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.
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.
Political polarization is bad enough, but sometimes partisan arguments are worse than merely polarizing. One example of this is the response to the controversial topic of political correctness and so-called “social justice warriors.”
Now, I’m not a huge fan of the term “social justice warriors” because—as a term that was initially a pejorative and is still primarily used that way—it carries a lot of baggage. But I do think that concerns about political correctness are legitimate, and I documented a lot of thinkers (primarily from the American left) who have agreed in recent months in Difficult Run’s most widely read article of 2015: When Social Justice Isn’t About Justice. This view—that political correctness, social justice activism, microagressions, tolerance, etc—have gone a little too far seems to be an emerging consensus. But there are still holdouts.
Not surprisingly, the holdouts come from within the social justice movement itself. One prominent, sympathetic voice is John Scalzi. He’s a best-selling, award-winning science fiction author who famously signed a multi-million-dollar publishing deal with Tor last year. He’s a prominent, influential voice on social justice issues, and according to him—and thousands who agree—there is no conceivable, legitimate concern to be had on this topic. For example, back in 2014, he wrote that:
“Political Correctness” is a catchphrase which today means one of two things. The first is, “I have done no substantial thinking on this topic in at least twenty years and therefore anything I say past this point cannot be treated with any seriousness.” The second is “It is more important for me to continue my ingrained bigotry than it is for you not to be denigrated or offended by my bigotry, because I am lazy and do not wish to be bothered.” If in fact you do not intend to convey either of these two things, you should not use, nor sign on to a document which uses, the phrase “political correctness.”
In November 2015, at precisely the time that opinion across much of the spectrum of American politics was starting to really take political correctness seriously as a threat, he wrote:
I’m always embarrassed for the people who use these phrases [“political correctness” and “social justice warriors”] thinking they’re cutting, when in fact what they signal to the rest of the world is that the utterer is dog-whistling to a low-wattage, bigoted rabble in lieu of making an actual argument.
You can immediately see the polarization and absolutism of Scalzi’s statements. If we take Scalzi’s argument at face value then we must write off folks like Andrew Sullivan, John McWhorter, Jeannie Suk, Jonathan Chait, Laura Kipnis, Asam Ahmad, Damon Linker, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt as ignorant bigots. That’s a pretty diverse list of gay and straight, male and female, white and black thinkers (almost none of whom are conservative or Republican), but in one fell swoop Scalzi says you can ignore anything they say. Which is the whole point: you can make the world a much simpler place by inventing reasons to completely ignore your opponents. This is what political polarization is all about. We’ve seen this before.
But when we look at the specifics of Scalzi’s argument, we see another problem. The key concept in Scalzi’s argument is the concept of dog whistling. A dog whistle is “a type of whistle that emits sound in the ultrasonic range, which people cannot hear but some other animals can, including dogs and domestic cats, and is used in their training.” So, in politics, the idea of dog whistling is that someone disguises racism behind a veneer of apparently neutrality. For example, they will talk about “thugs” (when discussing issues of race and crime, perhaps) as a stand in for just using the n-word. This accusation is true. It is a real thing that really happens.
The problem is that Scalzi isn’t leveling the accusation against a particular thing said by a particular person in a particular context. He is saying that anyone who says anything in any context about political correctness or social justice warriors is engaging in dog whistling.
Intended or not, the inevitable consequence of this move is that it subjectifies arguments. Making an argument about a person’s motivations or private beliefs is always tricky, but in most cases we can build a case by using publicly available, objective facts like their words, their behavior, the consequences of their actions, and so forth. But that’s not possible when we make categorical statements about the motivations and private beliefs of a wide range of people without any recourse to external facts. The only way to enact the total dog whistle accusation as Scalzi does is to abandon objectivity.
The case for abolition relied on objective claims like all people deserve human rights and human rights are incompatible with slavery as an institution. The 20 century civil rights movement also relied on objective claims such as segregation is incompatible with genuine racial equality. But the all-encompassing dog whistle accusation eschews recourse to any publicly available, objectively valid facts and so eschews objectivity itself.
Why does this matter? It matters because once an argument becomes subjective, it no longer makes sense to talk about who is more correct. Instead, arguments inevitably devolve into contests to see who is more powerful. When objective truth is no longer a recourse, all that remains is appeal to power.
This makes the dog whistle accusation an ultimately self-defeating tool from the standpoint of genuine concern for social justice, because once the argument becomes a question of power, it is a foregone conclusion that it can no longer constitute a genuine challenge powers in high places. You cannot speak subjective truth to power because subjective truth is power.
The practical reality is that the ultimate consumers of social justice activism are nice, college-educated, open-minded, prosperous, white Americans who are desperate to find the magic words to say to absolve themselves of any perceived guilt from profiting off of historical exploitation or collaborating in ongoing, systemic oppression. Social justice activism, unmoored from sternly objectivist claims, cannot resist the universal solvent of American consumerism and is already far on its way to becoming just another luxury good. Social justice arguments rooted in subjectivism are no harder for elites to absorb and appropriate than any other cultural artifact, and when that happens the tactics, rhetoric, and infrastructure of social justice are deployed to serve the interests of those elites rather than to challenge them. This is true even when social justice ends up being deployed against minorities. Weapons, even rhetorical ones, don’t care who they are aimed at.
Consider Conor Friedersdorf’s recent Atlantic piece: Left Outside the Social-Justice Movement’s Small Tent. The story describes Mahad Olad’s journey into and then estrangement from social justice activism. Why? He had the temerity to question trigger warnings and attempts to shut down conservative speakers. The result? “I was accused of being outrageously insensitive and apparently made three activist cohorts have traumatic breakdowns,” (for questioning trigger warnings) and “I was accused of being a ‘respectable negro,’ ‘uncle tom,’ ‘local coon’ and defending university officials to continue to ‘systemically oppress minorities,” (for questioning silencing of conservative speakers).
As long as the dog whistle accusation is used as a blanket condemnation of all who have the temerity to question social justice activism and political correctness, social justice will be subjectified and therefore vulnerable to subversion by the privileged. On the other hand, if the dog whistle accusation is only employed when there’s some kind of objective evidence for it, some bigots will get away with dog whistling because there won’t be enough convincing, objective evidence. This is the dog whistle dilemma, and it is intractable.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that our society is fully of intractable problems. The entire criminal justice system is a giant apparatus set up to confront exactly this kind of intractable problem. We balance the principle of presumed innocence and Miranda rights (to protect the innocent) against warrants and imprisonment (to punish the guilty) knowing full well we’re balancing incompatible interests. With fewer legal protections for the accused, we punish more of the guilt, but also more of the innocent. With more legal protections, we protect the innocent but also let the guilt get away. That’s not to say that we’re complacent about the tradeoff, and it’s certainly not to argue that we have the balance correct today. It’s simply to illustrate that the idea of an irreconcilable tradeoff between competing and incompatible values is not new.
The fatal flaw in the contemporary social justice movement is myopia. A criminal justice system that only cared about punishing the guilty would, in short order, discard all civil liberties in the pursuit of that objective, resulting in a nightmare.
No one wants to live in a society where sometimes murderers get away on a technicality. No one wants to live in that kind of society, that is, until we stop to really consider the alternative. A world where courts and prosecutors do not have to abide by the rule of law is even worse.
The same applies here. A world where some people can get away with racism as long as they cloak it in a thin veneer of plausible deniability is not anybody’s idea of a utopia. But a solution like Scalzi’s is even worse, because it’s not only a world riven by polarization and discord, but also a world where social justice itself becomes subjectified and then perverted to serve the interests of entrenched elites.
I’ve written about assortative mating and income inequality before, pointing out that the more educated tend to marry each other and therefore increase their economic earnings. Ronald Bailey at Reason weighs in on the discussion, adding to the mix evidence that shows assortative mating isn’t just about education, but intelligence. Quoting a 2015 study, he writes,
For example, if spouses mated randomly in relation to intelligence, highly intelligent women would be just as likely to mate with men of low as high intelligence. Offspring of the matings of women of high intelligence and men of low intelligence would generally be of average intelligence. However, because there is strong positive assortative mating, children with highly intelligent mothers are also likely to have highly intelligent fathers, and the offspring themselves are likely to be more intelligent than average. The same thing happens for less intelligent parents. In this way, assortative mating increases additive genetic variance in that the offspring differ more from the average than they would if mating were random. The increase in additive genetic variance can be substantial because its effects accumulate generation after generation until an equilibrium is reached.
University of Washington professor Tony Gill once shared a thought experiment he employs in his classes during a Facebook discussion:
Most students are for higher marginal taxation on the rich (defined as the dollar amount of people who have a wee bit more than them).
I propose centrally planned sorting by either IQ or socio-economic status (noting some studies that show how IQ might have a hereditary component and how IQ might be related to long-term income potential). I also note that we tend to marry people who are educationally and socially close to us (e.g., people meet at Harvard or in the same upscale neighborhood bars). Some of us use mail order catalogues, but we usually get a box on education to check.
Students freak out. First, they say that this has never been done. Then I note how arranged marriages are not an uncommon fixture in history. Then they say it isn’t possible because of data concerns, and I remind them about all those tests they took in 3rd, 7th and 11th grade and their “permanent record,” not to mention all the income data the IRS has on their parents.
Then they squeal that this isn’t right because it limits their freedom to do what they want. And then I say, “Oh, so now you’re worried about centrally-planned limits on freedom, eh?”
So, next time you get the social justice itch to redistribute wealth, ask yourself the following:
Are the adjectives smart or intelligent used to describe your spouse? Are they some of the reasons given as to why you love them?
Did you meet your spouse at college?
Would it have a negative influence on your choice to date an individual if they were a waiter/waitress, barista, fast food employee, Walmart cashier? (And not one who is working there part-time while they go to school.)
Would you date someone you thought was uneducated?
If you answered “yes” to the first three and “no” to the last, congrats: you’ve officially contributed to income inequality.
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.
This article reports the results of a nationwide audit study testing how Christian churches welcome potential newcomers to their churches as a function of newcomers’ race and ethnicity. We sent email inquiries to 3,120 churches across the United States. The emails were ostensibly from someone moving to the area and looking for a new church to attend. That person’s name was randomly varied to convey different racial and ethnic associations. In response to these inquiries, representatives from mainline Protestant churches—who generally embrace liberal, egalitarian attitudes toward race relations—actually demonstrated the most discriminatory behavior. They responded most frequently to emails with white-sounding names, somewhat less frequently to black- or Hispanic-sounding names, and much less to Asian-sounding names. They also sent shorter, less welcoming responses to nonwhite names. In contrast, evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little variation across treatment groups in their responses.
So, it’s those crazy evangelicals and Catholics–long associated with the American right and therefore with bigotry of every description–who were actually the most welcoming to minorities.
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.
That was the question a self-described “white, male poet—a white, male poet who is aware of his privilege and sensitive to inequalities facing women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals in and out of the writing community” asked at The Blunt Instrument (“a monthly advice column for writers”). Well, more specifically, he said:
It feels like a Catch-22. Write what you know and risk denying voices whose stories are more urgent; write to learn what you don’t know and risk colonizing someone else’s story. I genuinely am troubled by this. I want to listen but I also want to write—yet at times these impulses feel at odds with one another. How can I reconcile the two?
The response took a long, convoluted, and circuitous route to get where it was going, but the basic answer was simple: Yes, stop writing. Or, more specifically, you can go ahead and write all you like, but you should stop trying to get your works published.
Don’t be a problem submitter. When I edited a magazine, we got far more submissions from men, and men were far more likely to submit work that was sloppy and/or inappropriate for the magazine; they were also far more likely to submit more work immediately after being rejected. When you submit writing, you’re taking up other people’s time. Be respectful of that. I said in my last column that getting published takes a lot of work, which is true—but most of that work should take the form of writing, and revising, and engaging with people in the writing world, not just constantly sending out new work, which starts to look like boredom and entitlement.
Think of this as something like carbon offsets. You are not going to solve the greater problem this way, on your own, but you might mitigate the damage.
It’s vague enough for plausible deniability, but the logic is clear. The only way to “mitigate the damage” is to submit fewer works. Publish less.
This is the logic behind the social justice movement. It’s not always as clear cut as this, but it’s always there. For a fantastic article documenting just how long this mentality has been around, I recommend Privilege and the working class. I don’t agree with all of it (obviously, as it is printed in The Socialist Worker), but the analysis of nascent social justice warrior ideology (aka “privilege theory”) is spot on:
Third, white workers were blamed for systemic racism because their “privileges” came, purportedly, at the expense of Blacks: white workers got more because Blacks got less, and vice versa. This assumption bought into the liberal capitalist idea that the size of the share of the economic pie available to workers is fixed and highly limited, and that different sub-groups of workers must fight against each other to expand their shares. Privilege theory focused on workers battling each other for the same shares, rather than on their fighting together for a just division of the share appropriated by the bosses–that fight, in the form of shop floor and union struggles for class demands, was explicitly opposed.
The analysis of capitalism is tragically and catastrophically off-base, but the insight that the essentially divisive nature of SJW ideology is itself a statist (and therefore elitist) tool is entirely valid. Once you accept the premise that we are fundamentally divisible into racial, sexual, and other categories, the possibility for cooperation and synergy disappears and all that is left is fighting over scraps.