Shaun Cammack is a graduate student studying cultural psychology at the University of Chicago. He has just completed a 63-page MA thesis paper on what happened at Evergreen State College in 2017 and posted it on his website. Titled “The Evergreen Affair: A Social Justice Society” the thesis paper attempts to take a scholarly look at the culture that took over the campus and grabbed headlines around the country.
As Cammack sees it, there was a unique social justice tribe on campus made up a small percentage of the total population (a few hundred people). Nevertheless this tribe had enough clout to briefly take over because it included some professors and willing administrators. During the couple of days when this tribe was essentially in control of the campus, it began behaving according to its own beliefs and norms and these were visibly expressed on hours of video. By looking through this video and making note of their behavior, Cammack is able to identify a system of morality, beliefs, norms and methods of social control used by the tribe.
Cammack’s explanations of these norms in interesting reading, especially if you’re already familiar with some of the specific incidents he’s talking about. For instance, here’s an excerpt from a section on “speaking norms.”
The hierarchical structure of the Evergreen Tribe was elaborated regarding who was allowed to speak. There were many instances of the Tribe or Tribal cohorts gathered together, either having an internal discussion or addressing a few singled-out people. In these instances, it meant one person had the floor while others listen. It was rare, however, for a white person to take that floor (and when one did, it was virtually aways a white female). Speaking privileges, defined as the right to address the Tribe or from the Tribe—the right to step up to the microphone, let’s say—were almost exclusively for the POC.
Norms become most evident when they are violated. On the morning after the day they barricaded the library, a large cohort of students met with the police review board. Around 50 students were in attendance. There were two board members present, Kelly Brown and Professor Artee Young, both female POC.17 During the roughly 2.5 hour meeting, students asked the board questions about police accountability, disarming the police, racism, and other topics. Also in attendance, however, was a white male Evergreen student who was not a part of the Tribe, as his repeated violations of the speaking norm made clear:
In this scene, Kelly Brown has just finished answering a question, and a white male student begins to speak. He is immediately cut off by a male POC student: “Let’s center black, femme, and women voices in this space, just putting that out there.” Brown doesn’t quite understand, so the student repeats himself. He does, but Brown still doesn’t understand that the student is outlining a Tribal norm (white people should not speak), and so another Tribal member (a white female) clarifies: “We’re gonna center like, black, femme, woman voices, like, let them be heard because they’re silenced so often. So, if you’re white, it’s not really the time for you to speak right now.” The white male student, either oblivious to the norm or actively rebelling against it, offers a suggestion: “So, I think, then, people should just raise their hand…” Many in the room simultaneously say “no,” in the long and low way a crowd expresses disapproval. A Tribal member cuts in: “[A female POC]’s got her hand raised, it’s [her] turn.”
This is just a tiny sample but the idea isn’t to accept the student’s account of their behavior or to criticize it, only to characterize it in an objective way, i.e. how did they behave and what does that tell us about what they believe. Ultimately here’s what Cammack came up with, from the conclusion of his thesis:
During this research, I was often asked a simple, straightforward question: “What happened at Evergreen?” This proved to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. And failing to integrate my preliminary findings into a cohesive explanation, I would give a compelling anecdote or walk through the particular piece of footage I was coding at the time. So I turn again to William Whyte (1993, p. xvi): “It is only when the structure of the society and its patterns of action have been worked out that particular questions can be answered. This requires an exploration of new territory.” In this study, I have endeavored to work out the structure and patterns of the Tribe, and the new territory that I have explored is that of their moral considerations and fundamental beliefs. It is this previously unexplored aspect of the Evergreen affair that allows us to render intelligible their social action and organization. So to answer the question I’ve been fumbling over the past year or so, here’s what happened at Evergreen.
At the Evergreen State College, a significant contingent of the campus community held a particular worldview, one that perhaps sees the world similar to the social justice interpretation described above. This belief system, when stripped of any affirmative content, can be characterized by a few basic elements: Victimhood morality (that to be victimized grants moral merit, and the moral demeriting of the victimizer), ethnohistorical determinism (the belief that the history of an ethnicity determines victim/victimizer moral status), ethno-race consciousness (a perception of oneself as fundamentally a racial-ethnic group and the belief that race is the basis of cognitive authority), platonic collectives (that the essence of an ethnic group exists metaphysically as an ideal), and intercollectivity (that social interaction is not dyadic or individualistic, but always a diplomatic exchange between ethnic groups). In the spring of 2017, this group had an opportunity to express and manifest the social order implicated by their belief system, and they did so, upheld by normative sanctions and other mechanisms of social control. This event, which has been elsewhere characterized as a protest, is fundamentally a social system, a kind of society—a thick, cultural group of cooperating individuals, constructed through subgroups, mediated by shared beliefs and morality. This social system was a clear hierarchy, with the upper class occupied by POC and the lower class occupied by whites. These two classes had specific, interdependent roles and responsibilities to uphold and maintain the social order as a whole. While this group, described here as the Evergreen Tribe, only manifested the social order temporarily, the ideation and implication of this order and society existed well before and after the ephemeral events of the Evergreen affair. The Evergreen Tribe is a social justice society.
This tribe was an openly racist social system and if it were limited to one minor campus in one state it would be a curiosity but not much more. Unfortunately, all of the elements of this social justice society now exist beyond this one campus and appear to be gaining ground around the country and in the national discourse. This cancel culture tribe is still only a minority at this point so it’s influence is limited but it’s not clear how long that will remain the case.