Policing the Real By Inoculating Words

David Brooks’ piece “The Campus Crusaders” examines the ethos animating much of the recent anti-discrimination activism patrolling the university and finds it miserably, miserably wanting. Writing as charitably as he can, Brooks lays bare the lack of substance at the core of these campaigns. He emphasizes that discrimination is of course a bad thing- we rightly refuse to tolerate deniers of the Holocaust, for example. But something else entirely is at work here. The moral fervor Brooks sees at work is merely surface deep and can be no deeper as it’s undisciplined by a robust philosophical description of the world and human nature. What we see instead is a hollow antagonism energizing many of these activists and Brooks wastes no time pouncing on the control belief out of which it seeps. This belief has no positive content whatsoever because it recognizes no ontological basis for either good or evil. The commitment to anti-essential ways of thinking leaves these crusaders with a merely formal mechanism for recognizing wrongdoing- the feeling of not liking someone saying something you would not say.

According to this theory, the dividing lines between good and evil are starkly clear. The essential conflict is between the traumatized purity of the victim and the verbal violence of the oppressor.

According to this theory, the ultimate source of authority is not some hard-to-understand truth. It is everybody’s personal feelings. A crime occurs when someone feels a hurt triggered, or when someone feels disagreed with or “unsafe.” In the Shulevitz piece, a Brown student retreats from a campus debate to a safe room because she “was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against” her dearly and closely held beliefs.

Today’s campus activists are not only going after actual acts of discrimination — which is admirable. They are also going after incorrect thought — impiety and blasphemy. They are going after people for simply failing to show sufficient deference to and respect for the etiquette they hold dear. They sometimes conflate ideas with actions and regard controversial ideas as forms of violence…

Other targets of this crusade had no idea what they were getting into. A student at George Washington wrote an essay on the pre-Nazi history of the swastika. A professor at Brandeis mentioned a historic slur against Hispanics in order to criticize it. The scholar Wendy Kaminer mentioned the N-word at a Smith College alumni event in a clearly nonracist discussion of euphemism and free speech.

All of these people were targeted for purging merely for bringing unacceptable words into the public square. As Powers describes it in “The Silencing,” Kaminer was accused of racial violence and hate speech. The university president was pilloried for tolerating an environment that had been made “hostile” and “unsafe.”

“Hostile” and “unsafe” not because threats were issued or abuse doled out, but simply because banned words were brandished. As you can see, a good impulse has been corrupted by the discourse mob’s intellectually vacuous vigilanteeism which is blind to its own ridiculousness. They take no heed to Wittgenstein’s insistence that the same word employed in two different language games simply will not (and cannot) have the same meaning. Placing a knight on a Candy Land board doesn’t count as a move. Similarly, voicing a racial slur to lay bare its horrible history simply doesn’t count as hate speech- whatever that actually is. I would argue that the category “hate speech” only appears sensible in an emotivist paradigm where realism (i.e. nature and semi-stable signifiers) is uncritically jettisoned. But such anti-realism ironically turns on itself by reducing every possible context of a word’s use to one: sheer usage, anytime, anywhere. Anti-realist universalism doesn’t make any sense, so it makes a fitting bedfellow here, I suppose.

These activists are right to be afraid of words, however. Words wove the architecture of the universe into existence and set realities into motion in which we still live and move and have our being. Words connect and create new contexts, highlight continuities, expose foolishness and wickedness and execute justice. Try as we might to forget our heritage as creatures of a divine word (creatures made in the image of the Word who is God!), we simply can’t escape the power of words. However much our words are conditioned by our cultures, their evocative, performative magic (what else can we really call it?) haunts us like the vestigial background glow of Eden’s good beginning. And so long as they do, we depraved image bearers raising our impotent fists in God’s face will be terrified and will attempt to police their deployment. For they unleash more than we ever intend. And sometimes they take on flesh and carry our sinful stupidities to the cross and bring our illusions to ruin.

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