The token punching bag at the New York Times, Bret Stephens, made an interesting observation in his post-mortem on the Smith College fiasco:
Why does the embrace of social justice pedagogies seem to have gone hand in hand with deteriorating race relations on campus?
One answer is that if many students are enjoying a diet of courses on critical race theory, and employees are trained on the fine points of microaggressions, they might take to heart what they are taught and notice what they have been trained to see.
Another answer is that if those who report being offended gain sympathy, attention and even celebrity, more accusations may be reported.
The deeper answer, I suspect, is that the Woke left has the liberal left’s number. It’s called guilt.
By guilt, does he mean feeling guilty about what they’ve done, been, said or not said? Or does he mean guilt as in being manipulated by shrieks of racism or sexism, for they don’t want people to feel they’ve been racist or sexist, and react to demonstrate to the satisfaction of roving mobs of self-deputized inquisitors seeking transgressions that they are good people, decent people, so please don’t destroy me?
The telling line in Powell’s story comes from a letter the Black Student Association wrote to McCartney, Smith’s (white) president, saying its members “do not feel heard or understood. We feel betrayed and tokenized.” Tokenized, most certainly: Behind every affirmative action program at every liberal institution is a yearning for moral redemption — admission to its present ranks is granted in exchange for absolution for past sins and acceptance of its ideological assumptions.
The Woke left doesn’t want to be a party to this bargain. Absolution is off the table. And the liberal ideals themselves are up for renegotiation.
The power that scolds hold over these liberal institutions isn’t seized, but given. Stephens’ contention, that they open their doors to the downtrodden in exchange for absolution, seems far too cynical for my taste. If the liberal ideals are real, then diversity and inclusion are given because they are the right thing to do, the way in which we live up to the ideal of equal opportunity. There’s no bargain involved, and black students need not absolve the colleges of anything in exchange for being welcomed into its elite community.
But if Stephens is wrong, what explains their capitulation to every complaint, every demand, every truth and every lie? Why do college presidents not respond, “if you don’t like it here at Smith, go somewhere else”? Why do they let transients, which is all college students are, dictate who gets hired and fired, what becomes institutional requirements of students like coursework in anti-bias training and cultural sensitivity, what words professors can utter without losing tenure? What “symbolic” childish indulgences and affections they must suffer lest any student feel unloved or disrespected?
Guilt. Maybe there is a sense of guilt for historic wrongs, even if they weren’t the culprits who perpetrated them, and even if they are deeply committed to not allowing them to happen again. This is certainly part of the reparations narrative for those who accept the premise that they enjoy privilege because of race or gender, and rather than do what they can to help those who do not enjoy the same opportunity, drop to the knees to wash feet in an act of supplication.
But the most potent weapon is to moderate one’s every word, every thought, every action to avoid being the target of someone higher on the victim food chain from pointing their finger and shouting J’accuse! Colleges, businesses, media and law now cower in fear of the accusation, the story of racism and sexism that catches fire and spreads across media, damning them for something that exists only in the vicious yet fertile mind of the oppressed.
All of this has left many of the traditional gatekeepers of liberal institutions uncertain, timid and, in many cases, quietly outraged. This is not the deal they thought they struck. But it’s the deal they’re going to get until they recover the courage of their liberal convictions.
At any time, colleges could have said, “no, we’re going to teach math rather than grievance studies, and if you fail, you’re out.” Businesses too could have refused to fire personnel because some random nutjob screamed about him on twitter. The media could have stuck to reporting facts instead of “moral clarity” and the law could address its many failings without succumbing to crime fantasies where the guy who knifed you is the “real” victim. They could have, but they didn’t. They chose not to. They chose to let themselves be guilted into submission.
What stopped them? Guilt?
When this latest digression into left authoritarianism began, it became clear to me that there was no way in hell I could, or would, keep pace with the demands of the woke. I didn’t want to use words that offended people. I had no desire to offend anyone. But it was swiftly apparent that words were being lost, whether by being placed on the forbidden list or redefined to meaninglessness, at a pace that left people without the ability to express basic ideas without someone taking offense. I knew this was a game I wouldn’t win and couldn’t play, so I didn’t. Instead, I willingly suffer the slings and arrows of the unduly passionate and shrug.
Stephens may be right about the genesis of this phenomenon being liberal guilt, but he’s wrong about why they’ve become obsequious allies to the perpetually perturbed. It’s cowardice. They are afraid of being accused, being called mean names, being attacked by the very insipid children they were charged with raising.
They should have said no at the outset and not empowered the woke into believing that they ran the show, but they believed it would pass, the woke would grow up and recognize their childish ideas. That, of course, hasn’t happened, and it wasn’t just some dumb college kids doing typically dumb kid stuff. And a lot of people have been hurt by it.
It’s going to be a lot harder now, after so much of the intellectual infrastructure of society has been bastardized in an effort to placate the woke, to call bullshit and end it. But if we don’t put away the guilt and grow some guts, the damage may be unfixable. People may not be guilty for society’s historic transgressions, but we will be guilty for the cowardly failure to put an end to it.