1. White Fragility?
According to social media, the current zeitgeist, and the author of the runaway bestseller White Fragility, it absolutely is. If you are “white,” and you disagree on any political issue with any person of colour, this is a sure sign that you are a “racist.”
Ok, then. Let’s take that same logic and apply it to other common situations:
Is it sexist for a man to disagree with a woman? Is it sexist every time a husband disagrees with his wife? Is it anti-Semitic for a Buddhist to disagree with a Jew? Is it homophobic for a straight person to disagree with a gay person? Is it transphobic for a non-trans person to disagree with a trans person? Is it anti-capitalist for a government employee to disagree with a businessperson? Is it child abuse to disagree with your child? Is it elder abuse to disagree with your retired father-in-law? Is it anti-chefist to take issue with someone who is a professional preparer of delicious meals?
Obviously, all of the above situations are absurd. Yet somehow, our society has gotten to the point where the answer to the first question seems absolutely normative—even though logically, it is the exact same as all the other absurd scenarios presented above.
At the personal level, this attitude is not only absurd, it is patronising. I am always struck by the irony of how this argument recreates the same power structures that its proponents claim to be against. What could possibly be more sexist, than teaching men that they cannot argue with women, because that would be “insensitive?” Men will still have their opinions: they will just learn to avoid discussing them with women, because women can’t handle real debate. Is this not exactly what feminists have been arguing against for over 100 years? Is not the whole point of feminism that women want to be taken as equals of men in intellectual debate? To be recognized as an intellectual being of equal reason, and equal dignity?
By arguing that “whites” cannot argue with black or indigenous people, are we not treating black and indigenous people as a special case? Does this not treat them like children? As “fragile creatures” who cannot handle the rough-and-tumble of real debate? The real irony of the “white fragility” argument, is that the (white) author of this book is actually saying “Hey, people of colour are so fragile, that they cannot handle argument about certain things that I want to accuse you of, such as ‘white privilege’.” In her worldview, the role of the historically oppressed person is to be able to accuse all members of historically oppressive groups of certain (usually quite terrible) things. While the role of the members of historically oppressed groups is to agree with these accusations wholesale. And quietly feel ashamed of them.
This angle is however rife with problems. A few of them are:
1) Defining historically oppressed and oppressor groups is a lot more complicated than many would like to believe. Many Europeans were oppressed in all sorts of ways (i.e. Catholics, Mennonites, the handicapped, the poor, women, gays, vegetarians, the Irish, witches, butchers, Roma, people born out of wedlock, Slavs, Poles, Jews), and many non-Europeans were oppressors in all sorts of ways. Who is to say which form of oppression outweighs which form of oppressedness? Do we have some magic scale, where we can weigh the forms of oppression undergone by our ancestors, and whoever’s oppression weighs the most, gets to silence the other person? The closer you look and the more you know, the more such an obvious-seeming worldview falls apart in your hands.
2) The idea that individuals should be judged guilty or innocent because they are members of a group, has always been felt to be problematic. And it is. Very problematic.
3) The very act of creating a historical narrative about oppression and oppressor, presupposes that this is the most useful and valid way to read history. Which it isn’t. It’s dualist, it’s essentialist, and it’s Marxist. Marxism is a 19th century way to look at history, which inexplicably, too many humanities professors still cling to, despite all the evidence against such outdated modes of thinking.
So on an individual level then, the idea that “it’s racist to criticize people of colour,” is patronizing and racist in itself. At the very least, it is fraught with logical absurdities.
But at a societal level, this attitude creates extreme dangers which work against the proper functioning of a democratic, science-based society. Most people on the left half of the spectrum seem to think that at worst, this widespread attitude will take mansplaining know-it-alls down a few notches. Who doesn’t want to see smug white guys get their just comeuppance on twitter and facebook?
The problem is: sure, this might seem funny on social media. But, this attitude has also been transposed into the workplace, rendering business relationships more fraught. It has blown through the ivory towers of academia. And even more dangerously, it has been transferred into the very halls of government. In a democratic society, this attitude not only has a chilling effect on debate. It can keep vital arguments from being made, which might affect the trajectory taken by our societies for the next century or more.
Much in politics is inconsequential. But, regularly enough, serious decisions must be taken. And if these are taken in an atmosphere where proper debate is impossible, or where one side is forced to pull its punches time and again, while the other side is free to overstate its case using whatever hyperbole it can concoct? Where one side is considered a priori to be in the right, while the other side is considered a priori to be “racist”? This is no way to conduct a serious debate.
It is a recipe for disaster.
2. The Centrality of Debate in Democracy
The US Capitol Riots of 6 January were a rude awakening for millions of people around the globe. People are starting to remember a fundamental truth: democracy functions on the basis of conversation.
In life, there are only two ways to resolve differences:
- A) Violence
- B) Conversation
For most of human history, the principal way that most people used to solve differences was through violence or the threat of violence. This makes sense, because we evolved from primates, who likewise use violence to enforce social order. In a group of chimpanzees, dominant chimps work singly or in groups to physically cow other chimps into submission. Most of the time, chimps are aware of this pecking order, and don’t challenge it, because to do so carries the threat of physical harm or even death. This is why evolution favours a knowledge of pecking orders in higher animals—it saves both the leaders and the underlings from continuous shows of violence. In hunter-gatherer and other pre-urban societies, social pecking orders are likewise established, with the threat of violence keeping most people in line. Within tribes, additional incentive is provided by the continuous threat of attack from outside the tribe, meaning that people have an interest in maintaining the established order, because it provides overall safety for the group.
As states became larger, individual kings claimed monopolies of violence over more and more previously independent tribes, villages, and towns. This form of state, known as an autocracy, was invented in the Old World in about 4000 BCE, and in the New World around 0 CE. In such a state, the monopoly of violence is vested in the ruler himself. He usually has unlimited power to punish—or summarily execute—anyone whom he chooses. Such states might have orderly rules of succession, but in many instances (such as the later Roman empire), rule passes to the most ruthless. Autocracy is the oldest form of government, and the most enduring. But it’s not very fun for the majority of people, who are completely excluded from real political power, and whose rights can be removed at the ruler’s whim. In an autocracy, the idea of human rights, and of personal freedom, is non-existent.
In all of human history, there has only been one viable form of government which can move beyond the autocratic model, and create genuine human rights, guaranteed by law. This is democracy. But democracies are notoriously difficult to set up and maintain: the default human government is autocracy, and democracies are always backsliding into autocracy, whenever the democratic society goes even slightly off-piste. The miraculous thing about democracy is that it assumes that elites can come together and discuss things, without resorting to violence. This presupposes certain behaviours on the part of participants. First, it assumes that participants will discuss and argue in good faith, based on how they perceive the facts. Any “argument” made in bad faith, knowingly against the facts, is heckling and bullying, and thus a form of verbal violence. It is not argumentation or discussion in the sense that sustains democracy, science, or good interpersonal relations for that matter. Also essential to the functioning of democracy is the assumption that, no matter what the outcome, no matter who loses the good-faith debate, the losers will gracefully submit, knowing that there will usually be a next time to score points or make a comeback. As soon as elites in a democratic system do not accept defeat in debate, but reach for their swords instead, then democracy falters, and autocracy rears its ugly head. Merely pushing bad-faith arguments for the purpose of clinging to power can have the same violent and abusive effect on a democratic system. The recent actions of Donald Trump and his enablers epitomize this in a way that we have not seen in the developed world since the 1930s.
3. Hindering Science
Now, many people will think it’s absurd to suggest that the White Fragility argument could weaken our democracies. But this is precisely what it has done. And let me remind you that as of a few months ago, many people assumed that Donald Trump was little more than a pouty, childish clown, who posed no real threat to democracy. But as Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsey Graham recently had to remind us: democracy is fragile. And it is vulnerable to absurdities and distortions arising from the left, just as much as it is to absurdities and distortions arising from the right. Any time a political faction willingly disregards facts in favour of ideology, things get dangerous.
This political football is happening right now in academia, where the lion’s share of the world’s science and policy research gets done. Like democracy, science and scholarship thrive on good-faith conversation. Like democracy, science retreats as violence and dogmatism increases. Philosophy was invented by the Greeks, at the same time that they invented democracy; this is no coincidence. Academia has long been a handmaid of democracy: it is where political elites turn for answers, data, and policies which can guide their decisionmaking. There is a reason why the first modern democracies—the city states of renaissance Europe—were also the places where universities were invented. The two institutions have been evolving hand in hand for the better part of a thousand years.
I can provide an example of the stifling effect of the left’s identity obsession from my own workplace. Yesterday I received an email from the Vice-Rector Magnificus of our university, advertising the now-annual Diversity Symposium, which she chairs. All members of the faculty are ‘invited’ to attend. It contained the following message:
The Diversity Symposium has become an important moment for us to reflect on our ambitions in the area of diversity and inclusion, come together as a community and discuss how to move forward together. As indicated in our policy plan, which was published this summer, as an institution we not only want to reflect the diversity of society, but also need to think critically about what it takes to offer a safe and inclusive learning and work environment to all staff and students. This means having a critical look at our curricula, teaching and hiring practices, and everyday interactions, and increasing our awareness of the diversity of experiences and perspectives which enrich our institution.
Sounds innocent enough on the surface, no? Except for the small problem that this argument is not made in good faith. The university has already been on a trajectory towards diversity for years, and there is hardly a single faculty member who has a problem sharing professorships with people of whatever background or ethnicity—as long as they have earned that place on merit. We already have close to 50% female faculty, and diversity appointments have been increasing. Pretty much all of us welcome continued diversity and are willing to do whatever we can to make diverse people feel welcome. This is just standard scholarly practise in the modern world. But a big part of the problem here—why this message from the Vice-Rector Magnificus looks fair but feels foul—is that we know the people who wrote this are not thinking in terms of merit. They are thinking purely in terms of social tribalism. They are the aggrieved few, who feel that “women” and “minority” professors face untold invisible prejudices which are continually holding them back. How convenient such a world-view must be! Universities are full of frustrated geniuses whose work seldom gets passed by peer review. Just like in the highly competitive worlds of professional sport and music, many academics will get close to the top, but never quite stand on the podium, never quite break the Billboard Top 100. This is how meritocracy works. If you’re a white male academic, then tough luck. But if you aren’t? Enter the diversity office with its prefab excuses for your failure to be the very top in your field: it must be because of your ethnicity, gender, etc!
You can see the appeal, and the ego-assuaging trap that it leads many people into. And how, once this sort of thing gets started and permanent “diversity” administrators get hired, it will continue to plague universities for years to come. The most talented women and minority professors, the real scientists and scholars, don’t get too het up in the work of the “diversity office.” It is a crutch, and they don’t need it. Unfortunately, I have met the keenest advocates of the Diversity Symposium, and seen their press releases and tweets. Make no mistake, they are angry at the supposed sins of “white males” past, and they blame other people for their own perceived failures. So this is no innocent statement. It takes an already diversifying university, which is perfectly willing to diversity further, and it creates a problem where previously there was none. It forces the issue out of anger at perceived past injustices, because it is the easy way out.
In doing so, it endangers the meritocracy of the university. Choosing the world’s top scientists and scholars for anything other than merit… it’s like judging Olympic sprinters on how well they can make an omelette. Only much, much worse. Ultimately, running races are inconsequential. They are run in honour of excellence itself. But science lies at the heart of the biggest solutions to our biggest problems. In a world with 8 billion people, we have plenty of problems. So this diversity nonsense is no mere diversion. It threatens our very ability to do science itself. When science is done badly, society goes into decline.
So what am I to make of these “diversity messages” which routinely come out of the now-permanent “diversity office”? Not only are they a waste of public resources. I find them downright chilling. As an academic with a world-class reputation, who has stood on the cutting edge of scientific research, I now work in an actively hostile environment. Not only does the president want to fire me because of my identity. Colleagues shun me, and whisper that I am (shock, horror) “right wing,” because I do not openly cheer the witch-hunting work of the diversity office. If I say the wrong thing, I will be reported by some activist student. And if enough reports accumulate, I probably can’t be fired (though who knows, says a little voice in my head…) but I can be removed from my teaching posts, or given drudge work, which limits my ability to do research and gain job satisfaction. And I don’t dare raise any objections to the work of the “Diversity Symposium.” Can you imagine the reaction if I went in there, and said even the mildest version of what I have written above? It’s unthinkable.
Nor am I alone: I know dozens of colleagues who agree with me, but who are more petrified than I am of speaking out. This leads to mass self-censorship. A constant fear of tripping up, saying the wrong thing. So my colleagues hunker down amidst this atmosphere of suspicion and oppression, hoping that they make it to retirement before the next purge winnows them out of a job. This kills science, and the spirit of free inquiry, in myriad ways. It is death by 1000 cuts. Want to know how Germany lost the war? Totalitarianism kills science. Democracy attracts the best minds. This truth might be largely intangible, but that makes it no less true.
I would like to state for the record, that I have been professor to literally hundreds of “diverse” people – many of whom I now consider to be good friends and colleagues. I have watched their careers in some cases with interest, sharing in their triumphs, and happy to see them flourishing in the world, and contributing to society. My programme, International Studies, has students from 50+ countries in attendance, and I am regularly considered one of the favourite professors in this programme. Two years ago, the students made a sweatshirt with my beard and glasses on it (think “Feel the Bern”) and gave it out as prizes at the annual student auction. So long and short, I’m one of the most popular professors at one of the most diverse university programmes in the world. And yet to the Vice Rector Magnificus – I am a human stain, to be removed as soon as possible. Because of my “identity.” If that is not prejudice, if that’s not a witch hunt, I don’t know what is.
It was not always like this. Before about 2010, there was no such atmosphere on campuses around the west. Now, such thinking, such fear and danger, is ubiquitous. It is absolutely like life under Communism, and it has been compared to this by refugees from the Eastern Bloc. There is a strong sense that Big Brother—the Diversity Office—is watching. In the United States, it’s about 10x worse than in the Netherlands where I work. Millions of faculty live in fear of saying the wrong thing. So the bad news is, it is really quite bad in academia right now. The good news is, if it came on so suddenly, it is possible to imagine that it could leave suddenly, if only someone was able to put up some solid arguments against it. The problem is: almost everyone right now is too scared to make a move for fear of being tarred with the brush of “racism”—tantamount to excommunication in the days of the Inquisition. And we all know how societies with Inquisitions tend to function.
4. Stifling Parliamentary Debate
This, I submit, is exactly where we are right now in the political debates across the western world. This obsession with “race” and “diversity” is a distraction trumpeted by an aggrieved few. It sounds compelling: we all want to do what is right. Nobody wants to be prejudiced. But insofar as it is pushed with the aim of shutting down debate, it is not entirely different from some conspiracy theory peddled by the far right. This catchiness, this universal appeal to our better instincts makes it a potent political weapon, which can put unwonted power in the hands of angry radicals. It dictates that policies be based on ideology rather than facts or merit. But the wisest people on all sides already know that this is a dead end. It is rhetorical window dressing which does not get at the heart of complex social problems. And it is untenable.
If academics feel a serious chill, an active hostility, towards criticism of any issue related to diversity, politicians are likewise feeling an active hostility towards criticism of anything remotely related to “race.” For most academics, the opprobrium remains intra-institutional. But for politicians, the opprobrium gets trumpeted around in the national newspapers, who attempt to shut down serious debate on any issue which “ethnic” leaders deem to be sensitive.
A few years ago, a some Hawaiian Native activists managed to shut down development of the 30-metre telescope on Mauna Kea. Never mind that there are already dozens of telescopes and other installations on top of the mountain; never mind that the mountain is one of an extremely few settings on earth where the 30-meter telescope is feasible. Never mind that the 30-metre telescope is set to provide vast amounts of information about the laws of physics, and to help us locate other Earth-like planets in our neighbourhood, which might ultimately form the basis of colonizing missions to the stars. It is literally the next generation of science.
Instead, a few dozen local native leaders managed to form a coalition to oppose the telescope, with the result that the entire project has been put in limbo. Now, do these native groups really feel that their religion is being violated by the location of this telescope? A few of them might have convinced themselves of the religious nature of that particular site. But for the majority, what’s going on here is classic power politics: local leaders are vying for political power, concessions, and other benefits from the local authorities. By raising controversy, they gain relevance, and therefore, personal power.
What is particularly interesting is how social media treated the controversy. Because the “race card” could be played, the idea that Native Groups were being oppressed was just assumed by everyone who heard about it. I was taken aback when my scientist friend, a keen supporter of the 30-metre telescope, changed his tune overnight, when he heard that the project was “violating native sensibilities.” “Who am I,” he said, “to question the arguments of a native group? To do so would be racist.” I pointed out that local leaders probably don’t give a rat’s hindquarters about the “religious nature” of the site, but are only using this to their own political advantage. And I was met with stony silence. It probably does not help that this friend worked at a government agency in Canada, and that any social media criticism of the “native position” on this issue, would be taken by his superiors as a sign of racism, and therefore grounds for dismissal.
In such an atmosphere, politicians find themselves hamstrung. As soon as any argument comes up, which native groups can manipulate to look like a “racial” issue, this acts like a rhetorical bulldozer, carrying all before it.
While the left might find exhilaration in this situation, where they can carry all before them by shutting down argument, this is an extremely short-sighted point of view. And a terrible, extremely dangerous methodology to employ in a democratic society. History has shown time and again, that whenever debate does not flourish, whenever an air of suspicion, and “right-speak” takes root in the halls of parliament, this can deal mortal blows to the democratic process.
Once people get used to checking their opinions on sensitive issues, once they get used to getting their way by circumventing debate rather than fostering it, then parties on all sides of the aisle become used to this method of doing business.
In short, the population, and its elites, fall out of the practise of practising democracy. As we have seen all too clearly in recent days, the door to authoritarianism is just down the hall.
5. The Bottom Line: Debate Creates Better Policy
Not only do we need debate for the purpose of keeping democracy vigorous.
Historically, it has been proven time and again, that whenever an issue is debated, better ideas tend to emerge. It is for this reason that the largest companies tend to be governed by boards of stake-holding parties. It is common wisdom in business circles that a public company governed by a board has more long-term viability than a private company governed by an autocratic CEO-owner. The reason? Boards bring more points of view to the table.
Capitalism, which developed amongst the world’s first democracies in Italy, Holland and England, quickly discovered that even at the company level, democracy is better than autocracy, because it creates better outcomes. In publicly-held companies, boards realize that a CEO is important for creating a chain of command for day-to-day decision making, and also for strategic planning. But: they also realize that discussion in committee is a sure way to bring about flaws in the CEO’s plan, to advise the CEO about issues that s/he might not have seen, and also, to determine as a group whether the CEO’s performance is as good as they might have expected.
It has also been proven, throughout the twentieth century, that democratic polities routinely best non-democratic polities, in pretty much every field of endeavour. Khrushchev’s famous boast “we will bury you” seems laughable in hindsight: it was never going to happen. That he could even make this boast, simply reinforces the fact that mid-twentieth century social scientists had not realized the enduring strengths of the democratic system—though in hindsight the evidence was plain to see. In technology, in prosperity, in freedom, in culture, in human rights, in wealth and in military strength, democracies rule. And they always have. The Greeks beat the Persians. The Dutch Republic beat the Spanish Empire. The Venetian Republic fended off the Ottoman Empire. Across history, numerically tiny democracies have been able to best enemies several times their size. The reason for that, at base, is that democratic governments value the opinions of the many. They bring expertise to bear, and they operate on the basis of meritocracy. This usually proves superior to any autocracy’s chain of command, governed by fear, and controlled ultimately by the will of the ruler.
So we are not only sickening democracy in some type of abstract way. In a very real, day-to-day way, pre-empting debate by pretending that “racial” issues are off-limits will lead to the implementation of less effective, shorter-sighted policies based on ideology rather than fact. Without effective opposition, without intelligent counterargument, such a sub-optimal outcome is inevitable. The economics of decisionmaking are incontrovertible.
This essay has argued that:
1) It is absurd to suggest that it is racist to argue against a person of colour.
2) This treats people of colour not as equals, but as inferiors, who are not fit for rational debate. The tactic is therefore dehumanizing, condescending, and racist in itself.
3) Playing the “race card” on matters of political debate is childish, and disingenuous. It makes as much sense as saying that a husband cannot disagree with a wife without being sexist, or a non-Jew cannot disagree with a Jew without being anti-Semitic, or a non-plumber cannot disagree with a plumber without being plumbist.
4) Vigorous democracy requires vigorous, good-faith debate.
5) The tactic, ubiquitous on the left, of shutting down debate by suggesting that some topics are “out of bounds,” is unfair, disingenuous, and dangerous to the democratic process.
6) It has sent a chill across all sectors of society, which is akin to that felt under totalitarian societies. It therefore stokes authoritarian sensibilities and practises. This can erupt from all corners of society. In the US, it helped foster the Jan 6th Capitol riots. Make no mistake: the left’s current intolerance for rational debate greatly stokes the fire of right-wing anger, mass frustration, and susceptibility to conspiracy theory.
7) Voters instinctually feel when others are arguing in bad faith. When this is carried to the extremes that the current “racism” scare has been, this fuels anger and frustration across the political spectrum, causing people to lose faith in democracy itself. When people lose faith in government’s ability to solve problems, this leads to vandalism, looting, riots, and self-destructive behaviour.
8) Democracies which stifle meritocracy and open debate, are hobbling one of the greatest strengths of the entire democratic system: tolerating, and taking seriously, a full spectrum of facts, opinions, ideas, judgements, experience, and points of view. This weakens our decisionmaking process, and leads to sub-optimal outcomes, at a time when the world faces unprecedented dangers on a number of fronts.
9) Only when full debate is possible on all topics of serious political import, will our democracies be returned to health.
The key to a strong democratic future, then, is that the left has to reject the “White Fragility” argument in all haste. Wiser heads than myself, including prominent black intellectuals such as The Atlantic’s John McWhorter, have already dissected elements of this argument in similar terms.
In the process, we have to reject social tribalism. We are one society, and everyone is an equal stakeholder. We have to return to an embrace of meritocracy, and an embrace of the institutions which created our current prosperity as a society. We have to remember that Anglophone institutions remain the very best political institutions which the world has ever created. This is objectively true across any metric you care to use. We should not be ashamed of those institutions. They are tools which, bequeathed by a few Anglophone white dudes to the modern world, are now available for everyone to use—regardless of their ethnicity or identity.
The left is now in grave danger of throwing out the baby of our democracy, with the bathwater of our colonial past. But our democratic institutions, and the science, and the meritocracy that support them, have to be allowed to flourish without wrong-minded opportunism based on an appropriation of history, including the history of race.
In New Zealand, this means that all issues surrounding Maori rights have to be open to debate. To declare them to be out of bounds, on any of the grounds listed above, is not only anti-democratic.
It is totalitarianism, plain and simple.
 In White Fragility, the author argues that the very act of taking umbrage at any argument made by a person of colour, shows a “fragility” born of “white privilege.” Since “white people” are used to cultural superiority, they prove especially “fragile” when their culture is criticised. By a clever and seductive circular argument, then no person who is white, is able to argue that their culture or institutions have any value, which a person of colour does not ascribe to it. In essence, the argument slaps a gag order on all people who argue against her point of view. It is an argument against argumentation and debate itself. (This assumes that by “argument” is meant good-faith, fact-based argumentation. Cynically heckling someone in bad faith is not disagreement or argumentation by this definition; it is a form of violence and abuse.)