Thoughtful piece in the “Saturday Essay” from this weekend’s WSJ by John H. McWorter. Dr. McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music at Columbia University. His latest book is “The Language Hoax.”
Long-ish excerpt from Closed Minds on Campus:
However, something is off about today’s student protests. The protesters may start with valuable observations, but then they drift into a mistaken idea of what a university—and even a society—should be…
The problem is that the university campus is already one of the most exquisitely racially sensitized contexts a human being will ever encounter in America—a place where, for example, comedians such as Chris Rock have stopped performing because audiences are so P.C. In what way exactly will further workshops, teach-ins and classes on “racial sensitivity” create real change? Many students have already gone through these types of programs (as I mentioned in a short piece I wrote for the European edition of Politico last week), but the call for more of them suggests their insufficiency in the eyes of the protesters.
Since the 1980s, anyone familiar with the college campus scene knows that in private moments, undergraduates of all colors tend to wryly dismiss the “diversity” workshops they had to attend at the start of freshman year as hollow exercises. No one on record has created a program or method on “racial sensitivity” that would do a better job and transform minds in a new way. “Racial awareness training”—the words resonate. But these programs are now eons old. More of these programs would be like thinking a car will run better with more gasoline.
For example, current ideological fashions call for telling whites to “acknowledge” their “privilege.” This paradigm has no place in a university environment: It assumes a truth at the outset and allows no room for genuine exploration. (“It’s Not About You!” is a common mantra.) Another central part of the New Indoctrination is the battle against “microaggressions.” An advanced society benefits from understanding that racism isn’t always blunt or overt and that “little things” can hurt. However, too often, the definition of microaggressions is so broad as to condemn almost anything a white person says or does. It is forbidden to associate someone’s color with any particular trait because it is stereotyping, but then it is also forbidden to say that one doesn’t see color at all—and to question a person of color’s claim of being discriminated against. What begins as a plea for compassion becomes a kind of bullying.
These protesters appear to miss how Orwellian their terms often sound; the enraged indoctrination sounds like something out of “1984,” not enlightenment. Then again, one can almost hear the protesters responding, “Well, yeah, but we really are right!” They assume that their perspective is a truth that brooks no morally conceivable objection.
The question for today’s campuses has become: What is considered unspeakable? Where do we draw the line? There are indeed some truths that civilized people would not dispute: that women should have the right to vote, that genocide is wrong. Critics who pretend university culture is open to “free speech” about all ideas are being disingenuous. These students aren’t so much trying to shut down free inquiry as they are assuming that, on this topic, it has already happened. “Racism is wrong,” they know—and we all agree. “Therefore, when it comes to that which I find offensive as a person of color, civility and discussion are beside the point.”
That second part is where these earnest students go wrong. The idea that only the naive or the immoral would question issues connected to something as broad and protean as race and racism is hasty at best and anti-intellectual at worst. What qualifies as discrimination? As cultural appropriation? As aggression? What is an ethnicity? What does racial courtesy consist of, and for what reasons? These are rich, difficult questions with no hard-and-fast answers.
Any insistence otherwise is religious. The term is unavoidable here. When intelligent people openly declare that logic applies only to the extent that it corresponds to doctrine and shoot down serious questions with buzzwords and disdain, we are dealing with a faith. As modern as these protests seem, in their way, they return the American university to its original state as a divinity school—where exegesis of sacred texts was sincerely thought of as intellection, with skepticism treated as heresy.
The impression that race-related positions are elementary tenets long resolved explains the “safe space” concept so often bandied about at universities today. Commentators harrumph that students who insist on this brand of safety are merely “whining,” but they miss the point; these students assume that any views on race and racism counter to theirs genuinely qualify as benighted and toxic. All of us seek “safety” from genuinely rancid views—how many of us would stay at a party where someone dominated the conversation with overtly racist bloviations? These students have merely overextended the bounds of the conclusively intolerable…
There are useful points in the students’ demands: Historical figures as especially bigoted as Wilson and John C. Calhoun should not have their names on college buildings; student organizations displaying openly racist behavior should not be a part of a college campus experience.
But where the protesters’ proposition is “If I am offended, I am correct,” the proper response is, quite simply, “No.” This and only this constitutes true respect for these students’ dignity. It isn’t an easy answer. The naysayer will be called a racist (or self-hating) on social media and on campus for months. However, adults who know that their resistance to mob ideology is based on logic and compassion will survive emotionally. Of course, such people fear for their jobs. But a true university culture will resist sacrificing professors or administrators who are advocates of reason on the altar of convenient pieties.