I'm a liberal. Which is why I support liberalism. Meaning, in this context, open-minded discourse about the nature of reality where all views are welcomed, so long as they're backed up by reason and facts.
The interesting thing is that liberals can act in illiberal ways. Of course, so can conservatives.
But it's more shocking and surprising when liberals try to shut down discussion of certain topics because they've bought into a dangerous tribalism that views one side, their side, as possessing all goodness and truth, and the other side as being all bad and wrong.
Recently I had a taste of this when I -- a old white heterosexual man -- dared to critique the decision of some women who decided to call an event next month the 2018 Womxn's March, rather than a Women's March, as the highly successful 2017 event that my wife helped organize was called.
Now, what surprised me about the response on Facebook wasn't that people were disagreeing with me. I'm used to that as someone who regularly writes about local political goings-on.
The surprising thing was that I was being told that as a "cis-gendered white male" I didn't even have the right to weigh in on whether calling this event a Womxn's March was a good idea. I found that idea so absurd, I pushed back on the attempt to suppress my free speech.
Today I came across a summary of a recent talk by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that does a good job of explaining the dynamics of what was going on. Even though obviously my blog post and the reaction to it didn't take place in a university setting, the same left-wing tribalism seemed to be at play here.
In "The Age of Outrage," Haidt starts off by noting that our strong tendency toward tribalism is rooted in evolutionary history.
I’d like you to consider an idea that I’ll call “the fine-tuned liberal democracy.” It begins by looking backward a few million generations and tracing our ancestry, from tree-dwelling apes to land-dwelling apes, to upright-walking apes, whose hands were freed up for tool use, to larger-brained hominids who made weapons as well as tools, and then finally to homo sapiens, who painted cave walls and painted their faces and danced around campfires and worshipped gods and murdered each other in large numbers.
When we look back at the ways our ancestors lived, there’s no getting around it: we are tribal primates. We are exquisitely designed and adapted by evolution for life in small societies with intense, animistic religion and violent intergroup conflict over territory. We love tribal living so much that we invented sports, fraternities, street gangs, fan clubs, and tattoos. Tribalism is in our hearts and minds.
We’ll never stamp it out entirely, but we can minimize its effects because we are a behaviorally flexible species. We can live in many different ways, from egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups of 50 individuals to feudal hierarchies binding together millions. And in the last two centuries, a lot of us have lived in large, multi-ethnic secular liberal democracies. So clearly that is possible. But how much margin of error do we have in such societies?
Well, not as much there used to be. Haidt notes several reasons for this. Our society needs a balance between centrifugal forces that push people apart and centripetal forces that bring people together.
Currently the centrifugal forces have gained strength, owing to, according to Haidt: (1) no unifying common enemy, as there was in the two world wars: (2) social media being a tool to express outrage; (3) diversity reducing bonds of trust between individuals; (4) the more radical Republican party, and (5) the new identity politics of the Left.
Which gets me to Haidt's discussion of intersectionality, a word that had been thrown at me once or twice in the debate over Womxn and Women. Here's how Haidt views the term.
Let us contrast [Martin Luther] King’s identity politics with the version taught in universities today. There is a new variant that has swept through the academy in the last five years. It is called intersectionality. The term and concept were presented in a 1989 essay by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA, who made the very reasonable point that a black woman’s experience in America is not captured by the summation of the black experience and the female experience.
She analyzed a legal case in which black women were victims of discrimination at General Motors, even when the company could show that it hired plenty of blacks (in factory jobs dominated by men), and it hired plenty of women (in clerical jobs dominated by whites). So even though GM was found not guilty of discriminating against blacks or women, it ended up hiring hardly any black women. This is an excellent argument. What academic could oppose the claim that when analyzing a complex system, we must look at interaction effects, not just main effects?
But what happens when young people study intersectionality? In some majors, it’s woven into many courses. Students memorize diagrams showing matrices of privilege and oppression. It’s not just white privilege causing black oppression, and male privilege causing female oppression; its heterosexual vs. LGBTQ, able-bodied vs. disabled; young vs. old, attractive vs. unattractive, even fertile vs. infertile.
Anything that a group has that is good or valued is seen as a kind of privilege, which causes a kind of oppression in those who don’t have it. A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side of each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.
And here’s the strategically brilliant move made by intersectionality: all of the binary dimensions of oppression are said to be interlocking and overlapping. America is said to be one giant matrix of oppression, and its victims cannot fight their battles separately.
They must all come together to fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male. This is why a perceived slight against one victim group calls forth protest from all victim groups. This is why so many campus groups now align against Israel. Intersectionality is like NATO for social-justice activists.
This means that on any campus where intersectionality thrives, conflict will be eternal, because no campus can eliminate all offense, all microaggressions, and all misunderstandings. This is why the use of shout-downs, intimidation, and even violence in response to words and ideas is most common at our most progressive universities, in the most progressive regions of the country.
Well, I'm a straight, white, cis-gendered, mostly able-bodied atheist male. So I guess that puts me in the crosshairs of those who practice the extreme form of identity politics that is also found on liberal college campuses.
As Haidt argues, intersectionality is a bad idea on those campuses, and it also is a bad idea elsewhere. What's most ridiculous is that I'm on the side of the Womxn's March organizers. I simply disagree with them on some points and have been trying to explain why I feel that way in an open, reasonable fashion.
I heartily agree with Haidt's view of the danger that intersectionality poses. It needs to be resisted. Haidt says:
Let me remind you of the educational vision of the Founders, by way of E.D. Hirsch: “The American experiment . . . is a thoroughly artificial device designed to counterbalance the natural impulses of group suspicions and hatreds . . . This vast, artificial, trans-tribal construct is what our Founders aimed to achieve.”
Intersectionality aims for the exact opposite: an inflaming of tribal suspicions and hatreds, in order to stimulate anger and activism in students, in order to recruit them as fighters for the political mission of the professor.
The identity politics taught on campus today is entirely different from that of Martin Luther King. It rejects America and American values. It does not speak of forgiveness or reconciliation. It is a massive centrifugal force, which is now seeping down into high schools, especially progressive private schools.
Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: it teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation.
But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations.
Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.