Trigger warnings exist in order to warn readers about sensitive subjects, like sexual violence or war, that could be traumatic to individuals who have had past experiences related to such topics, not to remove these subjects from academic discussion. They do not “glorify victimhood”; instead, they validate the life experiences of certain members of our community and allow individuals to make informed decisions.
Who defines what a “sensitive subject” is? The headline tells you who, “Staff Seeks Balance Between Free Speech and Community Standards in Online Comment Moderation.” The Oberlin community is not the same as the community of an Iraqi village, and its standards of different. The emphasis on sensitivity and emotional reaction and perception is a common one on the liberal-Left, but I wonder if they stop to reflect that this sort of standard has traditionally been used to defend standard religious orthodoxies from vigorous, even blasphemous, critique. I doubt that anyone at Oberlin would wish to censor a thorough thrashing of conservative Christianity, because it seems unlikey that there are many conservative Christians at the university. But the same logic could be used by a different demographic.
Ross Douthat nails it in his most recent column, Diversity and Dishonesty:
It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.
As I have stated before, to a great extent neutrality in matters of ideology is a transparent fiction, at least at its root. Consider this recollection by a transgender individual, Fear and Loathing in Public Bathrooms, or How I Learned to Hold My Pee:
Every time I bring up or write about the hassles trans and genderqueer people receive in public washrooms or change rooms, the first thing out of many women’s mouths is that they have a right to feel safe in a public washroom, and that, no offense, but if they saw someone who “looks like me” in there, well, they would feel afraid, too. I hear this from other queer women. Other feminists. This should sting less than it does, but I can’t help it. What is always implied here is that I am other, somehow, that I don’t also need to feel safe. That somehow their safety trumps mine.
I happen to agree with the women on this. But I also think that there’s probably an aspect of hypocrisy here, which the author implies. The same feminists who wish to reorder social norms to their convenience balk when the tables are turned, and they’re the ones who are in the position of defending a conservative normative status quo. The radicalism of many ends when their own comfort zone is impinged. Change is for others.
So apparently there’s a big controversy now about some things that Comedy Central tweeted out in the voice of Stephen Colbert’s character on his show on that network. As it is the age of Twitter activism, there is now a campaign to cancel the Colbert Report. Dave Weigel outlines the first act of the controversy, highlighting the essential role of Suey Park, along with the fellow-travelling of conservative commentator Michelle Malkin. In the wake of this there was a contentious interview of Park on Huffington Post Live where the host made no secret of his contempt for her opinions on this issue, to which she responded by stating that their respective genders and races made it so that he should withhold commenting on the topic in such a bold and aggressive fashion.
There are many layers here. But I’ll keep it concise.
First, the context of the Colbert tweet was such that it was clearly satire in the voice of his character. Though the nature of the online outrage machine is such that apologies and groveling are necessary, they shouldn’t be.
Second, there is a different standard for Asian Americans in terms what one can say about them and how one can depict them. For example, explicit stereotypes about Asian males which tend toward emasculization in the pop culture have far fewer analogs when compared to African American males than in the past (obviously the stereotypes about African American males are different, at the opposite extreme when it comes to sexuality) . And as the clip above illustrates liberals in good standing can say insensitive things about Asian Americans casually which wouldn’t be tolerated for blacks. “Ching chong” and the “N-word” are in different classes of insult.
Third, this different standard is defensible. American culture has a different, and sui generis, relationship to blacks when compared to racial and ethnic minorities which arrived later (Native Americans are also sui generis). This is a fact. You may attempt to bracket the prejudice experienced by Asians in the 19th and 20th centuries into the same class as African Americans, but it is not unreasonable to deny equivalence. This denial is implicit in the way people react to offensive generalizations about different minorities.
Four, classes of marginalized are not commensurable. The experience of women as a class is fundamentally different than that across racial lines. The experience of a ethno-religious minority which is coded as white (e.g., Jews) is different from that of an Asian American one, and these are different from the African American experience. Similarly, those who are physically disabled also experience the world very differently. Because of these differences it makes sense that not all responses to similar dynamics operating upon the classes should be the same. They’re not variables with a different value, they’re fundamentally different variables where the values have radically different outcomes in the calculus. Leftist radicals don’t seem to understand or accept this, and translate arguments and paradigms across all the classes assuming equivalency.
Five, activists like Suey Park do highlight a glaring hypocrisy among white liberals in terms of their attitudes. Conservative non-whites have long known this, because they (we) are subject to snide insinuations and attacks which in other contexts would seem racist. But since they (we) are not liberal, it is socially acceptable to an extent. Implicit is the idea that white people have ideological diversity due their values, while non-whites only have interests. Black conservatives who espouse race neutrality that might have negative consequences for blacks are traitors to their race, while white liberals who favor preferences which might hurt whites are idealistic. This patronizing attitude is probably why Michelle Malkin is sympathetic to Park’s outrage, as Leftist activists who are non-white are more conscious to the glaring blind spots of white liberals. If, for example, you have a group of white Republicans meeting together without many people of color in the audience there are often implications of racism bandied about by liberals. But if you look at the demographic profile of the neighborhoods many white liberals choose to raise their families, they are no different from that of white conservatives, except politics. But being liberal they have difficulty imagining how they could be racist. The identities, the essential aspects, of the individuals matters. Among the reactions to Miley Cyrus’ scandalous MTV performance white feminists began to decry the “slut-shaming” of the performer. But soon enough black feminists objected to her exploitation of the bodies of black women. Obviously who you are impacts what you see. White feminists saw Cyrus being unfairly targeted, but did not see objectification of black women (one can debate whether there was such objectification, but it’s not an unreasonable line of argument once you assume standard Leftist priors).
Six, so perspective matters. But different perspectives don’t mean that any one person has the One True Opinion. In the abstract Leftist cultural activists can accept this, but in the concrete real world scenario they tend to want to impose their own perspective in an almost Stalinist manner. This is one reason there is so much faction among identity activists, as they argue stridently for the superiority and dominance of their own narrative over that of rivals. In the discussion with the Huffington Post Live reporter Suey Park attempted to negate any blunt critique by her interlocutor by highlighting his identity as a while male. She attempted to object to being “silenced” by demanding that he be silent! One of the norms of the Leftist radicals is that one must always listen and not talk back to the more-oppressed-than-thou (though of course there’s often a long process of privilege checking and toting up in some cases; even egalitarians have their own aristocracy of oppression). This means that white males should be silent unless they can involve themselves in acts of more-Stalinist-than-thou radicalism, where their zeal for purging validates their participation.
Seven, this dynamic is a non-starter in the general culture, and Leftist radicals seem to forget that they’re a small subculture outside of the academy. Their Form of Life is not dominant or normative. Suey Park for example uses the stilted academic lexicon of a “grad school dropout,” which illustrates her own “privilege.” Axiomatic terms like “ally” and “intersectionality” are meaningless outside of this cultural domain, but they can’t help but sprinkle their “discourse” with terms which are more appropriate to a gradual school seminar. This in a culture where only ~25% have undergraduate degrees, often in vocational or scientific fields where Critical Theory is unknown. The irony is that Leftist activists forget that cultural diversity means that not all arguments are going to be won on their own terrain, with the terms of the game determined by their preconceptions as to the nature of how the world works, and how it ought to work. They are not hegemonic over the rest of us. Just as white liberals tend to assort with themselves (look at how many minorities there are in Flickr photos of young DC progressives), and develop blind spots, so Leftist activists like Suey Park lose sight of the reality that others see different skies at night than all of her friends (numerous as they may be on Twitter).
Finally, my conservative friends & I have observed the bizarre flame-outs on the internet between different sects of cultural Leftists, akin to the violent conflicts between radical Christian sects in the back-country of 4th century Anatolia over picayune theological or liturgical differences, for years. Watching the circular firing squads is like a guilty pleasure. An ideological “shark week.” But it is not healthy for a unitary society to fracture into so many incomprehensible clans. Many of my liberal friends on Twitter for example don’t realize, and can’t understand, that I don’t even share their presuppositions. When it comes to politics they start with assumptions that they think are universally held by all, but which I reject. By analogy, it’s when English speakers presume that everyone else in the world understands English. This isn’t a recipe for respectful discourse and any meeting of the minds. Perhaps in the end all is a raw power struggle, a brutal war of all-ideas-against-all ideas.
Addendum: Readers who are new should be aware that I’m a brown American male.
I quite like BBC Radio 4′s In Our Time. But the most recent episode was on the Trinity. You can listen to online. Most of the time the host has scholars who are there to illuminate the educated public on some fascinating topic. But in this case it seems clear that no one has any idea what they are talking about. The problem here is not the scholars, it is that after nearly 2,000 years no one understands the Trinity well enough to speak about it coherently. This brings to mind Wittgenstein’s phrase, Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Canada is arguably the apotheosis of modern Western multiculturalism (nations like Belgium are not in any sort of honeymoon phase obviously with the idea of inter-cultural amity). This article in The New York Times highlights the fundamental problem at the heart of this sort of political and social project, Canada Grapples With Adapting to Minority Needs:
At York University in Toronto, a furor erupted in January over a request by a student taking an online sociology course to forgo an on-campus session, because he said his religious beliefs did not permit casual contact with women.
At York, the professor refused to grant the student’s request, believing that it would be a dangerous precedent, labeling women as second-class citizens….
“It all goes back to the fundamental values the university has put in place that shape the culture — equity, diversity and inclusion — and tying them back to excellence,” said Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, the University of Toronto’s anti-racism and cultural diversity officer. “We look at what we need to do as a university to give students access so they can perform with excellence.
It is passé to point out the difficulties in accommodating both gender egalitarianism and religious traditions for which strong differentiation in sex roles and interaction are mandatory (e.g., Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and some conservative variants of Protestantism). Rather, I want to highlight the general idea of inclusion and diversity. The problem is that many cultures around the world revolve around the theme of exclusion, or at most assimilation of the Other. In fact this is much more normative over the history of the world than the multiculturalism that has emerged in the West after the 1960s. To be entirely frank, post-1960s Western multiculturalism is sui generis. It seems to view a person’s suite of cultural characteristics being assembled together a la carte, as individuals select of their own free will from a set of practices and beliefs so as to maximize their own self-actualization. The reality though is that for most humans cultures are imbibed as if one is selecting prix fixe menus, subscribing to a whole host of beliefs simultaneously, many of which are at contradiction with the individualist liberal ethos.
Obviously these are two stylized caricatures,* but they capture the basic essence of the dynamic. Western multiculturalists, steeped in the language of equity, diversity, inclusion, and egalitarianism, seem to tacitly assume that societies which they are attempting to integrate will discard all illiberal aspects, while maintaining the languages, dress, and food, which make them distinctive. But the truth here is that ultimately multiculturalism of this form turns non-Western cultures into carnival sideshows, colorful harmless variants of the Western liberal individualist template.
* There are nuances here. American Roman Catholics share more cultural orientations with their Protestant neighbors than with non-American Catholics. You need to peel back the sticker sometimes and ignore labels to get at the heart of cultural variation.
Over at The Nation Michelle Goldberg has a long piece on the internecine conflicts within online feminism. First, an admission. I’ve long been a follower of these blow-ups on the feminist Left blogosphere because it is compelling to me in the way a car-crash might be. I’ve never commented on it because it’s as intellectually a serious interest as watching Dancing with the Stars. Though I think Goldberg has a lot of justice on her side, there are two issues which always nag at me. Many of the feminists who are outraged at being raked over coals wouldn’t have any hesitation of doing the same if the target was someone else. In other words, the hyper-critical lens that they place on others is obviously not relevant for them, because they’re good people. So the second issue is that the extremely harsh, often unfair, attacks on these self-righteous types wallowing in their “privilege” actually draws upon a real phenomenon.
It reminds me of the famous photo of Obama campaign headquarters in 2012, which was filled with white faces. If you transposed this to Romney campaign headquarters you could imagine Melissa Harris-Perry at MSNBC making some snarky remarks. But it’s different, because they support Obama, and they’re good liberals…. By their nature they can’t be racist, so the same evidence can’t be brought to bear. The lived lives of upper middle class white liberals may be quite segregationist, but their hearts are not, and that’s what matters.
Which brings me to the weird general observation: American liberals are quite essentialist when it comes to the target of their critique. Conservatives and Republicans are racist by their nature, by their intent, so their social segregation from non-whites counts toward their racism. It’s a fundamental attribute. In contrast American liberals and Democrats are anti-racist, so their social segregation from non-whites is situational, and does not reflect antipathy to non-whites.
This can be generalized. Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton both seem to exhibit sociopathic tendencies in relation to their attitudes toward women. But for social conservatives Clinton’s transgressions reflect his lack of core morality, because he’s a liberal. In contrast, Gingrich says the right things, and acknowledges his moral failings. No matter what he does his fundamental essence is that of someone who understands the importance of morality. At least from the perspective of his supporters.
On Wendy Davis, it turns out that she elided aspects of her biography to burnish a particular image. I don’t think this will be a long term problem, anymore than Newt Gingrich’s history of philandering was an issue for social conservatives. Those who were with her will stay with her, and those who were against her will have more reasons to be against her. But as someone with only a passing familiarity with her biography the key detail that comes out of the piece is that Wendy Davis misrepresented a major aspect of her class background, and therefore how much hardship she overcame to get to Harvard law school. Though she was obviously not born with a silver spoon, by her mid-20s Davis had married a man with an upper middle class income (he was a attorney with a real estate related business). This makes the fact that she finished college, and matriculated at Harvard law, somewhat less impressive than the image of her has a single mother, which was definitely what even a high-information voter would have assumed was the case from the reports in the media.
Granted, juggling two children and finishing college, let alone getting into Harvard, is still highly noteworthy and laudable, and not a trivial accomplishment. But the narrative arc here is one of bourgeois striving, and pooling of the resources of a married couple where one earned substantially more than a middle class income. It seems that most of the time when politicians try to sell you a tale of overcoming lack of privilege, many of the details fall apart upon closer inspection. That probably tells us a lot about how much deprivation actually is overcome in American society, and how often those nearer the bottom reach the top.
Addendum: The allegations of focusing on one’s career as opposed to family, adultery, and selfish exploitation of ex-husband for her own ends (e.g., staying with him long enough for him to apply his resources to paying off her loans), are not shocking. They’re probably not atypical for most elite politicians in terms of behavior because of their average personality type (i.e., narcissistic). I wouldn’t be surprised if they pan out (in any case, it doesn’t seem like most people behave like saints in the midst of a divorce). The qualification that she should have been more “precise” with her language is laughable coming from someone with a Harvard legal education, but exactly the kind of slippery argument that a politician would make. But that’s democracy. It tends to reward that personality type from what I can tell. I don’t know that it matters for governance one way or another.
From Heather, The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity:
Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.
Such defenestrations have happened elsewhere, and long before 2011. But the UCLA coup was particularly significant because the school’s English department was one of the last champions of the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay. Precisely for that reason, it was the most popular English major in the country, enrolling a whopping 1,400 undergraduates.
In this day and age we sometimes reflect upon the insanity of the intrigues of the late dynastic courts in Imperial China, where manipulative functionaries migh chop off the knees of their own armies while barbarians massed at the walls. So insulated within the walls of their world, they were obvlious to the actions which were hastening their own demise. Modern humanities in the United States is somewhat like this. The vast majority of students at universities might be willing to endure a few courses in diversity and such to fulfill requirements, but far few will enter into a course of study to explore the shallow waters of ostcolonial theory after the depths of the classics are closed off to them. And without students the field slowly dessicates and dies.
Last week This American Life had an episode on housing discrimination, House Rules, which drew upon a ProPublica series, Living Apart – Fair Housing in America. The TAL episode began with a side-by-side comparison of the differing treatments of black and white renters-to-be by a super in Queens. Then it went back in time and focused on the long and arduous process of passing legislation to allow for equal access to housing, and then enforcing said legislation. The moral of the story is that things haven’t changed as much as you think they’ve changed. This moral is reinforced by the selective narrative framework of TAL.
As it happens though HUD has been doing broad surveys of the exact form that is outlined in the TAL episode. So I decided to browse the 2012 report. If you read the whole thing, you conclude that:
1) There is indeed discrimination against minorities.
2) But the differences are often on the margin. The stories in TAL are at the tails of the distribution, but people may be confused and assume they are ubiquitous.
For example, from the full report from HUD: “black, Hispanic, and Asian renters are all shown significantly fewer housing units than equally qualified whites. Blacks are shown about one fewer unit for every 25 visits; Hispanics are shown one fewer unit for every 14 visits; and Asians are shown one fewer unit for every 13 visits.” These are statistically significant differences, but probably less than what you might expect given the stories highlighted in the TAL episode. Additionally, the report makes clear that there has been a massive decline in housing discrimination since the 1970s.
Atheists need to stop making fun of “Christian rock” and the assorted second rate derivates of culture produced by the evangelical subculture if this is not a rip-off of The Onion, Atheist ‘mega-churches’ look for nonbelievers:
It looked like a typical Sunday morning at any mega-church. Hundreds packed in for more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational sermon, a reading and some quiet reflection. The only thing missing was God.
Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain earlier this year. The movement fueled by social media and spearheaded by two prominent British comedians is no joke.
This is almost a parody of what organized atheism can become.