Committing the Crime it Condemns

What emerges over the course of this discussion, “The Battle Over Free Speech: Are Tigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and No-Platforming Harming Young Minds?” from Intelligence Squared, is the left side of panel confirming its belief that minorities should have a veto over what other people see, say, and hear. Their reasoning is that group identity represents a collective-subjective set of opinions to which all members subscribe or would subscribe (if they weren’t falsely conscious). Moreover, some groups come with “collective traumas” that empower their spokespersons to make demands upon members of those groups who, by virtue of their identity, are responsible for those traumas.

Kehinde Andrews speaks for himself and his interpretation of the world. Yet he presumes to speak for a collectively-shared abstract point-of-view with which he identifies and attributes to many others. He believes this point-of-view—his point-of-view—should have the authority to reorganize society, especially the university, by designating exclusive spaces and censoring some opinions while elevating others. No white people in this space. More black voices in that discussion. And so on. If being black were like being Muslim, and Andrews a cleric, then we would have an answer to the question: who appointed Andrews to make choices for others? (After all, the cleric is authorized to speak for the group of believers). But being black is a demographic category. It is not an ideology in itself, albeit it is the product of an ideology; it is not a politics per se. Indeed, being identified as black (or white) should neither signal nor obligate a politics at all. As an audience member at the end of the discussion points out, Andrews doesn’t speak for him.

The reality is that Andrews wants to control speech with which he disagrees and in order to do that he—and by extension his group—needs to control the spaces in which speech is exercised. This is an authoritarian desire, one rationalized by claims of abstract victimhood. Andrews justifies his censorious impulses on the grounds that the most free and open system in history is inherently racist. White advantage is the default, baked into the liberal view of free speech. This is the post-liberty vision of antiracism. Antiracism requires a closed and controlled system that presumes as proven that which it has not demonstrated. It is an effort to manufacture a truth and include everyone into it. This involves as a fair amount of bullying and intimidation, as we have seen on colleges campuses. Antiracism disrupts the dialectic by shouting down points-of-view deemed unacceptable.

Diversity programming at California State University

When I was in graduate school, I was seduced by Critical Race Theory, or CRT. CRT incorporates into its analysis of law critical theory, a set of ideas drawn from the social sciences, for example anthropology and sociology, and the humanities, particularly art and literary criticism. Critical theory is a product of the cultural turn in Marxist thought by scholars associated with the Frankfurt School. However, critical theory was warped by the postmodern turn in the academy, that is the social constructionism of structuralist and post-structuralist thinking devolving to a radical relativism denying the existence of a single reality. Postmodernism functions as a carnival mirror, warping Marxist insight by reducing ontology to the supposed collective consciousness or should-be consciousness of social position (actually the multiplicity of social positions intersecting in a person), thus rejecting the premise of a universal reality and fracturing the truth with the blunt ideology of epistemic relativism. At the same time, postmodernism asserts that knowledge exists in a matrix of power that allows some knowledge forms to dominate others. Thus the claim to a universal method of interpretation, i.e. science, is a reflection of the power asymmetries. Science is dominant ideology. Truth claims can therefore have no real external verification for there is no common method with which to evaluate them—except the claim that all knowledge and thus our lives represent a projection of position and power.

Taking up this paradoxical position, CRT portrays the world as a struggle between the “perpetrator perspective” and the “victim perspective.” The perpetrators and victims are not actual persons but personifications of abstract collective positions based on skin color. Actual persons are absorbed into these collective identities or positions. As such, people are the signifiers of a truth. The perpetrator perspective demands concrete persons be identified and held responsible for some crime or injustice if a causal argument can be sustained with evidence, with the burden of proof resting with persons who make accusations. CRT holds that this position manufactures an illusion that the world is composed of individuals and establishes adjudicative rituals that function to perpetuate white supremacy. The sustaining logic is self-serving for the perpetrator identity. The victims perspective demands that justice reckon group disparities with intercorrelations of abstract categories which then serve as proof of injustice. Remedies that affect everybody in the opposing groups follow. The fact of group disparities is proof of discrimination and everybody in the advantaged group is responsible for plight of everybody in the disadvantaged group, even if those disadvantages cannot be demonstrated to exist at the individual level. Both the demands of actus reus and mens rea are exposed as convenient devices. The demand shifts to the subjectivity of the victim. We have to believe them.

The logic of CRT looks a lot like the logic of racism, where individuals are organized into groups based on ancestry or blood quantum rules and then regarded or punished on the basis of this. However, following postmodern logic, central to the problem of injustice is grouped power, and the perpetrator, defined as white, especially the white male, has all of it. In this view, all white people are the perpetrator. According to Peggy MacIntosh, white people wear an invisible knapsack of power and privilege tools they wield as a practical matter throughout their lives. Whites have developed the free and open system in order to perpetuate and entrench their racial power. Law is facially neutral. Indeed, the racial system, the system of white supremacy, its culture of whiteness, is global, and the West, sans the colonized subjects internal to it, is the cause of global injustice. Because of this, the West should be compelled to abdicate its right to cultural integrity, its structures of democracy, freedom, and human rights, as defined by the Enlightenment. A postcolonial world demands a post-rational reckoning. So great is this truth that Jane Elliot gets to traumatize, with minority students watching, white students in diversity/sensitivity training sessions. (Elliot is white. So is MacIntosh.) These moments look a lot like the scenes witnessed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Or at some talks on university campuses where minority students and their allies disrupt events chanting slogans and shaking big-character posters and mobbing speakers.

The victims of whiteness are all nonwhite persons (except Uncle Toms) and especially persons who are not white male. The victims are victims by virtue of not being perpetrators, and the evidence of their victimhood, when not by definition, represented in the form of selected aggregated statistics that indicate group disparities. Negating the white man’s formula, correlation is causation.

With CRT, one need not identify a concrete perpetrator or a concrete victim, but rather assert victimhood and assign guilt on the basis of skin color, the marker of group affiliation. To borrow language from Imre Lakatos, in order to sustain this position—to wit: reducing concrete individuals to a demographic category is the negative heuristic that lies at its core—one has to strap on a belt of positive heuristics, rules of thumb that come in the form of slogans, such as Patricia Bidol’s formula “racism = prejudice + institutional power,” or Stokely Carmichael’s “black power” assumption that such an abstraction as the “total white community” could without direction possess agency. The positive heuristics belt does a good job of keeping up the standpoint’s pants as long as the standpoint remains embedded in a research program in which arguments can successfully avoid checking assumptions, a pattern of avoidance reinforced by social pressure to defend the negative heuristic at the core. CRT is thus an ideological program that has manufactured a rhetoric to give an appearance that some deep discovery has been made: abstract forms are prior to concrete people. Of course this is a very old idea. The abstract forms constitute the essential reality, and these preassign plaintiff and defendant designations while shifting the burden of proof.

In the discussion, Eleanor Penny argues that the arguments against her position should be viewed with suspicion because they hail from the perpetrator’s perspective, a position that has cleverly constructed a system of rhetorical traps that legitimize the oppressive system that privileges them. Jonathan Haidt is accused of laying the traps even while Penny excuses him for not intending to. He is both a perp and a dupe. Because she is, as a woman, a member of a victim group, her argument enjoys an epistemic privilege; it is to be accepted because her identity gives it credibility. Moreover, because she is a member of the victim class, it is her turn to run the institutions. A woke white person would agree and stand down.

When I left graduate school, the spell of CRT wore off, and, in part, thanks to my renewed commitment to antitheism that emerged in the aftermath of the Party of God attacking the United States on September 11, 2001, I came to realize that CRT is neither a scientific program nor a rational approach to reforming law and politics, but something akin to a religious program in which participants are to accept, on faith, that there are some who, by virtue of their skin color and the inherited victimizations of their ancestors, should be allowed to hold others accountable for things they did not actually do or even could have done. Skin color is a stigmata that sorts and designates individuals in a prejudicial way. I am asked to stop opposing racism—as I have my whole life—but to see myself as a racist because I was born white. I don’t get to control the definition of racism because of who I am. Social justice requires redefining the term. The best I can ever be is an ally, as if I were in a war and the only way to lessen the severity of my war crime were to defect from a side I never chose to stand with in the first place. However, I can never really defect since I am essentially white (ask Rachel Dolezal) and thus instead will have to submit to the judgment of others eternally. If a sin is forever and collectively and intergenerationally applied, then I can always be asked to pay penance. Repent on pain of being accused of not confessing to unearned advantages and privileges responsible for the pain and suffering of others. Unrepentant sinners are the worse. A fallen person must admit he is fallen before he can get better. To deny being a racist is to confess to being one. Resistance twice convicts.

I used to make arguments from this point of view and felt like I was making compelling antiracist points. But this way of looking at the world only appears antiracist because it feigns an other-interested position. Atonement and submission signal virtue. White folks trying to get into heaven. Moreover, it’s counterproductive: granting that racism explains present circumstances (and it surely does explains some of it), how could this view generate any solution to the problem that could avoid perpetrating the same crime it condemns? Choosing sides doesn’t shift the paradigm.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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