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E-Pluribus | June 26, 2023
Games English professors play; Chicken Littles of the Left; and how to deal with campus cancel culture.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Eva Kurilova: How Language Games Are Used for Control
Word games have been a popular form of entertainment for centuries, but Eva Kurilova writes at her Substack that some have far more sinister motives for such games. Drawing on a Twitter discussion that grew out of the infamous “What is a woman?” debate, Kurilova exposes the sophistry of these supposed high minded arguments that attempt to complicate what is in fact quite simple.
[Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Elise] Stickles is muddying the waters to make them seem deep. She is trying to confuse what it means to be female so that someone in the mutually exclusive category of “male” can be one as well. This is sophistry, pure and simple. It is an argument meant to beguile, make you throw your hands up in defeat, and acquiesce to the demands of those trying to control your perception of reality.
Once so demoralized, people shrug and say, “sure, we can’t define ‘woman’ so I guess anyone can be one.”
This is exactly what Stickles is aiming for when she tries to accuse people who won’t buy her twisted and self-referential logic of “cognitive dissonance.”
[Dr. Stickles tweet]: “So, it's easier to soothe one's cognitive dissonance by just dismissing the whole "chair" demonstration as stupid, or illogical, or postmodern (someone please alert Diogenes!) than come to terms with this uncomfortable truth.”
There is no “uncomfortable truth” to anything that Stickles argued, nor is it revolutionary to note that language and definitions are imprecise. There are interesting discussions to be had about the nature language, to be sure, but you don’t have to be an English professor to know these things. However, it does seem that being an English professor nowadays makes it more difficult to understand that language is not actually reality—that is the “uncomfortable truth” that those who think mere language games give them an intellectual leg up need to come to terms with.
When people play these types of word games, they think they have found a clever way for men to be women. But what they have actually done is argue against any notion of truth and reality, undermining their own entire argument. If we cannot seek reality outside of language and imprecise definitions, then argument is futile and there is absolutely no reason to accept anything that Stickles is saying. We can simply go right along, as we have always done, knowing what horses and chairs and women are.
Read it all here.
Barton Swaim: The American Left’s Fantastic Threats
The media likes to peg conspiracy theories as the domain of the Right (think Joe McCarthy,) but Barton Swain uses his latest essay in the Wall Street Journal to shine a light on the Left’s Chicken Little tendencies. “Book banning” is only one of the areas Swaim touches upon, but he shows how in that case the Left actually obscures the more serious illiberal behavior by focusing on outliers.
Liberal commentators have been ridiculing conservatives for fearing negligible or nonexistent threats for as long as I can remember: communist infiltration during the Cold War, Islamic extremism in the 2000s, illegal immigration in the 2010s, gender ideology in the 2020s. The right might or might not have exaggerated the urgency of these problems. But they were, or are, problems. That isn’t the case with an array of issues Democratic politicians and progressive intellectuals are exercised about in 2023. You often feel they’re so invested in the idea of a delusional right that they can’t perceive their own penchant for dreaming up nonexistent threats.
Mr. Biden is worried about book bans. The American Library Association recently claimed in a report that 2,571 books were “challenged” in American libraries last year. These challenges the ALA calls “attempted book bans,” nearly all of which involve a request by a patron that a public library or school library remove a book from its shelves because it is obscene or otherwise offensive. I’m not sure such requests are improper—young-adult fiction has become sexually avant-garde and shockingly coarse over the past two decades. Anyway, to ask that a taxpayer-supported library not facilitate children’s access to a sexually explicit book isn’t to “ban” it. An interested patron may buy it and read it in public if he wishes.
Further, as Micah Mattix noted in his Substack of April 26, there are 117,341 libraries in the U.S., 76,807 of which are public elementary- and secondary-school libraries. “Some books are challenged multiple times,” Mr. Mattix explains. “Others are challenged once. How many unique books and resources were challenged last year? 2,571. How many challenges were filed in total? 1,269.” If, as seems likely, some libraries reported several challenges, that means less than 1% of all libraries received even a single challenge. Other organizations, particularly PEN America, assert that local and state governments are eagerly “banning” books, typically those of female, black, gay and transgender authors. All such statements engage in the verbal legerdemain of defining as a “ban” any request that children at a public institution not have access to books about sex.
This strange urge to tremble at the presence of imaginary beasts is accompanied by an astonishing lack of self-awareness. The closest thing to real book bans in the U.S. today is perpetrated by precisely the sort of people who bewail book bans. Major publishers have canceled books by authors ranging from J.K. Rowling to Sen. Josh Hawley because they ran afoul of progressive sensibilities. Amazon refuses to sell Ryan Anderson’s book “When Harry Became Sally” (2018), a measured and serious critique of the transgender movement. In 2021 the American Booksellers Association sent out paperback copies of Abigail Shrier’s “Irreversible Damage,” on the same subject. Activists targeted the ABA, and the trade group issued an obsequious apology for the alleged offense. ALA and PEN America say nothing about these attempts literally to ban books.
Read the whole thing.
Bradley C. S. Watson: A Practical Remedy for University Cancel Culture
Bradley Watson writes at the Spectator that the impulses driving cancel culture are nothing new. Drawing on firmly established principles, Watson says we must not respond to in kind to the forces eroding our institutions, but rather draw on the moral virtues that helped establish them in the first place.
[Alexis de Tocqueville… in Democracy in America] notes that standing against dominant opinions is particularly difficult in democratic times for fear of the disapprobation of the multitude. And the modern university is nothing if not a democratic institution — that is, one beholden to the opinions of the progressive majority that composes it. In most cases, this is a majority ethos more than an actual voting majority, but it is all the more powerful for being so. Once the majority has spoken, says Tocqueville, “everyone is silent, and friends and enemies alike seem to make for its bandwagon.”
Tocqueville notes, for example, that while a king has only physical power, a majority possesses both physical and moral authority. It thus encloses thought “within a formidable fence,” and anyone who traverses it “must face all kinds of unpleasantness and everyday persecution…. He believes he has supporters; but he feels that he has them no more once he stands revealed to all, for those who condemn him express their views loudly, while those who think as he does, but without his courage, retreat into silence as if ashamed of having told the truth.” Such is the democratic manifestation of the natural timorousness of men.
Like Tocqueville’s majority, wokeness “does not understand being mocked…. The least reproach offends it, and the slightest sting turns it fierce.” Overcoming the hegemony of the woke will, therefore, not be easy. The battles will be long, fierce, and messy — but it’s best to fight them now, rather than delay them to our disadvantage.
Alas, to fight requires the very moral virtue that is in shortest supply in academia — courage. The characteristic attributes and mores of academics are no substitute for courage. It is the nature of academics to value their perks and privileges rather too highly, to elevate urbane erudition over the moral virtues. Yet it is courage that makes the other virtues, including the intellectual ones, possible. There’s a reason why urbane cosmopolitans often don’t seem to be the sharpest knives in the drawer — a man cannot think straight when his knees are trembling. We are now dominated by the loudest and proudest voices in our institutions, largely because so many who might oppose them are wary of conflict, always afraid of being labeled impolitic, impolite, or resolute.
Read it all.
Free Black Thought highlights some thoughts from Coleman Hughes on the continuing “racism” narrative that at times obscures progress:
Leor Sapir uses a Kat Rosenfield quote to share some thoughts on tribalism:
And finally, equity or equality? Glenn Loury makes a blunt distinction (click for the video):