Here’s another in Helen Pluckrose’s series of interviews with humanists and rationalists, presumably intended to bring attention to her new site Counterweight, part of whose mission is to defend those unjustly accused or mobbed. This interview is 17 minutes long and Sam is, as usual, extremely eloquent. The guy speaks in publishable paragraphs.
You should listen to it; it will hearten you.
The discussion begins with free speech, which Sam defends along John Stuart Mill-ian lines: as a general principle, not just as adherence to the First Amendment. Free and untrammeled speech is, he says (as did Mill), the only way we have of winnowing truth from falsehood, though sometimes it can’t do the job.
Here are a few of Sam’s quotes I’ve transcribed from the interview.
“Apparently we now have a generation of people who think that their capacity for outrage, their capacity to feel offended, is itself evidence for the rightness or wrongness of any given principle or idea or a set of values. The “Ick Factor” is ruling our epistemology now, and it’s getting so finely calibrated that we terms like ‘microaggressions’ and ‘speech is violence’ and this reconception of harm that has made everyone as thin-skinned as they can possibly be, and as performative as they could possibly be. . . “
On the effect of social-justice “mobs” in quashing speech:
“Grownups should be able to talk about more or less everything with a cool head and not endlessly castigate one another for merely thinking out loud.”
“One of the things that’s so pernicious about this silencing effect is that it creates an illusion of consensus where you have the most voluble and hysterical activists taking up most of the oxygen and successfully cowing other people into silence for fear of the reputational damage that awaits them if they open their big mouths on any number of topics, race being only one.”
He further discusses the “asymmetric advantage” of woke activists: it’s far more costly to be accused of being racist and transphobic acts or statements than to say the sensible things that “run counter to this moral panic.”
At 9:34 the discussion gets into race. Sam of course admits the existence of racism, but argues that our goal should be to eventually make skin color equivalent to hair color: a trait that nobody cares about and that needn’t be the object of “equity.” That day, I suspect, will be a long time coming.
Finally, there’s this quote:
“Racism exists in some places, but doesn’t exist everywhere, and it is being claimed to exist everywhere and is being found everywhere in what is clearly a mass hallucination. And this hallucination is being defended by people who are highly incentivized to defend it; and the level of dishonesty and callousness that surrounds this whole enterprise is just appalling. Genuinely good people, who everybody knows are not racist or sexist or transphobic, are being sacrificed to this new religion.”
In the end, he holds out the possibility that lawsuits against companies or institutions may be powerful ways to put the kibosh on the “mass hallucination” of the new religion.
After hearing this talk, I keep wondering why Sam is so demonized by a certain segment of the Left. Yes, I think he was wrong about objective morality, but he’s eminently sensible and surely does more good than harm. Yet he, and that other paragon of eloquence, Steve Pinker, are among the most demonized members of the anti-woke Left. Perhaps it’s just because they are anti-Woke, and won’t truckle to the mob.
The purging of biological names that could possibly offend people continues. Since birds are now on the list for name-purging, the entomologists have gotten busy, too. Who wants to be left out? And so, according to an article from the ESA Bulletin, the familiar “gypsy moth” and the less familiar “gypsy ant” will be renamed. But that’s just the beginning, for the entomological pecksniffs will pore through all insect names and bin the ones that don’t comport with modern “progressive” liberal ideology.
Now in this case I have no objection to the renaming of two common names—the famous gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) and the gypsy ant (Aphaenogaster araneoides). That’s because to the Romani people (previously known as “gypsies”), the term “gypsy” is highly offensive. (The name comes from their presumed resemblance to Egyptians, though their genetic origin is India.) It is an ethnic slur. After all, it’s like having common names like the “Kike moth” or the “Hebe ant”, which would be unacceptable.
Although common names can be changed on the grounds of offense, it’s harder to change Latin binomials, which are embedded in the literature and would be very confusing were they to change, but in this case, as you see above, it’s not needed.
The change, which appears to be only the beginning, is described in this article from the Entomological Society of America (click on screenshot):
Here’s what they did, and I emphasize again that this is okay by me. What I fear is what will come now.
The existing common names for the moth Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides were identified as containing a derogatory term for the Romani people. In June, the ESA Governing Board elected to remove the common names for both species from the ESA Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List.
Native to Eurasia, Lymantria dispar is a serious pest of North American forests, with caterpillars that feed on more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. This year, parts of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada are seeing some of the largest outbreaks of L. dispar in decades. ESA will seek to convene a volunteer group to propose a new common name for L. dispar, which would then be made available for ESA member comment and subject to approval by the ESA Committee on Insect Common Names and the ESA Governing Board.
What worries me, however, is that what happened with birds—the purging of common names involving people who made contributions to science but were imperfect, following the morality of earlier times—will also happen with insects. And while there are roughly 10,000 species of birds in the world, there are could be as many as 5.5 million species of insects, with about 900,000 named already. Vetting insect names will be a much bigger task, and those who do so may be tempted to do with insects what they did with birds. As we know, even Darwin’s name isn’t safe now!
And so the ESA has a project to vet insect names, the “Better Common Names Project.” Click on the screenshot to read about it.
And so the ESA is soliciting everyone to scrutinize insect names (you can single out a name that you want changed here), looking for odiferous names like these:
Names that contain derogative terms
Names for invasive species with inappropriate geographic references
Names that inappropriately disregard what the insect might be called by native communities
The “inappropriate geographic references” bit intrigued me, though all three categories could be, as they say, “problematic”. Here’s what’s wrong with using geographic names:
What’s the problem with geographic references in common names?
Referencing geography in a common name for an insect, in particular for invasive or harmful species, can perpetuate discrimination, xenophobia, and bias against people from the same geographic region. For example, throughout history, immigrants, refugees, or “othered” groups have been compared to insects or referenced in entomological terms, and a large body of scholarship has explored this pattern. For further reading on the topic, see:
Shinozuka’s article on how the Japanese beetle influenced anti-Asian policy in the early 20th century and was used as a vehicle to dehumanize Japanese people and persuade Americans that the “invaders” needed to be eradicated.
ESA is a global society, and increasingly so. Therefore, it’s important that the names we call insects are relevant on a global scale; are inclusive of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities; and do not perpetuate harm against people.
Of course some of this is objectionable behavior, like referring to asylum seekers as “vermin,” but that has nothing to do with insect names. For example, I have no problem with “Japanese beetle, or “Asian carp”, which are not in themselves racist. They can be misused by racists, but they simply describe the geographic origin of a species.
In cases like this I tend to adhere to Grania’s Dictum. When she was alive, she always asked me in cases like this: “Will making these changes really accomplish anything? If not, it’s just a performance of virtue flaunting.” And the ESA’s claim that common names that fall into the three categories above should be changed because they “perpetuate discrimination, xenophobia, and bias against people from the same geographic region” seems exaggerated. Is the “American white pelican” going to cause anti-American bias? Not likely? Or are they referring only to names referring to Countries of Color? And what about plants? They’re probably on the schedule, too. There goes Spanish Moss. . .
By all means ditch the gypsy moth and gypsy ant, and any other common names containing racial slurs. But we have learned that the Pecksniffs, once they get started, can de-name anything so long as it offends just one or two people. And much of that renaming has no effect on racism and xenophobia. When new names are proposed, everyone else tends to fall in line, for academics tend to be both pusillanimous and conformist, and who wants to raise their voice against a determined Pecksniff?
Finally, good luck with the 350,000 species of beetles! Remember, there’s a Darwin’s beetle. Here it is—a magnificent creature:
Apparently Amazon Studios has issued a new “inclusion policy and playbook”, which has some useful provisions about including people of color in their company, including actors and those with creative roles, though these look a lot like quotas. In fact they are, complete with percentages, but I don’t see how you can enact affirmative action without having at least an idea of what degree of relative representation you want.
Bari Weiss also read through the entire “inclusion playbook“, which I haven’t done, and she picked out some examples of new guidelines for woke language and what she calls “the woke numbers game”. Some of the changes in language are just euphemistic, some familiar but still discombobulating (“womxn”), but others seem deliberately duplicitous, like hiding the most widely known construal of “jihad”. She’s put up a short piece on her Substack site.
Click on the screenshot to read; it’s free.
I’ll give just two quotes (there’s more to read), one of them long. There is apparently no limit to how far places like this can twist language to defang or alter it. “Orwellian” is not too strong an adjective.
Amazon is turning the making of TV and film into the same woke numbers game played at every other elite institution. (Exhibit A: Sixty-eight percent of the students admitted to Princeton’s class of 2025 self-identify as “people of color.”)
I decided to read through Amazon Studios’ Inclusion Playbook, designed “to help disrupt the biases that occur across the lifecycle of a series or movie, from the first inkling of a concept to viewers streaming the content on Prime Video.” The playbook directed me to a factsheet that promised to help improve my familiarity with all things diverse and inclusive.
There I encountered entries on things like: acquired limb difference (otherwise known as “amputation”). There’s an entry on mean girls, which, I learned, was a “stereotype of girls and young women characterizing them as socially aggressive and unkind” —characterizations that, apparently, not only “enforce the bad behavior” but “fail to address the larger social issues girls and women face like insecurity, lack of confidence, and pressure to fit the ‘feminine beauty ideal.’” Someone please relay that to Tina Fey.
There were entries on haka (I’ve been a fan for years), unnecessary intersex surgeries (bad), womxn (whatever happened to good old-fashioned womyn?) and the biological clock, which is explained as: “in relation to birthing people, the biological clock refers to the sense of pressure people feel to have children during their ‘peak’ reproductive years.” As a 37-year-old womxn/birthing person, I can assure you that those scare quotes around the word ‘peak,’ as though human reproduction is some kind of social construct, are superfluous.
Moving right along, the Inclusion Playbook taught me that the Arabic word jihad means to “strive and struggle for God,” and is a term that describes “personal betterment.” Sharia, we are told, literally means “the clear, well-trodden path to water.”
I also learned about the Yazidis, who are victims of the apparently non-violent jihad waged by the Arab League (also covered in this document!). Do I even need to tell you that there is no mention of Israel or of Jews?
Well, “sharia” says more than that: the definition from the factsheet, finished off with a comment to head off dissent, is this: “Sharia literally means “the clear, well-trodden path to water.” It’s a code of conduct for all aspects of Muslim life, derived from the Quran and Hadiths (Islamic text about the Prophet Mohammed’s life). Sharia is not a set of laws to infiltrate America.”
And the definition of “jihad” avoids one of the most obvious meanings entirely and deliberately—in fact, dissimulates about it. Amazon defines it this way: “Jihad/Jihadi: Jihad literally means ‘strive and struggle for God,’ which encompasses an internal struggle towards personal betterment. A jihadi is one who strives and struggles for God. Jihad is not an order to murder and doesn’t mean ‘terrorism.’
Umm. . . . . I looked up “Jihad” in the Oxford English Dictionary and here are the only two definitions, in order:
2. In extended use. A war or crusade for or against some doctrine, opinion, or principle; war to the death.
Sharia is defined this way: “The Islamic religious law, including the teachings of the Qur’an and the traditional sayings of Muhammad.” It does not say that sharia often mandates female oppression and genital mutilation.
It looks as if Amazon is deliberately playing up the amiable aspects of Islam. But we’re used to this kind of repurposing of language. The person who really gets to the nucleus of the problem isn’t Weiss, but Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor of Newsweek::
As Newsweek editor Batya Ungar-Sargon has noted: wokeness is, almost always, a smokescreen. By focusing the attention and energy of the rich and powerful on say, whether using the word Latinx is preferable to Hispanic, we let them off the hook for actually doing something about the fact that Latinos remain more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line as whites and Asians.
Batya put it to me this way: “‘Doing the work’ means hiring diversity specialists to call their children white supremacists in a prep school class they can put on their transcript to help their chances of getting into Harvard. It has absolutely nothing to do with asking those who could actually make a difference with regard to true inequality to sacrifice anything of themselves.”
It is an amazing thing to behold Amazon executives LARP as gender studies majors.
On May 21, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a takedown of Darwin in a Science op-ed on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Asserting that Darwin was a racist, a white supremacist, and a man whose ideas justified “colonialism” as well as “genocide,” Fuentes’s piece was over the top: a typical and execrable specimen of holding someone living decades ago responsible for adhering to the moral norms of his time. (Actually, Darwin, an abolitionist, was a far sight better than many of his contemporaries.) In other words, according to Fuentes, Darwin should have known better. But I bet you ten to one that Fuentes, had he been Darwin’s contemporary, would have been even more of a moral reprobate than Charles himself.
I criticized Fuentes’s piece here (and Robert Wright did elsewhere), though Jonathan Marks, a well known anthropological firebrand, sprang to Fuentes’s defense. Several weeks ago, a bunch of us evolutionary biologists got together and wrote a joint letter to Science criticizing Fuentes’s piece. The journal sat on it, said it wouldn’t appear in print, but have at last put it online. You can see the link to our letter below, but I’ve posted the whole thing, along with our names, addresses, and the references we use.
Click on the screenshot to see our letter (and Marks’s):
What we wrote:
RE: “The Descent of Man”, 150 years on
(6 June 2021)
“The Descent of Man” 150 years on
In this 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1), Science published one article celebrating the progress in human evolutionary science built on Darwin’s foundations (2), along with a second, Editorial article, three quarters of which instead pilloried Darwin for his “racist and sexist view of humanity” (3). Fuentes argues that students should be “taught Darwin as [a] man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience”. We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.
What Darwin wrote was of course shaped by Victorian realities and perspectives on sex and racial differences, some still extant today, but this is not a new revelation . Rather than calmly noting these influences, Fuentes repeatedly puts Darwin in the dock for the Victorian sexist and racist norms within which he presented his explosive thesis that humanity evolved. Fuentes incorrectly suggests that Darwin justified genocide. Darwin was frequently and notably more modern in his thinking than most Victorians. In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz (5). On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329). His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution (1).
Students taught about the historical context for Darwin’s writing should appreciate how revolutionary Darwin’s ideas were, challenging many (but not all) prevailing Victorian perspectives (6). We lament the failure to celebrate the vast impact of those ideas at the expense of the distorting treatment Fuentes offers.
Andrew Whiten1, Walter Bodmer2, Brian Charlesworth3, Deborah Charlesworth3, Jerry Coyne4, Frans de Waal5, Sergey Gavrilets6, Debra Lieberman7, Ruth Mace8, Andrea Bamberg Migliano9, Boguslaw Pawlowski10 and Peter Richerson1
1School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9PE, UK. 2Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DS, UK. 3School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3FL, UK, 4Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 1101 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL60637, USA. 5Psychology Department (PAIS Bldg), Suite 270, 36 Eagle Row, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. 6Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ of Tennessee Knoxville, TN 37922, USA. 7Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA. 8(Editor in Chief, Evolutionary Human Science) Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK. 9Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich, 190 Winterthurerstrasse, Zurich 8057, Switzerland. 10(President, European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association) Department of Human Biology, University of Wroclaw, ul. S. Przybyszewskiego 63, 51-148 Wrocław, Poland. 11Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com
1. C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. With an introduction by J. T. Bonner and R. M. May. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1871/1981).
2. P. J. Richerson, S. Gavrilets, F. B. M. de Waal. Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s the Descent of Man. Science 372, 806.
3. A. Fuentes. “The Descent of Man” 150 years on. Science 372, 769.
4. A. J. Desmond, J. R. Moore. Darwin. (Penguin, London, 1992).
5. P. J. Richerson, R. Hames. Busting myths about evolutionary anthropology. Anthropology News, July 18 (2017) doi: 10.1111/AN.510
6. H. E. Gruber. Darwin on Man. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974).
We could have said a lot more, but there is a strict word limit for Science letters.
On May 6 I posted a piece on racism and human genetics, making the point that while some early human geneticists promoted eugenics (this doesn’t happen any more), there were other geneticists who explicitly opposed it. I wrote it to counter an article by Lea Davis in Scientific American (of course), who claimed that white supremacy is baked into the structure of human genetics and that the field still carries the burden of white supremacy. Anyone actually studying human genetics in a university knows that Davis’s accusations are not true.
Here’s a short excerpt from my article that gives the tone of my piece, which is critical but not, I think, uncivil:
Beyond that, we have the multiple Kendi-an accusatons that all human geneticists are complicit in racism and white supremacy. A few samples [from Davis’s piece]:
How do we teach and talk about this incredibly problematic history? Despite the many scholarly texts available, there is rarely an open and frank acknowledgement that the very foundations of our field were rooted in the false and dangerous beliefs of biological race and human racial hierarchies. Today, there is an effort to distance modern genetics from the harms of eugenics. This shameful aspect of our shared history is often separated from the primary curriculum for human genetics trainees, relegated to classes in “ELSI” (ethical, legal and social issues), which are usually electives—or, worse, just one day of training. In large part, we are failing to disclose this startling racist legacy to young scientists entering the field; a sad irony for a discipline devoted to human inheritance. Our failure to acknowledge the racist origins of modern genetics also has repercussions in our (in)ability to attract and retain members of underrepresented communities in genetics and other STEM training programs. Thus, as time marches on, the knowledge of our harmful racist history is fading while the culture of whiteness continues to dominate.
No, there is an effort to teach people about the history of our field. But that should not include the accusation that STEM is racist, for every school I know of is trying to “diversify” STEM as hard as we can. The issue is a “pipeline problem”: few minority candidates have reached the Ph.D. stage. That itself reflects older racism, but not racism imbuing human genetics, for scientists are pretty much anti-racists.
Further, the “very foundations of our field were not rooted in racism”. Yes, some famous geneticists believed that, but by no means all. Was the monk Gregor Mendel a racist? Were the re-discoverers of Mendelism, Hugo DeVries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak, determined to imbue the field with racism? Not that I know of. How about the popularizers of modern genetics: people like T. H. Morgan, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Alfred Sturtevant, Calvin Bridges, Sewall Wright, and J. B. S. Haldane? Nope. You can mention Ronald Fisher in support of racism, but his eugenics was based on poverty, not race, and at any rate never got purchase. No, our field is not founded on racism.
And I gave several articles by famous geneticists of the 20th century who opposed eugenics.
The article certainly provides an opportunity to debate Davis’s claims versus my own, but when someone tried to do that, a ruckus ensued. Here’s a comment that a reader made on my post this morning on “social constructs” (click on the screenshot to go to the comment):
I have been officially condemned! Well, I’m not going to defend myself here; you can read my piece for yourself and judge for yourself. I further deny that it could cause “harm” to anyone who didn’t already have psychological issues, and I assert that a robust debate on these issues is exactly what this benighted university (I don’t know which one) needs but is trying to prevent.
Shame on that department, and shame on that university! For their actions are inimical to the very purpose of the university: to say your piece, adduce what facts you have, and let students hash out the issues in class or even in their own brains.
As you’ll know if you’re a regular here, many “progressive” birders are on a mission: to expunge from ornithology the common names of all birds that are “eponyms” of people who did bad stuff in their day. Bird names slated for the trashcan include Townsend’s warbler, six birds named after Alfred Russel Wallace, McCown’s longspur, and even Audubon’s warbler, since Audubon himself owned slaves. Indeed, some people want every bird named after a person to have its name changed to a non-person name. That, I suppose, is the logical consequence of this movement since nobody’s life could withstand the moral scrutiny of the Pecksniffs.
As I’ve said before, I’m not really on board with this movement, since the names are in common usage and, most important, the names are used to honor someone’s scientific work, even though those workers may have had moral views that don’t comport with ones that are current. Now if there were a bird called Hitler’s Warbler, or Quisling’s Towhee, I wouldn’t object to expunging those names. And simple honorifics for people who didn’t do squat for science or ornithology, well, I’m not that keen on those. But as for other renaming efforts, well, I think the endeavor is not deserving of debate, but also won’t accomplish much in terms of ridding the world of bigotry.
Take A. R. Wallace, for example, whose eponymous birds, including Wallace’s Owlet, are circling the drain. Here’s the cited reason why his small footprint in ornithology (and the man’s accomplishment’s are underrated) is being expunged:
The Wallace’s owlet and five other birds honor Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, explorer and anthropologist credited, along with Charles Darwin, for conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection. Wallace’s writings frequently used the n-word, including in reference to the “little brown hairy baby” he boasted about caring for after fatally shooting her mother during an 1855 trip to the Malay Archipelago. Some historians believe they were orangutans.
And even that is a correction from the original piece, as the end of the article notes:
CORRECTION. The Wallace’s owlet and five other birds honor Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, explorer and anthropologist credited, along with Charles Darwin, for conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection. Wallace’s writings frequently used the n-word, including in reference to the “little brown hairy baby” he boasted about caring for after fatally shooting her mother during an 1855 trip to the Malay Archipelago. Some historians believe they were orangutans.
Clearly the author didn’t do his diligence, since the original article probably asserted that Wallace killed a black person. Even this correction is bogus. SOME historians? No, Wallace definitely shot an orangutan, for he said so in his autobiography (see note at bottom of this post). To imply otherwise—that it might have been a human mother and baby—is to be duplicitous. And he was hardly a racist. Yes, he did use the n-word, as did most white Brits of his era, but he also wrote this in his autobiography (p. 343):
The more I see of uncivilized people, the better I think of human nature on the whole, and the essential differences between civilized and savage man seem to disappear.
As for the rest of the bird names, let the woke birders do their thing. I’m sure they will ultimately win, for they have two things on their side: performative outrage and the ability to call their opponents racists. Those are powerful weapons, and nobody but contrarians like me would even question this movement. And changing the Latin binomials for these birds, many of which contain the name of the Offender, is simply out of the question.
Yet the article does make one point I agree with: black birders are often objects of suspicion, and people should make an effort to not only include people of color in the birding community (this is an effort well underway), but stop acting as if a person of color watching birds through binoculars doesn’t belong. We all know about the Central Park incident, but I’m sure that related incidents happen more often, and that black birders are often looked at with suspicion. It’s time to stop that; they are simply human beings with binoculars, like the rest of us who like to look at animals.
Yet even this opprobrium is exaggerated in the article’s many over-the-top statements. Here are a few:
But overcoming those barriers will be daunting. As with the wider field of conservation, racism and colonialism are in ornithology’s DNA, indelibly linked to its origin story.
. . . “Conservation has been driven by white patriarchy,” said J. Drew Lanham, a Black ornithologist and professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, “this whole idea of calling something a wilderness after you move people off it or exterminate them and that you get to take ownership.”
. . .Indeed, White explorers, conservationists and scientists who crossed the world conveniently ignored the fact that birds had been discovered, named and observed by native people for centuries before their arrival.
To the Cherokee, eagles are the awâ’hili and crows are kâgû. The English common name for the chickadee is a butchered translation of the Cherokee name, tsïkïlïlï. Similar-sounding names for other birds that English speakers renamed or mispronounced are scattered throughout East Coast tribes.
Europeans named birds as though they were human possessions, but American Indians regard them differently. The red-tail hawk in some languages is uwes’ la’ oski, a word that translates to “lovesick,” because one of its calls sounded like a person who lost a partner. [JAC: To me, that doesn’t mean anything; after all, we have a bird named, in English, the mourning dove, so named because of its sad call.]
“A whole lot of Native people, in thinking about birds, don’t open a book of science. Their book of science is in the knowledge possessed by people in generations before them, the elders,” said Shepard Krech III, a professor emeritus at Brown University and author of “Spirits of the Air.”
There is some truth in the contention that some explorers simply ignored indigenous peoples’ knowledge of animals and plants, which is often extensive and deep, but others, like Ernst Mayr, did not. As for conservation having patriarchy and racism in its bones, that’s simply a reflection that science before the last century—indeed, nearly every endeavor—was a white man’s game, as was conservation. That itself does not mean the field was “founded on patriarchy” and certainly does not mean that it is still larded with patriarchy, racism, and colonialism. It is not.
There are two other quotes I want to mention. The first is the idea that you will naturally feel uncomfortable working in an area founded by people not of your ethnicity, and indeed, should feel uncomfortable. That’s expressed in this quote:
In Honolulu, ornithologist Olivia Wang is equally harsh. She regards the honorifics that birds carry with disdain.
“They are a reminder that this field that I work in was primarily developed and shaped by people not like me, who probably would have viewed me as lesser,” said Wang, an Asian American graduate student at the University of Hawaii. “They are also a reminder of how Western ornithology, and natural exploration in general, was often tied to a colonialist mind-set of conquering and exploiting and claiming ownership of things rather than learning from the humans who were already part of the ecosystem and had been living alongside these birds for lifetimes.”
What strikes me is the idea that “people must look like you”, as if physical appearance correlated with ethnicity (which, by the way, shows that ethnicity isn’t a social construct) is the main thing you should worry about when entering a field. Also striking is Wang’s view that birders from decades ago “probably would have viewed me as lesser”, which might be true, but is surely true no longer.
Finally, there’s the claim that by making birding more diverse and inclusive, it will improve ornithology. To wit:
The new panel is “not just because we want to feel good about ourselves,” said Webster, who is White. “We see it [as] critically important to understanding and conserving birds. It’s critically important that we have a diversity of people out there doing it.”
. . .Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, stressed that North America lost 3 billion birds over the past 50 years and that saving what’s left will need people of every ethnicity and background to be involved. “The biggest threat birds face … [is] being ignored to death,” he said. “Not enough people know and not enough people care.”
This implicitly assumes that people of different races have, on average, different viewpoints about the study of birds and so more inclusion will change the direction of the field. This is a claim I would reject without empirical evidence. But certainly people of all groups and genders should be permitted equal opportunity to become birders and study ornithology. For that will improve birding, as it will allow a wider range of people with different talents to use their skills. If there are barriers to such study, let them be removed.
But I’m not yet convinced that ethnic diversity itself is a good way to improve our scientific understanding of birds—beyond casting a wider net to capture more interested people. Diversity should be encouraged not because ethnic diversity is a sine qua non for improving ornithology (if it is, let us have the data), but because in the past people of color were discouraged from following scientific paths. Making them more welcome can be thought of as a form of reparations for bigotry in the past, and simply the right thing to do. What we need is equal opportunity and more birders.
h/t Andrew Berry for the information about A. R. Wallace
From Wallace’s book My Life (1905), pp. 344-345:
In my next letter, a month later, I gave the following account of an interesting episode:—
“I must now tell you of the addition to my household of an orphan baby, a curious little half-nigger baby, which I have nursed now more than a month. I will tell you presently how I came to get it, but must first relate my inventive skill as a nurse. The little innocent was not weaned, and I had nothing proper to feed it with, so was obliged to give it rice-water. I got a large-mouthed bottle, making two holes in the cork, through one of which I inserted a large quill so that the baby could suck. I fitted up a box for a cradle with a mat for it to lie upon, which I had washed and changed every day. I feed it four times a day, and wash it and brush its hair every day, which it likes very much, only crying when it is hungry or dirty. In about a week I gave it the rice-water a little thicker, and always sweetened it to make it nice. I am afraid you could call it an ugly baby, for it has a dark brown skin and red hair, a very large mouth, but very pretty little hands and feet. It has now cut its two lower front teeth, and the uppers are coming. At first it would not sleep alone at night, but cried very much; so I made it a pillow of an old stocking, which it likes to hug, and now sleeps very soundly. It has powerful lungs, and sometimes screams tremendously, so I hope it will live.
“But I must now tell you how I came to take charge of it. Don’t be alarmed; I was the cause of its mother’s death. It happened as follows:—I was out shooting in the jungle and saw something up a tree which I thought was a large monkey or orang-utan, so I fired at it, and down fell this little baby—in its mother’s arms. What she did up in the tree of course I can’t imagine, but as she ran about the branches quite easily, I presume she was a wild ‘woman of the woods;’ so I have preserved her skin and skeleton, and am trying to bring up her only daughter, and hope some day to introduce her to fashionable society at the Zoological Gardens. When its poor mother fell mortally wounded, the baby was plunged head over ears in a swamp about the consistence of pea- soup, and when I got it out looked very pitiful. It clung to me very hard when I carried it home, and having got its little hands unawares into my beard, it clutched so tight that I had great difficulty in extricating myself. Its mother, poor creature, had very long hair, and while she was running about the trees like a mad woman, the little baby had to hold fast to prevent itself from falling, which accounts for the remarkable strength of its little fingers and toes, which catch hold of anything with the firmness of a vice. About a week ago I bought a little monkey with a long tail, and as the baby was very lonely while we were out in the daytime, I put the little monkey into the cradle to keep it warm. Perhaps you will say that this was not proper. ‘How could you do such a thing?’ But, I assure you, the baby likes it exceedingly, and they are excellent friends. When the monkey wants to run away, as he often does, the baby clutches him by the tail or ears and drags him back; and if the monkey does succeed in escaping, screams violently till he is brought back again. Of course, baby cannot walk yet, but I let it crawl about on the floor to exercise its limbs; but it is the most wonderful baby I ever saw, and has such strength in its arms that it will catch hold of my trousers as I sit at work, and hang under my legs for a quarter of an hour at a time without being the least tired, all the time trying to suck, thinking, no doubt, it has got hold of its poor dear mother. When it finds no milk is to be had, there comes another scream, and I have to put it back in its cradle and give it. ‘Toby’—the little monkey—to hug, which quiets it immediately. From this short account you will see that my baby is no common baby, and I can safely say, what so many have said before with much less truth, ‘There never was such a baby as my baby,’ and I am sure nobody ever had such a dear little duck of a darling of a little brown hairy baby before.”
We haven’t had a poll in a while, and of course polls on this site aren’t scientific, because readers are hardly a cross section of America. But they are a cross section of readers—unless, of course, those prone to give answers have some biases. Actually, I do this for myself, just to see how readers feel.
This poll was inspired by an article sent by reader Barry and posted by Ben Cohen on his Substack site, The Banter. You’ll have to subscribe to read it (click below), but some of Cohen’s posts are free, so subscribe if you like them.
Cohen was inspired by this recent article in the NYT showing that “the party is at risk of losing ground with Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters unless it does a better job presenting an economic agenda and countering Republican efforts to spread misinformation and tie all Democratic candidates to the far left.” (You can read the original report by three groups here.)
But how can a party at war with itself, like the Democrats are now, “rebut Republican misinformation”? Every squabble between the center and “progressive” Left (I have to find a new adjective there) weakens party unanimity and causes Republicans on the sidelines to chuckle.
It turns out that, as many of us knew, identity politics and Wokeism are largely endeavors of white people on the progressive Left. Issues like “defunding the police” or drastically opening up the border don’t go down so well with voters of color, who are concerned largely with economic issues (who isn’t?) Here are two quotes from Cohen’s piece:
The major issue with the identity politics movement is not necessarily the ideology itself. If you ignore the more militant aspects of it, there are many necessary, noble and good ideas embedded in it. From understanding structural racism to the complex issues faced by the LGBTQ community, identity politics can offer an interesting lens through which to examine them. The biggest problem though, is the right’s ability to magnify the extremist elements of the movement and unfairly tie the Democratic Party to it.
I don’t spend a huge amount of time talking about the identity politics left because it isn’t a dangerous movement like the far right is, and although influential, it is still relatively small. But if you follow the right wing media, you would be forgiven for thinking that Black Lives Matter was an offshoot of Al Qaeda, and Nancy Pelosi was ordering militant lesbian doctors to abort the fetuses of good Christian women around the country. The more mainstream identity politics gets, the more Republicans are able to use it as a rallying cry for their bigoted policies and distract voters from the good the Democrats are doing in office. Furthermore, it is helping Republican efforts to drive more conservative minorities away from the Democrats.
Cohen adds that of course the Democrats’ biggest problem isn’t the Woke among us, but Trumpism, which—despite my efforts to ignore it—appears to be waiting nearby in the wings, and still dominates the GOP. But the ruling political party tends to lose in the midterms, and our Democratic margin is already damn thin.
When Biden won, I worried that his administration would be too woke, and that that position would hurt the Dems down the line. It turns out that Biden isn’t that woke, and has been doing some pretty good stuff, but he’s always being pressured by the progressive Authoritarian Left, and I wonder about his ability to withstand that pressure. (Pelosi’s presence helps.) We don’t want to lose the House and—Ceiling Cat forbid—the Senate in next year’s midterms.
Do you think the wokeness of the “progressive” wing of Democrats might turn the tide for the GOP? I have no definite opinion, but I worry. So give your answer to the poll below and your explanation in the comments, please.
And yes, I know that Trump is a bigger danger than, say, “the squad,” so I needn’t be apprised of that.
George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is one of my favorite essays of all time (you could do worse, though, than read all his collected essays, many of them masterpieces). It not only teaches one how to write clearly, but shows how political writers deliberately use obfuscation and euphemism to blur language for ideological ends, hiding political brutality and base motives. You can read it here, and should, like me, do so at least once a year. It will improve your prose. There’s a reason why Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called Why Orwell Matters in 2003.
Andrew Sullivan is also a fan of that essay, as all writers should be, and highlights it in one section of his weekly column (click on screenshot below). But he gives it a modern twist, showing how the kind of obscurantist writing decried by Orwell is still with us—pervasive in the works of the Woke.
Reviving Orwell’s thoughts in light of modern politics was a great idea. He’d have a few harsh words to say about the woke!
First, though, let’s look at the five principles of good writing Orwell lists at the end of his essay:
i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Then Sullivan gives several abstracts of Woke writing that violate many of these guidelines. I won’t reproduce his critique at length (it’s pretty funny in parts), nor mention the other people who violate these principles (e.g., the group Sullivan calls the “alphabet people” obsessed with gender nouns).
Here’s one example of bad modern writing discussed by Sullivan:
I was just reading about the panic that occurred in the American Medical Association, when their journal’s deputy editor argued on a podcast that socio-economic factors were more significant in poor outcomes for non-whites than “structural racism.” As you might imagine, any kind of questioning of this orthodoxy required the defenestration of the deputy editor and the resignation of the editor-in-chief. The episode was withdrawn from public viewing, and the top editor replaced it with a Maoist apology/confession before he accepted his own fate.
But I was most struck by the statement put out in response by a group called “The Institute for Antiracism in Medicine.” Here it is:
The podcast and associated promotional message are extremely problematic for minoritized members of our medical community. Racism was created with intention and must therefore be undone with intention. Structural racism has deeply permeated the field of medicine and must be actively dissolved through proper antiracist education and purposeful equitable policy creation. The delivery of messages suggesting that racism is non-existent and therefore non-problematic within the medical field is harmful to both our underrepresented minoritized physicians and the marginalized communities served in this country.
Consider the language for a moment. I don’t want to single out this group — they are merely representative of countless others, all engaged in the recitation of certain doctrines, and I just want an example. But I do want to say that this paragraph is effectively dead, drained of almost any meaning, nailed to the perch of pious pabulum. It is prose, in Orwell’s words, that “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
It is chock-full of long, compounded nouns and adjectives, riddled with the passive voice, lurching and leaning, like a passenger walking the aisle on a moving train, on pre-packaged phrases to keep itself going.
Notice the unnecessary longevity: a tweet becomes an “associated promotional message.” Notice the deadness of the neologisms: “minoritized”, “marginalized”, “non-problematic”. As Orwell noted: “the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning.” Go back and see if you can put the words “minoritized” or “non-problematic” into everyday English.
His second target is Ibram X. Kendi, who also comes in for it in Sullivan’s “Dissents of the Week” section for proposing a Department of Racism that could vet and reject any U.S. law on the grounds that it creates inequity. But you can read that for yourself. Here’s his critique of Kendi’s language:
I caught a glimpse of Ibram X. Kendi’s recent appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the annual woke, oxygen-deprived hajj for the left-media elites. He was asked to define racism — something you’d think he’d have thought a bit about. This was his response: “Racism is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” He does this a lot. He repeats Yoda-stye formulae: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy … If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” These maxims pepper his tomes like deep thoughts in a self-help book. When he proposes specific action to counter racism, for example, he suggests: “Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.” “Always vote for the leftist” is a bit blunter.
Orwell had Kendi’s number: “The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.” And that conformity is proven by the gawking, moneyed, largely white, Atlantic subscribers hanging on every one of this lightweight’s meaningless words — as if they really were in church.
You can tell from Sullivan’s snide remarks about the Aspen Ideas Festival—which I once attended—and about Atlantic subscribers that he’s pretty ticked off, and in good form.
So what do we do about this abuse of the English language? Sullivan recommends, correctly, that we call it out and ask for clarification:
And that is the only recourse an average citizen has when buried by this avalanche of abstraction: ask the language-launderers what they are really talking about. When some doofus apologizes for the “terrible pain” they have caused to the whatever community, ask them to give a specific example of that “pain.” When someone says “structural racism,” ask: what actual “structures” are you referring to? How do they actually work? Give concrete examples.
When someone calls American society “white supremacy”, ask them how you could show that America is not a form of “white supremacy”. When someone uses the word “Latinx”, ask them which country does that refer to. When someone says something is “problematic”, ask them to whom? When you’re told you’re meeting with members of the BIPOC or AANHPI communities, ask them first to translate and then why this is in any way relevant, and why every single member of those communities are expected to have the same opinion. And when you’re told that today is IDAHOBIT Day, ask them if you can speak to Frodo.
The term “structural racism” is my personal bugaboo, as it’s become a synonym for just “racism”, with the “structural” tacked on to add gravitas and a supposed intensity of malfeasance. But “structural” racism is racism built into some institution or structure, like laws or rules, not simple acts of bigotry. As for “pain,” well, I accept very few of these claims as accurate. “Pain” has become another word for “offense” or even “manufactured offense.”
But I will stop here lest I begin ranting, for Sullivan’s rant is enough. Read it.
Here’s another read for you, this time from Bari Weiss’s Substack column. Weiss seems to have been farming out the writing part of her site to others (Katie Herzog in this case) and concentrating on podcasting, a genre I don’t listen to. Herzog’s piece, below, discusses the kind of wokeness in medicine that is either potentially injurious to people or makes doctors keep their mouths shut when they shouldn’t.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Herzog readily avers that there are inequities in medicine, many stemming from racism in the past that has led Hispanics and blacks to be unable to afford good medical care or to be shunted to ineffective adyts of the system. These have to be addressed.
But the object of the current fracas is what’s seen as “ongoing systemic racism” in medicine. This, claims Herzog, has led to doctors being reluctant to criticize others for being late, for criticizing wokeness and—in my view, the worst violation—”whole research areas being seen as off limits”. I’ll give two examples, one of which doesn’t show research as being off-limits, really, but showing criticism of presumably weak research being off limits. Herzog:
“Wokeness feels like an existential threat,” a doctor from the Northwest said. “In health care, innovation depends on open, objective inquiry into complex problems, but that’s now undermined by this simplistic and racialized worldview where racism is seen as the cause of all disparities, despite robust data showing it’s not that simple.”
“Whole research areas are off-limits,” he said, adding that some of what is being published in the nation’s top journals is “shoddy as hell.”
Here, he was referring in part to a study published last year in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences. The study was covered all over the news, with headlines like “Black Newborns More Likely to Die When Looked After by White Doctors” (CNN), “The Lack of Black Doctors is Killing Black Babies” (Fortune), and “Black Babies More Likely to Survive when Cared for by Black Doctors” (The Guardian).
Despite these breathless headlines, the study was so methodologically flawed that, according to several of the doctors I spoke with, it’s impossible to extrapolate any conclusions about how the race of the treating doctor impacts patient outcomes at all. And yet very few people were willing to publicly criticize it. As Vinay Prasad, a clinician and a professor at the University of California San Francisco, put it on Twitter: “I am aware of dozens of people who agree with my assessment of this paper and are scared to comment.”
“It’s some of the most shoddy, methodologically flawed research we’ve ever seen published in these journals,” the doctor in the Zoom meeting said, “with sensational conclusions that seem totally unjustified from the results of the study.”
“It’s frustrating because we all know how hard it is to get good, sound research published,” he added. “So do those rules and quality standards no longer apply to this topic, or to these authors, or for a certain time period?”
At the same time that the bar appears to be lower for articles and studies that push an anti-racist agenda, the consequences for questioning or criticizing that agenda can be high.
The article below is the PNAS article at issue, and you can read it for free by clicking on the screenshot:
The popular summary from the article which, if true, is a pretty serious finding, and is apparently imputed to white doctors mistreating black newborns in a way that doubles their mortality! Here’s the author’s popular precis:
A large body of work highlights disparities in survival rates across Black and White newborns during childbirth. We posit that these differences may be ameliorated by racial concordance between the physician and newborn patient. Findings suggest that when Black newborns are cared for by Black physicians, the mortality penalty they suffer, as compared with White infants, is halved. Strikingly, these effects appear to manifest more strongly in more complicated cases, and when hospitals deliver more Black newborns. No such concordance effect is found among birthing mothers.
As Herzog notes above, many people see this study as weak (confession: I haven’t yet read it). If you want a series of problems that Ethan Milne found in the paper, he has a critique of the paper on Medium, though he hastens to add:
While I have included many disclaimers throughout this post, I want to be clear that I am 1) not a medical researcher, and 2) that you should read the paper yourself. The research itself has merit, and the biggest issue here is the way in which uncritical reporters overhype findings to satisfy their personal biases. The solution isn’t to throw our hands in the air and cry foul when research is flawed, but to build on that research in future work.
Milne shows how grossly the popular press distorted the results of this paper.
So read the paper or, if it’s above your pay grade, look around the Web to find other takes on it.
I’ll cite just one more example: somebody losing their position and status for maintaining that medicine is hyperracialized and is not systemically racist:
In February, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a podcast hosted by surgeon and then-deputy journal editor Edward Livingston, who questioned the value of the hyper focus on race in medicine as well as the idea that medicine is systemically racist.
“Personally, I think taking racism out of the conversation will help,” Livingston said at one point. “Many of us are offended by the concept that we are racist.”
It’s possible Livingston’s comments would have gone unnoticed but JAMA promoted the podcast on Twitter with the tone-deaf text: “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in health care?”
Even more than in the case of Norman Wang, this tweet, and the podcast it promoted, led to a massive uproar. A number of researchers vowed to boycott the journal, and a petition condemning JAMA has received over 9,000 signatures. In response to the backlash, JAMA quickly deleted the episode, promised to investigate, and asked Livingston to resign from his job. He did.
If you try to access the podcast today, you find an apology in its place from JAMA editor-in-chief Howard Bauchner, who called Livingston’s statements, “inaccurate, offensive, hurtful and inconsistent with the standards of JAMA.” Bauchner was also suspended by JAMA pending an independent investigation. This Tuesday, JAMA announced that Bauchner officially stepped down. In a statement, he said he is “profoundly disappointed in myself for the lapses that led to the publishing of the tweet and podcast. Although I did not write or even see the tweet, or create the podcast, as editor in chief, I am ultimately responsible for them.”
Seriously, do you think that Livingston’s comments were inflammatory and odious enough to warrant this kind of “uproar,” much less forcing him to resign with the usual abject apology? I doubt it. And the JAMA’s promotion of the podcast was invidious and inflammatory enough to ignite this controversy.
There’s more in Herzog’s piece, including stuff about differential treatment of patients of different races. I will add that the study of infant mortality noted above has such serious implications that it, and studies like it analyzing disparate races of caregivers and care receivers, need to be repeated. We can’t just blow off the result, weak as the study may be, because people’s health and lives are at stake.
As far as I can determine, New York Times political columnist Thomas Edsall is a classical centrist liberal. Nevertheless, like many of us, he’s worried that wokeness among Democrats, rife in the misnamed “progressive” wing of the Party, could spell disaster in our attempts to court centrist Americans. This is the subject of his weekly column in the Times (click on the screenshot to read):
First, some statistics showing where Americans sit on several issues that are “big” for progressives (all quotes are from Edsall unless indicated otherwise):
In 2019, the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group commissioned a survey asking for agreement or disagreement with the statement: “There are only two genders, male and female.”
In the full sample, a decisive majority, 59 percent agreed, including 43 percent who “strongly agreed,” 32 percent disagreed and 9 percent who said they weren’t sure. Among Republicans, it was no contest, 78 percent agreed and 16 percent disagreed. Independents mirrored the whole sample.
Democrats were split: a plurality, 48 percent, disagreed, and 44 percent agreed.
An August-September 2017 Pew Research survey asked respondents to choose between two statements: “whether a person is a man or a woman is determined at birth” and “whether a person is a man or a woman can be different from the sex at birth.”
A 54 percent majority of all those surveyed said sex “is determined at birth” and 44 percent said it “can be different from the sex at birth.” Republican voters and those who lean Republican chose “at birth” 80 to 19. Democratic voters and those who lean Democratic said sex can be different from the sex at birth 64 to 34.
Or take the public’s view of the “defund the police” movement that gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd a year ago.
A March 1-2 USA Today/Ipsos Poll found that voters were opposed to defunding the police 58-18, with the strongest opposition among whites (67 percent to 13 percent support, the rest undecided) and Republicans (84 to 4 percent), while a plurality of Democrats were opposed (at 39 to 34), which was also true among African Americans (37 to 28).
These surveys are complemented by others that measure the fear that our public dialogue is too constricted. A Harvard/Harris survey in February asked, “Do you think there is a growing cancel culture that is a threat to our freedom or not?” By 64-36, a majority of voters said they thought there was. Republicans see a threat by 80-20; independents by 64-34, but Democrats were split, with a slight majority, 52-48, saying they do not see a threat. This basic pattern is observable across a number of issues.Although centrist Democrats make up a majority of the party in the polls I cited above, the fact that a substantial minority of Democrats takes the more extreme stance allows Republicans to portray the Democratic Party as very much in thrall to its more “radical” wing.
Now of course some of the “wokeness” is in a good cause. Transgender people need to be not just respected, but given, as far as possible, full equal rights under the law. Police violence, racist or not, needs a closer inspection. And more people than ever are living in fear that what they say publicly could lead to their eternal damnation (pushback is of course useful and legal, but things have gone way too far).
Before I show some of the statements collected by Edsall to support his thesis, here’s one in support of wokeness that deserves consideration:
Elizabeth Rose, a law student, argued, for example, in “In Defense of Cancel Culture” last year that “for all the condemnations on cancel culture as an un-American speech suppressing monster, I would argue that cancel culture is incredibly American.”
Cancel culture, she continued,
is essentially a boycott. It’s refusing to participate or support those that promote racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise ignorant behavior. Protest is at the heart of this country and it shouldn’t be limited in the name of making already powerful people feel safer to spew ideas that are not tolerable in today’s society. Because exposure by millions is so easy now with social media, celebrities, rich, powerful, connected, and beautiful, can no longer get away with disrespecting human dignity. They are not being held to a higher standard for being a public figure, they are being held to the bare minimum.
The problem is not that one should not push back against statements you consider injurious or bigoted. The problem is twofold. First, the pushback is not just counter-speech, but an attempt to ruin the lives of those who say things you don’t like. It is, in other words, a lack of empathy and civility—the assumption. More important, much of the wokeness that irritates people like me—and probably many centrists—is that it is performative: it doesn’t aim to improve social problems but, apparently, to highlight the virtue of the critic. This includes things like the demonstrations against “Kimono Wednesdays” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the attack on a professor who used a Japanese phrase that sounded like the “n word” but was a common Chinese filler sound, the overreaction to supposed racial slights that weren’t really racial, like the one at Smith College, the demonization of “whiteness” that’s an essential part of much anti-racist training (training that’s proved to be largely ineffective), and (a non-performative example) the dismantling of standardized testing on the grounds that it reveals gaps between racial groups. If these things strike me as overreactions, and often risible, then they will strike people more centrist than I as even more ridiculous.
Note, too, that the Right engages in much of this bad behavior, as Nadine Strossen points out:
Nadine Strossen, professor emerita at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote by email that she considers herself
a “bleeding-heart liberal” but even more important to me are the classic liberal values that are under siege from all sectors of the political spectrum, left to right, including: freedom of speech, thought and association; academic freedom; due process; and personal privacy.
As I always emphasize, the behavior of the Right is nearly always way more odious than that of the Left, but my interest is keeping Democrats in power, and to do that, as Edsall’s quotes attest, we need to dial down the more ludicrous forms of wokeness. Do you want Republicans to recapture the House and Senate in 2022?
More from Edsall:
In an article in March, “Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming the G.O.P.’s New Political Strategy,” Perry Bacon Jr., formerly a senior writer at FiveThirtyEight and now a Washington Post columnist, described the ways that policies the Democratic left argued for provided political opportunities to the Republican Party:
First and perhaps most important, focusing on cancel culture and woke people is a fairly easy strategy for the G.O.P. to execute, because in many ways it’s just a repackaging of the party’s long-standing backlash approach. For decades, Republicans have used somewhat vague terms (“dog whistles”) to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups like Black Americans who are pushing for more rights and freedoms. This resentment is then used to woo voters (mostly white) wary of cultural, demographic and racial change.
Among the reasons Republicans will continue to adopt an “anti-woke posture,” Bacon writes, is that it
Insofar as Republicans suppress Democratic votes, Bacon continued,
or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government. The argument would be that Democrats would eliminate police departments and allow crime to surge if they have more power, so they must be stopped at all costs. Polls suggest a huge bloc of G.O.P. voters is already open to such apocalyptic rhetoric.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U., argued in an email that the policies the Democratic Party’s left wing is pushing are an anchor weighing down the party’s prospects:
Wokeness is kryptonite for the Democrats. Most people hate it, other than the progressive activists. If you just look at Americans’ policy preferences, Dems should be winning big majorities. But we have strong negative partisanship, and when people are faced with a party that seems to want to defund the police and rename schools, rather than open them, all while crime is rising and kids’ welfare is falling, the left flank of the party is just so easy for Republicans to run against.
And then Jonathan Rauch discusses why those opposed to more extreme wokeness don’t criticize it publicly. I think his reasons are quite good:
“The younger generation (wrongly) perceives free speech as hazardous to minority rights.”
“The purist side has had more passion, focus and organization than the pluralist side.”
“Universities are consumeristic these days and very image-conscious, and so they have trouble withstanding pressure from their ‘customers,’ e.g., activist students.”
“The use of social pressure to manipulate opinion is a powerful and sophisticated form of information warfare. Anyone can be dogpiled in minutes for any reason, or no reason.”
“Activists have figured out that they can have disproportionate influence by claiming to be physically endangered and psychologically traumatized by speech that offends them.”
And Randall Kennedy (an African American):
Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture,” cited in an email a similar set “of reasons for the deficient response to threats against freedom of thought, expression and learning emanating from the left.”
“Woke” folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem, especially in this George Floyd/Covid-19 moment when the scandalous inequities of our society are so heartbreakingly evident. On the campuses, many of the most vocal woke folk are students whom teachers and administrators want to mollify, comfort and impress. Many teachers and administrators seek desperately to be liked by students.
At the same time, Kennedy continued, many of the people demanding the diminution of what he sees as essential freedoms have learned how to package their insistence in effective ways. They have learned, Kennedy wrote, to deploy skillfully the language of “hurt” — as in “I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought therefore to be prohibited.”
Because of this, Kennedy argued,
Authorities, particularly those at educational institutions, need to become much more skeptical and tough-minded when encountering the language of “hurt.” Otherwise, they will continue to offer incentives to those who deploy the specters of bigotry, privilege and trauma to further diminish vital academic, intellectual and aesthetic freedoms.
I would particularly emphasize the recurrent claims of “harm” or “danger”, claims that I often reject completely. Few of these clams involve actual harm; instead, nearly all involve having to encounter ideas you don’t like. And that is part of not just college education, but growing up in general. To call it “harm,” “danger,” or “injury” is ludicrous.
What’s the cure? Well, it’s to appeal to those who are open minded, and that excludes most Republicans. One of the few sensible courses of action I’ve seen is suggested by Diane Halpern, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College and former president of the American Psychological Association. (It would require a psychologist rather than a politician to make sensible suggestions, wouldn’t it?)
[Halpern] wrote in an email:
All social movements are a series of actions and reactions. For example, we can all agree that charges of sexual assault should be fair to all parties involved. But how does “fairness” get operationalized. The swing from policies that seem to favor the person being accused, then the reverse, then back again, and so on is mirrored in many other topics where people disagree. Action in one direction is followed by reaction in the other direction.
The difficulty, Halpern continued,
is to get people to find what they can agree upon and continue from that point. For example, most people will agree that they want humane treatment of migrants who are fleeing almost certain death in their home country, and we can agree that the United States cannot admit everyone who wants to live here. If conversations began with a shared set of goals, there will still be strong disagreements, but the tone will reduce some of the hostility both sides feel toward each other.
But, as Edsall notes, given the huge ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats, even this tactic may be futile. My suggestion would be the same one I give atheists who are sick of theocracy in America but don’t know what to do: “Speak up! There are many who feel like you, but are afraid to open their mouths. The more of us who express our feelings, regardless of how we’re demonized, the more the silent majority will stop being silent.”
This is one reason, I think, that religiosity has decreased so strongly in the last two decades, for that’s when people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens started writing anti-theist books, empowering others to take up the cause. Now we need a similar spate of anti-Woke books, and by those on the Left. John McWhorter’s will be one of the first, though there are others by more conservative writers like Douglas Murray. Books like that one have good stuff in them, but are ignored by the Left simply because of the authors’ political leanings.