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John McWhorter Kicks Butt, Takes Names

John McWhorter (TED Conference/Flickr)

The thing you have to read today is Heterodoxy Academy’s great interview with Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. Excerpts below.

On why he considers most current campus protest to be pure stagecraft:

When I say theater, yes, there’s theater in any kind of protest. The very fact that you’re making a loud noise in a public forum is theater. The very fact that you’re trying to attract people’s attention who otherwise would not be inclined to give it, that’s theater. That’s part of politics. But there’s a particular theatrical aspect to all of this in that I find it simply incoherent—it’s not believable—that a psychologically healthy person and one intelligent and ambitious enough to have gotten into a selective school, in particular, is somebody who is constitutionally unable to bear hearing somebody express views that they don’t agree with, or that they even find nauseous. It’s one thing to find views repugnant. It’s another thing to claim that—to hear them constitute a kind of injury that no reasonable person should be expected to stand up to. That’s theatrical because it’s not true. Nobody is hurt in that immediate, lasting and intolerable way by some words that a person stands up and addresses, in the abstract, to an audience at a microphone.

There’s an argument as to whether somebody can be harmed by being called names directly over a longer period of time. But the idea that hearing ideas that can be construed as being complicit in something as abstract as societal racism—hearing these ideas constitutes injury along the lines of, for example, somebody calling you a nigger to your face once a day—it’s not that I don’t agree with this idea; it’s that it doesn’t make any sense. It isn’t true.

To claim that is a kind of theater in itself. You are pretending—and that really is the only appropriate word—you’re pretending that something that you find unpleasant to behold is injurious. And I think that the theatricality of that kind in the argument is a response in part to the fact that to make your case otherwise—that somebody just shouldn’t be heard—is difficult. You have to pretend that it’s hurting you like a punch in the stomach, because otherwise it becomes a little inconveniently transparent that, really, you’re just insisting that you have your own way because you’ve decided that a certain way of thinking is what’s on the side of the angels.

On the ideologically-driven use of the terms “racism” and “white supremacy”:

That there’s a point at which what’s being called racism is really either accidental or an issue of individual difference or an issue—this gets really complex—that racism can create cultural traits that outlast the racism itself, which is something that people have a really hard time with, and especially when it refers to blacks rather than white people. It’s interesting. Everybody finds the point readily comprehensible when it’s written about in Hillbilly Elegy which is about whites. But extending that same argument to black people is being somehow unjust.

That’s right. There are some behaviors that, no matter what your skin color, are all but guaranteed to keep you poor and dysfunctional. It is not “blaming the victim” to say so.

On the biases of the professoriat:

I would say that—of all of them that I know, and I’m really trying to think of whether this is true—all of them are studying what they study, whether they are white, black or something else, out of a commitment to a leftist agenda. And I don’t mean that a leftist agenda is in itself bad. But the idea is you are advocating for people who have traditionally been downtrodden and dismissed, and what that means is that it definitely shapes your views. And I would say that most of these people are not ones who would be shouting down somebody who came to campus, by no means.

But on the other hand, none of them would contradict people like that too loudly. There’s a basic sense of allegiance with the views of people like that. So they would say, “Oh, no. You should give people their say.” But that’s not something they would write an editorial about, and I frankly think with all due respect for them, they’re not too terribly upset to see a Charles Murray chased off of a campus.

On the religious nature of campus left-wing activism:

I think that the framing issue here is that we have a group of people who are telling us that we are at the end of intellectual history—that they found the answer, that all of the rules are supposed to govern civilized debate are suspendable here because we’re talking about something that is just simply a God-given truth. And I say God on purpose because these people are, unbeknownst to them, exactly what Galileo was up against.

Read the whole thing. It’s so, so good. And if you have time, watch McWhorter, interviewed by Glenn Loury on his Bloggingheads show, just unload on Ta-Nehisi Coates.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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