This is a developing and highly-controversial story, so I’ve got to give y’all a warning that this quick post is based on provisional research. There’s probably a lot more to the story than I know, and I’m going to try and follow it and update folks. But it definitely seems important enough to warrant this early note.
The best article I’ve found so far to explain that rationale is this one, which points out that the Code of Conduct was written by Coraline Ada Ehmke, an LGBT activist who has a history of using her Contributor Covenant to go after people she thinks are bigots.
For example, she tried to have a core contributor to the Opal project expelled because–in an unrelated Tweet–he stated that “(trans people) not accepting reality is the problem here.” Although Ehmke wasn’t involved in the project or the conversation, she campaigned to have Elia removed. She failed in that regard, but got Opal to adopt her Contributor Covenant, and she then tried to modify Opal’s version of the Covenant in a way that would give her new ammunition to take on Elia.
The obvious threat is that activists like Ehmke will use the Linux kernel Code of Conduct to go after Linux developers the same way Ehmke went after Elia, and there are early signs that that is exactly what will happen. A “diversity and inclusion consultant” named Sage Sharp called out Linux developer Ted Tso in a Tweet:
Sharp subsequently backed off and claimed that “I don’t want Ted Tso reviewing Code of Conduct cases involving sexual assault or sexism” and that they “did not make a statement asking for him to be removed from the board.” Yeah, sure. Because it’s totally believable that Sharp is content with having a rape apologist on the board. They kicked Brandon Eich out of his own company for much less than this, and the only reason they’re not doing a full-court press on Tso (yet) is that the Linux community is both hostile and well-armed, up to and including a potential nuclear response.
The nuclear deterrent was described in this (slightly sensational) article. Basically, some anonymous person posted to the Linux Kernel Mailing List with a suggestion that anybody kicked off the project for Code of Conduct violations could revoke permission to use their contributions to the Linux kernel. The legal case here is complex and hypothetical, but folks like Eric S. Raymond believe the threat has enough legitimacy to be taken seriously. If they can really revoke permission to use their code, then it becomes effectively illegal to run Linux, and if it becomes effectively illegal to run Linux then the Internet pretty much dies, because a vast swathe of the servers that power the Internet run the Linux operating system, to say nothing of all the Android phones and various embedded systems out there.
I don’t think this is very likely for two reasons. First, the social justice activists don’t want to overplay their hand, and you can see that in how Sharp walked back their original claim. Second, the legality of withdrawing code from the Linux kernel is complicated and untried; it’s never been tested in court and nobody knows for sure what would happen.
The nuclear deterrent may be grabbing all the headlines, but it’s not my long-run concern. I’m more worried about a subtler problem, the infiltration of post-meritocratic thinking into software that runs so much of the hardware that we all depend on. Linux is critical to our infrastructure. It’s not just powering the Internet. Linux is also the basis of Android, for example, so it’s the foundation for a big chunk of our smartphone ecosystem. It’s also in a lot of embedded hardware from cash registers to medical devices. Even if we avoid the nuclear option, you have to ask yourself: do you want potentially life-saving hardware to be developed and maintained by a community that has rejected merit as their guiding criteria?
It’s not an exaggeration or a conspiracy theory to assert either (a) that up until now Linux and the open source community had embraced merit as their ultimate guiding principle or that (b) the Code of Conduct is the spearhead of a philosophy that emphatically and explicitly rejects that position. In the past, I would have had to cite a definition of critical race theory from the UCLA School of Public Affairs and then link critical race theory to wider social justice theory, and basically you’d have had to trust me. But Ehmke has made my job much, much easier in this regard. Not only did she write the Code of Conduct, but she also wrote the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto. The manifesto begins:
Meritocracy is a founding principle of the open source movement, and the ideal of meritocracy is perpetuated throughout our field in the way people are recruited, hired, retained, promoted, and valued.
But meritocracy has consistently shown itself to mainly benefit those with privilege, to the exclusion of underrepresented people in technology…
It is time that we as an industry abandon the notion that merit is something that can be measured, can be pursued on equal terms by every individual, and can ever be distributed fairly.
The manifesto goes on to embrace ominous values such as the belief that “working in our field is a privilege, not a right,” a clear statement of intent to “no platform” all those who fail to affirm the dogma of the social justice activists. It’s just that in this case we’re not only preventing the undesirables from spreading their opinions, but also from contributing code to open-source projects.
Obviously there are political dimensions here. Ehmke has stated that the Contributor Covenent–the basis for the Code of Conduct–is a political document.
The politics are problematic, in my view, to say the least. But while the politics can be complicated and ambiguous, the practical considerations seem a lot less murky. Let me ask you this: how comfortable would you be if your airline pilot or cardiac surgeon was trained by a post-meritocratic institution?
Don’t get me wrong: obviously software developers don’t have an immediate, life-or-death impact the way airline pilots or surgeons do. But that just means the degradation in quality from rejecting merit as the ultimate guiding principle will be more subtle and diffuse, but also have a correspondingly broader impact. Instead of diluting merit in the evaluation of pilots and surgeons, we’re going to dilute merit from the evaluation of software developers who write the code for air traffic control and teleoperated surgical robots. That still seems like cause for concern.
I always sort of resent having to add this caveat, because I think it should be obvious, but I emphatically support the purported goal of equality and fairness. What I don’t support is the willingness to sacrifice merit to get there, much less the assumption implied by the belief that we need to do so. I don’t think we need to reject meritocratic ideals to accept women, gays, blacks, or any other minority as coders for the simple reason that I think women, gays, blacks and all other minorities are just as capable–given equal opportunity–of contributing equally meritorious code. If they cannot due to unequal opportunity, then it seems more like a betrayal than a helping hand to jettison merit as a benchmark instead of undertaking the much harder work of rectifying unequal opportunity to ensure that everyone has the same chance to develop their skills and talents. Equality and merit are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, it is only in the context of a meritocracy that we can ultimately have equality. Not only should we be unwilling to accept anything less than a meritocracy for vitally important infrastructure, but also for a just society.
My university is home to a controversial Confederate War memorial.
It is a bronze sculpture of a college student carrying a rifle, commemorating the students at my university who left their studies and went to fight in the American Civil War for the Confederacy. On the base are three inscriptions, the middle of which shows the student in class, hearing the call of a woman representing duty urging him to fight. The side inscription speaks of honor and duty.
The statue has always been controversial, but recent events have brought the controversy back.
The university is holding an open panel, inviting the general public to share their thoughts. You just had to register, and the first 25 get to go.
Well, I have some thoughts on the monument, and I wanted to share them. So I signed up, and I wrote a speech (exactly 3 minutes in length), and I’ve been practicing it. On Wednesday, I anticipate getting to deliver the speech.
I would be pretty foolish to not be worried. Actually, on an issue this incendiary, I am pretty foolish to want to speak out at all.
For starters, there’s a chance my talk could anger white supremacist groups.
I am a white man with pale skin and reddish/blondish hair. I am married to a beautiful woman from Costa Rica, with caramel skin and these gorgeous black eyes you can just get lost in. We don’t have children yet, but we are both excited to meet them. I know they will be beautiful, like their mother. I hope my daughters look like her, with her dark skin and dark eyes and her raven black hair.
If you listen to what white supremacist groups actually say these days, then you’d know this is their raison d’être. They refer to it by the moronic title “white genocide” — the “diluting” of the “white race” through marriage of white people with people of other races.
Me and my family are the main thing that white supremacists march against.
In the speech I have planned, I think I make it clear that I consider the cause of the Confederacy in the American Civil War to be an unworthy cause — it was certainly not worth the lives of the men who died for it.
That might anger white supremacists, who would already have reason to despise my family.
But, I’m not afraid of angering white supremacists; they’re evil, but they don’t frighten me. Because I know they are a powerless group of isolated and outcast individuals with little to no social standing in their own communities, who are resorted to anonymous online forums for human contact. They are pathetic, and I’m not enough of a coward to shrink away from shadows in a basement.
White supremacy is, of course, evil. It cost me nothing to say that, and means nothing when I do say it, as everyone either agrees with it already, or is a white supremacist and doesn’t care what society thinks about them.
White supremacy is also stupid. It is lazy thinking. It is the kind of mental shortcut that the feeble-minded rely on. It is the sort of excuse that the weak-willed cower to, lacking the testicular fortitude to face their own inadequacies. It’s the kind of pseudo-intellectualism the internet is famous for, citing poorly analyzed statistics, when all it would take is meeting one normal, middle-class African American to see the fatuity of it all — that blacks and whites are the same race, because there is only the one race of Adam.
My comments might make them mad, but what are they going to do? Make memes about me?
There is also a chance my speech could anger Progressives on the ctrl-left. Actually, probably a much bigger chance. And that does scare me.
It scares me so much that I’m actually considering if I even want to speak at all. I have a speech written, and I’ve been practicing it, and I’ve shopped it with a number of friends, and I’ve made edits and timed it perfectly. But I’m thinking of not doing it at all.
I’m afraid of what the ctrl-left could do to me.
What is the ctrl-left? The label is a take on the alt-right designation, though the ctrl-left have been around for a lot longer. Maybe since the Bush administration. They are a political activist class — that is, they are a class of people with nothing else to do but be politically active. They are employed in universities, shutting down conservative voices. They are employed in news stations, selectively editing narratives and choosing which stories to give press time. They are employed at online opinion magazines, and spend all day opining on politics and culture. They are employed in Starbucks, and then spend 14 hours a day on twitter and tumblr investigating the lives of people they disagree with, trying to have them removed from their jobs, or shut down their youtube, facebook, or twitter to prevent them from sharing in electronic public forums. They are employed in tech companies enforcing “community standards” with bans and post removals, which on platform after platform seems to conveniently mean removing opinions on the right of American politics.
The ctrl-left, in essence, want to control what you are allowed to say, and punish you when you say what you are not.
The most recent explosion of this movement has been in antifa, the group of emotional children using acts of literal street violence to suppress and silence dissident voices in the public sphere — which is to say, they are a group of fascists. These jackbooted thugs have been taking to the streets, punching people in the face, smashing up their campuses in temper tantrums, setting fires, and generally acting exactly like the goosestepping authoritarians they are in order to stop people from saying anything that they don’t think people should be able to say anymore.
This latest expression of the ctrl-left doesn’t particularly worry me. I can take physical violence. I can take being punched in the face, or maced, or beaten with a club. I would consider it an honor, actually. Make my day.
What does worry me are the online Social Justice Warriors in the ctrl-left who have nothing better to do with their lives, apparently, than to seek new ways to punish people for wrongthink.
I work in academia. Tenured professors cannot get fired for refusing to attend their own classes for two years, but tenured professors have been fired for daring to injure the precious emotions of the ctrl-left. I’m a mere, lowly teaching assistant. I could lose my job, or be dismissed from school. I could be made unhirable in colleges and tech companies.
If my speech offends the wrong person, they could look to dig up all kinds of stuff on me.
It wouldn’t even be very hard to dig up stuff on me. For most of my life, I was a pretty terrible jerk. Just ask anyone who knew me in high school. Since high school, I have been slightly tolerable. If you had nothing to do but look for reasons to say crap about me, you could find crap to say about me. And the ctrl-left has absolutely nothing else to do.
But even if they can’t find dirt on me, the very act of disagreeing with their orthodoxy is a firable offense. They have power in universities and companies to crush whoever displeases them; and not only do they have it, but they use it.
I know this, so I generally go about my day and just grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut. My fellow students don’t have to keep their mouths shut, because they affirm the accepted dogmata of our thought guardians.
I let them talk and express opinions I disagree with and laugh at people who think the exact things I think and endorse ideologies I completely reject and say nothing, because I just want to get out of here alive, get my PhD, and maybe once I have a job I can rely on, maybe then I’ll be able to breathe again.
And the crux of the story is that I’m just sick of it. I am sick and tired of shutting up. I am done with being expected to receive with full docility the ramblings of this tumblr magisterium. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t speak my mind without retaliation and blowback, while others can express their politics unafraid.
I’m done. I’m done being shut up.
Realistically, I can probably expect nothing. I’m probably over-worrying myself. It’s unlikely anyone will really take notice. It’s an indoor event with a few dozen speakers, and who really wants to attend a meeting like that unless you’re speaking? Local news might pick it up, and they might run two seconds of my three minute speech (probably selectively edited to make it sound like I’m saying something completely opposite of what I’m saying), and then that’s probably it. Maybe some person I know might notice and say something, maybe a student would say they heard I spoke or something, but that’s about it.
In a rational universe, maybe that’s all there needs to be about it. I can just say what I think, people can hear it and agree or disagree with it, we can have back-and-forth, and then we go on our merry ways.
But this is not a rational universe, so who knows what I can expect.
(Authors’s Note and General Disclaimer: These are not the only two groups of people with opinions in this country. There are people opposed to the monument who are not part of the ctrl-left and who want civil dialogue and peaceful protest to lead the change. There are people in favor of the monument who are neither white supremacists nor part of the alt-right, and who want all people to be treated with the dignity due all human individuals. There are people on the left who also champion free speech, such as the ACLU, because free speech is not a partisan concern but the birthright of humanity. I know these people exist, because I know them; they are my family and friends and neighbors. With all of these people, I hope to see the American spirit of passionate but nonviolent engagement in the marketplace of ideas continue to drive political discourse. To the ctrl-left and alt-right, I pray that God has mercy on you and grants you repentance from your hatred, violence, and folly.)
Let me give you some background: I’m one of those guys who is very skeptical of the impact of contemporary social justice activists on free speech. One of the most-read posts I’ve ever published to Difficult Run was my manifesto on the topic: When Social Justice Isn’t About Justice. I stand by it.
So when news broke that the University of Chicago had sent out a letter to students warning them that there’d be no “safe space” or “trigger warning” shenanigans, you might think that I’d feel a little sense of triumph, or at least relief. And don’t get me wrong, it is (for the most part), a good letter! For example:
[O]ne of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression… Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
Second, and this is what I want to focus on, is the broader context. And the broader context is that “thoughtful” and “principled” sadly do not describe the most prominent voices who have been critical social justice activists. Consider Breitbart, which has long been on the vanguard of combating the social justice activists and is becoming the focal point of the alt-right movement. Well, kudos to Breitbart for getting that right, but they also happen to be deeply in the pocket of Donald Trump (Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon just came on board as the new campaign manager) and have a penchant for catering to the least thoughtful and least principled audience on this issue.
To some extent, this is unavoidable. Although it’s a war fought with words and reputations rather than a war fought with bullets and lives, it’s still a very nasty fight. Truth–especially as it relates to nuance, moderation, or context–went out the window a long time ago as far as the mos zealous combatants are concerned. I’ve watched first-hand as people who entered this arena with the noblest of intentions were radicalized by the vicious attacks (often directed not only at thems and their livelihoods, but their spouses and children) to the point where they now engage in the same kind of spiteful attacks that they used to decry. It’s been so sad to watch. There’s a feeling of tragedy to it all. I’m not being judgmental. I don’t know if–had I lived through the stresses that they faced–I could have done any better.
Does it give me second thoughts? Does it make me reconsider whether my own position–very, very suspicious of social justice activism and it’s impact on free speech and also on actual social justice–is warranted? Yes, it does. But then I read a piece like this one from Vox: UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power. In it, Kevin Gannon baldly defends the practice of students rising up to protest unpopular speakers:
To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos.
Well no, in fact, calling Murray a “racist charlatan” and characterizing his career as being centered on “social Darwinist assertions that certain ‘races’ are inherently inferior to others” (as Gannon writes in his piece) is exactly what I’d expect from an “intellectual gestapo.” Murray is controversial, of course. Some of my most vivid memories are from my sophomore high school English class where we analyzed an article-length version of his most controversial book, The Bell Curve. Was it comfortable to focus on the theory that there are persistent racial differences in IQ? No. And, I should note, our teacher was an African American woman. But I learned more from her in that classroom than from any other teacher I’ve ever had. She taught me that confronting uncomfortable arguments is what education is all about. If that’s not part of your “community’s ethos”, then your campus needs a new community ethos.
The logic of conflict is brutally simplistic: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The temptation to go along to get along is highest when there’s some noble ideal (like free speech!) apparently hanging in the balance. But it’s a temptation to avoid.
I really wish I had a side I could join a side without reservation. I’d love it if the conservatives were the good guys and the liberals were the bad guys. At this point, I’d love it almost as much if I could have one of those road to Damascus political conversions and decide that the liberals were the good guys and the conservatives were the bad guys. But it’s just not so, and that’s never been more clear than in these days of fear-mongering, nativist ignorance of the Trump candidacy.
As a writer, I always want to have a clever ending. I want to wrap up a post with a keen and penetrating insight that will impress people. But I don’t have one of those for you today. Sometimes the truth is banal, and the trick lies not in discovering it, but rather in implementing it. So here’s my conclusion: please, be decent. Stop turning political ends into justification for hostility towards people who believe differently than you do. Stop using principles as rationalizations to be uncharitable or to shade the truth. Stop making ideals into excuses.
We’re never going to all get along. We’re never going to all agree. We’re never going to find the ultimate compromise that makes everyone happy. It’s always going to be a struggle, living with each other down here on Earth, but it doesn’t have to be as nasty as it is today. It won’t be perfect. But it could be a little bit better.
Asking for evidence of police brutality doesn’t make you blindly pro-cop. Being skeptical of the officer’s POV doesn’t make you blindly anti-cop.
I’ve seen people defend Officer Sean Groubert shooting Levar Jones even after Groubert was fired and charged with a felony count of assault and battery (he has since plead guilty). I’ve had arguments with people who claim the video of Officer Michael Slager repeatedly shooting Walter Scott in the back was deceptively edited, even though Slager has since been fired and charged with murder and obstruction of justice. There are people for whom no amount of evidence is enough.
So when someone says “We weren’t there. We don’t know what happened. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels weary and angry. I get frustrated because so many times those statements are insincere; so many times, when it comes down to it, the person patiently calling for objectivity and evidence doesn’t actually care about evidence at all. He says “Give the investigation time,” but he means “no matter what surfaces, I’ll assume the officer was in the right. No matter the injustice, I’ll believe the dead deserved it.”
But I need to be careful about my assumptions. On the surface there’s no way to tell the difference between the person who is really just going to side with the LEO no matter what and the person who genuinely cares about clear thinking and due process. It’s unfair to assume anyone calling for more information falls into the former category.
It’s also unhelpful. I want more people to consider the possibility that serious systemic problems are at play here; accusing people of bigotry just for asking for evidence isn’t likely to start a thoughtful conversation.
The principles of (1) innocent until proven guilty and (2) proof beyond a reasonable doubt inevitably mean truly guilty people will go free. Our justice system is (supposed to be) designed to err on the side of freeing the guilty rather than imprisoning the innocent. In fact, jurors are given explicit instructions to this end: if they’re presented with multiple theories about how a crime happened, they are supposed to pick whichever is most reasonable. But if there is more than one reasonable theory, they are supposed to pick the reasonable theory that finds the defendant innocent.
In the case of an officer-involved shooting, that means if there’s a reasonable chance the officer acted in self-defense and there’s a reasonable chance he did not, the jury is supposed to assume it was self-defense. Given how often LEOs do have to fear for their lives–and given that the dead can’t talk–this means an officer can claim self-defense and, absent extremely explicit evidence to the contrary, the jury will assume that’s the truth.
I would think that’s what we’d all want for ourselves if we were accused of a crime. We’d want the evidence to have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that we did the deed before we could be found guilty. Of course we would.
I would also expect we’d all want the right to defend ourselves in dangerous situations. That’s why I think it really undermines the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies when people fail to distinguish between LEO self-defense vs LEO abuse of power. For example, I’ve seen a few posts along these lines:
This article references a database put together by The Washington Post to track officer-involved shooting deaths. But the stat is for everyone shot and killed by police, whether those citizens were a danger to the officers’ lives or not. While I think it’s important to track that kind of information, I also think it’s misleading to use it in the context of police brutality.
Police brutality is unwarranted LEO aggression and violence, but not all LEO aggression is unwarranted. Good cops acting in self-defense shouldn’t be lumped in with corrupt cops abusing their power or even with incompetent cops dangerously overreacting. And victims of police brutality shouldn’t be lumped in with people killed attempting to commit violence against others. Equivocations like these are part of the reason so many hesitate to condemn a given shooting, instead asking for more information. It’s “the Social Justice Warrior who cried ‘police brutality,'” and many people aren’t interested in more accusations until all the facts are in.
The problem with that, though, is that there are a lot of cases in which the facts are never all in.
The Walter Scott case is a great example of what so many people now fear and expect: Officer Slager is being charged not just with murder but also with obstruction of justice because, after repeatedly shooting Scott in the back, Slager told investigators that Scott had been advancing toward Slager with a taser. It was only when a citizen turned over a cell phone video that it became clear Scott had actually been running away from Slager. If the citizen hadn’t come forward with the video, what are the odds Slager would’ve been charged with anything?
Similarly, when multiple deputies beat Derrick Price, two of them later submitted falsified reports claiming Price had resisted arrest. According to court documents, security footage later revealed that “Price was compliant and immobilized during the entire time of the beating.” The two deputies subsequently plead guilty to deprivation of rights, but if there had been no security footage it’s unlikely their false reports would’ve been discovered.
These are examples of officers being willfully deceptive, but I expect there are plenty of situations where an officer recounts events sincerely and still gets them wrong. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable; I see no reason this would apply less to officers than anyone else.
For example, Officer Groubert suggested he shot Levar Jones because he perceived Jones to be a threat, claiming Jones “dove” into his van. Groubert may very well have believed that, but his own dash cam footage shows Jones simply reach into the van directly after Groubert asked for Jones’ license and registration. That footage contributed to Groubert being fired and charged, but if there had been no dash cam footage, would citizen safety still depend on Officer Groubert’s judgement?
Officer Timothy Runnels tased teen Bryce Masters until Masters went into cardiac arrest. Police later claimed Masters had been uncooperative during the stop, but dash cam footage shows Masters only asking whether he was under arrest before Runnels tased him and dropped him face down on the pavement. Runnels has since been fired and plead guilty to civil rights violations, but if there had been no dash cam footage?
Some people say these cases show our system does work because–given sufficient evidence–officers are charged with crimes. But I hope you can see how problematic this is. These cases are rare in that there was clear-cut video footage. How often do officers overreact, like Goubert did, or willfully try to deceive, like Slager did, with no video evidence to catch them? Perhaps it almost never occurs, and the exceedlingly rare times when it does occur happen to be disproportionately caught on video.
But I doubt it. A lot of people doubt it. Each time an LEO is caught not only unlawfully hurting citizens but also trying tocover it up, it greatly erodes public trust. And each time seemingly damning evidence proves insufficient to even indict an officer, it greatly erodes public trust. Each time there’s no major repercussion for anyone from the LEO himself to his superiors for, at best, grave errors in judgement, it greatly erodes public trust.
And once the public no longer trusts the system, cautioning people to reserve judgement until all the facts are in starts to sound a little too much like telling people to never judge an officer-involved death at all. In most cases all we can do is wait for one side of the story, and we already know what that side will say. It’s “the LEO who cried ‘self-defense.'”
So, while I understand people calling for calm and for evidence–a good approach not just here but in general–I also understand a lot of people feeling completely disillusioned and distrusting of the evidence-gathering process. I understand why having a jury decide an officer shouldn’t be indicted or isn’t guilty doesn’t necessarily convince the public the officer actually isn’t guilty.
People seem to believe this level of suspicion can only stem from a general anti-cop sentiment, but I don’t agree. Given the known cases of officers abusing power and then lying about it, it’s reasonable for people who respect the profession in general to still have major concerns about this issue specifically. I don’t agree with Jon Stewart on everything but I thought he was spot on here:
I don’t pretend to have a simple solution to all of this. I want to live in a society where people of color and LEOs are safe. I want us to respect the principles of “innocent until proven guilty” and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” I want law enforcement agencies to responsibly police their own ranks. It doesn’t seem like any of that is happening right now.
I’m not sure what to do, but I am sure that assigning the worst motivations to the other side doesn’t help anything. We may not be able to fix everything quickly, but we can at least try to understand where people are coming from.
Would you be willing to talk with me sometime about these issues? They are important to me and the [Dean of Students] staff and we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold.
I would love to talk with you more.
Despite the dean’s obvious concern and goodwill, her use of the phrase “don’t fit our CMC mold” prompted two CMC students to threaten a hunger strike. The dean promptly resigned.
I have a lot of good friends who are supportive of the protesters at Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere. I know that they are good people. They are guided by principles of justice and equality that I also value. And so, for me, the thing I have wrestled with the most over the last week has been the attempt to reconcile the dissonance between their stated principles and motivations and the outcomes: hair-trigger intolerance, a climate of fear, and disregard for free speech.
I have come to this belief: when good intentions pave the path to Hell, it is because better principles have been allowed to fall by the wayside. The reason this can happen, the reason there is a tendency to let go of better principles, is that once they become ubiquitous we no longer recognize their importance. Unless we take the effort to remember the past, we will not understand how much we stand to lose.
Nowhere is this contrast more poignant than at Yale. Early in the controversy, the President Salovey wrote an email reiterating the school’s commitment to free speech, “not as a special exception for unpopular or controversial ideas but for them especially.” This stance is official Yale policy thanks to the Woodward Report. This document, formally called the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, was issued in 1975 and the first section of it was adopted as official policy. It’s not every policy that begins with lofty prose and poetry, but the first section of the Woodward Report begins with this quote from John Milton:
And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.
Next come these words from Oliver Wendell Holmes:
If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.
The section then culminates with a stirring defense of the principle of free speech:
The conclusions we draw, then, are these: even when some members of the university community fail to meet their social and ethical responsibilities, the paramount obligation of the university is to protect their right to free expression. This obligation can and should be en forced by appropriate formal sanctions. If the university’s overriding commitment to free expression is to be sustained, secondary social and ethical responsibilities must be left to the informal processes of suasion, example, and argument. [emphasis added]
The principle of free speech is more than narrow legal statutes. It is an attitude of protecting unpopular views from silence and overbearing retaliation. The arguments of student protesters and their defenders are an explicit repudiation of this broad vision for free speech. Therein lies the danger. The pursuit of justice, divested of the burden of protecting unpopular opinions and unflinching fidelity to truth, risks veering into vigilantism and fanaticism. No matter how noble the ambitions, when we no longer take it upon ourselves as a matter of principle to defend unpopular ideas and to allow truth to wrestle falsehood in a “free and open encounter,” we abandon the first right and cornerstone of our pluralistic society.
The protests at Missouri and Yale should not be analyzed in isolation. They are part of a disturbing trend that has attracted criticism not only from the right but increasingly from the center and left. It will be worth our time to survey some of that context before we move on.
Andrew Sullivan launched the mainstream movement to legalize gay marriage when he wrote “Here Comes the Groom” for the New Republic in 1989. Twenty-five years later, he looked on in horror as the movement he had helped to launch spiraled out of control in what Sullivan described as “McCarthyism applied by civil actors.”
Sullivan was reacting to the forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich. Only days after being promoted to lead the company he had helped found in 1998, word spread across the Internet that Eich had donated $1,000 to California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in 2008. Although Mozilla had long been committed to diversity and support for gay rights, although there was not a single alleged incident of prejudicial conduct or statements by Eich, and although Eich publicly committed to preserve Mozilla’s progressive culture and policies, this donation tainted him irrevocably. The Internet-based outrage spread across Twitter and soon other companies (like dating site OKCupid) got into the act of pressuring Mozilla to fire Eich, who stepped down on April 3, 2014 after being CEO for less than two weeks. The next day, Sullivan wrote his blog post, arguing that:
When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line…This is the definition of intolerance… It’s staggering to me that a minority long persecuted for holding unpopular views can now turn around and persecute others for the exact same reason. If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society.
At about the same time, John McWhorter wrote an article for Time: “‘Microaggression’ Is the New Racism on Campus.” He argued that “the nature of microaggressions — subtle, unintended, occurring in the hustle and bustle of social interaction — is such that they will never cease to exist entirely,” and that this ubiquity entailed that “being white is, in itself, a microaggression.” This, he wrote, “is just bullying disguised as progressive thought.”
In December 2014, Jeannie Suk wrote “The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law” for The New Yorker. Rape law was not taught in law school until the mid-1980s, she writes, because rape was not taken seriously. Feminists fought to change that, and when they won law schools began to teach rape law. Now, however, some law professors are starting to abandon the topic again, this time because of hypersensitive students who are afraid of being traumatized. Suk describes just how far their paranoia extends:
Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering.
In January 2015 Jonathan Chait wrote “Not a Very PC Thing to Say” for New York Magazine. He documented numerous examples of harassment and intimidation of those who dared question conventional socially liberal dogma and concluded that “the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence.” In February, Jon Ronson wrote “How One Stupid Tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s Life,” for the New York Times Magazine. He observed that
In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it…Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.
In February, Laura Kipnis wrote “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She criticized new dating policies strictly barring dating between students and professors for infantilizing students and dismissed the “prohibition and sexual terror surrounding the unequal-power dilemmas of today.” She went on:
If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.
In March, Asam Ahmad wrote “A Note on Call-Out Culture” for Briarpatch Magazine (the sort of publication that, according to its Wikipedia page, “is printed by union labour on FSC-certified paper using vegetable-based ink.”) He noted that “It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out.”
depressing signs that liberal public opinion is evolving in the direction of theological certainties and illiberal forms of intolerance. These so-called liberals want Anderson to be shunned. Expelled from the community. Excommunicated from civilized life. Ostracized from the ranks of the decent. That is something that should trouble all fair-minded Americans.
In June, an anonymous professor wrote an article for Vox: “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” He explains that the thought of possibly offending one of his liberal students caused him “to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik,” and he laid much of the blame at the feet of “a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice.”
In September, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind” for The Atlantic. They described some of the student protests that had already occurred by then as “border[ing] on the surreal.” They went on to contrast the current movement to the wave of political correctness that swept academica in the 1980s and 1990s:
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
All of these writers come from the left or the center of the American political spectrum. And all of these writers are united in their belief that a sea-change is taking place within American society. Something is wrong. Some new trend is tying together extreme emotional sensitivity, simplistic notions of social justice, and intolerance of thought or speech. What is going on? And how did it get so bad?
The best explanation comes from an academic article: “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.
In their article, Campbell and Manning describe social evolution from honor cultures to dignity cultures and on to the dawning of a new culture: the culture of victimhood. Honor cultures tend to arise where central authority is weak. This leads to “self help” justice, so named “because it involves the aggrieved taking matters into their own hands rather than relying on the legal system.” Honor cultures are typified by extreme sensitivity to insult combined with a tendency towards direct confrontation. When more powerful formal authorities arise, honor cultures give way to dignity cultures. In a dignity culture, “self help” justice is itself punishable by the authority. As a result, minor offenses are ignored and major offenses result in formal appeals to central authority. In contrast to honor cultures, dignity cultures have low sensitivity and an aversion to direct confrontation.
Victimhood culture is something new, and according to Campbell and Manning it has evolved on college campuses in response to four key factors:
Increased equality and diversity. This may seem counter-intuitive, but Campbell and Manning point out that the more equal and diverse a society becomes, the less tolerant it is to violations of equality or diversity. Thus, the increase in equality and diversity on college campuses since the 1960s and 1970s creates an atmosphere where people are hypersensitive to comparatively minor violations of diversity or equal status.
The legal and administrative authority that college officials wield over their students has increased dramatically in recent decades. This means that students are more and more inclined to appeal to administrators for redress of insults or offenses.
Social atomization–the breakdown of small organizations like clubs, extended family networks, and mutual aid societies–makes it harder for individuals to respond to offenses directly. When these groups were stronger, they created a tendency toward direct confrontation because the group would support you. In their absence the tendency to avoid direct confrontation with an offender and seek official assistance has increased even more.
Social networking technology allows individuals to propagate a message to a very large audience. This factor is perhaps the most decisive, because it is the potential to reach a vast audience that allows offended parties to use public pressure to coerce university authorities into assisting them.
Campbell and Manning make one additional key point: appealing for official assistance to redress a grievance is significantly more likely to succeed when the grievance is seen as part of a pattern of offenses that target an identifiable, victimized group. That is why there is such a close connection between social justice and victim culture: victimhood is at its most potent when it is seen as a symptom of systematic oppression.
The Campbell and Manning model is a theoretically sound and compelling explanation for the observations of Sullivan, McWhorter, Chait and the rest. The reason it feels as though there is a seismic shift going on, with college students becoming hypersensitive to perceived offenses to diversity or equality resulting in draconian punishment, is that such a seismic shift is indeed taking place.
3. Instrumental Victimhood
Campbell and Manning chose to study microagressions because “the anatomy of microaggression… has broader implications,” not because victimhood is relegated only to this particular tactic. On the contrary, they write that other “tactics such as hunger strikes, hate crime hoaxes, and protest suicides” are all potent weapons that can implement the strategic logic of victimhood culture.
The strategic logic of honor culture is to deter attacks by maintaining a reputation for violent reprisal. The strategic logic of dignity culture is to avoid unsanctioned feuds or conflicts by ignoring offenses unless/until they are so severe that the central authority will decisively take your side. The strategic logic of victimhood culture is to proactively construct a narrative of perpetual victimhood that will enlist the central authority on one’s behalf while simultaneously providing immunity from that central authority.
This gets to the fundamental problem with victimhood culture: the perverse incentives of acquiring power through victimhood tend to the hijacking of genuine social injustice by those who seek power. Or, as Campbell and Manning bluntly put it, “whenever victimhood (or honor, or anything else) confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it.”
As you can imagine, if victimhood has become a valuable social commodity, then the people most likely to be able to obtain it are those least likely to need it. Campbell and Manning make the same observation, remarking that “these campaigns for support do not necessarily emanate from the lowest reaches of society… rather… microaggression complaints and protest demonstrations appear to flourish among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities.” This is also why you will see ample evidence of social justice causes for blacks, gays, or women but will hear comparatively little about social justice activism for the mentally ill, young children, the unborn, or the infirm. It is not that blacks, gays, and women do not face systematic discrimination. They do. But these groups also include individuals who wield enormous social, political, and economic clout. And it is these individuals who are most able to powerfully establish a victimhood narrative and draft institutional authority into coming to their aid. The other categories, however, truly have no social capital. There are no industry tycoons or media moguls among the population of those living in psychiatric institutions , in foster homes, in their mother’s womb, or confined to their beds. And so it is no coincidence that the student who began the hunger strike at the University of Missouri comes from a prominent and extremely wealthy family.
Of course it is possible and even desirable for the most powerful members of oppressed communities to agitate for justice for those who are unable to do so as effectively. The problem, however, is that upper-class members of these groups may be so detached from the concerns of lower-class or ordinary members that—even despite their best intentions—their efforts may be unhelpful or even counter-productive.
This is another common theme from several of the articles we have seen already. Jeannie Suk, for example, describes how refusing to teach rape law rolls back decades of feminist activism. This fits with the U. S. Department of Justice observation that risk of rape is higher for women living in households with low income and rural households, not exactly the populations best represented at Harvard Law. Laura Kipnis also sees the paranoid fear of power imbalances as a repudiation of sexism, but—again—highly educated grad students are already in an position of relative power and privilege and so have the least to fear from the collateral damage of this particular victimhood narrative. As for race, John McWhorter has written that the social justice obsession with white privilege is practically useless and “seems almost designed to turn black people’s minds from what political activism actually entails.”
The worst-case scenario, of course, is when members of one of these groups act out in direct opposition to the interests of others within that group. Let’s explore one particular case to see how this plays out in practice. Just as with Campbell and Manning’s decisions to focus on microaggressions (instead of the full range of tactics available to victim culture), we will see that the anatomy of this controversy too has broader implications.
4. The Women You Are Not Supposed To See
This year has been a tough one for the science fiction community. A bitter controversy erupted over the annual Hugo awards (think: Oscars for science fiction) and eventually attracted national and international media attention.
One side of the controversy consisted to two groups with unlikely names: the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies. The Sad Puppies claimed that the Hugo awards were being dominated by an insular clique that privileged the right connections and the right politics over good writing. The Sad Puppies were led by Brad Torgersen this year, and under his leadership they sought to bring the awards back to the people. Their objective was to nominate a diverse slate of outsiders to break the social and political mold. The Rabid Puppies—spear-headed by Theodore Beale—took a different tack. If the Sad Puppies wanted to give the Hugos back to the people, the Rabid Puppies wanted to burn them down. The Rabid Puppies helped the Sad Puppy-nominated works make it onto the ballots just to provoke an angry reaction from science fiction’s many social justice-conscious writers and fans.
When the nominees were announced in April and it turned out that the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominations had swept much of the ballot, those angry reactions came fast and furious. The narrative that quickly emerged—promulgated by science fiction writers and fans with the assistance of sympathetic journalists in major outlets—was that the Puppies were a bunch of straight, white, males out to purge gays, minorities, and women from science fiction out of sheer homophobia, racism, and misogyny. This may seem like a cartoonish caricature of a wide swathe of the fanbase, but articles like Entertainment Weekly’s Hugo Award nominations fall victim to misogynistic, racist voting campaign show how seriously this narrative was taken.
The EW piece was so egregiously false that it was subsequently corrected, but the basic narrative was perpetuated in countless other venues. This is because victimhood culture requires control of narrative to a greater degree than honor culture or dignity culture. Honor culture relies on direct confrontation. Dignity culture downplays conflict until an appeal to formal authority is necessary and sure to win. Only victimhood culture treats the court of public opinion as a first resort.
To show how far journalists are willing to go in defense of their narrative, consider the most recent piece on the Sad Puppies from a major publication. That would be “Sci-Fi’s Hugo Awards and the Battle for Pop Culture’s Soul,” which Wired ran on October 30th, 2015. The piece, by Amy Wallace, did not indulge in subtlety. It was subtitled “Equality in a Digital Age.”
The most striking thing about the article are the choices Amy Wallace made in choosing whom to interview. She spoke to Brad Torgersen and Theodore Beale of the Sad and Rabid Puppies. She also spoke to several science fiction writers opposed to the Puppies. But there was one group in particular that Amy Wallace did not speak to. In fact, their names do not even appear in the article at all. They include people like Sarah Hoyt, Kate Paulk, Amanda Green, and Kary English. Who are they? Well, the first three are the leaders of this year’s Sad Puppies campaign and Kary English is one of the female authors nominated by last year’s Sad Puppies campaign. If you spend even a few minutes talking to them, which I did, you quickly see why Wallace wanted to steer clear. They threaten the narrative that vitcimhood culture depends on and that Wallace was so careful to help fabricate.
Let’s start with the fabrication. Leaving these women out of the picture is more than just an accidental omission. It is a deliberate decision to falsely characterize the leadership of the Puppies as all-male. “This time around, the leaders of the Puppies movement are sci-fi authors,” writes Wallace, before going on to name and discuss Larry Correia (who started the first Sad Puppy campaign), Brad Torgersen and Theodore Beale. But Sad Puppies 4 is active right now. It was officially announced on September 3. Their official website is not hard to find. What’s more, the leadership of Sad Puppies 4 had been common knowledge for months before September’s announcement. There is no way that Wallace did not know these women existed. So make no mistake, when Wallace talks about “the leaders of the Puppies movement,” she is leaving out the leaders that she doesn’t want to talk about.
Nor are these leaders late-comers. Sarah Hoyt was the first choice to head Sad Puppies 3 (ahead of Brad Torgersen). She had to drop out due to health concerns, and he took over at the last minute. This is something Wallace would have easily learned if she had talked to Hoyt, but she never did. According to Torgersen:
Amy Wallace lied to me. I knew she would be slanting her coverage against Sad Puppies, that wasn’t surprising. What surprised me was the fact that she promised me on the phone that she would contact Sarah A. Hoyt for the article Amy was doing for WIRED, and she never did.
I confirmed this with Sarah Hoyt myself. I also spoke with Kate Paulk, Amanda Green, and Kary English. Each and every one of them confirmed to me that Wallace made no attempt to contact any of them.
Of course, if you spend a few minutes talking to them, it’s not hard to see why Wallace wanted to stay clear. Her version does not survive contact with the reality they are more than happy to dish out. For example, Hoyt told me, when I asked her what she thought of Wallace’s article and it’s omissions, that “I’m tired of these people, who are the de facto power mongers and gatekeepers, speaking power to truth.” She continued, “These people want to be heroes for doing nothing. They are the ones silencing women.”
Upon learning that she, Hoyt, and Green had been scrubbed from Wallace’s account, Paulk told me “That’s so much bad faith you could open the gates to Hell with it.” Paulk went on to say, speaking of women who do not toe the right ideological line, that “We’re the women who are invisible. We’re ‘traitors to our gender.’”
And this brings us back to the main point of this example: what kind of feminism is it, exactly, that calls for the erasure of women?
Kary English is a good person to ask about that. English refused to withdraw her short story “Totaled,” from contention when it ended up on the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy nomination lists. English’s participation with the Sad Puppies has nothing to do with political alliances. She is a liberal with no love for Theodore Beale and the Rabid Puppies. In fact, a large part of the reason she continued to support the Sad Puppies was because she believed they were doing a better job of presenting a diverse set of works. “Sad Puppies 3 was run by a brown guy and a man in an inter-racial marriage,” she told me, referring to Larry Correia (who started the first Sad Puppies campaign and is Hispanic) and Brad Torgersen (who is married to a black woman). She went on, “The list included women authors, queer authors, and non-neurotypical authors. It included conservatives, liberals and authors whose politics no one knows.” A reader of Amy Wallace’s article—and a great many more—would know nothing of that.
Because she refused to back down, English was punished by being “no-awarded” at the Hugos. Even though her story beat out all contenders, voters preferred to give out no award at all rather than let a woman associated with the Puppies win any way. When “No Award” was announced in her category, the audience applauded vindictively. (Booing “No Award” was barred by the emcee, who was an open critic of the Sad and Rabid Puppies.)
Not that backing down would have helped matters. English compares the way she and other nominees were treated to witch dunkings:
Once you’ve been accused of being a fascist, you get thrown into a pond with your arms and legs bound. If you’re innocent, you’ll withdraw. You’re dead and drowned as far as the award goes, but at least you’re not a fascist, right? If you stay in, if you float, you’re guilty and you’ll be burned at the No Award stake. Evidence? Who cares about evidence. If you were innocent, you’d have withdrawn.
And as for poor treatment of women, English points out that this does not seem to be a problem coming from the Sad Puppies side:
The women who remained on the Sad Puppies list were systematically attacked. We were called fascists, racists and homophobes despite the fact that there was zero evidence against us. We, along with our work, were dismissed as tokens and shields. Multiple media reports claimed that the Sad Puppy authors were all male. This is sexism. This is erasure. Where were our defenders and allies?
5. The Future of Social Justice Activism
I chose this example for two reasons. First, it illustrates how far the social justice / victimhood culture phenomenon has spread beyond the borders of college campuses. Where do liberal humanities and social science students go when they graduate? Well, a good number of them become journalists and authors, and in this way the social mutation of victimhood culture escapes the borders of the campus petri dish where it originated.
Second, it underscores the extent to which social justice activists—when infected with the values and tactics of victimhood culture—repudiate their own principles. Amy Wallace’s story for Wired—a story that was entirely typical of media coverage—reveals the extent to which feminists defending feminism are willing to sacrifice the dignity, voices, and identities of any women who get in their way.
This isn’t a critique of the principles of social justice. This isn’t an attack on equality, diversity, or the existence of systematic oppression. But it is an indictment of what happens when inattentiveness to other considerations—considerations of pluralism and truth and free inquiry—allows fervor to drift toward fanaticism. And it is a warning that, within the context of victimhood culture, social justice activism is particularly prone to being hijacked by upper-class activists who—intentionally or not—increasingly deploy the rhetoric and tactics of social justice activism not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of power.
There are lots of articles about students (usually liberals) trying to prevent speakers (often conservatives) from speaking on campus. This is another article in that genre, but it is unusually interesting for a couple of reasons.
First, the object of the protests is a pro-choice, second-wave feminist.
Second, Helen Lewis (the author of the piece) decries the students for protesting Germaine Greer, and she is also a feminist.
So we’ve got a feminist defending a feminist from other feminists. All of whom, from what I can tell, are largely on the left: secular, pro-choice, etc. That is a really telling demonstration of just how hyper-ideological the left has become. Any deviation from orthodoxy, no matter how narrow, is met with outrage and suppression. No passes are given to the erstwhile titans of the field. Germaine Greer has been writing and advocating for feminism since the 1970s, but her half-century of work has earned her nothing. Feminism consumes its own.
Another interesting aspect, is that Lewis argues that the entire notion of protesting speakers itself exhibits a gender bias:
Student feminists want to stop the veteran feminist from speaking at universities – because of her beliefs about transgender people. But why are women always punished more than men for having controversial opinions?
So a feminist is attacking a feminist for attacking another feminist and, just for good measure, accusing them of perpetuating sexism and misogyny. I’m not merely chuckling with schadenfreude, mind you. I think Lewis is right. As an observer to the Mommy Wars and other examples of woman-on-woman repression, it seems that the mores and customs and assumptions of our culture (of all cultures) are largely dictated by women. And so, for example when complaints about modesty arise, I never find the accusation that men are busy policing women’s bodies to be very convincing. Sure, in Afghanistan or Iran that might be the case, but in the West when there is judgment and gossip about how one woman dresses, it is usually judgment and gossip from other women.
Don’t get me wrong. There are definitely examples of misogyny that come from men, and the harassment and abuse of women online is front and center. But it is worth noting that at least some of the complaints feminists have can be traced back… to other feminists.
This is, by the way, yet another reason why I do not accept the idea that “feminism” is just a name for “the idea that men and women are equal.” Clearly there is a lot more going on. Quite a lot more.
Jesse Singal makes a simple but worthwhile point at NYMag: Liberty University Students Survived the Unsafe Space Created by Bernie Sanders and His Pro-Choice Views (somehow). The backstory is simple: Bernie Sanders came to speak at notoriously conservative Liberty University and, although he faced tough questions from a generally hostile crowd, no one protested to deny him the opportunity to speak and no one interrupted his speech. Contrast that as Singal does, with basically any liberal-dominated college you can think of:
I came across a Real Clear Politics post the other day by Cathy Young: Mutiny at the Hugo Awards. It’s surprisingly fair coverage from a mainstream outlet, but I guess that makes sense since Young also writes for Reason.com. In any case, I was particularly interested when I got to these paragraphs:
Perhaps the real issue isn’t the quality of any specific work, or even the prevalence of “message fiction” in the genre; it’s that, as cautiously Puppy-sympathetic nonfiction writer and data scientist Nathaniel Givens has argued on his blog, “the message has never been so dogmatically uniform.” What’s more, Givens argues, the current crop of pro-“social justice” authors who dominate the field not only use their fiction as a vehicle for ideology but seek to enforce conformity throughout the fandom, posing a genuine threat to intellectual diversity. He points out that, by contrast, the Sad Puppies “went out of their way to put some authors on the slate who are liberal rather than conservative.”
Givens’s observations are echoed by Hoyt, who has written on her blog about the “state of fear” that has existed for a while in the speculative fiction community—the fear of being blacklisted for having the wrong politics. While Hoyt says that this fear has lost much of its grip now that independent publishing has allowed writers to make a living outside the “establishment” sci-fi presses, the elites still control recognition and legitimacy within the fandom. Hence, the Hugos rebellion.
About two weeks ago, Bernie Sanders (who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination) had a run in with protesters at Netroots Nation, and things got controversial.
If you’re not familiar with Netroots Nation (I wasn’t), it’s an annual political convention for progressive activists run by the Daily Kos. (Netroots Nation used to be called YearlyKos.) The hecklers came from Black Lives Matter, an activist group that was founded in the aftermath of George Zimmerman‘s acquittal (in 2013) for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin. So you might be a little confused that Black Lives Matter was protesting at a convention of their allies, and that confusion is exactly why the story garnered so much publicity. So, why did Black Lives Matter target Netroots Nation? I’ll leave that to BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullous, who said (in an interview posted at Daily Kos), that part of the reason was that “we wanted to stage an intervention in the progressive movement that’s largely led by white folks around the conversation of having a new racial justice agenda.”
The protest took place during a session which was scheduled to have a pair of interviews two Democratic presidential contenders: Martin O’Malley (former governor or Maryland) and Bernie Sanders. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas was doing the interviewing. While O’Malley and Vargas (but not Sanders) were on stage, Black Lives Matter demonstrators streamed into the room and began taking over. As CNN covered it:
“What side are you on my people?” they sang in unison as they approached.
Tia Oso of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, who represented the demonstrators, climbed onto the stage, secured a microphone, and delivered a speech while O’Malley looked on.
“We are going to hold this space. We are going to acknowledge the names of black women who have died in police custody. And Governor O’Malley, we do have questions for you … As the leader of this nation, will you advance a racial justice agenda that will dismantle — not reform, not make progress — but will begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States?”
“Yes,” O’Malley replied, but before he could say more, the demonstrators in front of the stage shouted over him by reciting names of black women who have died in police custody. While they shouted, O’Malley stood in silence.
The event really showed the tension and strain in the coalition between white Democratic politicians and black Democratic activists. This comes across in lines like this one: “Conference organizers begged them to allow O’Malley to respond.” Then there was O’Malley’s attempt to align with the protesters, which they rejected out of hand:
“I think all of us as Americans have a responsibility to recognize the pain and the grief throughout our country from all of the lives that have been lost to violence, whether that’s violence at the hands at the police or whether that’s violence at the hands of civilians,” O’Malley said, before being interrupted again.
“Don’t generalize this s***!” one person shouted back.
O’Malley’s biggest mistake, however, was replying to the “Black lives matter” mantra by saying, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” This was a big mistake, politically at least, and as CNN goes on to report:
O’Malley later apologized for the remarks, telling This Week in Blackness, a digital news site, that he “meant no disrespect” to the black community.
“That was a mistake on my part and I meant no disrespect,” O’Malley told the outlet. “I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue.”
Things didn’t go any better for Bernie Sanders when he took the stage, and his back-and-forth with the protesters was even more prickly. “Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” said Sanders. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”
There’s a lot going on here, and I don’t want to try and analyze every aspect in this one post. I have mixed feelings, and I’m still mulling things over. I have tremendous respect for the passion of those who stand up and scream “black lives matter” with obvious pain and commitment. I also think the fundamental critique of white Democrats as co-opting and/or ignoring black interests is valid. It’s very close to my own opinion of social justice ideology. I was struck, for example, by the protesters reviling notable figures like Al Sharpton and saying instead that, “My sisters got this.” Most conservative analysis of this protest has been superficial, as far as I’ve seen, never getting beyond schadenfreude in seeing progressive protesters interrupt progressive politicians.
On the other hand, the idea that you have to apologize for saying “black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter” is disconcerting even if it’s understandable, and a lot of the criticisms of Bernie Sanders (O’Malley doesn’t get criticized as much largely because he’s not as politically relevant, I think) are problematic. This article from The Week gets into why: What Black Lives Matter gets wrong about Bernie Sanders.
In the article, Ryan Cooper argues that focusing on race to the exclusion of class is a mistake. He concedes that “upwardly mobile or even wealthy blacks are still routinely victimized by the police,” but then digs deeper into the differences between race and class with some cold, hard numbers.
Consider the criminal justice system, a major focus of Black Lives Matter. One rough way to consider the bias of this set of institutions is by overall lifetime likelihood of imprisonment of men by educational attainment — reasonable proxies for the levels of oppression and income, respectively. A 2009 statistical comparison between two cohorts of men on this measure, one born from 1945-49, and another born from 1975-79, provides a window into how such rates changed, since the latter cohort came of age just as the incarceration rate was reaching its peak.
Over that time, the overall imprisonment risk for men with some college, either white or black, didn’t change much, increasing from 0.4 to 1.2 percent, and from 5.3 to 6.6 percent, respectively. That is a large disparity to be sure, but the numbers are nothing compared to the staggering rates among black high school dropouts, which increased from 14.7 to 68 percent. (White dropouts went from 3.8 to 28 percent.) As Berkeley sociologist Loïc Wacquant points out, this implies that the class gap within race groups is larger than the gap between them. In the 1975-79 cohort, blacks are five times more likely to be imprisoned than whites overall, but black high school dropouts are 10 times more likely than blacks that have completed some college.
Cooper goes on to say that while “there is much bald racial prejudice revealed here… poverty is an equal if not greater factor” and concludes that “Money, quite simply, is power.” He’s right. And, what’s more, the difference matters.
It matters for two reasons. First, because to the extent that we misdiagnose social inequality, we can’t propose policies to fix it. Policies proposed based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem are just as likely to make things worse as to make things better, and can’t possibly succeed other than through sheer, dumb luck. Second, misdiagnosing social problems can, in this case at least, make them worse. To the extent that racism rather than poverty is seen as exclusive or even primary driver of suffering, the understandable reaction is a lot of rage. Which in turn leads to lack of communication, lack of cooperation, and in the end becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of mutual racial alienation.
My point is not that racism doesn’t exist, isn’t a problem, or shouldn’t be addressed directly. Neither is Cooper’s. My point is that there’s a lot more going on than can be explained by racism (even by systemic racism) and that we are in grave danger if we do not acknowledge that fact.
John McWhorter continues to really impress me with his political commentary. His most recent piece is Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion. In it, McWhorter continues his attack on White Privilege theory, primarily for being (1) practically useless and (2) largely designed to appeal to comfortable white folk.
Antiracism as a religion, despite its good intentions, distracts us from activism in favor of a kind of charismatic passivism… Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history.
Of course, it’s a little interesting–as a religious person–to see religion used as basically a pejorative, but I’m kind of desensitized to the stereotype of religion as pathological irrationality. One thing at a time. And, in this piece, McWhorter does a good job of explaining why antiracism fails to benefit poor black people, and who it really does benefit.