On October 2nd, the magazine Spiked held a panel discussion at the Rutgers University Student Center with the topic being: “Identity Politics: The New Racialism on Campus?”
The panel was comprised of Mark Lilla, a progressive writer and humanities professor at Columbia; Sarah Haider, an ex-Muslim secular activist; Bryan Stascavage, another progressive writer at Wesleyan; and Kmele Foster, host of The Fifth Column podcast. It is perhaps worth noting that nowhere on the panel sat a prominent rightwinger of any sort. Not Milo Yiannopulous, not Ann Coulter, and not Ben Shapiro. Thus, attendees could be assured that the public discussion wasn’t going to be an attempt to say shocking things for the sake of post-event exposure, but was, in fact, going to be a serious gathering of minds hashing out a serious subject.
This, however, did not prevent student protesters who attended the panel from whipping themselves into a frenzy. When one panelist made the statement (sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement) that facts were important when it came to incarceration and crime statistics, one black male student shouted “Don’t tell me about facts! I don't need no facts! I am living in a state of oppression!” while another white female student accused Kmele Foster, a black libertarian, of “de-racializing himself”. When Mark Lilla suggested that the greatest threat to women and minorities came from today’s Republican Party, and therefore Democrats would need to craft a message that appealed to everybody— including Americans who usually vote conservative— in order to once again become a political force capable of defending said women and minorities, a student shot back “White silence is violence!”
The incident at Rutgers unfortunately is not unfamiliar territory when it comes to college life in America. A similar discussion with the Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, at the College of William & Mary, was disrupted by students shouting “Liberalism is white supremacy!” and “The revolution will not uphold the constitution!”
Yet despite the many instances of groupthink-censorship that have occurred on university campuses in the past few years, we are constantly told not to take social justice-oriented student movements seriously, or if we do, to understand that “it’s not really about free speech”, but about some other motive not even mentioned by student protesters themselves (like “the corporate structuring of universities” or the “rethinking of what it means to be an intellectual”). At best such consolations are wishful thinking and at worst they are diversions. The disruption of speakers invited to campuses, and the acts of coercion that occur during protests, are about free speech. Specifically which opinions, groups, and individuals should get to enjoy the right to free speech, and which opinions, groups, and individuals should not.
This debate, and virtually every news headline that’s been caused by it in the past five years, mostly has to do with a belief called “intersectionalism”. In regard to speech, the philosophy of intersectionalism holds that because there is a difference in quality of life between “advantaged” and “marginalized” groups, not everyone has equal access to speak, and therefore shutting down the speech of the “advantaged” while amplifying the speech of the “marginalized” is not only morally legitimate but morally required. Of course, adherents to intersectionalism and social justice are complete hypocrites when it comes to this belief. As could be observed at the Rutgers’ event, if a panelist that was a member of a "marginalized" group was guilty of WrongThink, a member of an “advantaged” group who had the right opinions could step into their paternalistic role and put the confused minority member in their place.
Writing for Quillette, J. Oliver Conroy points out in his article Get On The Bus Or Get Under It:
“Many conscientious people will find it difficult to argue with intersectionality’s premise. Some of us do have it easier or harder than others, and those who have been graced with great fortune by an accident of birth are sometimes astonishingly lacking in self-awareness. But intersectional activists push the logic to its perverse extreme. They insist that some identity groups’ ‘lived experience’ grants them unquestionable and unchallengeable authority, both moral and political. Members of other, historically ‘privileged’ groups (men, whites, heterosexuals) have little right to an opinion at all. If their interests come into conflict, the latter are morally obliged to yield to (certain, recognized) minorities.
The intersectional worldview is obviously incompatible with the basic tenets of life in a liberal democracy. That doesn’t bother intersectional activists, however, because they believe liberalism itself to be an elaborate sham that uses the illusory equality of procedural democracy– free and fair elections, courts, the rule of law, the Bill of Rights– to paper over vast social injustices. In the eyes of the intersectional Left, the very idea of universal rights is fatally flawed– or ‘problematic’, to use a frequent, lazy phrase– because those rights can benefit the wrong people, such as white supremacists (in the case of free speech), or campus rapists (in the case of due process and the rights of the accused).
There is a creepy authoritarian bent to all of this. For someone really steeped in the intersectional worldview, almost any tactic or behavior can be justified if it serves the purpose of fighting ‘oppression’, the definition of which is elastic and gets a little more capacious every day. Because many intersectional activists believe that exposing people to harmful ideas can cause them emotional trauma, they view speech as a form of literal violence. For that reason, it is justifiable to shut down opposing voices before they even speak, a tactic called 'no-platforming’.”
Members of “marginalized” demographics who adhere to intersectionalism and social justice, more often than not speak of justice in society in almost exclusively collectivist terms, and operate under the unconscious assumption that evil is always external and never internal. They love— love, love, love— to toss around words like “systemic”, “structural”, and “institutional”, because it removes any notion of individual actors from the equation (including themselves). It’s the mentality that “Nothing I have done is what's holding me back. No attitude needs changing, no behavior, and no way of thinking, because what's keeping me down is some external force that needs to be dismantled.” It’s a toxic mentality, because it is at once disempowering while it gives the false sense of empowerment. This isn’t to say that institutional/structural/systemic discrimination can’t exist, and I’m certainly not saying that it doesn’t exist, but there’s definitely an overreliance on these words as all-encompassing explanations of social ills by progressives at the expense— I believe— of seeing people as individuals first.
As far as “advantaged” adherents of intersectionalism and the social justice movement are concerned, what can I say? There’s a lot of narcissism contained within self-hatred. As Nietzsche’s inversion of Luke 14:11 goes, “He who humbleth himself wishes to be exalted.” The act of being “woke to”, “aware”, or “conscious” of one’s privilege, or bias, or whatever else, is an act of masochistic signaling done to vindicate oneself from the “crimes” of their collective group. It’s a very Stalinist sort of masturbatory display doubly intended to save oneself from the rage of the mob. It’s gross to watch, but something that has spread like wildfire among people my age and younger.
And while this hyper-emotional rage-fest is happening, mind you, real problems are not on pause.
Economic deregulation, the disintegration of the middle class, the increasing divide between urban Americans and rural Americans, job automation creating what Keynes called “technological unemployment”, and a buffoon for a president, are all issues that our nation faces at this very moment. Not to mention problems that extend beyond our borders, like the inevitable emergence of artificial intelligence, the spread of jihadism, and the impact climate change is having on migration, natural resources, and the quality of the air we breathe. Frankly speaking, the very last thing humanity needs are a bunch of screaming toddlers at universities crying about what triggers them. It is not the job of the planet to cater to a thousand different identity groups, it is the job of the individual— no matter what their identity— to learn how to adapt to, and survive in, the world. This is Being An Adult 101.
There is a moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde where Dr. Jekyll states in his written confession to his friend, the main character Mr. Utterson: “With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two... And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, but rather a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself. It seemed natural and human. In my eyes it bore a livelier image of the spirit, it seemed more express and single, than the imperfect and divided countenance I had been hitherto accustomed to call mine.”
The story of Jekyll becoming Hyde is often presented as simply being a horror story. A tale no different than, say, The Creature Of The Black Lagoon or Dracula. But in fact, The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is a parable about evil more than it is a fiction. The individual being not one, but two. The recognition that evil is just as capable of coming from within as from without, and that if one does not understand this fundamental aspect of being, the evil self can gradually replace the self that is good without the individual ever knowing it happened. Especially when the individual in question is involved in what they perceive to be important and meaningful work, like Dr. Jekyll’s well-intentioned study of “transcendental medicine”. Or activism.
Righteous indignation is a hell of a potion. It has the ability to turn an otherwise boring, mundane existence into a purpose-driven transformative experience. Just as was the case when Jekyll saw himself as Hyde in the mirror, you tend to like how you look— and how others look at you— when you’re on the frontlines crusading for change. And while nothing is wrong with activism or involvement, where our “Hydes” emerge is when the cause we fight for becomes a doctrine around which we obsessively organize every other facet of our lives. At that point, our ego and our sense of righteousness become so hopelessly entangled that the Jekyll side of us eventually dies. We, essentially, become fundamentalists. Appalling actions we commit are no longer appalling, they're just “radical”. Our words are never what they seem to mean on the surface, they’re always code for meanings that are often the opposite. In the case of intersectionalism and the social justice movement, examples of this abound: “Begin a dialogue” means “Shut up and let me lecture you”; “Hate speech” means “Anything that contradicts what I believe about the world”; and “diversity” only means diversity of skin color or sexual preference, never anything so risky or dangerous as intellectual diversity. It is a movement full of Hydes who believe themselves still to be Jekylls.
And then there’s the portrayal of American and European history as being one long string of oppression and bigotry.
It is no accident that when Hyde takes over Dr. Jekyll one evening, he burns the portrait of Jekyll’s father. Hyde does this because the portrait serves as an inconvenient reminder of Jekyll. When our evil self completely overcomes our self that is good, the erasure of history is required, because history is a bridge to the former self. The same goes for totalitarian social movements in democratic societies. When attempting to take control over the thinking of an entire generation, how does one deal with a democracy’s complicated “portrait”? Well, obviously any aspect of history that presents problems for the totalitarian movement’s narrative needs to be destroyed or “revised”, while any aspect of history which serves the narrative (if there is any aspect that does) should be enlarged. Replacing democratic thinking with authoritarian thinking requires burning the portrait of one’s father. It was only four months ago when Al Sharpton made the statement in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, that the Jefferson Memorial should be taken down for being a “subsidized insult” to American minorities. Around that same time, a writer for VICE authored a piece advocating for the demolition of Mt. Rushmore, because the United States “was born of violence and greed”. Even at the aforementioned Rutgers event, the same student who shouted he “didn’t need no facts” later shouted “This country was formed off of segregating white men from black men!” Really? Are we sure it wasn’t formed on the premise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and upon all men being created equal? Because I could have sworn we fought a civil war, and lost 620,000 young (mostly white) men, to end slavery because of those very ideas and how important they were. But again, any noble aspect of a democratic society’s history must be eliminated or “rethought”, because as long as those noble aspects remain, totalitarian movements cannot adequately justify their existence. Only by focusing on the negative aspects of a democracy’s history can a totalitarian group declare their moral mandate to take over the system.
As far as what I would like to say to fellow critics of intersectionalism and the social justice movement, it has very little to do with the movement itself, and more about how we approach the fight against it. We have been spoiled our whole lives by hearing and watching stories wherein the main hero gets to see the final battle. The truth is, the ideological struggle between liberal democracy and postmodern authoritarianism may last longer than any of us living today. In fact we should brace ourselves for the possibility that— to us, in the eve of our years— the events, rulings, and directions of our cultures, might appear to be following an endless bleak trajectory.
We have to make peace with the fact that each one of us plays such a small role in the story of humanity, and that all the strange directions and unpredictabilities of history are so much bigger than all of us. It is very rare for a man or woman to be around long enough to see the end of a cultural idea they’ve fought against, which means we have to find ways of stepping outside our roles as advocates of liberal democracy, and create our own space for happiness (that vaguest of words) outside of political or philosophical ideals. The British philosopher Michael Oakeshott referred to this as “Preferring present laughter over utopian bliss.” By taking time to enjoy family, friends, travel, food, and learning, we allow ourselves constant reminders of why “saving the world” matters, yet spare ourselves the cynicism that so many other politically-involved people fall into who forget to enjoy these other things. The personal does not have to be, and should not be, political.