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Roxane Gay And The Fragilistic Left

Roxane Gay (left) and Christina Hoff Sommers, in Australia (This is 42 trailer screenshot)

Here’s a story that tells us something important about the way we live: Jesse Singal’s piece for New York magazine about how the Roxane Gay/Christina Hoff Sommers debates in Australia went wildly off track. 

An Aussie do-gooder named Desh Amila brought the two American feminist public intellectuals — Gay, who is left-wing, and Sommers, who leans right — to his country for a couple of on-stage discussion about what feminism means today. Excerpt:

Desh (the surname he goes by; his full name is Amila Deshantha) has built a career out of facilitating intellectually oriented public events, often between people with serious disagreements. He co-directed Islam and the Future of Tolerance, a documentary centered on a debate between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamic extremist turned liberal reformer. The film originated from a tour of Australia that Desh put on with Harris, featuring Nawaz as a “special guest.” First as the head of Think, Inc., a company he has since sold, and now with the group This Is 42, Desh has organized events featuring top public intellectuals in Australia and elsewhere.

Given his previous work covering subjects like Islamic extremism and atheism, Desh probably didn’t anticipate that a conversation between two American feminists, both frequent contributors to mainstream publications, would spark one of his career’s messiest episodes, complete with legal threats and prolonged negotiations over whether the event’s video footage would be released. But that’s what happened. And it’s a rather telling, colorful story of what happens when the highest ideals of civil conversation collide with the realities of public-intellectual stardom and a thoroughly tribalized social media ecosystem. The saga shows that working through disagreement in this political era can be a bit more complicated and fraught than merely getting two disagreers onstage together.

I’m not even going to begin to get into the details — really, just read the whole thing. Roxane Gay and her fans come out of this thing looking terrible. Gay is a Bolshoi-level prima donna who attempted outrageous, insulting moves to try to control the events, and her sympathizers, who filled the audiences both nights, behaved like a typical campus left-wing mob. To give you an idea of the kind of person Roxane Gay is:

This event became the subject of controversy a full six months ahead of its scheduled dates, when, in a September 2018 interview with the SydneyMorning Herald, Gay called Sommers a “white supremacist,” a claim for which there doesn’t appear to be any evidence (Sommers is Jewish and says she is a registered Democrat, for what it’s worth). “Personally, I was a bit surprised that she used those words because if you look into Christina’s work, it’s far from that,” says Desh. “I was taken aback by that statement.” Gay had been asked about her decision to share a stage with a “white supremacist,” given that she had pulled a New Yorker article in response to that magazine having invited Steve Bannon to a New Yorker Festival (after the outcry, he was disinvited) and had also pulled a book she’d been contracted to write for Simon & Schuster after the publisher inked Milo Yiannopoulos to a (since canceled) deal. In response, Gay told the Morning Herald that she’d never heard of Sommers before but that after she’d mentioned the mini-tour on Twitter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate group, sent her information about Sommers that she found “disturbing.” (The SPLC has accused Sommers of making arguments that “overlap” with those of hard-line “male supremacist” groups, but the overlapping in question appears not to be about any radical male-supremacist claims but rather on issues where there is mainstream expert disagreement, such as the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and the magnitude and origins of the gender wage gap.)

Of course! You don’t have to be guilty of actual white supremacist views to be called a white supremacist by leftists. You only have to disagree with them. Desh asked Gay about this in the first of the two Australian events. Gay did not apologize to Sommers.

We hear all the time that we Americans live in such a polarized society, and it is no doubt true. I know that I live in a bubble, same as all of you, but I have to say that in my experience, liberals behave like Roxane Gay far more often than conservatives do. Remember when Bernie Sanders went to speak at Liberty University a couple of years ago. What did these conservative Evangelical students do? They listened politely to him. Contrast that to the way Middlebury College treated Charles Murray and, more recently, Ryszard Legutko. Or many colleges treat Ryan T. Anderson when he goes to speak. And so forth.

Does anybody have any links to stories from the past five years in which conservatives prevented liberals from speaking, or tried to get them no-platformed? The only one I can think of is when some pro-life Catholics objected to the University of Notre Dame awarding its Laetare Medal to the pro-choice President Barack Obama. As I recall, that protest was not about Obama speaking, but the university’s decision to award him its most prestigious prize an honorary degree. And in any case, there wasn’t a campus riot over it. [UPDATE: I’m sorry I got that wrong — Obama was not given the Laetare Medal, which only goes to Catholics. Joe Biden, a pro-abortion Catholic, did receive the Laetare Medal, incidentally. — RD]

My point is more general, though. I know some conservatives who are closed-minded, bigoted, you name it — but I don’t know any conservatives who would refuse to be friends with someone because they are liberal. They must exist, but in general, the disposition to cast out the impure from one’s circle of friendship is something I have seen much more commonly among progressives. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about holding extreme views; that is common on both sides. I’m talking about the way one interacts with those on the other side. It has seemed to me that in general, people on the Left get a lot more wound up about politicizing social interaction, and treating people who hold opposing views as morally tainted, than people on the Right do. Christina Hoff Sommers didn’t come across as especially virtuous; she came across as behaving like a normal person. Roxane Gay, on the other hand, acted like she had been gorging on privilege and sanctimony.

This is a personal view, admittedly. It’s something I’ve noticed over the years. What have you seen? Please be specific if you can. I’m not interested in tit-for-tat whataboutism, so if that’s the only thing you bring to the conversation, might as well not comment. I’m thinking about the Gay-Sommers incident, and wondering if this is simply confirmation bias on my part, or whether the story Jesse Singal tells is symbolic of a larger truth — and if so, why are things this way? It used to be, ages ago, that right-wingers were the uptight ones, but now that is a quality one sees disproportionately on the Left. How come?

A guess: because left-wing politics has become obsessed with questions of power and status, and that breeds a natural sense of personal insecurity. Leftists have forgotten that one can be wrong without being evil incarnate. And, when you perseverate over whether or not you feel “safe” in the presence of something or someone challenging, you cannot help but generate a neurotic politics.

When I was a kid growing up in the country, there was a far-right nut who lived not too far from us. He was a middle-aged white dude who had no sense of humor, and was afraid the race war was going to break out any minute. My grandfather once poked fun at him, saying, “You could put fireflies in a mayonnaise jar, tie it to a stick, and run that sucker all the way to China.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnof5LqFWO8]

UPDATE: Reader Judith:

As a former leftist, IMO they live in an internal police state of their own making. When I took a job running an anti-poverty advocacy group, every day was about learning the parameters of permissible speech and action. There was a whole groupthink movement to which one had to conform. We can’t say this (because it might hurt the cause to acknowledge a weakness), we can’t say that (because it is suddenly revealed to be disrespectful), we must give voice to poor people of color and silence unpoor or voluntarily poor whites, especially men, we must protest this policy even if it makes sense because everyone else is, we must fight for that policy even if we stretch the truth to defend it because that’s how we win… it is an exhausting and anxiety-provoking way to live, constantly censoring your own intelligent questions. I think people eventually either come to their senses and exit or harden their positions and close their minds — to the enemy without and within. There is an internal split, perhaps warfare, entailed in this struggle to remain within PC bounds that inevitably leads to punishing dissenters.

Reader Santiago:

As another former leftist, what Judith says is all-too familiar to me, and the popularization of this ideology has been fascinating and terrifying to watch. Back in the 90s and into the late 2000s, this kind of thought had been largely relegated to anarchist and underground music circles, and a few academic leftovers from the new communist movement (Noel Ignatiev being one important conduit between these worlds). It was countercultural, profoundly destabilizing for any kind of in-group cohesion, and few of these communities and social groups lasted very long. In these circles, a total commitment to the political was required, which was obviously suffocating and impossible to maintain on a small scale.

Now it has metastasized, and as this blog notes almost daily, become nearly “hegemonic” in academic discourse, the corporate world, the literary publishing world (of which Gay is a part), and more recently, mainstream politics.

Even while this “SJW” or “woke” mentality is thoroughly paranoid, seeing oppression everywhere, and corrosive of social bonds, it seems to be kept alive through widespread institutional support and transmission through social media. And it is stronger because it has origins in a number of different sources, not just Critical Race Theory and legal studies, as is commonly claimed. On a wider scale, it is the Christian concern for victims in a milieu of waning or heretical Christianity — which becomes vengeance for victims. It’s a symptom of the re-paganization of the U.S. in the Girardian sense.

The implications of this are that it is becoming more and more common to meet the Roxanne Gays of the world in everyday life–even among middle and even some working class people, who have no institutional ties to academia or Silicon Valley. This is an emerging cross-class ideology, which may make the Democrats much more resilient for the near future.

While the commenters above are right that many Republican lawmakers and the business leaders are toxic and horrible, the average conservative or conservative-leaning libertarian seems to treat their neighbors with dignity on a day-to-day basis. The difference is usually Christianity, or proximity to Christian culture.

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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