Thomas Kaempfen, a liberal reader, linked critically in a comment last night to this essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, published last year during the protests that roiled Yale. The authors, Kate Manne and Jason Stanley, are professors of philosophy — Manne at Cornell, and Stanley at Yale. You have encountered Stanley’s witty mots on this blog here and here. Stanley’s comment on the distinguished Oxford professor Richard Swinburne’s controversial remarks criticizing homosexuality from a natural-law position at a Christian philosophers’ conference: “F–k you, assholes. Seriously.”
In their Chronicle essay, Manne and Stanley defend the hysterically intolerant progressive Yale mob that set upon faculty members Nick and Erika Christakis over Erika Christakis’s note to students in the residential house they oversaw, in which she gently criticized the Yale administration’s policing student Halloween costumes as a form helicopter parenting. From the text of her letter:
I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.
As a former preschool teacher… it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.
I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.
Which is my point.
I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours.
This mild epistle set off days of Social Justice Warrior rage on campus, on behalf of the Oppressed. It eventually resulted in Erika Christakis’s resignation from Yale, and her husband’s decision to leave his role as master of the residential college. The SJWs at Yale took their scalps. So much for free speech at Yale. Read Conor Friedersdorf’s account of the controversy if you have forgotten.
In their Chronicle piece, Manne and Stanley contest the idea that “free speech” was restricted at all. In fact, they say, defenders of the Christakises and of free speech were really oppressors:
The notion of freedom of speech is being co-opted by dominant social groups, distorted to serve their interests, and used to silence those who are oppressed and marginalized. All too often, when people depict others as threats to freedom of speech, what they really mean is, “Quiet!”
Observing that Erika Christakis’s initial e-mail and the tone of her campus defenders was non-hysterical, unlike Christakis’s critics, the pair writes:
But didn’t Erika Christakis, and most though not all of her defenders, express their views in a much more reasonable tone of voice than the students protesting? Yes. But sounding reasonable can be a luxury. Such speech trusts, even presumes, that one’s words will be received by a similarly reasonable, receptive, even sympathetic, audience. Oppressed people are often met with the political analogue of stonewalling. In order to be heard, they need to shout; and when they shout, they are told to lower their voices. They may be able to speak, but have little hope of being listened to.
The Michigan State University philosopher Kristie Dotson describes this predicament as “testimonial quieting,” as the philosopher Rachel McKinnon has helped us to see. When oppressed people speak out — and up, toward those in power — their right to speak may be granted, yet their capacity to know of what they speak doubted as the result of ingrained prejudice. And the way in which they express themselves is often then made the focus of the discussion. So it is not just that these people have to raise their voices in order to be audible; it’s also that, when their tone becomes the issue, their speech is essentially being heard as mere noise, disruption, commotion. Their freedom of speech is radically undercut by what is aptly known as “tone policing.”
You see what’s happening here. Manne and Stanley defend the right of people to curse, shout down, and otherwise intimidate into silence those they disagree with, provided that the shouters are members of a minority group privileged by progressives. Here is a clip of Jerelyn Luther, a black Yale undergraduate yelling at and f-bombing Prof. N. Christakis as he tries to engage her and others in dialogue. Jason Stanley, a Yale professor, defends this fascistic behavior, because Luther is black. Is there any wonder that he thinks “F–k you, assholes” is a sufficient response to Richard Swinburne and his supporters?
The academy is in the process of committing suicide. But there are some who are not going quietly. If you haven’t seen the academic group blog Heterodox Academy, you need to bookmark it. On the site, Prof. Jon Haidt says the “Yale problem” — the intolerance over the Christakis situation — starts in high school. Haidt talks about he gave a talk at “Centerville High,” an elite private school in the Northwest, where he talked about the difference between coddling students and strengthening them. He says that the Q&A turned into the most hostile he had ever experienced in his career. All the questioners but one were female; the males sat mute.
We talked about what Centerville could do to improve its climate, and I said that the most important single step would be to make viewpoint diversity a priority. On the entire faculty, there was not a single teacher that was known to be conservative or Republican. So if these teenagers are coming into political consciousness inside of a “moral matrix” that is uniformly leftist, there will always be anger directed at those who disrupt that consensus.
That night, after I gave a different talk to an adult audience, there was a reception at which I spoke with some of the parents. Several came up to me to tell me that their sons had told them about the day’s events. The boys finally had a way to express and explain their feelings of discouragement. Their parents were angry to learn about how their sons were being treated and… there’s no other word for it, bullied into submission by the girls.*
And Centerville High is not alone. Last summer I had a conversation with some boys who attend one of the nation’s top prep schools, in New England. They reported the same thing: as white males, they are constantly on eggshells, afraid to speak up on any remotely controversial topic lest they be sent to the “equality police” (that was their term for the multicultural center). I probed to see if their fear extended beyond the classroom. I asked them what they would do if there was a new student at their school, from, say Yemen. Would they feel free to ask the student questions about his or her country? No, they said, it’s too risky, a question could be perceived as offensive.
You might think that this is some sort of justice — white males have enjoyed positions of privilege for centuries, and now they are getting a taste of their own medicine. But these are children. And remember that most students who are in a victim group for one topic are in the “oppressor” group for another. So everyone is on eggshells sometimes; all students at Centerville High learn to engage with books, ideas, and people using the twin habits of defensive self-censorship and vindictive protectiveness.
And then… they go off to college and learn new ways to gain status by expressing collective anger at those who disagree. They curse professors and spit on visiting speakers at Yale. They shut down newspapers at Wesleyan. They torment a dean who was trying to help them at Claremont McKenna. They threaten and torment fellow students at Dartmouth. And in all cases, they demand that adults in power DO SOMETHING to punish those whose words and views offend them. Their high schools have thoroughly socialized them into what sociologists call victimhood culture, which weakens students by turning them into “moral dependents” who cannot deal with problems on their own. They must get adult authorities to validate their victim status.
It starts in high school, and it starts in the home. And so you end up with people like this pathetic snowflake at Villanova, who wet the bed over the fact that Milo Yiannopoulos polluted her campus with his presence:
Cierra Belin ‘18 said she went through “the seven stages of grief” upon hearing the news.
“It truly disgusted me that our university would welcome someone like that,” Belin said. “Villanova already has too much work to do in diversity inclusion, that having him validate those micro aggressions would set us back a good 50 years.”
Who knew Milo was so powerful? Seriously, though, what is it about the inner lives of these kids that leads them to want to be weak? It surely comes from the progressive culture represented by Manne and Stanley that valorizes weakness, as well as racializes, genderizes, and queers it.
One hopes that academia can pull back from the brink. I know that I would not send any of my kids to a place like Yale, even if they got a free ride, because I don’t trust the quality of the education they would get in a university where they and their professors risk being made into instant pariahs and punished for saying something that offends the SJW crybullies. I am surely not the only parent who cares more about the quality of education than the credential that allows a young adult to enter into a decadent and corrupt network of nomenklatura.
This is a real culture war: a war between culture and anti-culture, the latter represented by militant left-wing bigots who praise racism as virtue, and the liberal fellow travelers who lack the conviction and the backbone to fight back in defense of the university and of liberal ideals. In communist Czechoslovakia, dissident university professors who were dismissed from their posts for being politically unreliable set up underground classes to teach willing students real history, real poetry, real literature, and real humanities — not the politicized garbage the Marxist ideologues pumped into their heads at the universities. Should we lay plans for similar networks here?
I’m not talking about replacing hard-leftist ideology with hard-rightist ideology. Fascists are no more interested in truth than are Communists. We are going to need the support of old-fashioned liberals like Thomas Kaempfen, people who actually care about free expression, free inquiry, and rational discourse. I’m talking about a depoliticized approach to the humanities that emphasizes the quest for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. What would such an alternative system look like? How would we go about it? Let me know your thoughts.