I can’t remember the last time I got as many requests to cover a topic as I have about the Emory chalking controversy. I’ve avoided writing about it. I think the campus political debate is thoroughly broken; it’s been divided into ossified camps and I’ve been placed into one of them, which means the people who are in that camp will support my points and those in the other will criticize them. So it’s hard to work up the energy to engage.
On the critical side, you see people who don’t actually understand anything about the left or its many internal divisions, conflating Marxism with identity politics. They treat all college student claims to harm as self-evidently ridiculous even as inequality and injustice infect our campuses in myriad ways. On the supportive side, you see people who are more opposed to the critics than they are supportive of the specific actions of Emory students. A lot of really sharp people who are otherwise critical of emotive progressivism feel compelled to defend actions that they would never conceive of themselves. The Emory students demanded that administrators “feel our pain!,” which is the triumph of affective politics over material change taken to the point of self-parody. I want to ask the critics of the critics, do you really think that “feel our pain” is a radical demand? Do you think it will ever lead to radical ends? But the teams have assembled and that’s that.
I think that the better question concerns a phenomenon that’s far broader than campus protests. It underlies all kinds of controversies, big and small, within the broad left-of-center, such as this absurd, pathetic, invented controversy over News Genius, which concerns whether other people online can react to the words you yourself put online in a forum that you have to deliberately go out of your way to access. And it is casually destructive.
Progressivism (for lack of a better term) suffers from a ton of maladies. But if I had to isolate one underlying issue that threatens political progress more than any other, it’s this: the deepening progressive belief that all good people must treat all claims to offense or harm as legitimate. That is a congealing orthodoxy that is both powerful and unspoken. It has become, in short order, a default moral presumption of media Twitter; it has, with things like the letter a US Congresswoman sent about the Genius scrap, come to infect a much wider world of politics and business. Those who are unwilling to call any particular claim of offense or harm legitimate are presumed to reject all of that kind of claim of offense or harm. So if someone says “I don’t believe that this constitutes harassment,” the immediate response is to say that they don’t care about harassment writ large. To say “this campus protest appears counterproductive” is to be told “you reject all campus protests.” To say “this particular accusation of racism does not seem to meet the standards by which we assess racism” invites the claim that you don’t oppose racism at all. All stances towards offense and harm are taken to be categorical statements, and all right thinking people are presumed to fall on the side of accepting all claims as true.
This is, frankly, a ludicrous thing to believe. It renders human life impossible. The basis of morality is discrimination — the ability to assess the evidence of a particular claim to offense or harm, apply your best moral reasoning, and arrive at a personal judgment about the truth or falsehood of the claim. There is no way for either an individual or a society to proceed with the work of life if they are not empowered to say to some “this claim of harm is legitimate and we must act accordingly” and to others “this claim of harm is not legitimate and we will not undertake the action you demand.” In a democracy, it’s politically suicidal to ask people to set aside their right to sort different claims of offense and call some true and some untrue. It is simply too far from most people’s prior beliefs about what adult life is and means. Treating all claims of harm as legitimate makes police and justice reform impossible, as it naturally provokes more and more engagement by the judicial system. And it leaves you vulnerable to the worst kind of cheats, opportunists, liars, and frauds possible.
This is the crux of it: a political movement that insists that people abandon moral discrimination about harm and offense cannot win and will not survive.
Of course, the world is fallen and is full of offensive things. The need to call things offensive is constant. The world is also full of harms, and these harms are unequally distributed, and the ones that concern race and gender are unusually pernicious. So we use our adult discrimination and when we see offense we call it offensive and when we see harm we call it harm and act in a way that is appropriate for the situation, including taking action, even action through force, when necessary. We never will, and never should, completely agree on what is harmful and what is offensive. But we don’t presume that a claim of offense amounts to proof of offense. Many things are offensive so we say so. Some things are not, and we should say so too.
So when black college students say that it is offensive that they have to attend colleges where black faculty are few and far between, I agree with them, and argue that it is in fact offensive, and that administrators should work to hire more tenure track African American faculty. When students at Amherst say that other students saying “All Lives Matter” constitutes harm and that those students should be formally punished by the university, I do not agree with them and I do not affirm that harm has occurred. I agree that “All Lives Matter” is stupid and counterproductive and obtuse and wrong, but I do not agree that it constitutes a harm that requires violating the right to free expression. How do I come to this conclusion? I utilize my adult discrimination. I look over the facts. I make my best judgment, and I judge. That’s what human beings do. We’re little judgment machines. What I have found so endlessly frustrating about the campus protest debate is the insistence that I must either affirm or reject all campus protests. That is an absurd, childish stance, and one which will only cause harm to both our institutions and our students who protest within them. But people I care about and respect have advanced a “with us or against us” line regarding this issue again and again.
There’s a lot of harassment online. It’s a major problem. It’s unclear that there are any easy technological or legal remedies, given that any forum that can host constructive communication can also potentially host harassment. But the difficulty of addressing it says nothing about our great moral obligation to confront the problem. We have to work together to come up with reasonable definitions of harassment that both protect people from harm while still allowing a vast range of dissenting opinion, even opinion that is expressed with anger or vitriol. What I know for a fact is this: the standard cannot be that any claim of harassment is necessarily true. That is antithetical to the very idea of disagreement. Someone online responding critically to words you put online is not harassment. Someone telling you that your work is bad, or that your opinion is wrong, or that your politics are hypocritical, or that you’re bad at your job — none of these things are harassment. Others are free to agree or disagree about any specific case. But a system that presumes that an accusation alone is sufficient to prove itself cannot work. An accusation of harassment compels us to take it seriously. It doesn’t and can’t compel us to find it credible.
During Jacobinghazi, I would battle it out with commenters here. And I was amazed at how they would hold on to their commitment to taking a claim to offense seriously after that claim was demonstrated to be based on lies. Several women were subject to terrible slanders for saying things they absolutely did not say. I would show them that the claims of harm that were being made against these women simply were not true. And that was so obvious that the angry commenters didn’t even really try to argue that point; they weren’t quite shameless enough to claim that the specific allegations were true. But they maintained their outrage anyway! They still called for blood over a claim of offense, even though they were aware that the basis for that claim was untrue.
During the Rolling Stone UVA disaster, people were still tweeting #IBelieveJackie after it had been revealed that one of the individuals she accused did not exist. How can a political tendency survive if its members feel compelled to affirm the legitimacy of a claim to harm after the person who the claim was leveled against was revealed to be a fiction?
I am always prepared to listen to those who disagree with my diagnosis of what ails identity politics, but I cannot comprehend anyone who thinks everything in this political culture is healthy. Every day I see signs of deepening exhaustion even among people who are strongly inclined to embrace these politics. A controversy like that over News Genius – an imbroglio that concerns a tiny number of people in a small section of an elite industry who are enraged about words that are critical of words that they wrote specifically for public consumption and which appears on a forum that you have to deliberately seek out to see – seems to me to be just the latest sign of a slow-moving meltdown, a political tendency in terminal decline, one which is every day in the process of eating itself. There are other ways, and every day I see more people who are willing to insist that this way isn’t working and who are dedicated to building something better. I only hope that we can do so in time, before the silent majority builds a backlash the likes of which we’ve never seen.