Saturday, March 18, 2017


Andrew Sullivan is a writer for New York Magazine who has penned a compelling critique of the newest fad among politically-minded college students - something called intersectionality. He was moved to write on this topic by the reprehensible behavior of Middlebury College students at a lecture given, or attempted to be given, a week or so ago by a scholar named Charles Murray.

Sullivan, who is gay, a survivor of HIV-AIDs, a supporter of President Obama, and a libertarian on most issues, is hardly a "right-wing fanatic" and is considered by some to be one of the most influential writers on American culture and politics alive today.

I say all this so that readers can have a sense of where Sullivan is coming from when he writes about the Middlebury College episode and its tie-in to intersectionality, which he deems to be something of a post-modern religion. He writes:
Here’s the latest in the assault on liberal democracy. It happened more than a week ago, but I cannot get it out of my consciousness. A group of conservative students at Middlebury College in Vermont invited the highly controversial author Charles Murray to speak on campus about his latest book, Coming Apart. His talk was shut down by organized chanting in its original venue, and disrupted when it was shifted to a nearby room and livestreamed. When Murray and his faculty interlocutor, Allison Stanger, then left to go to their car, they were surrounded by a mob, which tried to stop them leaving the campus. Someone in the melee grabbed Stanger by the hair and twisted her neck so badly she had to go to the emergency room (she is still suffering from a concussion). After they escaped, their dinner at a local restaurant was crashed by the same mob, and they had to go out of town to eat.

But what grabbed me was the deeply disturbing 40-minute video of the event, posted on YouTube. It brings the incident to life in a way words cannot. At around the 19-minute mark, the students explained why they shut down the talk, and it helped clarify for me what exactly the meaning of “intersectionality” is.

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.
There's much more to Sullivan's critique at the link as well as some criticism of Donald Trump at the end that'll warm the hearts of anti-Trumpers. What interested me most, though, was his description of the absolute intolerance and the fascist tactics of at least some of those who embrace the severe doctrines of intersectionality.

Liberal democracy requires the freedom to share ideas. It requires that people be given the opportunity to voice ideas that may be unpopular or even despised and that other people have the opportunity to hear them out, if they so choose.

Many on the left, however, don't seem interested in liberal democracy. They're more interested in emulating the medieval church, banning ideas they hate, rooting out heresy, demanding strict adherence to orthodox dogma, and brooking no dissent.

Liberal democracy also requires a commitment to reason and rational argument, but again many leftists aren't interested in this either. As Sullivan observes, if science fails to support their "smelly little orthodoxies" about race, gender, etc. then so much the worse for science. If they or their ideas can't compete in rational debate their opponents must be shouted down, prevented from speaking, and even violently assaulted.

This is a repudiation of civility and civil discourse. It's a repudiation of the values that have made Western civilization superior to those civilizations in which power is obtained and enforced by physical violence. It's a river that's leading us deep into the heart of darkness.

Sullivan wraps up his essay with this:
This matters, it seems to me, because reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy. We need a common discourse to deliberate. We need facts independent of anyone’s ideology or political side, if we are to survive as a free and democratic society. Trump has surely shown us this. And if a university cannot allow these facts and arguments to be freely engaged, then nowhere is safe. Universities are the sanctuary cities of reason. If reason must be subordinate to ideology even there, our experiment in self-government is over.

Liberal democracy is suffering from a concussion as surely as Allison [Stanger] is.
Unfortunately, liberal democracy is suffering from something far more serious than a concussion. It's suffering from a cancer that's eating away at the values which make it both liberal, in the classic sense, and democratic.