Everybody Knows, But No One Will Say
Freddie de Boer has a provocative, informative discussion of the “backchannel” — the things people within an organization or society say quietly among each other, but refuse to discuss publicly, for various reasons. He mentions the University of Virginia fake fraternity rape scandal. Lots of progressives privately had reservations about the outlandish claims, but didn’t say so publicly, because they did not want to be seen as undermining a broader cause in which they believed. Eventually, the entire thing collapsed under the weight of evidence. Says de Boer:
This is the problem with the backchannel. When within-group criticism is only voiced privately, there’s no opportunity for the group to evolve, to shore up its weakness, to evaluate its own problems, to correct its own course. And political movements have to evolve or die. It’s a classic cause of political self-destruction, when a group’s inner dynamics become so ossified and conformist that no one is willing to point out the group’s problems. That’s the condition in far too many left spaces today: a near-total inability to point out the cracks in the foundation for fear of being shamed yourself.
De Boer talks about this in academic life, with reference to the outrageous witch-hunt treatment of feminist professor Rebecca Tuvel by other feminists and progressives, over her supposed transphobic bias — a groundless claim. De Boer:
My life, as a academic who also writes about politics and culture, and as someone who is willing to publicly critique the absurdities and excesses of social justice politics, functions as proof of what Oliver is saying. For years now I’ve been the recipient of just that kind of private expression of fear and unhappiness from those who are similarly unwilling to speak out publicly. Since the beginning of my graduate education, I have been someone who other academics feel that they can come to in order to voice their shock and dismay at just how toxic the culture within academia has become. They tell stories about petty witch hunts and show trials within their departments. They share their fear about objecting to arguments they find unfair or unsupported. They say they feel compelled to follow current academic fads for fear of being labeled. They are convinced that stepping out of line with the constant search for offense will render them permanently unemployable, even though they are themselves progressive people. You’ve heard the litany before. They share it with me.
This is exactly what happened to me in the first half of the 2000s regarding the Catholic sex abuse scandal and conservative Catholics (usually, but not always, priests) within the institution. Because they knew I was a fellow conservative Catholic, they would come to me and talk about things they had seen first-hand, or knew reliably to be happening. Really dirty things — not ongoing abuse itself, but cover-ups, and ongoing sexual decadence within the clergy. Secrets, lies, cabals — not just gossip, but things that really did affect the integrity of the institution amid crisis.
Few if any of these sources were willing to go on the record. Why not? It would jeopardize their standing within the institution and its community. These were conservative Catholics, but they were afraid they would lose everything if they talked.
“I hope you can do something about this,” they would say. I would tell them that without them producing documents or some other evidence, or being willing to go on the record, my hands were tied. And nothing would come of it.
But all those insiders knew what was happening.
I’ve been doing a lot of media interviews about The Benedict Option, and I have had a couple of high-level journalists tell me privately how frustrated they are with the culture of media. These are secular progressives, but they’ve had it with the biases within their own institutions and circles. “They don’t even know what they don’t know,” said one journalist, of his colleagues, “but they are certain that they are right about everything.”
I keep hearing that, and though I haven’t been in a newsroom in seven years, I know it’s true. Media bias in this regard is so thick and pervasive not only because journalism is pretty much a liberal monoculture, but also because journalists cultivate an image of themselves as open-minded truth tellers. I doubt there are many seminaries in America more moralistic than a big-city newsroom.
Freddie de Boer is talking about this in academia, though, which is the world he knows. He continues:
And that all comes down to a broader reality: on campus and off, even many or most of those who are deeply committed to the cause of social justice and its expression in feminism, anti-racism, and the fight for LGBTQ rights recognize that the culture of social justice is deeply unhealthy. You’ve heard all that from me before. I have been attempting to address that simple fact for years: that there is a difference between a commitment to fighting bigotry and accepting uncritically every argument that is made in the name of that fight. Many people join me in feeling that something has gone deeply wrong in how we prosecute the movement for social justice, but precisely because of the unhealthy conditions of that movement, they feel they can’t say so publicly.
I’ve said it for years: there’s a backlash brewing, against these tactics. People are fed up. Those who live and operate in left discursive spaces are numb and exhausted from living in the constant fear of saying the wrong thing and stepping on a landmine. Over-the-top wokeness is now obligatory in media and academia, which means that much of it is performed in bad faith, with the cynical and the opportunistic now adopting that language and those tactics for their own selfish ends. Meanwhile, decent people who are sincerely committed to the actual ideals that underlie that language are forced to self-censor or else to drop out entirely. This is no way to advance the cause.
Read the whole thing. And think of it in context of Paul J. Griffiths’s fate at Duke Divinity School, which we’ve been discussing on this blog this week. As The New York Times reported today, Griffiths has for years taken socially progressive stands on race and gay rights. But he objected in very strong terms to a diversity training program at the Divinity School, saying it was a propaganda session that would be a waste of time. This is anathema at Duke Divinity School. Paul Griffiths sounds like one of de Boer’s “decent people” who refused to self-censor, and so felt compelled to resign from the school rather than submit to its over-the-top wokeness.
This dynamic happens in a number of fields, because it’s human nature. The Republican Party did such a great job of repressing its internal critics that it didn’t see Donald Trump coming. We can all think of things that people recognize are true, but aren’t allowed to say publicly because doing so would cost them too much. But a problem doesn’t cease to exist simply because it costs too much to acknowledge it. Father doesn’t cease to be an out-of-control drunk simply because everyone in the family has decided to pretend it’s not happening, because the price of saying the bleeding obvious would be too high.
Sooner or later, Father is going to crash. The question is whether or not he takes down the whole family with him. Better to say what’s happening and deal with it forthrightly than to assume everything will sort itself out if we just sit still and wait.