Original Source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Skepticcom/~3/CjA-GXv48ng/
“The world is not dialectical—it is sworn to extremes, not to equilibrium, sworn to radical antagonism, not to reconciliation or synthesis.”
“Philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as masturbation and sexual love.”
I have a confession to make. I can be a real idiot. Throughout the course of my life, and on an embarrassing variety of subjects, I have displayed the kind of rank ignorance that could tempt a gifted fifth grader to break out into a victory dance. My simple defense for this random cluelessness is that like most people, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. What I can’t so easily defend are those times in my life when I was willfully ignorant, when I went above and beyond in my determination not to understand something. I found myself thinking of those times while watching the YouTube videos of the uprising in miniature at Evergreen State College. In May of 2017, this normally quiet, liberal arts institution saw students barricade a building and hold hostage college president and jellyfish impersonator George Bridges, who negotiated settlement terms with his student captors with his hands behind his back to avoid micro-aggressive gestures. This was followed by anonymous death threats, campus closures, and a sharp uptick in the sightings of baseball bats, apparently the sensitivity training tool of choice for stylish social justice enforcers.
It is trenchant irony that this latest manifestation of campus PC bullying gone wild began with what Evergreen bills as a way to “explore and celebrate the richness of our diversity.” Since the 1970s the campus has held a Day of Absence, in which faculty and students of color voluntarily absent themselves from the campus. The idea came from a play by Douglas Turner Ward, in which a town wakes up to find that all its African American citizens have disappeared.1 Perhaps in response to the political ascendency of a certain Donald Trump, the organizers decided it was the right time to up the ante and make a bolder statement. This year’s Day of Absence would be inverted, and white students and faculty would be asked to leave campus.
This did not sit well with Bret Weinstein, a white biology professor who has endorsed the event for years. Weinstein instead emailed a letter of dissent to the entire faculty, carefully explaining why the new and improved Day of Absence offended his principles:
There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles…and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.
This might have ended here. Both Weinstein and the event’s organizers made valid arguments, and after all, participation in the Day of Absence is voluntary. But somehow the email made it into the hands of some non-faculty recipients, whereupon it began to worm its way through the student body. Eventually the worm transformed into a great shaming beast comprised of some 50 students, who showed up at Professor Weinstein’s classroom and demanded his resignation. His purported offense was racism, but as I see it, his true crime was having the temerity to step into the path of a narrative barreling through the campus like a runaway train.
I vividly remember the first time my narrative was eaten alive by a larger more voracious one. In 1999 I went to the Academy Awards ceremony to protest Elia Kazan’s Lifetime Achievement Oscar. By then, my Angry Young Man phase should have surrendered gracefully to middle age, but even though I admired many of Kazan’s films, I could not get past the fact that he had named names at the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) congressional hearings, and it felt wrong to celebrate a career that had thrived at the expense of others. In my mind the narrative I had constructed was like a precious and delicate Italian masterwork of moral chiaroscuro in which Kazan had crossed over into the shadows. But when Angry Young Me got to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where the Academy Awards were being held and made my way through the crush of limos and Shakespeare In Love fans, what I found had all the delicacy of an Ab-Ex scrawl—a couple of dozen others like me, outnumbered and out-enthused by a phalanx of, not Kazan supporters at all, but red-baiters and gone-to-pasture cold-warriors waving little plastic American flags like irksome pom-poms and shouting “pinkos!” and “commies!” through megaphones dialed to ten. Picture a school of principled but confused minnows swallowed en masse by an infuriated red, white and blue whale.
Professor Weinstein didn’t have the luxury of doing what I did—beating a hasty retreat into a private, hermetically sealed bubble of cynicism and bitter pathos. It’s his job to instruct others and to instill the tools of critical thinking. Judging from the YouTube videos of his engagement with the protesters, he made a valiant effort. But the students went looking for a racist that day, and so a racist is what they found. Putting it another way, the students’ narrative demanded an antagonist, and Professor Weinstein was cast in the part. It seems like this sort of thing has been happening a lot lately. Students primed to see moral failing everywhere target fellow students, groups, or guest speakers they deem unclean, such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. But what struck me about the Evergreen incident is that never before has the demon designee been so clearly one of their own. In both word and deed Weinstein appears to be broadly committed to ending racism. Bret Weinstein’s brother Eric, an economist, mathematician, and managing director of Thiel Capital, told the Washington Times, “There’s something sort of ‘Twilight Zone’ about one of the most thoughtful commentators on race, at one of the most progressive schools in the country, getting called a racist.” Now I was getting curious. In what sense could a man like Bret Weinstein be a racist? If the definition of racism were this broad, surely anyone could be racist, maybe even everyone. And then it hit me; perhaps this is precisely the point. But if this is the case, what sort of story were these students telling themselves?
Bret Weinstein thinks he knows the answer. In his rangy, righteousy interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, both he and Rogan were careful to dot their liberal i’s and cross their progressive t’s when talking about racism before proceeding to go full Archie Bunker on postmodernist philosophy. Weinstein went so far as to separate postmodernism from the “actual disciplines” taught at Evergreen. Hmmm, I thought, postmodernism must’ve come a long way since the days when I was reading Society of the Spectacle and Fatal Strategies. Back in the pre-Amazonian epoch, these were the sorts of titles one found in old Craftsman houses converted into alt bookstores that smelled vaguely of patchouli. Today, I think of those books as critical examinations of the way mass culture can operate as a kind of medium of authority and control. Not even particularly controversial in my estimation, but here was Weinstein suggesting that universities are “soft targets” for unspecified but clearly dangerous postmodernist ideas. That struck me as funny, considering that as targets go, you can’t get much more soft than postmodernism.
First of all, because for every gem of insight a reader might unearth in the works of authors like Guy Debord or Michel Foucault, he or she will first have to chisel their way through several deposits of seemingly impenetrable slag. The writing style of most postmodernist thinkers is abstract and poetic by design. They aim to seduce rather than to persuade. There are specific reasons for this, I mean apart from the fact that most of them are French; but to those hostile to the approach, postmodernism can look like a gift from the gods of parody. Alan Sokal demonstrated this with his infamous hoax text Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, crafted to expose the seemingly obvious emperor-has-no-clothes-ness of postmodernism, but only later of course, after he got it published in a recognized academic journal. Who can resist a good gotcha moment, right? But all of this gives rise to an apparent contradiction: if postmodernism is so lacking in insight, discipline, and scientific rigor, so deserving of its lowly status as the punching bag of pedantry, how is it now being credibly re-purposed as the greatest corruptor of young minds since Socrates?
PC culture is apparently the Typhoid Mary of the same ideological virus that killed 100 million people.
Weinstein’s isn’t the only voice singing the calamity blues when it comes to postmodernism on campus. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto, adopts a mild mannered Joseph Campbell mode when he’s contextualizing biblical myth, but get him started on postmodernism and he transforms into a fulminating high priest of the apocalypse in academia to come. Peterson swaggered into the crosshairs of campus PC culture when he took a lone wolf stand against the proposed use of an expanded list of gender-neutral pronouns in Canada. In an op-ed for the National Post Peterson wrote:
I will never use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words “zhe” and “zher.” These words are at the vanguard of a postmodern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century…. I have come to believe that Marxism is a murderous ideology. I believe its practitioners in modern universities should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to promote such vicious, untenable and anti-human ideas, and for indoctrinating their students with these beliefs. I am therefore not going to mouth Marxist words.
There you have it; PC culture is apparently the Typhoid Mary of the same ideological virus that killed 100 million people. (One wonders if Peterson made a similar count for capitalist doctrines, just, you know, to establish a baseline.) In any case, the belief that campus PC culture is a phenomenon of the traditional far left may hit more thumb than nail, but Peterson is far from alone in this conviction. In one Evergreen campus death threat, a caller warns that he is bringing his .44 magnum to “kill those communists.” Ahh, if only the dispatcher had had the presence of mind to remind the caller that history has ended. We’re all post-ideology now. Capitalism is the only game in town. And while that might be bad news for those who spend their idle-hours fantasizing about hunting for the Red October, the good news for ol’ Karl is that it’s safe to read his work again, provided one does so with the requisite ironic nostalgia.2 In that spirit, I offer this excerpt of a letter from 1870. Perhaps it will clue us all in on what Marx might have thought about identity politics:
Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labor market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.
And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. … His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. … This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this. [Italics in the original.]
PoMo the Clown and his Ontological Juggling Act, the Greatest Show(s) on Earth
To some extent, brush fires like the one in Evergreen are easily dismissed as typical of the internecine squabbling one might expect in a world as cloistered as academia. Calling it incestuous might be too headlong, but we are talking here about a world that has coined terms like “physics envy” to deride the so-called “obscurantism” of the social sciences. And while I enjoyed James Lindsey’s and Peter Boghossian’s “Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” as a ripping piece of parody, my nose for skepticism is warning me that there’s more than a little preemptive denunciation in it, Hofstadter’s anti-intellectualism taking the form of selfpolicing. I’m uncomfortable with just how closely some of this rhymes with the standard criticism of intellectuals as lacking common sense. Besides, if you want an example of obscurantism at its driest, just try wrapping your head around some early string theory. But before you do that, consider the following two sentences:
On June 28, 1839, the schooner Amistad set sail for Puerto Principe, Cuba, with 53 slaves from Mendiland.
On June 28, 1839, the schooner Amistad set sail for Puerto Principe, Cuba, with 53 enslaved Mende people.
If you can see how the first sentence is more dehumanizing than the second, you might just be a postmodernist. That’s it, really. Well no, that’s actually hopelessly reductionist, but we’ve got some ground to cover so work with me. Crucially, both sentences can be said to relate the same factual information, but in the seemingly subtle change of three words, two entirely different semantic intentions emerge. Postmodernists contend that analyzing this semantic intent reveals hierarchical social structures that might otherwise remain subliminal. These hierarchical social structures are encoded not only in language, but in every aspect of culture.
The idea isn’t exactly new. In the beginning of the 20th century, Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony to explain how it was that the oppressed working class didn’t rise up in revolt against the ruling class. Gramsci contended that the ruling class imposed its self-serving beliefs, values and mores on greater society. In effect, the working class was captured by the internal logic of a value system that was not in their interest. Although those within any given society tend to accept these prevailing cultural norms as unassailable truth, Gramsci claimed that they were artificial social constructs. Granted, Gramsci was a Marxist, and this makes it tempting (if facile) to dismiss his idea as fatally coupled to a narrow view of capitalist control. But if we take the social construct constituent and titrate it from its Marxist/capitalist solution we end up with an abstraction that has been successfully retailed to the general public for decades. For the term “social construct” substitute “worldview,” “mindset,” or my personal go-to, “narrative,” and you can see what I’m getting at.
There are other names too. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of the matrix to explain left/right political polarization, claiming that each moral community is a “consensual hallucination”. In the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari claims that what makes humans a successful species is our ability to unite around collective “fictions” such as money, religion, and nations. Many of these fictions have no physical existence. Fiat money untethered to anything intrinsically valuable, such as gold, for example, is worthless paper without the consensual story about its value that we tell ourselves about it.
Those who practice “actual disciplines” often try to exempt themselves, claiming that the hard sciences only deal in objective reality. But in 1962, physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of the scientific “paradigm”—a kind of working model that narratively coheres with experience and observation. These paradigms gain widespread acceptance because they offer improved degrees of predictive, explanatory, and problem solving powers, but they are not immutable truths. In Kuhn’s formulation, paradigm anomalies begin to accrue, leading to the necessity of a new paradigm that accounts for the anomalies. An example of a paradigm that has been superseded is Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe. It might seem obviously wrong to us now, but for 1500 years it predicted planetary movements with surprising accuracy. In the hard sciences there is scarcely a more immutable set of truths than Newton’s laws of motion. And yet, when it came down to quantum levels, these truths fell apart like a soap opera marriage. The paradigm had to be revised, and a new term, “classical mechanics”, was introduced to preserve narrative coherence. Kuhn went so far as to suggest that two scientists operating with different paradigms might see two different things while observing the same phenomenon. Objective reality, it turns out, is the ultimate unreliable narrator.
Although the political left was an early adopter of the social constructs concept, its variants have worked their way into the bloodstream of the entire body politic, flaring up as catchphrases like the Republican bubble or the liberal echo chamber. And even in the twitter-botting, celebrity-trolling, “shitposting” 4-chan underworld of the alt-right, a common expression is “red-pilling.” It’s a reference to the sci-fi film The Matrix, in which Neo is given the choice between taking the blue pill and continuing in the simulated reality of the matrix, or taking the red pill and waking up to (unsimulated?) reality. Presumably, anyone who disagrees with the alt-right has been blue-pilled. Of course, a postmodernist like Jacques Derrida would probably say that the alt-right’s version of wokeness is merely one more social construct veneered onto reality.
How were they to know it would lead to virtue peacocks forming circular firing squads in the twittersphere, or self-styled abolitionists trying to decolonize shop class?
Still, those eager to blame postmodernists for turning reality into another lifestyle choice might be overstating their case. Some calculated rhetorical provocations notwithstanding, postmodernists were really arguing for a kind of fallibilism. If they were claiming that the map is not the territory, it wasn’t because they regarded maps as useless. They simply wanted to ask who made the map and what were the cartographer’s underlying assumptions. How accurate is the map? Why does one map say the shortest route to happiness is competition, while another map says no, it’s cooperation, and so on. It was a fine, perfectly valid mode of inquiry at the time. How were they to know that all this second-guessing of mapmakers was going to lead to a deep, abiding mistrust of, not only authority, but of the very methods by which authority is claimed? How were they to know that it would lead to a cynical, paranoid, tribalizing, and alienating worldview in which the darkest of motives are ascribed to others based only on their affiliation with historically privileged identity groups? How were they to know it would lead to virtue peacocks forming circular firing squads in the twittersphere, or self-styled abolitionists trying to decolonize shop class? How were they to know it would lead to moral entrepreneurs demanding that college campuses be converted to re-education camps? In short, how could they know it would lead to Critical Race Theory?
In Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel The Trial, two unidentified agents arrest a humble bank cashier known only as Josef K. The charge against him is unspecified. Later he learns that not only is his guilt presumed, but that the entire process is secret, including the evidence, the rules of the court, the identity of his accusers, and even the crime itself. By centering the story on a character forced to defend himself, but in which defense is a practical impossibility, Kafka is putting the reader on notice that the story’s meaning is to be understood as something outside the case itself. Something other than justice is being served here.
It’s tempting to view Critical Race Theory (CRT) in this context. One of its core principles is that racism is baked into the American culture in the form of white privilege. While this may sound like Gramsci’s cultural hegemony transposed to the problem of racism, or sexism in the case of Critical Race Feminism, there is more going on here. In Gramsci’s thinking, there are straightforward mechanisms by which justice might be achieved; a person could shed his or her role as a bourgeois oppressor by choosing communist ideology, for example. According to CRT, however, consciously choosing not to be racist will never correct the power imbalance, nor does it exonerate the oppressor. The way CRT defines racism it is practically impossible to escape the accusation. If early CRT exponents were making more constrained arguments against masculine/white hegemonies, today’s hard-line multiculturalists3 have graduated to more excursive and combative rhetoric. In their eyes, there is no granting of absolution for the original sins of whiteness, maleness, straightness, and even ableness.
To gain a basic understanding of CRT, you have to step into the ring with two of its key components, privilege4 and aversive racism. I’ll begin with the former. It’s difficult to overstate how much the notion of privilege has been broadened within the diversity movement. In this worldview, privilege is treated as pernicious and unseen, a lurking, relentless, entropic force that requires constant vigilance to identify and overcome. In their earnest and sometimes moving 1995 essay Language and Silence: Making Systems of Privilege Visible, Stephanie M. Wildman and Adrienne D. Davis write:
It is difficult to see and talk about how oppression operates when the vocabulary itself makes these systems of privilege invisible. White supremacy is a phrase associated with a lunatic fringe, not with the everyday life of well-meaning white citizens. Racism is something whites define as bad action by others. The vocabulary allows us to talk about discrimination and oppression, but it hides the mechanism that makes that oppression possible and efficient.
According to Wildman and Davis, systems of privilege are encoded as societal norms, which are themselves determined by the privileged, thank you very much Antonio. Success or failure is largely predicated on the degree to which the individual can measure up to the norms established by the dominant group. This normalization means that privilege is like water to a fish, everywhere and yet invisible. Most of the time, only those who are marginalized by the system and therefore outside the fish tank can see it. From a female perspective, for example, seeing history as defined by men’s inability to get along with each other—leading to wars and power struggles—is a male privilege.
In most cases, privilege is seen as zero-sum, it always comes at the expense of others. In this sense privilege can be defined as that which disadvantages others. Within this logic, even the most trivial privilege from a material, security, or comfort point of view may have leveraged value in the schemata of identity politics. Looking at Bret Weinstein’s decision to sit out the Day of Absence in this light, it’s hard not to see it as a manifestation of white privilege, an unforgivable refusal to recognize the higher stakes that minorities have in the game.
So insidiously pervasive is privilege that even the luxury of not having to think about privilege is privilege. Which reminds me of Angry Young Me, who always says that the best thing about having money is not having to think about money all the time. Then there’s that famous quote from James Baldwin’s Esquire magazine essay, Fifth Avenue, Uptown, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever.” Of course all of that talk about economic class is verboten now; it might blind you to the greater treadmills of identity.5
If the nature of privilege is persistence, then aversive racism is all about stealth. First proposed in the mid-1980s, this theory suggests that while overt racism has diminished, a more nuanced form of racism, called implicit bias, is still widespread. Aversive racists denounce prejudice and defend egalitarianism, yet, the theory claims, they persist in racist behavior when interacting with someone from a different group, be that difference gender, race, ethnicity, size, ability, etc. This is because they remain racist in ways they are not consciously aware of. Despite the best intentions, their subconscious minds betray them.
The scientific evidence that racism is not going away, but simply going underground, comes predominantly from the implicit-association test (IAT). Since its introduction 20 years ago by Mahzarin Banaji, who chairs Harvard University’s psychology department, and Anthony Greenwald, a social psychology researcher at the University of Washington, the test and the conclusions drawn from it have gone mainstream. Even the racially mixed and socially liberal Malcolm Gladwell jumped on that train after his test indicated that he maintains racist attitudes towards blacks. In his bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he called the IAT a “powerful predictor of how we act in certain kinds of spontaneous situations.”
Although specific versions of the IAT have been developed to measure everything from icecream preferences to self-esteem, the Race IAT has enjoyed by far the greatest impact. Since the IAT has been available online, more than 17 million individual tests have been taken.6 This means that millions of people have been told to face up to the undeniable fact that their unconscious minds secretly harbor racial animus. In the introduction to Banaji and Greenwald’s 2013 book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, the authors flatly state:
It [the Race IAT] predicts discriminatory behavior even among research participants who earnestly (and, we believe, honestly) espouse egalitarian beliefs. That last statement may sound like a self-contradiction, but it’s an empirical truth. Among research participants who describe themselves as racially egalitarian, the Race IAT has been shown, reliably and repeatedly, to predict discriminatory behavior that was observed in the research.
The narrative that our subconscious minds are providing safe haven for the vestigial tail of racism is just too good to resist.
The only trouble with this claim is that no study so far has been able to confirm a link between positive test results for implicit bias and actual discriminatory behavior. For example, in 2013 the psychologist Frederick Oswald and his colleagues published the results of a meta-analysis in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which they concluded: “the IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom.” In 2016 the psychologist Patrick Forscher and his colleagues confirmed Oswald’s findings, based on their own meta-analysis of 426 studies on 72,063 subjects, concluding that there is “little evidence that changes in implicit bias mediate changes in explicit bias or behavior.” In addition, Race IAT critics like political psychology professor Philip Tetlock and others point to methodological issues such as social desirability bias and low test-retest reliability ratings to make the case that the IAT may be measuring little else than familiarity with certain types of faces.
But controversy surrounding the Race IAT has not dampened enthusiasm for the ideas underpinning aversive racism studies. When a narrative’s time has come, it seems, critics be damned. And the narrative that our subconscious minds are providing safe haven for the vestigial tail of racism is just too good to resist. At the very least, proponents say, the Race IAT is a valuable educational tool, especially in showing young people that they are not as post-racial as they think they are. This strikes me as a minor achievement when it is weighed against the far more dangerous, elephant-in-the-room size idea asserted by aversive racism theory.
Is the subconscious mind the arbiter of an individual’s “true nature”, even if that individual’s behavior contradicts the subconscious feelings? And will tests like the IAT, which allegedly give us the tools to expose that presumed true nature, eventually be used to purge society’s troublemakers? Don’t such questions sound just a tad mad-sciency? Maybe even full-on ‘50s sci-fi anthology, pre-cog, Philip K. Dick in the 14th hour of a gack binge mad-sciency? I mean, how many millions more could have been marched off to the gulags, the concentration camps, and the killing fields if they had been made to answer for the darkest impulses of their subconscious? And are any of these moral trailblazers and ivory tower social psychologists giving some consideration to how easily this idea can be weaponized, and what a gift it would be to those looking for more efficient ways to rationalize collective punishment of all kinds, including terrorism? I can hear it now, “For who among them is truly innocent in their minds…?”
OK, maybe we aren’t there yet, but already the expanded definitions of racism and privilege as functions not only of individual conduct but of group identity are undermining the premises of the arguments of traditional Enlightenment individualism. Once the expanded definitions are accepted, it’s easy to see how you can get to online training programs about “Healing from Toxic Whiteness” like the magazine Everyday Feminism offers. It’s easy to see how Stephanie Wildman could make the following confession:
For me, the struggle to visualize privilege most often has taken the form of the struggle to see my white privilege. Even as I write about this struggle, I fear that my own racism will make things worse, causing me to do more harm than good. Some readers may be shocked to see a white person contritely acknowledge that she is racist. I do not say this with pride. I simply believe that no matter how hard I work at not being racist, I still am. Because part of racism is systemic, I benefit from the privilege that I am struggling to see.
I don’t want to overstate the case against CRT. It makes plenty of valid, eye opening arguments. But once an idea is out there in the culture commons, others take what they want from it; use it for their own purposes. If some folks want to claim the moon doesn’t exist unless someone is looking at it, blaming Werner Heisenberg won’t convince them otherwise. With a momentum all its own, hard-line multiculturalism relies less and less on the academic coattails of CRT, and in places like Evergreen State College, it appears to have gone rogue. Thus, the Pod-People of Social Justice vociferously defend their self-proclaimed right not to be offended without the slightest regard as to how the resulting climate of censorship might offend others. They shut down dialogue by putting hurt feelings above rational argument. They invoke authority by claiming to speak on behalf of groups they define as generationally oppressed, and in the process perpetuate grotesque and wholesale stereotypes of millions of individuals be they “oppressed” or “oppressor”. They turn victimhood into a kind of in-group status symbol, which ironically affords them a new kind of privilege. Apparently when it comes to contradiction and hypocrisy, the ends justify the memes.
While the events at Evergreen may not parallel The Trial, the lines certainly overlap. The Josef K-ing of Bret Weinstein, and the unfortunate Good Germanism of his fearful colleagues who have denounced him have got me wondering if, as with The Trial, its broader meaning is to be found outside the scope of the social justice it ostensibly pursues. The quasi-religious overtones are obvious, with privilege and implicit bias standing in for the Christian concepts of temptation and venial sin. Its adherents number highest within a subgroup of educated white neo-progressives, where diversity Puritanism offers a path to salvation, recast as social status, and not just Facebook likes, but also good jobs that can stem from diversity cronyism. For diversity doctrinaires, one’s constant devotion to the cleansing of the soul (now the subconscious) is demonstrated in the traditional methods: public acknowledgement that you are a sinner, and the occasional accusation lobbed at those deemed less pure. In such a fever pitch of moral narcissism, everyone is just one micro-aggression away from getting cast into outer darkness, where presumably, the deplorables live.
Perhaps this interpretation speaks more to the tenor and tone of hard-line multiculturalism than to its substance, but it’s worth pointing out that the movement’s power is derived in part from the fear of being accused of one of the Isms. This dread of being Othered is a common element of many religions. Most people want to do the right thing, but be warned, earnest intentions can turn you into a gallery duck when the Great Shaming takes aim. And though it’s not clear that the social justice grunts are aware that they are preying on the good will of their fellow citizens, surely those who give the marching orders are. There’s a tactical brilliance to this, because it casts the traditional Enlightenment liberal, now sometimes called cultural libertarians because they favor individualism, in the role of the reactionary. This doesn’t suit the nature of traditional liberals, who see themselves as the original heavers of dead cats into sanctuaries, as H. L. Mencken put it. Who are all these people anyway, fringe cohorts, roistering down the information highway, obsessively grooming their web presence, these harbingers of death by a thousand retweets? We’re not judging. Let them have their fun. But all this finger pointing is getting a little wearisome. Meanwhile the multiculturalists’ long march through the institutions is well underway. Prepare to be assimilated. This is what winning looks like.
That these victories will come with a payload of tradeoffs hardly seems to matter in the crucible of the moment we are in. There’s little indication that the crusaders at the pointy end of the diversity movement have given any serious thought as to where all this identity priming might lead. What’s the upshot of a worldview in which there are no spectators, no innocent bystanders, only oppressors and oppressed? Where’s the room for discussion if every compromise means surrendering a piece of your identity, or betraying your tribe? If Evergreen is any augur, it will be considerably closer to colonial Salem, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, than to Key & Peele’s Negrotown (YouTube it, you’ll be glad you did). For some multiculturalists, no doubt any messiness is a regrettable but necessary transition period, the scorched earth in which they will plant and grow their utopia, defined, one deduces, as perfect demographic parity throughout social strata.
Make a note that in the diversity Promised Land society will remain stratified. This means that multiculturalists are essentially calling for equal opportunity oppression, because if any of them has so much as a strong opinion as to what constitutes just criteria for the new hierarchy that must and will emerge, they’re keeping it to themselves. But I’ll come back to this later. What I want to get to at the moment are the potentially enormous opportunity costs incurred on the way to this socio-statistical triumph.
In the diversity movement, generalities do the driving, specificity rides shotgun at best […] turns out postmodernism is an equal opportunity underminer.
The first of these costs is personal. Of all the instances of one narrative getting hijacked by a larger narrative, perhaps the most perennial of these is that of an individual’s story getting absorbed into a collective story. In the diversity movement, generalities do the driving, specificity rides shotgun at best. This means that your life’s history and trajectory must disappear in the larger tribal identity. Don’t expect an end credit in this feature, baby, you are plotmeat, important only insofar as you contribute positively or negatively to demographic parity. It’s not clear to what extent most or even some multiculturalists are cognizant of the collective nature of what they are fighting for. It could be a real buzzkill to realize that what you took as a straightforward struggle for better job opportunities turns out to be a system that suborns your personal accomplishments and aspirations to a number in some official survey. There’s a kind of hubris at work here in the assumption that once the current systems of privilege are eradicated you personally will get your time to shine. There is no guarantee of this because what it means to shine will be increasingly more difficult to nail down— turns out postmodernism is an equal opportunity underminer. Besides, not even equality-of-outcome hardliners are arguing that absolutely everyone should get an Oscar nomination, and once demographic parity is reached the math in play could well turn against you. Because capitalism…
It should be apparent to all by now that the proliferation of debates about who must bake cakes for whom and what kind of sign should be placed on public bathrooms fosters a political atmosphere more conducive to reflex than reflection.
The second of these opportunity costs is political. As tempting as it is to reduce politics to simple formulas tied to identity, it should be apparent to all by now that the proliferation of debates about who must bake cakes for whom and what kind of sign should be placed on public bathrooms fosters a political atmosphere more conducive to reflex than reflection. Judging from all the recreational outrage streaming out of social media, you might conclude that we have plenty of political indignation to spare. We don’t. Outrage fatigue is real, and can lead to distorted priorities. My intent here is not to trivialize certain issues, but rather to point out that giving some issues prominence trivializes others as a consequence. For example, the fact that people are dying or getting killed in America’s name on a daily basis hardly even makes the news. Some of this may be justified, some not, but without a minimum of outrage around the idea that any death should occur in our name, no serious debate can take place. If those who are most inclined to be politically active are unwilling to perform basic moral triage, we can easily find ourselves unwitting purveyors of “American privilege” in the form of perpetual military adventurism. It’s equally clear that focusing on the specifics of identity-based inequality relegates big picture income inequality to an also-ran, leading to the normalization of an obscene and widening wealth gap throughout the western world. In the top 500 companies, CEO pay is 347 times the average worker’s. Meanwhile, as many as 15 million American children live below the poverty line—where is the outrage?
The third opportunity cost of hard-line multiculturalism is cultural, or aesthetic. Identitarians hold that all manifestations of culture are encoded within the language of dominance and oppression. This means that every masterwork ever painted, every book ever written, every great building ever constructed, every film shot or play staged throughout history must now be reassessed and decoded, its hidden privilege deconstructed and exposed. The problem isn’t in the claim that all art is propaganda. Every artwork or cultural endeavor is propagandistic in the sense that it is trying to persuade an audience of something and because artists work with certain assumptions about the world that can be interpreted as personal ideology. No, what’s troubling here is the apparent demand that all art be experienced as propaganda.
For centuries art has been understood as an evolution of the language of aesthetics. If the artist’s mastery of this language is sufficient, his/her ideological enthusiasms could be overlooked, forgiven, or even occasionally praised. Identitarians seek to flip the script. As long as the ideology is approved, aesthetics are incidental. Artists are pretty good cultural observers, so naturally they are trying to get out in front of this. This explains why it’s now so common to find novelists and screenwriters winking at audiences through their characters’ magical meta-awareness of their own ideological villainy or heroism, even in stories set in periods well before the dawn of political correctness. Downton Abbey is chock a’ block with hilarious instances of this, but they all do it. They all must do it or risk the oblivion of venomous reviews from critics whose jobs equally depend on their ability to stay ahead of the curve.
This is not the same as the problem of sanctioned or official art. Even Soviet social realism, stultified as it was, came out of recognizable aesthetic traditions. But because privileged, white, straight, able males have driven most of those aesthetic traditions, the multiculturalists must, sooner or later, obliterate these foundations. This is not an update to the Cultural Operating System. It’s a hack. Histories must be overwritten, values uprooted, totems crushed, pillars toppled. All notions of beauty, wisdom, elegance, poetry, tragic irony, pathos, and humor, especially the wicked good kind of humor, must be trampled to a fine grist and passed through the sieve of the new, approved systems of privilege. Nothing will be sacrosanct. To those invested by way of education and practice in the old cultural OS, the concern is that such reassessments graduate from disruption to outright vandalism. Already there are calls to redact Shakespeare.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
For all the Sturm und Drang about micro-aggressions everyone knows they are only the minions of oppression. The ringleader is economic exclusion— at the highest level. The students at Evergreen didn’t occupy a building to demand an end to the glass ceiling in the dead-end service sector, or parity in the jobs you sign up for on your cell phone apps. What is at stake here are the meaningful jobs, the ones that announce your passage into the privileged class. But if the students’ expectations and their sense of entitlement are much higher, so are their fears and insecurities.
Doing away with a few broad and manifestly unjust categories of discrimination will make the process generally fairer, but it won’t make it fair per se. People don’t live general lives, they live specific ones, and in the fine print that is every person’s life, power has countless ways to exercise discrimination besides race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. So who gets to decide when the system is fair enough? If the boss turns one qualified applicant away because another qualified applicant is smarter, is that fair? Or is the employer engaging in cognitive elitism? What if the other applicant is sexier, or appears more sexually available? Is lookism OK, or should that go on the hit list too? Maybe the other applicant made the employer laugh more. You mean you didn’t even know charmism was a thing? What if the employer thought another applicant was more age appropriate? OK, I could go on but this suddenly stopped being fun. Ageism really trips my switch.
Every profession has its own unique culture. Think of it as a set of unspoken rules. Traditionally, it’s been up to those seeking success in any given profession to intuit these. This is never easy or straightforward, in part because the rules are evolving. Workplaces have specific cultures too. I was fired from my first job not because I sucked at dishwashing (though I probably did), but because I didn’t fit in with the prevailing culture established by the kitchen staff. We were all white, male, and presumably straight, and somehow I never got the invitation to their boys’ club. Angry Young Me might have complained at the time, and even fantasized about running things differently, but Crusty Old Me knows that cultural impositions generally don’t succeed without the application of force.
Careerists are people who master the specialized culture of their chosen field. If they are really good, they sometimes get to redefine the culture, or to put it another way, they get to encode the system of privilege. No doubt, achieving this mastery is easier for some than for others. There is equally no doubt that to get there, some have further to go than others. A just society must own these problems and take steps to alleviate them. But any solution that begins by claiming that it is always and axiomatically easier for some merely because they are white, or straight, or male, or any other identity, is resorting to stereotypes and generalities that fail to acknowledge the specific investments of time and effort individuals may have made to learn the existing rules of the game, not to mention the obstacles they may have faced along the way. How this kind of moral calculus differs from racism, sexism, or any of the other Isms is not immediately clear.
If you want to get down to actual unfair advantages, you have to look at the fine print, and along the way you’d also have to factor in some pretty inconvenient truths about what constitutes merit in society. The level playing field is as mythical as the unicorn, and though alleged sightings of it are disturbingly more common, especially as you work your way up the economic ladder, we should never lose sight of the fact that it can’t possibly do enough moral heavy lifting to justify the lack of generosity the haves too often display toward the have-nots. Or am I just mansplaining again?
Look, I’m saying all this with the understanding that resistance is futile. Statistical parity is a theory that we are going to field test, like it or not. There are going to be more Bret Weinsteins taken to church, more diversity roadkill, and all these latter-day Carrie Nations are going to keep right on disrupting until we run the experiment. With this as a given, perhaps it’s instructive to look back at another grand American shaming experiment, Prohibition. Tellingly, as the 18th Amendment got closer to becoming a reality, Prohibition began gaining support throughout a surprisingly broad spectrum of society. This is partly because the arguments against alcohol were never aimed directly at the personal drinking habits of the targets of persuasion. Instead, criticisms were always laser focused on what drink did to the other guy. Wealthy industrialists claimed that booze made their workers less efficient, while the communist labor party decried alcohol as a capitalist conspiracy to keep the working class placated. Liberals claimed it was the drinking that turned “blacks into brutes.” Blacks figured that without the hooch there might be fewer lynch mobs. Wives thought that Prohibition would make angels of no-account husbands. As the collective shaming reached critical mass, the whole shambling, noisy, street parade of a movement swept a nation up in a moment of mass utopic fever, convinced that fixing the other guy was The Answer to what ailed America.
Of course, federally mandated teetotalism turned into a national boondoggle. Everyone voted dry to fix the other guy, then proceeded to live wet because they knew how to handle their liquor. But if enforced abstinence wasn’t The Answer, the fact remains that drinking was a huge problem before Prohibition. It’s still a problem, but far less so, and at least the problems associated with drinking are better recognized today. Things got better, eventually.
Maybe that’s how it works. Things are bad, so we do something that usually makes it worse, and later we settle for something in between but better. I objected to the sanctimony and pugnacity of the anti-smoking movement, but I’m an ex-smoker now, and I can’t imagine having to breathe the other guy’s cigarette smoke in restaurants. I’ll bet those suffragettes were pretty insufferable too, but today we only wonder why the hell women’s suffrage took so long. Fact is, maybe we need a Great Shaming every now and again to shake the rust off our cages—something big, and clumsy, and ugly, and in your face. Not for me, mind you, but for all those other guys.
As for me, I’m going the way of the transistor radio and My Space. I’m white, I’m straight, I’m male and I’m so outta’ here. Look for me along the back roads and the alleyways. I’ll be the one standing in the shadows, smelling unmistakably of dead cat.
About the Author
Stephen Beckner is a screenwriter and filmmaker. He is best known for his feature film A.K.A. Birdseye. He is currently developing a feature film project based on the American militia movement of the early 1990s. In addition to his work in film, he has collaborated on video games, notably as head writer for the award-winning multi-platform adventure game Perils of Man.
- The play premiered in 1965, just eight years after Ayn Rand had employed a similar cautionary device in Atlas Shrugged, but Galt’s Gulch is a parallel universe way from Evergreen College.
- Speaking of ironic nostalgia, as an abuse, the classic “Marxist plot” smear may have reached its apex as early as 1947, when Canadian newspapers employed it to put down a strike by 10 year olds who had organized to protest a 60% hike in the price of chocolate bars. Is Jordan Peterson taking his cues from that ignoble incident? One wonders.
- “Multiculturalism” seems to be the accepted term for the diversity movement, though identitarianism or even tribalism might be more descriptively accurate. Multiculturalism implies an embrace of cultures, but in practice the minority cultural identity is expected to accede to the dominant culture’s core principles. It’s always you give us pho or yoga and we’ll give you democracy and market consumerism. It’s never we’ll give you Indiana Jones and you give us shamanistic medicine, or Sharia law.
- I would draw a distinction here between Theodore Allen’s historical theory of white privilege or “white skin privilege” as an American colonial era conception used to elevate the status of indentured slaves of European descent over enslaved blacks, and the more abstract notion of privilege as a mechanism of power. For the most part I am referring to the latter.
- Despite its potential to unite more people to a common cause, class politics, as an instrument for social change, seems to be losing ground to identity politics. It’s difficult to know if this is because it is simply more efficient to organize around identity, or if it is more socially acceptable to vilify a generalized system of privilege than it is to criticize individuals for excessive wealth and power. Another possible contributing factor is that many in the lower classes prefer to view their economic condition as provisional, while one’s genetic condition is fixed.
- The way the Race IAT works is by having the subject type a specific key on their keyboard to associate either positive or negative words with either white or black faces. If the subject’s response time is slower in associating positive words to black faces than white faces, or faster in associating negative words to black faces than white faces, the test will report a preference for white faces. This preference—measured in milliseconds of variation—is asserted to be a measure of implicit bias.