Dogmatic mysticism in the intolerant left

December 18, 2014 – 11:51 am by John

Somewhere around the interwebs, I once read an analogy to the radical-left social justice movement that went something like this: Imagine you have a child of, say, pre-school or elementary-school age. He is playing in your living room as usual, doing nothing out of the ordinary, until he steps across a certain patch of carpet that you have suddenly and secretly deemed off-limits. You admonish the child, grab him, put him in time-out, take away his toys, tell him why he is being punished, make him apologize, make him feel terrible for his mistake, tell him it was his fault, make him promise never to do it again, and tell him his intentions and his ignorance of the rule are irrelevant. You also emphasize that his failure to realize he was making a mistake is also his fault and is further proof of his wickedness.

The child will apologize to avoid further admonishment and to regain the approval of his parents. If the child experiences this first-hand or sees it happening to others often enough, he will come to perceive all living rooms as fraught with unseen dangers, whose invisibility is his own fault, and will come to believe it is his own responsibility not only to avoid further such transgressions but also to admonish others who transgress, despite his vague memory that at some point there was nothing wrong with playing in all parts of the living room. Finally, the child will come to respect—or at least submit to—the capricious and obscure nature of these rules, which can have the effect of either accustoming the child to respecting and obeying capricious and obscure rules or leading the child to disrespect rules both good and bad.

Nowhere have I seen a more apt real-world example of this allegory than in the travails of Smith College President Kathleen McCartney. Her transgression? Writing in an email to the university community,

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff:

As members of the Smith community we are struggling, and we are hurting. The failure of grand juries in Missouri and New York to indict two police officers for their use of excessive force, resulting in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, has led to a shared fury – and a deep sorrow. The videotape of Eric Garner spoke for itself – or should have done. In my conversations with you, I hear discouragement as you share how your lives have been disrupted, how you have lost faith in the quest for racial equality, and how you fear for people of color. How you fear especially for children like Tamir Rice, 12 years old, who was shot November 22nd in Cleveland for holding a toy gun in a park.

We gather in vigil, we raise our voices in protest; yet we wake again to news of violence that reminds us, painfully, of the stark reality of racial injustice.

It can be easy to lose hope, but Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children's Defense Fund more than 40 years ago, teaches us to remain willing to work for social justice, even amidst our discouragement. She said recently, "I care, and I am willing to serve and stand with others to build a movement." Like Marian, I believe our only choice is to serve and to build, especially in times like this, as the civil rights of our fellow citizens continue to be in jeopardy.
We will do some of this work on our own and some in community. Thanks to the Concerned Students of Color Committee, we have already begun a series of programs that will continue as long as I am president. Thanks to the faculty, we have already begun a series of conversations about how to address institutional barriers to equality. Soon we will have a new Chief Diversity Officer to support this work.

Most immediately, we will:

  • Focus the readings and prayers of this Sunday's Christmas Vespers services at 4 and 7:30 p.m. in John M. Greene on renewing our commitment to social justice, and include a period of silent reflection during each service.
  • Come together in vigil at 4:30 p.m. Monday, December 8th, on Chapin Lawn, to remember Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others who have fallen; and to recommit ourselves to working toward justice and non-violence in their honor.
  • Organize a panel discussion on police treatment of people of color, particularly Black males.
  • Solicit ideas from all members of our community. I welcome your suggestions.

It is my fervent hope that the lives of Michael, Eric, Tamir and others will inspire a new civil rights movement. There are early signs that this is the case, as demonstrations across the country have illustrated.

What an insensitive, insulated, oblivious, dismissive, callous person, amirite? Any reasonable, halfway-civilized person would realize how offensive her remarks are, especially to people of color.

What's that? Oh, it was actually the last sentence of her email that riled people up:

We are united in our insistence that all lives matter.

Apparently the subject line of her email was also "All Lives Matter". You see, President McCartney didn't realize that "all lives matter" was a dismissive phrase used by some to counter the slogan "black lives matter" in an attempt to divert discussion away from the ill treatment that blacks disproportionately receive from police officers and all other facets of the American criminal justice system. She didn't realize this probably because she is not a hyper-politicized person who is in tune with every fad and fashion of the social-mediasphere.

In an entirely depressing but entirely expected development, she apologized and admitted her "mistakes":

I am committed to working as a white ally, to learning from the lived experiences of people of color, and to acknowledging mistakes, despite my best intentions.

The two student emails she quoted in her apology were thoughtful and respectful, but some comments quoted by the linked article were more accusatory and judgmental:

Two students who attended the vigil, sophomores Cecelia Lim and Maureen Leonard, agreed that McCartney was right to apologize after her original email.

“It felt like she was invalidating the experience of black lives,” Lim said.

A third student at the vigil, sophomore math major Maria Lopez, said McCartney’s first email was poorly received on campus.

“A lot of my news feed was negative remarks about her as a person,” she said, referring to students’ reaction on social media. Lopez added that McCartney, whom she called “President Kathy,” is generally well-liked among students.

“She acknowledged her mistake,” Lopez said.

To review, an eminently concerned, fair-minded, inclusive university president was driven to apologize for failing to repeat a slogan she was unaware existed; her innocent over-inclusivity was "poorly received" for "invalidating the experience of black lives" despite the fact that her entire email was about the injustice experienced by black lives and actions that she would be personally involved in to rectify those injustices; and some students concluded that this ignorance of a Twitter hashtag reflected negatively on her as a person.

This is dogmatic, illiberal, hyper-judgmental group-think. It borders on religious mysticism: you can't know what is right and wrong, so rely on the social-justice clergy to inform you—and absolve you—of your sins. It is the complaining students who are insular, ignorant, and entitled. They can't suffer any deviation from their talking points, and they interpret any such deviation as an insult to an entire class of humans collectively as well as themselves personally. They seek and therefore find slights everywhere, and they think that every transgression against their movement, whether real or imagined, and no matter how small, represents malice on the part of the transgressor and entitles them to an apology.

It would be refreshing to see the target of one of these non-controversies refuse to apologize for doing nothing wrong, just once in a while.

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