Why We Can’t Have Nice Discussions
The thinness of Progressive Twitter’s skin can be measured in microns. The strength of the spine of organizational leaders accused of bigotry by Progressive Twitter can only be measured in terms not of tensile strength, but of viscosity. That’s the conclusion I draw from a planned discussion that Veritas Forum, the thoughtful Christian organization devoted to talks and speeches on campuses, was planning to have about race and reconciliation, until its leaders freaked out and cancelled.
What was the problem? Well, here’s how the event was advertised:
According to a report in Christian Post:
The Veritas Forum, a nonprofit group that explores truth and life through various disciplines, including religion and science, apologized Monday and canceled a discussion on critical race theory after critics pointed out that one of their featured speakers was not a leading expert on race and Christianity.
Willie James Jennings, an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School, and Neil Shenvi, a blogger with a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, were set to discuss whether a secular worldview like critical race theory can address racism or if Christianity provides a unique response.
While Shenvi has discussed critical race theory on several panels and written a number of articles on the issue, he has no academic training in the subject matter. The event, which was set to take place virtually on March 4, describes both speakers as “leading experts on the topic of race and Christianity.”
Shenvi (website here) is an apologist who became a Christian while at Berkeley getting his PhD in theoretical chemistry. He’s an extremely well educated scientist who quit his academic career at Duke University after a cancer scare. He now homeschools his children. It is likely true that this chemist is not a “leading expert on the topic of race and Christianity,” depending on how you determine who are experts, and who are the leading ones. It was sales pitch hyperbole. But the idea that Shenvi, who is nonwhite, has anything useful to say about race and reconciliation is offensive to certain progressives on Twitter, who claimed this pairing was a racist insult to Prof. Jennings. A black pastor complained:
Shameful? The arrogance and pride of academic credentialism is what ought to shame Christian ministers. Let the people who come to hear these two men discuss decide who has something useful to offer. My thought would be that these two Christian men, both well educated men of color, could complement each other’s take. But then, I don’t sit around waiting to be offended. I presume good will unless given reason to think otherwise.
Well, Veritas Forum did what organizations always do when a woke person accuses them: it folded.
Prof. Jennings is a grown man. He agreed to join the forum to debate with Dr. Shenvi. Presumably he was fine with it. But not Kyle J. Howard, who is black. According to Howard’s biography, he has only an undergraduate seminary degree in Biblical Counseling. But he has some relevant hands-on pastoral experience regarding racial trauma and racial reconciliation. Should he not have been considered for this panel because he doesn’t have advanced degrees? Shenvi, however, does have advanced degrees, and he has lectured on the topic. How does Howard know what Shenvi does and does not know about the issue? Shenvi’s father is Indian, and it stands to reason that his brown-skinned children might face academic discrimination getting into universities because though they are not white, they will be required to pay a price, as other high-achieving students of Asian heritage are, for the sins of white Americans generations ago. Given that Critical Race Theory stands to affect his non-white/non-black family negatively, I would be quite interested to hear his thoughts, in fact.
Or is this really about Pastor Howard rejecting in advance Neil Shenvi’s criticism of Critical Race Theory, and invoking an allegation of racism to take Shenvi out?
Was Prof. Jennings’s dignity offended by the Shenvi pairing? What did he have to say about it?
I’m disappointed that Veritas cancelled, but maybe there were some local factors that made it impossible to continue. But they should not have apologized for anything other than exaggerating Shenvi’s credentials — hardly a crime.
This sounds to me like another example of class war fought through identity politics. This week, I was on a panel discussion about Dante with three academics. I had been invited on as a passionate, well-informed amateur. The academics treated me with respect and kindness, and we all complemented each other, I think, with our perspectives. Neither was offended that they were paired with someone who is not trained in literature at the academic level.
When academics of the Orthodox Left in the US tried to get my talk at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary cancelled, one of the strategies they used was wailing but he’s not even an academic! Well, they’ve got me there; I’m no St. Silouan the Athonite either, but by their snotty standard, one of the great modern saints of the Orthodox Church wouldn’t have been invited to give the lecture, because not only did he not have academic degrees, he could barely read. Anyway, a graduate of that seminary who watched my talk on Zoom told me later that so many of those past lectures were dry-as-dust academic affairs where you fought to stay awake. Whether or not you liked what I had to say, at least I was talking about the real world that these seminarians are actually going to live in, not the pristine, hermetically sealed environment of the academy, where one rarely finds opposition to one’s progressive beliefs, and where well-intentioned Christians collapse in the face of progressive indignancy.
Seriously, though, how are we supposed to have any kind of conversation about racial reconciliation when progressives go to pieces over penny-ante invented slights, and the kind of people who ought to be telling these sectarian shriekers to take a hike instead fall all over themselves to appease them?
Here is a lecture Dr. Shenvi gave about Critical Race Theory and Christianity. Watch it for just a few minutes. This is a topic the man has clearly thought about a lot.
UPDATE: A white, conservative Christian professor writes to say I got this wrong. It’s not about race, he says, but about status and Veritas’s brand. It wasn’t wokesters who put the heat on Veritas, but Christian college professors, including conservative ones, who believed that it was insulting to Prof. Jennings to pair him with a seemingly random person — this, when Veritas’s brand is built around how it holds the most important conversations with the best people.
Imagine, said my correspondent, if a bioethics research center put together a debate about the ethics of abortion, and got Robbie George on one side and a random feminist blogger on the other. It suggests a certain lack of seriousness verging on insulting.
My correspondent said he participates in an online forum of fellow conservative Christian college professors, and all of them were angry over this. “Academia is very status conscious and this felt to them like an insult to Jennings,” he writes to me.
Interesting. So it was about status, just not really, as Veritas’s statement implied, about race. I can see the problem, and why Veritas did what it did, even though I roll my eyes at the status-consciousness of academia. So, it’s not as bad as I thought. An interesting question, though: would Veritas be able to find a college professor who is both Christian and willing to publicly oppose Critical Race Theory?
UPDATE: A professor responds: “I think your final question is the most important one It’s impossible to imagine this guy [Shenvi] was Veritas’ first choice. So why was no one else willing to debate CRT?”
Maybe because they saw what is being done to Prof. Joshua Katz at Princeton, for his public stance against the madness.
Seriously, I would love to know if Veritas Forum had difficulty finding a scholar willing to publicly oppose CRT.
UPDATE.2: A professor writes that even if one is faced off with an irenic opponent like Prof. Jennings, the chances that you would say something that the woke mob would use to later try to get you fired is too great.
Another professor writes:
Per the Veritas Forum story: it is in fact the case that status and credentials are so deeply ingrained in the professoriate that we have a hard time thinking outside of it. But I think there’s another issue here. What if, given the fact that Jennings in an “expert,” Shenvi had thoroughly dominating him in debate? One thing about Critical Race Theorists is that they do not like doing public debates, and certainly not against heavyweights such as McWhorter or Loury. But if they lose to one of those guys (neither of whom they will publicly debate) at least it’s to a respectable intellectual and to another black person. But to lose to a theoretical chemist? I promise you fear has a role in this. Think about it: if you were an expert in a field and were invited to debate a non-expert, wouldn’t you be confident that you’d win handily? And if so, why not do it? I think it’s insulting to Jennings that these twitter people felt like they had to step in and stop the fight. They know that their ideas do not hold up well in public fora, which is why on campuses they’re doing everything behind the scenes and shutting down debate in the process. They’re dogmatists.
UPDATE.3: A reader:
Read your piece on Veritas. Nobody can debate CRT without having the proper academic credentials? Okay, but is it even possible to obtain a PhD in critical studies if one isn’t fully bought in to the ideology? My friends can barely survive law school as conservatives these days! Seems like a clever way to guarantee no one will ever be considered qualified to criticize.
UPDATE.4: This comment from reader George Yancey, a Baylor professor who is black:
For the record, I have contacted Veritas as a Christian race scholar who is critical of antiracism and offered to be the foil. I have five academic books on race about about two dozen peer review articles on race that I have authored or co-authored so qualifications should not be an issue. I have not heard back from them at this time.
I hope Veritas will take him up on this offer, and make the meeting between Professors Jennings and Yancey accessible to all of us online. That would be a terrific exchange.
UPDATE.5: This just in from a reader:
You ask if there is any Christian academic who is willing to argue publicly against Critical Theory.I am a confessing Christian; I have published peer-reviewed scholarship on race (and articles for lay people); I have doctoral training in critical theory; and I have a PhD in rhetoric.I’m willing to debate anyone, anywhere, on any of these topics. If someone you know is looking for a scholar who fits that bill, forward them my info.Best,
Adam Ellwanger, PhDProfessor of EnglishUniversity of Houston – Downtown