Our national reckoning on race has brought to the fore a loose but committed assemblage of people given to the idea that social justice must be pursued via attempts to banish from the public sphere, as much as possible, all opinions that they interpret as insufficiently opposed to power differentials. Valid intellectual and artistic endeavor must hold the battle against white supremacy front and center, white people are to identify and expunge their complicity in this white supremacy with the assumption that this task can never be completed, and statements questioning this program constitute a form of “violence” that merits shaming and expulsion.
Skeptics have labeled this undertaking “cancel culture,” which of late has occasioned a pushback from its representatives. The goal, they suggest, is less to eliminate all signs of a person’s existence—which tends to be impractical anyway— than to supplement critique with punishment of some kind. Thus a group of linguists in July submitted to the Linguistic Society of America a petition not only to criticize the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker for views they considered racist and sexist, but to have him stripped of his Linguistic Society of America fellow status and removed from the organization’s website listing linguist consultants available to the media. An indication of how deeply this frame of mind has penetrated many of our movers and shakers is that they tend to see this punishment clause as self-evidently just, as opposed to the novel, censorious addendum that it is.
Another defense of sorts has been to claim that even this cancel-culture lite is not dangerous, because it has no real effect. When, for instance, 153 intellectuals signed an open letter in Harper’s arguing for the value of free speech (I was one of them), we were told that we were comfortable bigwigs chafing at mere criticism, as if all that has been happening is certain people being taken to task, as opposed to being shamed and stripped of honors.
To the extent that the new progressives acknowledge that some prominent people have been unfairly tarred—including the food columnist Alison Roman, the data analyst David Shor, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art senior curator Gary Garrels—they often insist that these are mere one-off detours rather than symptoms of a general cultural sea change.
For example, in July I tweeted that I (as well as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury) have been receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook. Then various people insisted that I was, essentially, lying; they simply do not believe that anyone remotely reasonable has anything to worry about.
However, hard evidence points to a different reality. This year, the Heterodox Academy conducted an internal member survey of 445 academics. “Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work, at a time when faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues were present. To what extent would you worry about the following consequences?” To the hypothetical “My reputation would be tarnished,” 32.68 percent answered “very concerned” and 27.27 percent answered “extremely concerned.” To the hypothetical “My career would be hurt,” 24.75 percent answered “very concerned” and 28.68 percent answered “extremely concerned.” In other words, more than half the respondents consider expressing views beyond a certain consensus in an academic setting quite dangerous to their career trajectory.
So no one should feign surprise or disbelief that academics write to me with great frequency to share their anxieties. In a three-week period early this summer, I counted some 150 of these messages. And what they reveal is a very rational culture of fear among those who dissent, even slightly, with the tenets of the woke left.
The degree of sheer worry among the people writing to me is poignant, and not just among nontenured faculty. (They write to me privately, and for that reason I will not share names.) One professor notes, “Even with tenure and authority, I worry that students could file spurious Title IX complaints … or that students could boycott me or remove me as Chair.” I have no reason to suppose that he is being dramatic, because exactly this, he says, happened to his predecessor.
A statistics professor says:
I routinely discuss the fallacy of assuming that disparity implies discrimination, which is just a specific way of confusing correlation for causality. Frankly, I'm now somewhat afraid to broach these topics … since according to the new faith, disparity actually is conclusive evidence of discrimination.
The new mood has even reached medieval studies; an assistant professor reports having recently just survived an attack by a cadre of scholars who are “unspeakably mean and disingenuous once they have you in their sights,” regularly “mounting PR campaigns to get academics and grad students fired, removed from programs, expelled from scholarly groups, or simply to cease speaking.”
Being nonwhite leaves one protected in this environment only to the extent that one toes the ideological line. An assistant professor of color who cannot quite get with the program writes, “At the moment, I’m more anxious about this problem than anything else in my career,” noting that “the truth is that over the last few years, this new norm of intolerance and cult of social justice has marginalized me more than all racism I have ever faced in my life.”
The charges levied against many of these professors are rooted in a fanatical worldview, one devoted to spraying for any utterances possibly interpretable as “supremacist,” although the accusers sincerely think they have access to higher wisdom. A white professor read a passage from an interview with a well-known Black public intellectual who mentions the rap group NWA, and because few of the students knew of the group’s work at this late date, the professor parenthetically noted what the initials stand for. None of the Black students batted an eye, according to my correspondent, but a few white students demanded a humiliating public apology.
This episode represents a pattern in the letters, wherein it is white students who are “woker” than their Black classmates, neatly demonstrating the degree to which this new religion is more about virtue signaling than social justice. From the same well is this same professor finding that the gay men in his class had no problem with his assigning a book with a gay slur in its title, a layered, ironic title for a book taking issue with traditional concepts of masculinity—but that a group of straight white women did, and reported him to his superiors.
Overall I found it alarming how many of the letters sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. A history professor reports that at his school, the administration is seriously considering setting up an anonymous reporting system for students and professors to report “bias” that they have perceived. One professor committed the sin of “privileging the white male perspective” in giving a lecture on the philosophy of one of the Founding Fathers, even though Frederick Douglass sang that Founder’s praises. The administration tried to make him sit in a “listening circle,” in which his job was to stay silent while students explained how he had hurt them—in other words, a 21st-century-American version of a struggle session straight out of the Cultural Revolution.
The result is academics living out loud only in whispers. A creative-writing instructor:
The majority of my fellow instructors and staff constantly self-censor themselves in fear of being fired for expressing the “wrong opinions.” It’s gotten to the point where many are too terrified to even like or retweet a tweet, lest it lead to some kind of disciplinary measure … They are supporters of free speech, scientific data, and healthy debate, but they are too fearful today to publicly declare such support. However, they’ll tell it to a sympathetic ear in the back corner booth of a quiet bar after two or three pints. These ideas have been reduced to lurking in the shadows now.
Some will process this as a kind of whining, supposing that all we should really be concerned about is whether people are outright dismissed. However, elsewhere a hostile work environment is considered a breach of civil rights, and as one correspondent wrote, “It isn’t just fear of firing that motivates professors and grad students to be quiet. It is a desire to have friends, to be part of a community. This is a fundamental part of human psychology. Indeed, experiments examining the effects of ostracism highlight what a powerful existential threat it is to be ignored, excluded, or rejected. This has been documented at the neurological level. Ostracism is a form of social death. It is a very potent threat.”
Especially sad is the extent to which this new Maoism can dilute the richness of a curriculum and discourage people from becoming professors at all. One professor has stopped teaching James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” after Black students claimed that it forced them to “re-live intergenerational trauma.” I have heard from not one but two philosophy doctorates who left academia. One explained that he was driven out by the “accelerating creep of what felt to me a pretty stifling orthodoxy. The hiring market was dominated by a concern for diversity statements, the ability to teach fairly ideologically-slanted courses on philosophy and critical race theory or philosophy and gender, etc.; and more generally it felt progressively less like a profession where I could opt out of those trends while still being a competitive job applicant.”
Very few of the people who wrote to me are of conservative political orientation. Rather, a main thread in the missives is people left-of-center wondering why, suddenly, to be anything but radical is to be treated as a retrograde heretic. Thus the issue is not the age-old one of left against right, but what one letter writer calls the “circular firing squad” of the left: It is now no longer “Why aren’t you on the left?” but “How dare you not be as left as we are.”
To some, the evidence of Heterodox Academy’s member survey plus my correspondents will still qualify as mere “anecdata”—after all, both groups are self-selecting—such that only a long-term academic study carefully interviewing at length a good 3,000 professors and submitting their responses to statistical analysis would qualify as empirically compelling. But let’s face it: Half a dozen reports of teachers grading Black students more harshly than white students would be accepted by many as demonstrating a stain on our entire national fabric. These 150 missives stand as an articulate demonstration of something general—and deeply disturbing—as well.
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