti.
Unfortunately, the short-term prognosis, even with artful administrative deceit, is gloomy given that the root of this addiction is hard-to-reverse low academic achievement (the equivalent for marginal white students is the beer blast). On the bright side, however, the long-term diagnosis is a bit better. As with hardcore drug addicts, campus protestors hooked on attention will find it impossible to complete their academic work—so many alluring causes, so little time–and will drop out of school. Perhaps these drop-outs will join Black Lives Matter demonstrations dodging evening rush-hour traffic on Interstate highways. In any case, the results, hopefully, will be fewer of these trouble-makers on campus and, eventually, less pressure to recruit those marginal students who require endorphin highs to dull the pain of mastering Organic Chemistry. All and all, mindless student activism is just one more of today’s drug related plagues.