Archive for March 2017
Cross-posted on The Corner.
Looked at one way, the attempt to silence Charles Murray and the violence that followed it was nothing more than another chapter in a long power struggle, but there was something else about it, something more disturbing still.
Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan:
At around the 19-minute mark, the students explained why they shut down the talk, and it helped clarify for me what exactly the meaning of “intersectionality” is.
“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.
It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required…
Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.
It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.
And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. Here’s how they begin: “This is not respectful discourse, or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated, it is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas.”
Sullivan’s article comes with a few nods to orthodoxy of its own, but the fundamental point he makes, which can be applied to many other religions beyond Puritan New England, not least to Marxism (itself a millenarian creed) and its offshoots, is very well worth noting.
And here, writing more explicitly from the left (his observations on the role that class has to play in what’s going on in the colleges of the elite is something to think about), in The American Scholar, is William Deresiewicz. If I had to guess the article was written before the events at Middlebury, but:
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion…
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
Deresiewicz understands how this religion uses of the mechanisms of social control:
So it is with political correctness. There is always something new, as my students understood, that you aren’t supposed to say. And worst of all, you often don’t find out about it until after you have said it. The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism—and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty, and therefore were always controllable.
There is always another sin.
Speaking of which, there was this in Reason:
A residential advisor at Pitzer College sent a campus-wide email informing students—white women, in particular—that they should stop wearing hoop earrings.
Writing in America Magazine, Jean Welch Hill, director of the ominously-named Peace and Justice Commission for the [Roman Catholic] diocese of Salt Lake City, argues against peace and justice for the terminally ill:
Imagine telling someone who is unable to walk that their life no longer has value. Or telling a loved one who needs help eating that they have lost all dignity. Or explaining to a friend that you can’t visit them anymore because their illness has made them unattractive.
Few would say any of these to a stranger, let alone a loved one. Yet the message of assisted suicide amounts to telling people who have lost the ability to function as they have in the past that they should just cease to exist. This has been the message we have heard for three years in Utah from proponents of assisted suicide legislation.
The definition of dignity implied in these proposed laws, which have followed the Oregon model, is not about the inherent worth of the person but about their physical state. We should keep in mind the great injustices that occur when we decide that human worth depends on perceived mental capacity or physical attributes.
This, I am afraid, is at best misleading and at worst dishonest.
What assisted suicide is about is allowing terribly ill people to decide for themselves that enough is enough. It is about autonomy, it is about dignity and, often, it is about the ability to bring unbearable suffering to an end.
Of course, there are many who have profound religious and philosophical objections to the idea of assisted suicide (even when it is accompanied with the sort of safeguards seen in Oregon). They are free to follow those principles up to the very end. But to insist, by force of law, that others should do likewise is about coercion, not compassion, a coercion made worse by the condescension in which it is wrapped. These poor dying folk, you see, are simply incapable of deciding what is right for themselves.
After all, they might even be nuts.
[M]ost terminally ill patients will overcome these fears with proper mental health care. Britain’s “Care Not Killing” Alliance cites a 2006 study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in which almost all patients who sought assisted suicide changed their minds after competent and effective ongoing psychiatric treatment.
It’s worth adding that in 2014, the Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a statement on assisted dying for the terminally ill that ended as follows (my emphasis added):
As individuals and citizens we also cannot fail to acknowledge that notwithstanding our appropriate cautions and caveats, there will still be those who continue to believe that their current circumstances are unendurable and unacceptable. Each of us will have our views on how we should respond to these situations. We do not think that the College should take a specific position on this. Finally, the decision on whether to legalise physician assisted suicide is a matter for Parliament and the Courts. The only position the College takes on this matter at present is that we will always act within the law.
As is usual in this debate, Ms. Hill isn’t slow to start talking about the slippery slope, citing some (genuinely) disturbing (at least as presented) data from The Netherlands appearing to show that, in some cases. doctors not patients are taking the decision to end patients’ lives. If that’s true, it’s very wrong, and the way to stop it is well-crafted legislation. But using the slippery slope as an argument against the autonomy of those who have slid very far down a hideous slope of their own is to add insult to appalling injury.
Hill concludes with a call for better care for those at the end of life, noting, not inaccurately, that it is not always available. She wants, she claims, to “fix the existing problems within our health care system and allow all people to truly die with dignity.” The first half of that sentence may be sincere, but it is also boilerplate. The second half is disingenuous. Ms. Hill only wants people to “die with dignity” on her terms, terms that not a few patients will find remarkably arrogant and, yes, horribly cruel.
And they would be right to do so.