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E-Pluribus | March 17, 2023
Stanford Law's DEI dean gets it wrong, you know what "woke" means, and "bias-reporting" at Princeton threatens speech and privacy.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Conor Friedersdorf: What Stanford Law’s DEI Dean Got Wrong
The happenings at Stanford Law have sparked extensive discussion about the state of free speech on college campuses. At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argues that Tirien Steinbach, Stanford Law’s associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, exacerbated the illiberal behavior of students and ultimately disempowered them.
Steinbach’s missteps began before the event, when the DEI dean sent an email to students that included this passage:
For some members of our community, Judge Duncan, during his time as an attorney and judge, has “repeatedly and proudly threatened healthcare and basic rights for marginalized communities, including LGBTQ+ people, Native Americans, immigrants, prisoners, Black voters, and women,” and his presence on campus represents a significant hit to their sense of belonging.
Is that what his presence on campus represented?
The passage ill-serves Stanford’s law students: Steinbach validates the falsehood that the mere presence of a federal judge at a law school bears on whether any student belongs there—as if his physical proximity to the campus pollutes its purity, or as if his speaking there, at the invitation of a group that represents a small minority of students, somehow signifies Stanford Law School’s endorsement of the jurist’s moral character, political values, or jurisprudence. In reality, Stanford hosts many such events due to their obvious educational value: It is vital for lawyers to understand how judges think, perhaps wrongheaded judges most of all!
Instead of validating a faulty premise that all but guarantees some students will continue to feel a “sense” that they don’t belong—even though they do in fact belong—the DEI dean ought to have reminded students that they were officially admitted by Stanford Law as many others were rejected, and that so long as they are enrolled, no outside speaker has any power to change that they belong. In addition to being true, this approach has the virtue of empowering students, rather than validating doubts that leave them at the mercy of any outside speaker with whom they disagree about abortion, voting rights, immigration, or any other issue.
Read it all.
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Freddie deBoer: Of Course You Know What "Woke" Means
This week, on an episode of Hill TV’s Rising, guest Bethany Mandel froze when asked by host Briahna Joy Gray to define the word “woke.” This led many commentators, including Freddie deBoer, to try to define the elusive descriptor that has come to dominate much of our political discussion.
“Woke” or “wokeness” refers to a school of social and cultural liberalism that has become the dominant discourse in left-of-center spaces in American intellectual life. It reflects trends and fashions that emerged over time from left activist and academic spaces and became mainstream, indeed hegemonic, among American progressives in the 2010s. “Wokeness” centers “the personal is political” at the heart of all politics and treats political action as inherently a matter of personal moral hygiene - woke isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Correspondingly all of politics can be decomposed down to the right thoughts and right utterances of enlightened people. Persuasion and compromise are contrary to this vision of moral hygiene and thus are deprecated. Correct thoughts are enforced through a system of mutual surveillance, one which takes advantage of the affordances of internet technology to surveil and then punish. Since politics is not a matter of arriving at the least-bad alternative through an adversarial process but rather a matter of understanding and inhabiting an elevated moral station, there are no crises of conscience or necessary evils.
[ . . . ]
[W]oke politics are overwhelmingly concerned with the linguistic, the symbolic, and the emotional to the detriment of the material, the economic, and the real. Woke politics are famously obsessive about language, developing literal language policies that are endlessly long and exacting. Utterances are mined for potential offense with pitiless focus, such that statements that were entirely anodyne a few years ago become unspeakable today. Being politically pure is seen as a matter of speaking correctly rather than of acting morally. The woke fixation on language and symbol makes sense when you realize that the developers of the ideology are almost entirely people whose profession involves the immaterial and the symbolic—professors, writers, reporters, artists, pundits. They retreat to the linguistic because they feel that words are their only source of power. Consider two recent events: the Academy Awards giving Oscars to many people of color and Michigan repealing its right-to-work law. The latter will have vastly greater positive consequences for actually-existing American people of color than the former, and yet the former has been vastly better publicized. This is a direct consequence of the incentive structure of woke politics.
[ . . . ]
[T]he woke perspective is one that tends to see the world’s problems as structural in nature rather than the product of individual actors or actions. Sometimes the problems are misdiagnosed or exaggerated, but the structural focus is beneficial. Curiously, though, the woke approach to solutions to politics is relentlessly individualistic. Rather than calling for true mass movements (which you cannot create without the moderation and compromise the social justice set tends to abhor), woke politics typically treats all political struggle as a matter of the individual mastering themselves and behaving correctly. The fundamental unit of politics is not the masses but the enlightened person, in the social justice mindset, and the enlightened person is one who has attained a state of moral cleanliness, particularly as expressed in language. The structural problems (such as racism) are represented as fundamentally combated with individual moral correctness (such as articulated in White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which argues that racism is combated by white people interrogating their souls rather than with policy). The only real political project is the struggle against the self; the only real political victory is the mastery of one’s thoughts. The distinction between the effective political actor and the morally hygienic thinker is collapsed. You combat homophobia by being gay-affirming. You combat misogyny by respecting women. You combat all social ills by relentlessly fixating on your own position in society and feeling bad about it. Nothing political can escape the gravity of personal psychodrama and no solutions exist but cleansing the self.
Read it all.
Matthew Wilson: Princeton’s ‘Bias-Reporting’ System Is Stifling Campus
Princeton, like a growing number of institutions of higher education, maintains a “bias-reporting” system, whereby students can submit anonymous reports so the school can investigate allegations of bias, discrimination, and other behaviors. The problem, as Matthew Wilson notes at National Review, is that the system poses significant risks to free speech and privacy.
The consequences of bias reports at Princeton can range from minimal to severe. If Princeton determines that the acts of bias are sufficiently severe (amounting to prohibited discrimination or harassment), the accused can be subject to myriad penalties, including formal reprimands, periods of probation, suspension, and even expulsion from the university.
But even when Princeton determines that reported bias constituted protected speech, or did not occur at all, accused persons can still be subject to what are known as “No Communication” and “No Contact” orders. In cases of reported bias where a no-communication or no-contact order is issued, a student or faculty member found not guilty of discrimination or harassment would still be forbidden from all forms of contact with the accuser — including, in some instances, being forced to leave the room if their accuser enters and being barred from clubs, classes, buildings, and other shared campus spaces — on pain of disciplinary action.
No-communication and no-contact orders were originally intended to shield victims of sexual assault and harassment from their assailants. But Princeton has recently deployed them as weapons to silence student journalists and heterodox voices on campus. While such orders are overseen by a separate Princeton office, and Hotchkiss maintained that the DEI office “does not issue” them directly, the DEI office’s website directs students exposed to speech they “find offensive” to “take advantage” of campus resources including no-contact and no-communication orders — even when the speech at issue has been ruled protected by Princeton administrators.
All of this creates an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and repression.
Read the full piece.
This is *chef’s kiss*:
Matt Yglesias on the problem with trying to define “woke”:
A new FIRE video explains the latest legal updates in the case against Florida’s Stop WOKE Act: