Reader JLF, who is a history teacher, writes:
For some time now I’ve been convinced that the challenge of the 21st century is not global warming, illegal immigration, ISIS, or other hot topic du jour so much as it is epistemological, which transcends all others. We’ve lost our common understanding, our common references of right and wrong, even our common language. Without everyone knowing what persecution, or respect, or privilege means, how can anyone expect to explain any point of view? And if we can’t agree upon a historical narrative, how can you tell me I’m wrong? What purpose is left to demonstration but rage? What meaning is left in language but noise?
This is pure Alasdair MacIntyre. In late modernity, he says, we have lost the capacity for rational debate. It all comes down now to feelings — which is to say, nihilism and the will to power. Understanding becomes ever more difficult, almost impossible. Note this from the New York Times:
Chris Williams, a black student from Chicago, said he confronted [former Univ. of Missouri chancellor Bowen] Loftin at one of the forums last year after the chancellor made what he believed was a racially insensitive comment. The chancellor later invited him to a private meeting at his office, Mr. Williams said.
“In the meeting, he’s telling me how his experiences as a white male in the South are essentially the same as my experiences in the inner city of the South Side of Chicago as a black male,” Mr. Williams recalled. “I remember leaving that meeting, thinking, like, there is no recourse with administration if the guy in charge doesn’t get it and in his attempts to be well-meaning he’s just propagating that we’re the same.”
Mr. Loftin said Mr. Williams had mischaracterized the exchange. “I did share my experiences growing up only as a means of reciprocating for his telling me his story,” Mr. Loftin said in an email. “I recall the conversation as one of my listening to him primarily and his offer to help me do things at Mizzou that would improve our climate.”
This is very telling. Only Loftin and Williams know what was said in that meeting, but this perfectly illustrates why communication is so fraught and risky. Williams got a meeting with the chancellor of the university, and whatever Loftin said, Williams gave him no grace. It sounds like anything Loftin said other than, “Yes, Mr. Williams, I agree wholeheartedly and will do exactly as you say,” would have disappointed and angered Williams, because for him, the only valid perspective is the one that supports his narrative.
A reader e-mails to say that a friend of hers who is a campus minister at a large New England college held a race and reconciliation forum the other night. A black student who attended stayed mostly silent. After it was over, she asked him if everything was okay, and how he would have done the forum better. He told her that he would take out the part about forgiveness, because nobody had the right to ask him to forgive anybody.
And there you have it. The sanctity of the victim.
We come now to an e-mail I just received from a recent graduate of a major state university. Not that it should matter, but I can tell from his name that he comes from a non-European background. I’ll leave it at that. This is important:
I have been ardently reading your blog as of late and wish to contribute something towards a deeper understanding of contemporary student activism.
All throughout last year, I participated in many demonstrations on my campus in the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown/Trayvon Martin. My deconversion occurred in the midst of a long, protracted study of Martin Heidegger’s early philosophy and Ancient Greek literature, as well as near-complete isolation from social media. What, then, was the turning point in my thinking?
Last summer, a friend was sharing news of Sandra Brown’s death with me. In my isolation, I had little contact with the following counternarrative: she was murdered by the police, who staged her suicide. “I am not surprised,” I began. Critical race theory enables such logic. My friend gave me the look: think of a stern, incensed Larry David locked in a staring contest. I had transgressed. “My friends are not able to sleep at night,” she begins, “And this is how you react?”
Deep moral conviction is at the core of this political framework. Yes, these students are armed with theory. Plenty of theories, in fact: standpoint epistemology, identity politics, intersectional (or better yet, black) feminism, and critical race theory. Yet they all converge upon a moral focal point: the victim. Theories may be modified or dispensed with outright if they do not serve this moral core. Debating about theory is epiphenomenal, and ultimately misguided if they forsake the victim and their centrality. This is precisely why they must transcend the claims of opponents, why they must shout down critics, and why free speech is moot. There is violence, the argument goes, behind all claims that may contravene the safety of the victims. [Note from Rod: This is at the center of gay activists’ success in ideologizing schools in the name of “safety”. — RD]
This is pure slave morality. Indeed, there is something noble about its absolutism, its sheer stubbornness, its puritanical fervor and moral zeal. Yet I find it far more noble not to transcend your opponents’ claims, but to struggle with them, to smash your truth against theirs. If we end up heading towards evil, so be it – we have flourished, and that is all that matters.
How do these activists overcome contradictions between theory and morality? A deep contradiction occurs when their relativistic metaphysics and epistemology runs up against the need to enshrine the victim. First, they claim nobody is objectively in the truth or the real. There are only perspectives on what is true, what is real, and what is good. Yet the victim’s perspective, as the moral axis, must be upheld, protected from the truth, the real, and the good of the WASPs, let’s say. This is the legacy of standpoint epistemology, whether or not the current activists embrace it or not. Let me reiterate: all theory is marginal, and the victim is the central axis upon which all thinking and action must spin.
If the victims put forth a conspiracy theory, it is in the truth, the real, and the good.
And this is why I left.
Everything, save for what the victim deems morally useful, must be dispensed with: the classics, the musings of our grandmothers and grandfathers, the histories and traditions of our ancestors. All must be dragged into the light, forced to rehabituate. Another contradiction emerges here: how do these activists expect to reach across difference and create a global coalition against the oppressors, if victim collides with victim? What does an Aborigine elder or Wahabbi mullah think of the queer movement?
I can hear already hear them calling out: “Only the victim or individual may speak for themselves, and thus any such musings are verboten and oppressive.”
Furthermore, think of how the moral centrality of the victim, identity politics, and standpoint epistemology collide. What happens if the individual is the arbiter of identity, and also the truth, the real, and the good? The logic of narcissism is at play here. I suspect that very few of these activists have run up against criticisms of postmodernity and its relationship to capitalism. As society fragments through constant communication, new identities are produced, and new victims emerge. Capitalism is at the core here – as more identities emerge, new markets open up, since these new identities must mark themselves consumptively.
New, different, weird, and marginal – these are the values of postmodernism, of neoliberalism, of late capitalism. These are also the values of the contemporary student activists. But I can already hear the scions of slave morality calling out: “Who are you to speak…”
When “the best lack all conviction” — I’m thinking about elites like you, Prof. Christakis — “while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” well, the center cannot hold. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. If I thought I was, I wouldn’t be talking about the Benedict Option all the time.