This is one of those instances where I’m going to give credit where it’s due. NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg has written about CRT and cancel culture a number of times this year and in each case I’ve pointed out the problems with her arguments. In February she wrote about “The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness” which accused conservatives of being the real censors for attempting to keep some of this stuff out of public school curriculums. As I pointed out at the time, people are free to speak and advocate for their beliefs in the public sphere, including woke ideology. But that doesn’t mean they have a right to jam it into curriculums for public schools.
And just a couple months ago, Goldberg wrote another piece about cancel culture which tried to stake out a kind of middle ground. Rather than deny cancel culture exists, as so many progressives have done, she admitted it was real but then downplayed the number of cases as not very significant. But as I and some of her own readers pointed out, the number of cases of people losing jobs over cancel culture may be small but that’s because most people are too scared to speak up. If you self-censor, you avoid becoming the mob’s next target. The fact that most people aren’t brave enough to face being cancelled doesn’t mean it’s a minor problem.
Today Goldberg has taken another bite at the apple and this one is the best yet. Instead of blame-shifting or minimizing, Goldberg just admits that some of the social justice stuff sounds pretty nutty.
If you follow debates over the strident style of social justice politics often derided as “wokeness,” you might have heard about a document called “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts.” Put out by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Health Justice, the guide is a long list of terms and phrases that some earnest people have decided others in the medical field should avoid using, along with their preferred substitutes…
Like most other reports written by bureaucratic working groups, “Advancing Health Equity” would probably be read by almost no one if it did not inadvertently advance the right-wing narrative that progressive newspeak is colonizing every aspect of American life. Still, the existence of this document is evidence of a social problem, though not, as the guide instructs us to say instead of “social problem,” a “social injustice.” The problem is this: Parts of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” industry are heavy-handed and feckless, and the left keeps having to answer for them.
She’s finally done it. She’s said the DEI “industry” has a problem, one that isn’t the right’s fault. She then talks about the impact of the CRT debate in the Virginia elections. And while she still believes there’s no evidence this material has made it into classrooms, she acknowledges it has made it into teacher training and some of that material is ripe for mockery.
If conservatives couldn’t find useful examples from the classroom, they discovered a rhetorical gold mine in materials from a training session for administrators, including a slide juxtaposing “white individualism” and “color group collectivism.”
That link goes to a New York Magazine piece which described the contents of the slide this way:
It is a reductive summation of research on the ways that cultural insensitivity can impair educational outcomes for immigrant children.
It is also, by all appearances, racist. The notion that expecting one’s children “to form and express opinions” and “questions elders” is a definitionally white parenting style, while expecting children to “show respect by quiet listening” is a “color group” one, is a racial caricature. As is the broader idea that white families prize individualism over communal obligation. Positing fundamental cultural distinctions between people with different pigmentations — not different class, regional, national, or religious backgrounds, but merely different concentrations of melanin — is a task better left to white supremacists than equity coaches.
The problem the left is having here isn’t hard to discern. If you really look at the material that parents and conservatives are upset about, some of it really is objectionable. But the first rule of resistance journalism is you never, ever admit the people on the right have a point. So we’ve seen an endless number of attempts to sidetrack, minimize or simply outright lie about what is happening. To her credit, Goldberg seems to have grown tired of those games. Her piece concludes:
In The Washington Post, the columnist Matt Bai described the document as an ominous development. “I’d argue that it’s actually a powerful testament to where we are at the moment — and it should frighten you as much as it does me.” It doesn’t frighten me: In a truly Orwellian situation, people would actually have to follow new linguistic edicts instead of being able to laugh at them.
But it does irritate me, because it’s so counterproductive. “It’s not scary, it’s just ridiculous,” is not a winning political argument.
As I’ve said, I think Goldberg has finally crossed the Rubicon by admitting some of this stuff is nutty and ridiculous, just as the right has been saying it is. I still think the problem is bigger than it seems for two reasons. First, most people stay quiet because complaining makes you a target. Second, there’s no doubt the strength of this is growing everywhere you look. So it might not be overwhelmingly powerful right now but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way a year or three from now. The conservative backlash isn’t solely to what CRT is, it’s also to what it’s clearly intent on becoming.
Finally, whether this is truly scary or merely risible depends on one thing in my view: Are people on the left, like Goldberg, willing to agree it contains a lot of nonsense? It’s precisely the silence and convoluted efforts to deny or excuse the nonsense that I personally find most worrisome. If more progressives could manage to simply say what Goldberg has here, i.e. some of this CRT stuff is nutty and ridiculous, that would go a long way toward helping people on the other side of the aisle relax.
That doesn’t mean go to sleep on it and forget it about it. On the contrary, it means that if the left and right can to some degree find common ground in resisting some of this, then the woke insurgency will have a harder time marching through our institutions.
I’ll wrap this up by noting some good responses in the comments. This first one comes from a Democrat:
If the Democrats want to lose elections and voter enthusiasm, keep digging that thought police and speech police political grave, which is already pretty deep.
Keep talking about “people of color” and “inclusivity” and watch not only the right pull that destructive Republican lever, but watch independents and a handful of Democrats do the same.
Another good point:
Let’s not forget that this stuff is a big industry. There are a lot of people who have to believe that these language games are meaningful. If not they’d be out of their jobs.
From a progressive parent:
I’m liberal, progressive — and did not want my high school daughter reading Beloved, which was a choice on her summer reading list. I myself have read it twice. It is one of the best books I have ever read, a masterpiece. But the sexual violence is gruesome and graphic. I did not think she was ready to process that content. Reading it in college would have made more sense for her.
Not everything is as simple — or outrageous— as the far left Twittersphere would like to make it.
From an assistant professor:
I’m an assistant professor in a stem field at a flagship state university. Along with newspeak we now have to nod along with comments like “the problem in America is white males” or “the last thing we need around here is more white people”— Nevermind that our state is very, very, white. One of my colleagues was almost in tears when her postdoc with an ethnic sounding name turned out to be Asian. So disappointing. Laugh at the newspeak all you want but it is not funny to me. It’s a way of emphasizing race instead of class so the rich stay rich and poor people stay poor.
This is exactly what my foray into the Masters of Education degree is doing now. I feel like I’m being beaten over the head with a club in every class: “Oppression! Privilege! Everything is power dynamics!” Not a mention of the intersection of class and race; nothing about nuance, or connecting to each other as people…
I worry that this illiberalism on the far left may herald the death of democracy here if we don’t start talking in ways that make people listen, instead of preaching social justice with a religious zeal I have only seen among Evangelicals.
I hope Michelle Goldberg is reading these.