Current Events – 3 December 2017

“The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: ‘Speaking as an X’ . . . This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. (One never says, ‘Speaking as an gay Asian, I fell incompetent to judge on this matter’). It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. So classroom conversations that once might have begun, ‘I think A, and here is my argument’, now take the form, ‘Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B’. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one ‘epistemology’, black women have another. So what remains to be said?
What replaces argument, then, is taboo. At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups — today the transgendered — are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats — today conservative political speakers — are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up Protestant schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.” – Mark Lilla; in the words of one writer, “Mark Lilla (born 1956) is an American political scientist, historian of ideas, journalist, and professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City. A self-described liberal, he typically, though not always, presents views from that perspective.”

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