The letter of my title was written following an unsought encounter with a member of a program developed out of “Women’s Studies” at my alma mater. The phrase “perfect storm” in this context refers to ironies of the situation. The program in its current form came into existence long after my graduation, and I had never heard of it. The story begins during the thick of the COVID19 lockdown. Over previous weeks all of us had been coping with serious, if ambiguous, dangers, political and economic bombshells, and seemingly endless disruptions to life as we knew it. I had been lamenting not only the restriction of normal social contact, but also cancelled celebrations and rites of passage. How many families were losing loved ones with little option for memorial gatherings? How many couples would have their dream weddings scuttled? How many students would be deprived of commencement exercises after years of dedicated work?
My field is Spanish language and literature, and I am a medievalist. My approaches are typically interdisciplinary. Especially given a background in Jungian concepts and Arthurian literature, it seemed to me that the loss of social rituals would inevitably take its psychological toll. And I could not help but wonder how necessary all such cancellations really are. Any student of Jung (and of Merlin) understands the value of rites of passage, and that their power rests partly in their enactments at the very moments of transition from one personal status to another. Such transformations are, after all, elementary to and reflective of identity itself. One day when I had been pondering all this, I received an e-mail from a former professor with whom I have maintained friendly contact for decades. It involved a request that at first glance delighted me. A student who was about to finish a doctorate wanted to mark the occasion by having some pictures taken in academic regalia. Due to the pandemic-related constraints, my former professor, who had always rented gear when needed, asked if I would loan my doctoral gown to the student. And then the other shoe fell. With a resounding, dull, thud.
The last sentences of the e-mail revealed that, contrary to my expectations, the candidate had not earned a degree in Modern Languages and Literatures. My professor now teaches a quarter of the time in a department known as “Global Gender Studies,” and that was the program from which the newly minted PhD was about to graduate. As many of us are painfully aware, the field of cultural studies has been front and center in the corruption of universities around the world, for instance as one catalyst of top-heavy administrations, and the accompanying cost differentials relevant to the student debt crisis. I had been pleased to find that my former SUNY campus has a free-speech policy similar to that of the famous University of Chicago version. My heart now sank, however, as I wondered if any perceived First-Amendment gains in my home institution might turn out as mere window dressing in the face of such a program. Even the implications of its double-barreled name seemed chilling.
As a passionate believer in freedom of speech, and in the fundamental place of the humanities in what Jordan Peterson has eloquently phrased a “call to higher being,” I felt as if I were being coerced into handing over my wedding gown to someone trained to undermine the institution of marriage. Saying “no” could damage a long-standing friendship and even my relationship with my alma mater. Giving an excuse to avoid the problem would be dishonest and would accomplish nothing. So, I replied to the professor, “Tony,” that I would lend my gown to the student, “Alex,” as long as they understood my concerns about the effects of cultural studies on democracy and academic integrity. Tony replied that my apprehensions were completely understood. At that point there seemed little choice but to acquiesce. So, I gritted my teeth and responded as graciously as possible, all the while wondering whether my former professor’s new split-time faculty status signified a fully informed personal choice, or just more depressing evidence of literary-studies displacement by the often pernicious cultural-studies agenda.
Alex drove to our house to pick up the gown, and I made a point of opening a discussion about identity politics, something which I regard as a sanctioned form of profiling. It was a relief to find our meeting a pleasant experience. Interestingly, Alex hails from an eastern European country, and has worked on behalf of the government there. Despite my misgivings, this student is charming, seemed open-minded, and did not even appear to have swallowed whole the far-left ideologies associated with Postmodernism. I thought perhaps the situation could lead, after all, to a new friendship or at least to a constructive dialogue. If that happened, then the personal compromise I was still feeling keenly would be compensated in some sense. And of course, I was still helping to mitigate, in however minor a way, the effects of the COVID-driven abandonment of commencement activities. E-mails thanking me, complete with attractive photo attachments, arrived in due course.
I sent Alex a pdf of my most recent published Jungian reading of Arthurian literature. Based on some parts of our conversation, I thought its interdisciplinary approach could be perceived as stimulating, together with its subtle argument, for a literary analysis more in keeping with the discernment of Northrop Frye than with the control-fixated paradigms of Michel Foucault. In exchange, I received a journal article on a theory that civility in the workplace should be recognized as a political-power instrument of the white patriarchy. The article is not without merit as a window on cultural-studies assertions, and it posits situations that can and do happen. Nevertheless, it has flaws in addition to ideological ones, such as its inconsistent use of the key word, “civility.” Alex agreed with this criticism of mine, but, said that the point of real interest was the central idea, that politeness can be used as a tool of manipulation to harm victimized minorities. “Perhaps,” I responded, in corrupt anomalies. But as a cynical distortion of Western culture overall? Alex also forwarded me the link to a trailer for a documentary, entitled “White Privilege.” The experience of watching it was as if a third shoe had dropped, a size-fourteen lead army boot carrying a pipe bomb.
The remainder of this essay approximately reproduces the letter I wrote in the wake of viewing the video. The letter has been condensed here and otherwise edited stylistically. Its essence has changed little.
I found the video on “white privilege,” even worse than I feared based on its title.
This presentation is the sort of thing which does nothing to defeat racism, but rather which compounds it, revitalizes it, and causes deepening divisions among people.
I do understand the rationale behind such things by people who in some cases are well meaning. But surely if there is a misunderstanding between coworkers, any attempt to resolve it properly must be founded on honesty and fairness. It will not succeed if it assumes that one person is privileged, blind and incapable of empathy, simply because he or she is a member of a certain race, while the other party is unquestionably enlightened, and the only possible arbiter of morality. Such ideas are the essence of racial profiling itself. And condescending to someone so offensively is not likely to open that person’s mind and heart to a discussion of difficult social issues.
I could tell you the story of Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, whose political affinities were liberal, who was sympathetic to identity politics in the name of social justice, and whose post-graduate career was derailed when she became the target of identity-politics exploitation. You have talked about the problem of power imbalances. Well, here was a woman in her early twenties, ambushed by her academic advisor and program head, and by an upper-level administrator for “Equity and Diversity.” These two unapologetic “social justice advocates” tried to strong-arm their young subordinate, merely because she presented a debate topic during a class she taught, in an unbiased way. But she refused to become their victim. She fought back by exposing her situation to the media. Of course, she paid dearly for doing so. But she had the demonstrated truth on her side, while her attackers had only deceitful denials and rationalizations. Lindsay Shepherd is now a free-speech advocate. She has rebuilt her life. But I have been sorry to notice a cynical tone edging in among some of the videos she has posted since her ordeal.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his most famous speech, declared a dream, that one day his children would be “judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin.”
A M E N …whether one’s skin is black, brown, white, red, yellow or purple.
Alex, you seem like a kind person. And I know you have just completed a course of study that taught you to think in terms of identity politics, victimization culture and safetyism. That is why when Tony first approached me about it, I hesitated to loan you my doctoral robes. That regalia to me is the symbol of personal integrity, diligence, perseverance, individual commitment to dynamic engagement in something higher, and the overcoming of significant adversity. As you know, my chosen field is involved in cultural interaction. But I doubt whether you would be able to imagine the very underprivileged circumstances over which this now middle-class, well-educated and economically-secure white person has had to prevail, in order NOT to be seen as (or to be), a victim. In my experience, human beings are properly empowered by taking responsibility for their own lives, and by being truthful in every sense. These strengths are the only authentic bases for compassion and empathy; they are essential to freedom.
Whether its proponents realize it or not, identity politics concepts such as that of “white privilege” are oriented toward the road to Auschwitz, in the sense that they stereotype and they scapegoat.
Several times I have taught a standard course for majors called “Civilizations and Cultures of Spain.” A central lesson I have learned in the process is that when a great civilization falls, such destruction is always facilitated, if not precipitated, by weakening divisions among its own leadership and people. The dogmatics of “white privilege” is a poison, driving ever deeper polarization among people, in the United States, Canada, and other places. My deepest fears these days involve the real destruction of democracy through such divisions.
In your note about the civility article you were mostly reasonable. It seemed we had begun a useful dialogue. And I take your point about the difficulties of making progress if one is underprivileged. In fact, I can empathize all too well, since I have lived some of the scenarios described in the article. The experiences of surviving them, and emerging years later with an earned doctorate, then going on to teach in colleges and universities, stand out among reasons that the doctoral gown means so much to me. But your comment that it could be understandable if the targets of corporate bullying exhibited such behaviors as spitting and swearing, as their only means of protest, is difficult to fathom. It might be understandable in the sense that it would not be surprising to find uncontrolled reactions in the wake of emotional abuse. However, even the fair assertion that people have their natural limits does not mean that such actions would be constructive. For a model of handling such a challenge I would reference once more the case of Lindsay Shepherd, who defended herself by telling the truth to the press, and by presenting the journalist who broke the story with the irrefutable proof which she had had the presence of mind to obtain.
In the same e-mail where you discuss the “civility as a weapon” article, you speak of repellant conduct within the Trump presidency. In fact, the day you visited us, you and I were both aghast at the uncivil demeanor of the President toward the press, during a briefing broadcast that afternoon. If you remember, I pointed out that some of the reporters were also behaving badly, and that none of this egregious unprofessionalism was conducive to the goal of accurately informing the public.
You have wondered, understandably, why this President was elected. In this context, it is worth noting that even people who do not like him have voted for him, because they saw him as a lesser of evils compared to his Democratic opponent. More relevant to the mistaken concept of “white privilege,” many people voted Republican in 2016 in reaction against Barack Obama’s apologies for America’s “history,” and his provocative accusations of ingrained American racism. Many good people had become alienated by these assaults on the national character, especially as they were being made by no less a person than the nation’s President. Even in the face of Donald Trump’s rude conduct, some Americans who would never be friends with someone like him, nevertheless are glad that at least the person occupying the Oval Office refuses to cast his own country as a one-dimensional villain, or to distort her history in the manner of the previous administration. About half of Americans are also sick of the media’s anti-Americanist scapegoating. I agree with them, although my husband and I did not vote for Donald Trump, and in fact both resigned from the Republican party because of him. America has flaws, just like every other country. But at her best she stands for individual freedom and for safety from the great dangers and evils of tyranny. I love her with all my heart. And my mother, an immigrant, was extremely proud to become one of her citizens.
Of course, the problems you address, and that the video projects onto middle-class white America, do exist among the malign and the ignorant everywhere. But stereotyping is the essence of racism itself, and therefore cannot become an instrument of justice.
A couple of personal statements made in your e-mail were even more disturbing than the video. These comments stood out shockingly from your otherwise polite discourse. I could hardly believe you would reference America’s “history of discrimination, brutality and thousands of deaths in this community caused by the oppressive state policy.” This phrase is profoundly offensive and astonishingly distorted. Unfortunately, there will always be incidents of racism and violence, and there will always be instances of corruption. But the United States of America is neither Soviet Russia nor Maoist China. As for Donald Trump, at most he will be reelected as head of state for a few more years, because the American presidency is still subject to a constitutional term limit. President Trump, though in many ways outrageous and counter-productive, is not synonymous with America as a whole. And when you insult her, by declaring racism as fundamental to her makeup, you insult me, and many other Americans who are my friends, family members and colleagues, not to mention those who will have shown you kindness during the time you have enjoyed the privilege of pursuing a doctorate at one of our universities. It also bears pointing out that we are still a democracy, despite the fascist-style, and in some cases violent, speaker shutdowns and disinvitations on American and Canadian campuses. These efforts to suppress free speech are driven not by any government policy, but rather by the proponents of dangerous far-left ideologies.
It was encouraging to hear some of your independent ideas the day we met, for instance when you compared social justice theories to your own lived experience. We should all listen well to the stories of people from diverse cultures and world views, including those of conservatives and centrists. If a university does not support diversity of ideas, as well as cultural diversity, then by definition, as an institute of higher learning it is a fraud….
The letter ends in a suggestion that the emotional nature of the issues discussed, or even Alex’s non-native (though impressive) command of English, may have impacted the conversation. Yet it points out that the video on “white privilege” could not be attributed to factors of the writing process. Since it is unlikely that Alex deliberately set out to cause personal offense, the door was left open to starting the acquaintance over. Some heartening steps have already been taken in that regard. It remains to be seen what will happen when the personal and political dust has settled.
(I add here that this article was submitted before the George Floyd killing.)
Mayo, Cris. “Civility and its Discontents: Sexuality, Race and the Lure of Beautiful Manners.” Philosophy of Education, 2001. Pp. 78-87.
Handler, Chelsea. “Hello Privilege, It’s Me, Chelsea / Official Trailer / Netflix.” YouTube video. Posted September 3, 2019. Accessed May 23, 2020.