In her Dec. 4th article in The Bates Student, Zaynab Tawil makes a case about the phenomenon she refers to as “white respectability politics.” I agree with most of what she has to say on this particular topic. It’s probably true, as she says, that “…black people do not owe white people any form of comfort in discussing their oppression.” I’ll defend all night and day the rights of these protesters to be listened to, even when they’re angry and generally making radical demands. The mode of discourse, never mind the tone of discourse, should have no bearing on whether or not one’s grievances about the status of race relations on one’s campus are taken into account as potentially valid perspectives. The problem is that it usually does.
Relevant also is the notion that just because somebody has the racial identity typically associated with the oppressed, or the oppressor, this has any bearing on the validity of one’s views; this is the fallacy of identity politics at its core. It’s generally better to claim to be right and listened to, because you are right, not because of who you are. Students at Yale, a place which supposedly fosters one of the most intellectually rigorous environments in the country, have a unique responsibility to live up to the standard above, in creating discourse that is both helpful and persuasive, rather than ill-considered, radical, and reductively angry.
And so Tawil fundamentally misunderstands the role of “white respectability politics” in all of this. My article was about the rhetorical efficacy of student protestors, which I believe is necessary to succeed in their cause. It would be true in a perfect world that everybody who airs rights grievances be listened to and the grievances be corrected. But what activists in the most successful social movements do, to take the examples of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and the decades-long struggle for civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community, is use discourse and strategies which are rhetorically the most efficacious, if not ideologically pure, in order to achieve right goals. (See the list of demands published before the 1963 March on Washington). Why would a new movement seek to do any differently? The two main ways that those who advocate for political correctness on campuses fail in their attempt at efficacy is that they make unrealistic demands, and use rhetoric that, whether they are right or not, does not serve to persuade observers dispassionate or hostile to them, that the protesters are right.
These types of radical demands include things such as in the instance of Yale, demanding the Christakises be fired, or to use a different but similar example of the “Amherst Uprising” movement, coerced statements of apology, “zero-tolerance policies” on racial insensitivity, and mandatory “extensive training for racial and cultural competency.” The Amherst protesters here engage in the same type of cultural Marxism I explain in my Nov. 18th piece; they would limit the speech rights of some (those who would post “All Lives Matter” posters around Amherst’s campus; one of the demands is that those people actually be disciplined), while demanding institutional enforcement of their own position. It’s almost laughably incoherent to assert that a college suffers from some form of entrenched institutional and administrative racism, and then essentially defer to and put administrators in charge of remedying the situation.
I think it’s pretty neat to educate people, especially from a young age, as Tawil points out, about the potentially racist or culturally appropriative connotations that may accompany something like, to use her example, Mulan. But it’s more productive to, yes, encourage understanding of why things are sometimes racist or appropriative, and why that’s objectively bad, but at the same time encourage young people to make decisions for themselves about whether to dress up as specific fictional characters. This allows those young people to experience the consequences of those decisions, which ought to be pretty severe, if we agree (which, to be clear, we do) that the minorities or others who may take offense should probably be assertive and maybe impolite and generally persuasive in their reasonable criticism of the costume and its connotations. This is better than deferring to some authority figure whose place it may or may not be to dictate to relatively mature, and at Yale, likely intelligent adults, on how to dress, in that it helps them understand in real terms the socio-cultural problems associated with their festive enrobement.
A few other problems with Tawil’s defense of those who would advocate for enforced political correctness: I think it’s fairly radical and simplistic to deny outright that it would be appropriate for any child dressed in a costume which portrays an individual of another culture. Ought nobody be allowed to ever dress in clothes nonspecific to their own culture? Or just white seven-year-olds on Halloween? I think these types of reactions to “cultural appropriation” miss the point of addressing the real problems of entrenched racial injustice on campuses (why are we not protesting the fact that legacy admissions is a major factor in entrenching privilege at elite colleges?) and in our society writ large. Tawil writes, “Daily, systematic abuse of our cultures and populations wears most of us down to the point where we cannot stand to teach white America anymore about why their various actions and lifestyles are wrong.” I won’t dispute that minorities in America feel oppressed and unsafe a lot of the time. This is a problem that clearly needs to be addressed. But the notion that anyone would be “teaching” that anyone else’s lifestyle is objectively “wrong”, is pretty indicative of the type of arrogance that hurts the efficacy of this recent social movement. The audacity that goes into claiming this is astounding. Who is anyone to decide what lifestyle is right or wrong? Why would I ever be inclined to believe that your grievances are right, if my speech rights are challenged and my very lifestyle criticized as objectively incorrect?
It is by these intolerant and illiberal means of discourse, that the p.c. movements at Yale, Amherst and elsewhere, unfortunately cannot, and will not, exact the meaningful and helpful change which is their objective.