David Brooks is an empathetic guy. He believes that political disagreements should be conducted from a position of respect. There’s no need to demonize your opponents. Instead, you should try to understand where they’re coming from, and enter into a productive dialogue with them. That’s why David Brooks is horrified by student activists who display “snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism.” These activists don’t believe in respect or dialogue. Taken to its conclusion, their philosophy would erode the very foundations of our democracy. But because David Brooks does believe in dialogue, he wants to understand where these activists are coming from.
In his latest column, Brooks tries to imagine things “from the students’ perspective,” to make his best attempt to figure out “where they are coming from.” His best attempt at an explanation goes as follows: back in the 1980s, there was an assumption that our “system of liberal democracy had gloriously transcended” the “tribalism” that characterized most of human history. “Sophisticated people” believed in a kind of “mistake theory”: social problems were not caused by “malice or evil intent” but by “error and incompetence.” Politics wasn’t about fundamental conflicts of values, but about working together to find solutions. Nowadays, however, this assumption has been eroded. Today, “progress is less about understanding and liking each other and more about smashing structures that others defend.” Activists believe politics is about “conflict”:
The powerful few keep everyone else down. The solutions to injustice and suffering are simple and obvious: Defeat the powerful. Passion is more important than reason because the oppressed masses have to mobilize to storm the barricades. Debate is counterproductive because it dilutes passion and sows confusion.
Another change that occurred was that “reason, apparently, ceased to matter,” because “individual reason and emotion were less important than perspectivism — what perspective you bring as a white man, a black woman, a transgender Mexican, or whatever.” But because Brooks is empathetic, he says that he understands why students believe these things. They believe them because they “were raised within an educational ideology” that taught them to think contrary ideas were oppressive. It is not the activists’ fault that they have been indoctrinated.
This is the sum total of Brooks’ attempt to “understand” campus progressives. I find it somewhat stunning, for a simple reason: Brooks tries to see things “from the students’ perspective” without apparently ever having considered the possibility of talking to one of them. In his attempt to empathize he didn’t, for example, call one of them up and ask them what their beliefs actually are and why they believe them. I know it would involve slightly more effort than is expected from an op-ed columnist, but I have enough faith in Brooks to believe he could have pulled it off if he had chosen to.
The reason this is so remarkable is because of the sheer level of hypocrisy it displays. Brooks is constantly exhorting others to “maybe try listening” to their opponents and to show “respect.” (Most recently, Brooks insisted that gun control advocates needed to show “respect first” before we could discuss policy. It’s amusing to imagine the David Brooks equivalents of past historical eras making parallel arguments on the most pressing issues of their time.) But after exhorting activists to be civil and understanding, he calls them “snowflakes” and lynch mobs! (Lynch mobs burned people alive, in case we’ve forgotten.) Brooks doesn’t feel obligated to listen to the activists; the only person he actually quotes in his piece is a fellow white guy critical of social justice activism. Yet the activists are obligated to listen to him, and if they don’t listen to or respect him, then they hate liberal democracy. (Honestly, it’s a fair bet that any person who titles his column “Understanding Student Mobbists” is… probably not actually very interested in understanding.)
Arguments against identity politics and social justice are often amusingly ironic. They speak strongly in favor of dialogue and listening, without actually entering into a dialogue or doing much listening. For example, Scott Alexander, whose “mistake theory” concept Brooks quotes favorably, has criticized the overbroad use of the word “racism.” He says that often, people attribute racist motives where there are none, and that in order to understand the causes of racially disparate outcomes we can’t treat people as having some “dark irrational hatred which is their only terminal goal.” This, he says, is as silly as if we treated anyone who caused another’s death as a “murderist,” i.e. someone with a strong belief in murder for murder’s sake. Instead, people kill for a variety of reasons, often instrumental ones, and reducing the amount of death requires honestly assessing those reasons. And he shares Brooks’ commitment to making every possible effort to understand people rather than demonizing them:
A lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense…The solution is the same as it’s always been: hard work, renewed commitment to liberal values, and a hefty dose of the Principle of Charity. Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them. This frees you from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to understand other people… You are right about everything, your enemies are inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death, and the only “work” you have to do is complain on Twitter about how racist everyone else is.
All of which may seem sensible. Yet even as this passage asks people to be charitable and not caricature opposing beliefs, it is itself uncharitable and caricatures opposing beliefs. I have moved in progressive circles for a long time, and been in academic sociology where supposedly a lot of this stuff emanates, and I don’t think many progressive people believe that people being “racist” means they are “inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death.” In fact, one of the central points made by contemporary progressives is that racism isn’t about individual “hate,” but that it’s a set of subconscious attitudes that almost everyone possesses to one degree or another. The whole “check your privilege” idea (a phrase I don’t like) is that people are “honestly misinformed and ignorant,” that they are oblivious to the various structural disadvantages that other people face. The argument being made is that thinking of racism as emanating from “hate-filled monsters” is a mistake: it’s something we all have to face up to our complicity in, regardless of how decent and well-intentioned a person we may be. Anyone who has read a introductory book on critical race theory or the sociology of race would know this. (In Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer’s Race in America, the #1 entry on its “list of fallacies” about racism is the misconception that racism is about hateful and monstrous individuals.) But those who demand charity and openness toward their own beliefs are rarely willing to display it toward the terrible irrational campus left.
The other day, I saw a man in the French Quarter wearing a T-shirt that said “I’m not arguing, I’m just explaining why I’m right.” I think that perfectly captures what makes leftists so angry about the people who criticize them in the name of “open dialogue.” There’s something uniquely irritating about somebody who views what you do as argument and what they do as dialogue, or who constantly interrupts you in order to tell you how much they value listening to other people. I once eavesdropped on a conversation between a young man and a young woman in which the man was explaining why he felt feminism was so important, while the woman kept trying and failing to get a word in. (Other absurd examples of this include “Justin Trudeau interrupts woman during Q&A to tell her to use the word ‘peoplekind’ not ‘mankind’” and the man who decided to tell Rebecca Solnit at length about a new book she would enjoy, continuing even as she tried to interject that she was, in fact, the author of that book.) I’ve just been suffering through Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now, which is ostensibly a manifesto in favor of “reason” and “science.” Yet Pinker describes the left as being captured by “identity politicians, political correctness police, and social justice warriors,” with its ideology reinforcing a “primitive tribal mindset” embraced by intellectuals who “hate progress.” Caricature is antithetical to reason, but while Pinker insists that science demands nuance and caution, he speaks in hyperbolic generalizations about the scourge of “social justice warriors.”
The Pinker-Brooks vision of “reason” has little to do with actual reason, because actual reasoning involves giving some thought to why you might be wrong. It’s striking to me that no critic of social justice seems to have picked up a book like Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race or Renni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race so that they can critique the arguments that are actually made, and address the strongest case for social justice rather than the weakest (e.g. something some random sophomore at Evergreen State says on a YouTube video.)
Eddo-Lodge’s book tries to offer a clear explanation of the ideas Brooks simplifies as “defeat the powerful” and “storm the barricades.” The title is actually somewhat misleading; it might more accurately be called Why It Would Be Nice If White People Could Just Be Quiet and Listen For a Minute Before Telling Me Their Opinions on Race, and Then Maybe I Can Actually Talk To White People About Race. She isn’t actually against talking to white people about race, and even interviews Nick Griffin of the British National Party. But she is exasperated by the way that many white people seem to be utterly incapable of considering that she might herself have something insightful to say about race:
“I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of color articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us… I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself trying to get this message across, while also toeing a very precarious line that tries not to implicate any one white person in their role of perpetuating structural racism… Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong.”
That’s exactly what we see in Brooks’ column. He says that he is trying to see things from the students’ point of view. But his summary of their perspective is just a repetition of his own perspective. He says that reason no longer matters, what matters is your racial and gender identity. But Eddo-Lodge’s book is an extended argument (using reason!) for why racial and gender identity are very important and inescapable parts of social reality. She tells us how, when she was a young girl, she asked her mother when she would “turn white” and tells us her mother “still remembers the crestfallen look on my face when she told me the bad news.” As a British person, she experienced a different racial reality from Americans: Britain long prided itself on being less segregated and more tolerant than the United States, but the subtle factors that degrade and discriminate are still very much present. She explains why the concept of “white privilege” is not simply an attempt to orient politics around racial identities, but a means of recognizing the ways in which racial identities matter. Brooks may be surprised to find out that, while using the language of “intersectionality,” she is is vigorously in favor of free speech, but just wishes that “critiques of racism were subject to the same passionate free speech defense,” since “freedom of speech means the freedom for opinions on race to clash.” She also isn’t trying to make white people “apologize for being white,” saying that: “I don’t want white guilt. Neither do I want to see white people profusely apologizing rather than actively doing things. No useful movements for change have ever sprung out of fervent guilt.”
I think it’s quite clear that for people like Brooks, “reason” and “debate” are pieces of weaponized rhetoric rather than actual meaningful concepts. If they truly believed in them, they might try engaging in them, and they certainly wouldn’t lazily call progressive people “mobbists” and accuse them of believing in “smashing things” rather than “liking each other.” But I don’t want to be unfair to Brooks. I actually dislike him a lot less than many on the left do; he gave a good commencement address at my college graduation and I’ve always had sympathy for oblivious people. I’d like to assume, then, that he’s simply made a “mistake”: he tried to empathize with social justice activists, but accidentally ended up just reiterating his pre-existing opinions about them. And because I care about reason and debate, I’ll assume that once he notices that mistake, he will work constructively with me to try to fix it. I happen to have a spare review copy of Eddo-Lodge’s book, and so I thought I’d send it along to him.
I’m sure that as an empathetic and open-minded person, David Brooks will be pleased to get his copy of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, and that we can soon expect him to apologize for his nasty and irrational caricatures of the left.
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