Friday, November 20, 2015

The Campus and the Hope

Yale University students demonstrate for racial inclusion

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” – Mark Twain

Is it possible to rid America of racism?  To make African-Americans completely and comprehensively included in our national life?  To make them feel completely included?  And if that’s seems an impossible dream, then what about eliminating racism from a college campus?  Is that more modest goal conceivable?  And if it is, what tactics are justified in reaching it?  How should we approach that dream?  What do we owe each other?  Because that’s what the controversies at Yale University and Missouri University and other colleges are really all about.

Consider the Yale Halloween costume controversy.  In previous years some students wore racially and culturally provocative costumes, some even including blackface and redface.  This year, a few days before Halloween, a Yale administrative committee distributed suggestions for avoiding costumes that “disrespect, alienate or ridicule segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.”  A few students in Silliman College (the largest Yale dormitory residence) privately complained to their resident administrators, known as “masters”, that the university was trying to control their free expression in the choice of costumes.  Those masters, Nicholas and Ericka Christakis, Yale faculty members, were sympathetic, and Ericka subsequently sent out an email of her own, urging students to be less sensitive about Halloween costumes, to ignore or rationally engage with those wearing costumes they found offensive.  She argued that there is value in breaking these kinds of social taboos, and denied it was her job to enforce them. 

But a sizeable number of students strongly disagreed.  A large group confronted Nicholas in the campus yard and demanded he repudiate his wife’s position.  When he refused, on the grounds that a college should provide an open “intellectual space”, a few of the students became belligerent, quite upset that these administrators were refusing to enforce their program of racial inclusion.  To them, Ericka’s email condoned behavior that made them feel excluded, second-class, lesser members of their community.  One unhappy student’s letter to the school paper (since removed) reprimanded the masters for subordinating the real pain of that exclusion to the merely abstract principle of free speech; in her memorable line, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

The students are arguing, in effect, that their residence is a home, and the job of the administrators is to make sure it’s a “safe space” where no one feels excluded.  But an administrator is not a parent, a student is not a child, and – most importantly – a college is not a home.  The purpose of a college is to increase and transmit human knowledge and wisdom, and censorship and coercion are its deadly enemies.  If a college is not an open intellectual space then it has undermined its own reason for being.  But really, how have we come to the point where this needs to be said?

Some students, it seems, want much more than just to talk about their pain.  They angrily demand that official institutional power be employed to control Halloween costumes and opinions about costumes, and that dissenting administrators and students be punished.  The students of Amherst College have gone so far as to explicitly state they “do not tolerate” certain dissenting opinions on racial issues.  They’ve demanded that their college suppress those opinions through official proclamation, and that it force stubbornly dissident students to “go through the Disciplinary Process” and “attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”  They even demand that the college try to suppress alumni dissent!  Official orthodoxy promulgated, maintained and enforced through firings, denunciations and re-education; behold the new dispensation.  They do not tolerate!

Sadly, the world is full of the intolerable: poverty, disease, war, economic exploitation, sexism, and yes, of course, racism.  The eradication of racism – in the world, in America, on a college campus, in a single dorm – is a goal to be devoutly hoped for, and ardently fought for.  But that ardor must be tempered by practicality, by recognition of reality.  Indeed, part of the radical black analysis of modern America is that it is essentially racist.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, probably today’s pre-eminent African-American intellectual, has written that, “in America, the notion that black people are lacking in virtue is ambient.”  Last year Coates and liberal writer Jonathan Chait argued back and forth on the causes of black poverty, with Coates explicitly arguing that there was little or no hope of ending racism in America.  Damnably, American racism does seem incurable!  It pollutes our cultural bloodstream like alcohol, distorting our perceptions, impairing our judgment, quickening our anger, and eroding our trust.  We drank it so long ago, but it wreaks its havoc even now, and we never sober up.

And it’s not that the students have forgotten their racial pessimism.  Indeed, it only heightens their desire to see racism ended!  The pathologies of their movement – over-sensitivity, incivility, intolerance – flow from the intense desire to make the pain stop while knowing that it cannot stop.  If the pain can intrude into even the leftish-liberal-controlled college campus, then there is no respite, no haven, no safe space.  For years, liberal college administrators have – somewhat disingenuously – told black students that not only could they have such a safe space, they had a right to it.  Then Ericka Christakis – somewhat disingenuously – told them to stop wanting it.  And that reminded them it isn’t really achievable.  Thus, anger.  It is the profound and earnest disappointment that the impossible has not arrived that explains why this movement has come so far off its hinges.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s an 60’s had definite, objective goals in mind: the end of legal segregation, the restoration of political rights, equal treatment in public places.  To a large extent those procedural goals were reached; thankfully, they were reachable.  But the fight for substantive equality foundered, partly because changing minds and culture is much harder than changing laws, and much more subtle.  But the understanding that minds cannot be changed by force is the bedrock of the historical liberal project, and the comprehensive inclusion the students desire requires a degree of control over thought, expression and action that is itself intolerable.  Painfully, American racial pessimism is a perfectly defensible position, but it’s one that should remind anti-racists to tread more lightly, not more heavily.

As a white man – who, despite my best attempts, ultimately knows so little of lived black experience – it’s easy for me to urge caution and prudence in the fight against racism.  But part of what’s gone wrong with the racial inclusion movement is its insistence that the content of an opinion is not as relevant as the background of the person holding it.  In this view, the pain of racial exclusion cannot truly be understood or appreciated except by those who have lived it; therefore, the analysis and actions of those victims should not be questioned. But this is a reasonable premise taken to an unreasonable conclusion.  Even though whites can’t fully understand the black experience they can still make genuine contributions to the racial conversation; they can still make cogent judgments about the state of race relations.  It is possible for a black person to be mistaken about race.

But leftist thought has been heavily influenced by post-modernism, particularly by the doctrine that there are no universal truths, only limited, parochial, and self-serving ones.  Truth with a capital “T” is merely an instrument for settling arguments in favor of the powerful.  That is, discourse which fails to account for cultural presumptions in favor of traditionally dominant groups only appears to give minority arguments their due, in reality it merely perpetuates the domination.  The post-modernist solution is to allow each group its own unimpeachable narrative; since there is no honest objective truth, let all the subjective truths flourish, none with a greater claim on our credence than any other.

Once again, this is a healthy idea taken to an unhealthy extreme.  Being white, male, heterosexual, etc. obviously can make one oblivious to the concerns of those who are not, and that distortion must be guarded against, partly by appealing to minority subjective experience.  But that doesn’t negate the need for objective analysis as well.  It’s reasonable to worry whether black students feel unsafe, but it’s just as reasonable to consider if they’re justified in feeling so.  It’s possible to feel unsafe and simply be mistaken.  We should be more open to minority views on what is or isn’t offensive, but we should also consider whether those arguments are in themselves convincing.  Being a victim of racial injustice obviously can give one special insight into the nature of that injustice, but it does not exempt one’s arguments from fair scrutiny.

But many liberal whites, in effect, believe otherwise.  At root, the post-modern elevation of previously marginalized groups is an attempt to spread social power to those groups.  In other words, this is ultimately about white guilt.  Liberals work so hard to appreciate the staggering horror of America’s racial sins, and rightly so; but they’re so afraid of blaming the victim that they bend over backwards to avoid condemning any black sins.  So liberals earnestly sacrifice their intellectual independence on the altar of racial atonement, hoping as fervently as their black allies that the American soul can be washed clean.  They make themselves scapegoats, vessels for America’s bad conscience on race.  Post-modern rejection of objective judgment simply provides the perfect alibi for rejecting one’s own judgment in deference to the greater racial good.  And it inoculates white liberals against the creeping suspicion that any bits of racism are still lurking within their own souls.  After all, isn’t every American at least a little racist?  Clearly, their hearts are in the right place; their greatest wish is to end racism.  But this post-modern extremism is really disguised penance, white liberal ritual for purifying their own dirty white souls.

There is no longer any white racial politics that’s actually reasonable and constructive; it consists of either masochistic self-denunciation or angry denial.  By the latter, of course, I mean conservatives, the term of art for that group that finds the reality of American guilt too painful to accept.  If white liberals hold that blacks can do no wrong, white conservatives hold that racism is only a quaint historical artifact, an unfortunate detour on the noble road to American greatness, an unimportant detail of our past best forgotten lest it stir up racial problems we’ve happily solved.  In effect, both liberal and conservative whites concede the enormity of American racial criminality and both consequently suffer crippling racial shame, which they’re frantic to escape.  Liberals do so by purging their own souls and projecting all sin onto conservatives, who in turn protect themselves from the tiniest possibility of racial introspection by generously wrapping themselves in the American flag.  The point, of course, is that both are left pure.

But as liberal guilt forgives the worst black transgressions, conservative guilt can’t forgive the smallest.  This is the real danger, that the bullying mob on the left may be met by the vengeful mob on the right; worse, a vengeful mob in the guise of a repressive state.  Blacks are a minority after all, and a mobilized angry white majority can do far more damage than the racial radicals are doing now.  And nothing can bring forth latent conservative impulses in otherwise reasonable people as quickly as an angry black crowd.  Conservative over-reaction to the present campus excess is visibly boiling up.  Even a generally calm-headed conservative like Rod Dreher is eager for a reckoning, oblivious to the danger that it could all-to-easily become violent.  And there’s a lot of unreconstructed hate out there on the farther right; it’s not even that far.  We’re not sobering up; we’re becoming more drunk.

That’s why I urge caution; but by the same token I don’t remotely urge complacency.  We’re all obligated as Americans to resist and overcome racial exclusion.  But the current leftist program is much more likely to cause more damage.  Real progress can happen only if we respect differing opinions and the people who hold them; if we stop dismissing all opposing views as bad faith; if we consider thought and action on the basis of its content and not just the color of its author; if we remember the terrible fallibility of all people, ourselves and our opponents alike; and if we squarely face both the necessity and the impossibly of our fight.  American racism will probably never be eradicated.  It is a sobering thought.  But it is sobriety which we most need at this moment.  There are no safe spaces, nor should we work so hard to procure any.  We can make our country better, we can make our colleges better, we can make ourselves better.  But we can’t do so by silencing, or denouncing, or purifying, or demonizing.  Four hundred years of racial bitterness must be fought, but not with more bitterness.  It must be fought inside each one of us, freely, candidly, and with humility and charity.  The safe spaces that need to be nurtured are those inside our own heads.  And we do that by renouncing false hope, and embracing the real thing. 

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