By Mark Bauerlein
Darel Paul’s account of what is happening at Williams College, along with his analysis of “woke” forensics, is a far-sighted discussion that everyone should read. Paul is a professor at Williams in the Political Science department, and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage His tone in the essay is measured, his points patiently presented—and his judgments decisive. He is exactly right to regard “wokeness” as a religion, and he correctly frames the movement in terms of group psychology and tribalist tactics. If you wish to fend off the passive aggressive maneuvers of “wokeness” on your campus, Paul’s disquisition, which bears the title “Listening at the Great Awokening,” gives you the insight to see through them and disarm them. “Awokening” is not a moral crusade. It is crude power politics.
For instance, at one point, Paul focuses on the common demand of social justice advocates that privileged people must learn how to listen. At Williams, faculty members have been told that they must “be listeners. Talk less, listen more.” But in the mouths of “wokists,” the meaning of listen goes well beyond its ordinary sense. Paul accepts the usual meaning and advises others to do the same:
To listen also includes doing so attentively with neither defensiveness nor interruption. I submit that every person of goodwill should do as much.
This is just a matter of good manners.
But, as Paul notes, and as many readers here have experienced, listen isn’t confined to that everyday behavior. If it were, then the social justice people wouldn’t stress it so much. The emotional emphasis they give it makes the word a loaded term, turning it into a demand that puts others in the position of the accused. When they ask so fervently that you must listen, they imply that you haven’t been listening. You’re guilty, and you must make amends.
You could see that dynamic in the notorious Munk Debate in which the blustering Michael Eric Dyson squared off with Jordan Peterson. After terming Peterson a “mean, mad white man,” Dyson told Peterson that he must listen to disadvantaged people, to listen to them.
It’s an odd demand to make, because Peterson has logged thousands of hours with patients in his clinical practice doing just that. Peterson might have replied that his patients have included people of all kinds, rich and poor, white and black, men and women, old and young. At Harvard, Peterson studied troubled youths. I wish he had said to Dyson what is undoubtedly the truth: “In my experience, when people have described themselves and their problems, they have shown themselves every time to be so much more than a demographic identity. What a sorry condition it is for a person to look at another human being and see a ‘mean, mad white man.’”
But Dyson didn’t feel the need to do that, to regard Peterson with any further complexity. He had the “listen” demand in his pocket, which in progressive climates such as the college campus carries weight. When I spoke at Wesleyan University awhile back and proposed Donald Trump as a 21st-century Emersonian figure of self-reliance and creative optimism, a student came up to me afterwards and said exactly the same thing. In distressed, pleading words, he, too, said I needed to “listen,” yes, because young men and women “are dying!”
My problem at that moment was that he had my whole attention: I was listening. I just couldn’t attach his words to any specific reality. Who’s dying? Whom do you mean? Certainly not any students at Wesleyan, who enjoy a lot more privilege than I did when I was their age no matter what their race or sex. I couldn’t help listening to him and finding his words puzzling. The only way I could accept them would be for me to suppress my judgment.
But that’s what woke listening amounts to, pure and unresisting receptivity. Professor Paul explains:
A second meaning is attached to the first and follows in its wake. One heard this clearly on the Silliman College quad at Yale University in 2015. Students who were upset over Christakis’s defense of the position that students should police their own Halloween costume choices through “self-censure” and “social norming,” rather than submit to “bureaucratic and administrative” control asked for—and received—an apology for hurting their feelings and causing them pain. This was not enough. Students further demanded an admission from Christakis that both his wife’s original email and his own defense of that email were violent and racist. “Let us tell you if you’re being racist,” said one student. Another insisted, “Empathy is not necessary for you to understand that you’re wrong. Even if you don’t feel what I feel ever, even if nobody’s ever been racist to you―’cause they can’t be racist to you―that doesn’t mean that you can just act like you’re not being racist.” If Christakis had truly listened to those students at Yale, he would have accepted their definitions of racist and violent. He would have endorsed their interpretation of the world as socially normative. Because he refused to do so, one student concluded “all I see from you is arrogance and ego … You are not listening! You are disgusting! I don’t think you understand that.”
There you see the aggression behind “listen” in naked form. The only proper way for you to react to it is to stand there and take it. Otherwise, “You are disgusting!”
Let’s be blunt. Social justice warriors despise the privileged ones, and they want to make them feel their anger. The call to listen isn’t a plea; it’s an order. It doesn’t invite the privileged into authentic communication with the not-privileged. It withholds free speech and free thought from the former and grants dictatorial powers to the latter.
That’s why identity politicians like it. How exhilarating it is to tell the object of your resentments, “Be quiet!” A 20-year-old who has just realized he can’t cut it in pre-med classes, or who hasn’t made many friends, or who doesn’t have as much spending money as his peers, gets a thrill from lashing out at any individual who seems to embody the forces that have frustrated him. The momentary satisfaction of launching a demand for silence is so tempting that it obscures the truth of its ultimate failure. The “listen” tactic works in overheated identity environments such as the campus, human resources in large businesses, and leftwing media, but not in many other workplaces. Who wants to work with a 25-year-old stomping his feet and mistrusting white male co-workers?
Conservatives and liberals who respond to the “listen” power play and similar tactics in the spirit of “communication” are fools. Those who interpret “listen” as an innocent request for more sensitivity are naïve. Social justice warriors don’t want their sympathy. They want their compliance.
Campus liberals who still maintain a measure of concern over identity politics believe, perhaps, that a little indulgence of these overwrought kids will make the illiberalism they cause blow over and the wheels will keep turning smoothly. They don’t realize how demoralizing to the vast majority of students is the sight of professors and administrators patiently listening to sophomores in the middle of treating them as punching bags.
Tom Wolfe described the routine 50 years ago in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” The parties were different—in Wolfe’s case, San Francisco city bureaucrats charged with managing poverty programs and the “certified angry militants who presumed to speak for the ghetto, confront the officials at City Hall, and demand more money, more goods, more recognition of the people—but the method was the same.
If you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic, into shit-eating grins, so to speak—then they knew you were the real goods. They knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to.
Wolfe calls them masters in “the art of confrontation.” The social justice warriors and undergraduate identity politicians ordering the president to listen at the same time that the president stands before them in a feeble posture of conciliation, hoping and praying that he can find the right thing to say to make them stop, please, stop, are honing their confrontation skills. They know how vulnerable are the college leaders, who suffer white guilt as much as the 1970 city official did, and who add to it responsibility for the public image of the institutions they run.
Those brochures that colleges send out and display women and minorities on the lawn smiling and conversing, or in the lab in white coat and goggles intent on what’s happening in the petri dish, are their allies. No president wants to have photos of angry black faces in his office circulating on Twitter, not on his watch. That’s the threat that makes this absurd “learn to listen!” outburst succeed. Wolfe’s protesters had a different threat: “Give us what we want or you may face a riot this weekend.” Campus protesters say, “Give us what we want [a dorm of our own, more counselors and faculty of color . . .] or we are going to march and chant and cry—and broadcast ourselves everywhere!”
How refreshing and inspiring it would be if another John Silber came along and responded to the protesters, “At this school, we stand for scholarly ideals and civilized norms of conduct. If you can’t observe them, you should go.”