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E-Pluribus | May 10, 2022
Activists and thinkers, disagreement as trauma, and hope amidst institutional decline.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Sarah Haider: On Effective Activism and Intellectual Honesty
At Sarah Haider’s Hold That Thought Substack, Haider, a self-described activist, ponders the differences between two broad classifications of those who participate in public discourse: the thinkers and the activists. Using anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo as a starting point, Haider compares and contrasts the motivations, goals and expectations of these two groups in a thought-provoking essay that should generate some introspection to all who place themselves in either camp, or perhaps more to the point, somewhere in between.
The activist game, to sum in one sentence, is about results. The goal of a “good” activist is to achieve the ends as quickly as possible - as ethically as this might allow. Her morality is rooted in the goodness of the ends she works towards, indisputably noble means to attain them are not required.
The thinker game is about truth. The goal is to uncover reality as it is - to achieve a true map of the real world (and hopefully, to be the first to do it). Reflecting reality accurately requires honesty - with oneself and with others - and a strict adherence to principled conduct. Although all fields have some degree of competition, knowledge-building is inherently not a zero-sum game. Truth builds upon itself.
The activist, meanwhile, lives in a world of scarcity - limited time, limited funds, limited public attention. To her, not winning is the same as losing: every minute in which her goals are not achieved is a minute in which a harm has been achieved. There is a cost to delay.
Meanwhile, from the thinker’s perspective, the only activism that doesn't look like dishonorable demagoguery is, in practice, ineffective activism.
Read it all.
Jonathan Kay: When Disagreement Becomes Trauma
While “snowflake” is a pejorative that is used to trivialize the concerns of one’s opponents, Jonathan Kay’s latest at Quillette certainly suggests that feelings and sensitivities have a tremendously outsized influence in determining what constitutes acceptable discourse in the public square. Allowing disagreement to be beaten back with hyperbolic charges of “trauma” and “violence” is undermining educational, scientific and other institutions that should thrive on vigorous and even contentious debate, not shrink back from it.
This allergy to disagreement is now a growing feature of intellectual life all across Canada. At Mount Royal University in Alberta, for instance, the faculty union recently sent out two pages of detailed instructions about how professors were expected to communicate with one another at an upcoming spring retreat. In the email message, leaked to me by an exasperated faculty member, the union warned members that discussions at the retreat “may involve engaging in brave, though not entirely safe, spaces.” In order to “minimize harm,” attendees were advised to “speak from our own experience and not invalidate others’ experiences.” They were assured that moderators would eject anyone who willfully violated these rules, and comfort those who’d fled “harmful” discussions. There were also detailed instructions about how to snitch on fellow union members who’d engaged in wrongspeak—including by anonymous complaint. Taken as a whole, the document is a warning to one and all that anyone disagreeing with anyone about anything might be at risk of public shaming and official sanction.
[. . .]
This conflation of disagreement with personal “trauma” takes equally lurid expression in the ongoing debate about whether self-declared gender identity should trump biological reality when it comes to the boundaries demarcating protected female spaces. Among many activists, it is now taken for granted not only that biological sex is a transphobic mirage, but also that arguing otherwise puts transgender people at mortal risk by “denying their very existence.” When feminist Meghan Murphy came to a Toronto library in 2019 to argue for protected spaces, a CBC radio host compared her event to an evening of—yup, you guessed it—holocaust denial.
[. . .]
Harm. Trauma. Terrorization. Holocaust denial. Fascism. In every example I’ve supplied, this kind of apocalyptic language has been used to describe mere discourse: classroom content at UBC, dialogue among colleagues at an MRU faculty retreat, a magazine article, a feminist speaking at a library, a debate between two authors, the contents of an as-yet-non-existent book. In any normal era, this casual equation of discussion with physical torture would be treated as a symptom of severe neurosis. But times being what they are, we’re all supposed to pretend that this is a normal way for humans to respond to disagreement. And as a matter of political tactics, it’s proven an effective means for activists to insulate their claims from criticism: After all, how can anyone prevail against an opponent who claims that discussion itself represents an agony beyond endurance?
Read it all here.
Wenyuan Wu: Can We “Long March” Back through the Institutions?
As Kay’s essay above points out, Western political, educational, social and cultural institutions are under assault. At Minding the Campus, Wenyuan Wu contends that decline is not inevitable and lays out some ideas of how our institutions can regain ground that is still being lost.
The firm conviction that DEI presents an unquestionable model for success and virtue reflects a bigger, national quagmire—America has become obsessed with race, captured by dressed-up fringe ideologies and paralyzed by the urge to equalize outcomes. The current state of affairs is a result of deliberate institutional changes, which have step by step hijacked liberal designs of individual rights, equal opportunity, free speech, and critical thinking. Teachers unions inject political agendas and activist demands into normal education policymaking through collective bargaining and terrorizing non-conforming members. Higher education programs such as education colleges produce ideologues rather than free thinkers by promoting invasive new pedagogies, such as critical race theory (CRT) and culturally responsive teaching. A major American political party is so smitten with the dogma of DEI that most recent federal policies, whether on national defense or homeland security or banking, have been tinged with its pursuit.
It seems that the strategic vision of a “Long March through the Institutions,” shared by Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, and Mao Zedong, has come alive in America in the 21st century. The logical follow-up question is obvious: can we long march back through the same institutions, originally designed as part and parcel of the longest uninterrupted experiment of liberal democracy, to undo the damages?
[. . .]
[T]he woke industrial complex must be dealt with promptly. Entrenched special interest groups, which advance non-educational objectives such as DEI programming, anti-racist initiatives, and social justice activities, present an existential threat to our public education system. One potent vehicle to make the woke pay is through effective public and legal advocacy campaigns that interrogate the substantive destructions and procedural errors of shaping societal norms through the prism of superfluous human characteristics. In the opening case of this article, the disgraced superintendent reckoned that she would not have been targeted if it was a closed meeting, while her lawyer brazenly argued that she did absolutely nothing wrong. They are both right. Race baiting, stereotyping, and other unacceptable behaviors are condoned and even encouraged when little to no public scrutiny is applied.
Read the whole thing.
The appropriateness of classroom gender discussion and instruction has consumed much ink and oxygen in recent months. Conor Friedersdorf posted an excerpt from some curriculum being used by an Illinois school district and asked progressives what they thought. Jesse Singal also weighed in, and Andrew Sullivan dropped by, as well:
Megan McArdle with a good question for those defending protests outside the residence’s of Supreme Court justices:
And finally, in case you missed it, “upper management” at Lufthansa decided to take “sometimes the whole class must suffer for the actions of a few students” to a new level where “the class” meant only Jewish passengers. In 2022.