With witch-burners and flat-earthers on the one side and dour identity absolutists on the other, it is becoming difficult to maintain one’s moral equilibrium. Concepts and designations that I once thought immutable – left-wing, progressive, humanist – have now become porous and threatening.
The conservatives, whose myth-based self-images, fears and prejudices have led them to knowledge-denial and irrational flights of fancy, are not my concern here. Not that I doubt the danger they pose – their idiocy could well lead us to climate catastrophe and other nightmarish scenarios – but there is nothing about them that causes me to question my own values.
They are the enemy I know; the zealots of apartheid, Jewish exceptionalism, white supremacy and unfettered capitalism. They are not new, though, as I will try to explain here, their race-based hatreds have received a tremendous boost in recent decades from the identity politics of the new, so-called “Social Justice” Left.
The latter pose the values challenge that truly concerns me. I see the territory on the left that I once regarded as my ideological home being expropriated by intolerant and self-righteous Social Justice crusaders for whom the credos with which I grew up – liberalism, human rights, social justice (small “s” and “j”) – are as abhorrent as the ideology of the Right is to me.
The new leftists scorn liberalism and deplore the Enlightenment concept of progress. They hew to an ideology (they call it the Theory) that recognizes only victims and oppressors. The former are the fonts of knowledge and experience while the latter are responsible for all the evils of the world.
(I’m being simplistic, of course. A detailed study of the Social Justice phenomenon would require me to expound on its roots in postmodernism and its different fields of activity, such as Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory and Postcolonial Theory. But reduced to their essence, the intricate cogitations and highfalutin language of its adherents are hardly more complex than what I have stated here.)
My thinking on this issue was sparked by an opinion piece in the New York Times this week in which John McWhorter discussed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s cancellation of a speech by climate scientist Dorian Abbot. The invitation to Abbot was opposed by some students and faculty because the scientist was on record as promoting race-neutral university admissions policies (i.e. he’s opposed to quotas.) Abbot was scheduled to speak on climate change, not quotas, but MIT bowed to the pressure and rescinded its invitation.
McWhorter wrote: “I refer to a new version of enlightenment; one that rejects basic tenets of the Enlightenment, as exemplified by Prof. Phoebe Cohen, chair of geosciences at Williams College, who downplayed Abbot’s apparent disinvitation with the observation, as reported by The New York Times, that ‘this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism’ — the idea, presumably, that the widest possible range of perspectives should be heard and scrutinized — “comes from a world in which white men dominated.”
In other words, the good Prof. Cohen believes that intellectual and scientific standards that have evolved over centuries are null and void because they came about in a society largely controlled by white males.
Then, a day or so later, I read about veteran South African cricketer Quinton de Kock, who withdrew from a T20 World Cup match after the sport’s governing body in South Africa instructed all players in the team to take a knee before the match. “After considering all relevant issues, including the freedom of choice of players, the board had made it clear it was imperative for the team to be seen taking a stand against racism, especially given SA’s history,” Cricket South Africa said in a statement after the match.
De Kock later apologized for withdrawing from the team. “The rights and equality of all people is more important than any individual,” he said in a statement. “I was raised to understand that we all have rights, and they are important. I felt like my rights were taken away when I was told what we had to do in the way that we were told.”
If I understand correctly, De Kock’s point was that while he agreed with the anti-racism message of taking a knee, he was upset at being coerced into taking a group political position in public.
The example of climate scientist Dorian Abbot above – and particularly the mind-boggling statement of Prof. Phoebe Cohen – illustrates the coercive nature of the new Social Justice Left, in addition to its anti-empirical, anti-rational and illiberal qualities. Cohen and co. view the world through a prism of power dynamics, in which every interaction, statement and activity is judged by the status and identity of those involved.
White males – by definition the wielders of all power and authority – have no legitimacy, no credibility and should be ostracized, while the experiences of those who have suffered prejudice and discrimination at white male hands are the only valid reflection of reality. Victimization is truth and white male knowledge in its entirety is a lie.
The second example – that of the cricketer Quinton De Kock – illustrates the consequences of the cancel culture practiced by Prof. Cohen and many others. If people can be coerced into toeing the line and canceled if they don’t, it’s only a short skip and a jump to a sports authority mandating the public political line that sportspeople are obliged to take. Taking a public stance is laudable when it is freely chosen, but worthless and counter-productive when it is mandated.
(I hate to give comfort to the Trumpist right, which has adopted the phrase “cancel culture” with a vengeance. As I write, Republican-dominated state legislatures throughout the US are busily drawing up laws to counter it in schools and elsewhere. Unfortunately, politics is an inexact science; one sometimes finds oneself cheering for the same team as the enemy.)
From Abbot to De Kock (to misquote Churchill) an iron coercion has descended across the world. It’s bad enough when the Right burns books, but the squeeze is really on when the Left begins doing it as well, if only metaphorically at this stage.
If knowledge and valid experience are now reserved for the victimized, where does that leave a white male like myself? I suppose I could draw on my distant Lithuanian ancestors, some of whom fell victim to the Nazis, or to the time I was pursued by anti-Semitic bullies in Johannesburg when I was a kid, but, frankly, I don’t think it will do me any good.
Jewish victimization – which both pre- and post-dates slavery – is apparently an exception to the Social Justice rule. Jews eager for a slice of the victim pie need to be female, gay, post-colonial or whatever, but they can’t just be Jews. We are too closely identified with the oppressors to claim victimhood.
Beside which, I don’t want to be a leftie if it requires the appropriate identity and a dollop of victimhood. I continue to believe that a socially just society would be one in which an individual, given a choice, would be equally happy to be born into any social milieu or identity group (as formulated by the progressive philosopher John Rawls).
I certainly don’t deny the injustices done to women, homosexuals and indigenous people under colonialism and I have little doubt that structural racism persists in virtually every country. There is a huge amount of work to be done before we can consider our societies equal and enlightened.
But I can’t stomach the anti-rational, illiberal and coercive practices of those who today claim to be righting social wrongs. They are doing nothing of the sort. If anything, their insistence on the centrality of identity and their strong-arm tactics are an undisguised blessing for those on the right who are just as eager to promote their own identity (white in the US, but Hindi, Moslem etc. elsewhere) and who are similarly disdainful of democratic values.