All posts filed under: Activism

The New Evolution Deniers

Evolutionary biology has always been controversial. Not controversial among biologists, but controversial among the general public. This is largely because Darwin’s theory directly contradicted the supernatural accounts of human origins rooted in religious tradition and replaced them with fully natural ones. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has described evolution as a sort of “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” Fearing this corrosive idea, opposition in the US to evolution mainly came from Right-wing evangelical Christians who believed God created life in its present form, as described in Genesis. In the 1990s and 2000s there were repeated attempts by evangelicals to ban evolution in public schools or teach the so-called “controversy” by including Intelligent Design—the belief that life is too complex to have evolved without the aid of some “Intelligent Designer” (i.e. God)—in the biology curriculum alongside evolution. But these attempts failed when scientists demonstrated in court that Intelligent Design was nothing …

Silencing Women in the Name of Trans Activism

It all began with a warm and friendly email from an arts producer who runs a regular London-based project called the Truth to Power Café (TTP). Founder Jeremy Goldstein had seen my writing, and figured I might be a worthy performer. “[The show] includes live and spontaneous testimony from participants rising up in the name of free speech and political activism,” he told me. “During the course of the show, I invite participants to respond to the question, ‘Who has power over you and what do you want to say to them?’ before a live audience. This year, I’ve worked with over 100 participants in four countries including U.K., Australia, Netherlands and Croatia.” I hesitated before accepting. Performance art isn’t really my thing. And I already do a number of events as part of my feminist activism, so I need to be careful about how I allocate my remaining time (especially when, as in this case, I’m not being paid). But the free speech and truth-to-power elements appealed to me, so I agreed to take …

Do Advocacy Groups Belong in Academia?

A few months ago, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Suzanna Danuta Walters. Its title was: “Why can’t we hate men?” Walters’s byline, printed before the body of the article, read: Suzanna Danuta Walters, a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, is the editor of the gender studies journal Signs. As the byline suggests, Walters isn’t a layperson sharing an opinion; she’s a social scientist writing within her field of expertise. Her position as programme director at a prestigious university and as editor of an academic journal further underscore her academic credentials. Walters begins the article by describing incidences of abuse of women by men and notes that “it seems logical to hate men.” Although acknowledging the value of institutional analyses of power, she describes the “universal facts” of various forms of male domination (as opposed to citing examples of men abusing power within various structures and frameworks). Since men “have gone low for all of human history,” she writes, “maybe it’s time …

Single Issue Campaigning and the Polarisation Problem

In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that a polarisation cycle exists at US universities. First, a progressive professor does or says something provocative in response to a real or perceived injustice caused by conservatives. Next, the right-wing press picks up the story, and it is shared and retold to amplify conservative outrage. Then, people are encouraged to email or tweet at academics. Finally, the university, which isn’t used to being attacked, makes a badly thought-through decision in order to make the problem go away, which too often means that someone leaves an institution when they probably shouldn’t. As progressive campaigners working outside of college campuses, the cycle Haidt and Lukianoff describe felt worryingly familiar. We began to wonder whether well-intentioned progressive campaigns were contributing to the same kind of polarisation in wider society. Polarisation is one of the few remaining political topics upon which there seems to be something approaching a consensus. There is widespread agreement that our political identities increasingly preclude us from listening …

Effective vs. Pathological Altruism

The effective altruism movement grew out of an understanding that sometimes charitable giving doesn’t achieve its desired effects. Even when aid works, effective altruists argue that aid can be given more efficiently through the application of cost-benefit analysis. Effective altruism enjoys widespread support, including among Quillette readers ranging from Sam Harris to Geoffrey Miller. In fact, it’s hard to deny that if we’re inclined to act charitably, we should follow our head as much as our heart. We should subject charity to scrutiny. When Helping Hurts The problem comes when the view we take of what we’re trying to achieve becomes too myopic. For example, we all agree that if we’re going to relieve a famine, we should find the cheapest way to feed the famished. But what if feeding the hungry creates more hungry people to feed? What if it indirectly contributes to more civil conflict, enriches warlords, or interferes with agricultural markets in ways that drive domestic farmers out of business? Recent studies suggest that food aid to African countries has done all …

My Unpopular Opinion: There Are Too Many Mediocre Artists

Every now and again, a friend of mine holds a ‘what’s your unpopular opinion?’ discussion in a club we jointly run. Everyone takes turns to say something not so much outrageous or contrarian (debates are seldom about politics) but bitter – as in ‘bitter truth’. People argue, say, that colonialism is a good idea (when done by the British, of course), or that sometimes historic buildings and artefacts are more important than people (and should by preference be preserved in wartime), or that corporal punishment is probably not such a bad idea for certain sorts of crimes (and criminals). He imposes the Chatham House rule so people aren’t set upon afterwards by mobs of offendotrons trying to get them sacked for wrongthink. Well, I’ve decided to go public with one of my unpopular opinions. There are too many artists, too many people who want to be artists, most of them aren’t very good, and schools should focus on inculcating self-discipline rather than dopey ‘all must have prizes’ creativity. Most people are only ever going to …

The Forgotten Story of How “Punching Up” Harmed the Science-Fiction/Fantasy World

The recent blowup over New York Times editorial board hire Sarah Jeong and her racially charged Twitter trail turned into a brawl over a key question in today’s cultural polemics: Whether derogatory speech about whites should be considered racist and, more generally, whether there is such a thing as anti-white racism. Most of Jeong’s defenders on the left not only argued that she shouldn’t lose her job but insisted that there was nothing particularly wrong with her white-bashing tweets, whether they were meant to mock racist trolls or criticize “white privilege.” “To equate ‘being mean to white people’ with the actual systemic oppression and marginalization of minority groups is a false equivalency,” wrote Vox reporter Aja Romano in a supposedly objective “explainer.” As the Jeong drama demonstrates, the view that “woke” white-bashing is a harmless, justified, and perhaps even commendable form of “punching up” is now mainstream in liberal/progressive culture in North America (and some other Western countries). And yet another culture-war episode from four years ago—one that, as it happens, Romano also covered in …

The Rise and Decline of Black Lives Matter: A Toronto Case Study

In July 2016, the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter brought the city’s world-famous Pride parade to a halt. BLM supporters staged a sit-in to protest Pride Toronto’s alleged ‘anti-blackness.’ The parade restarted only after the organizer hastily signed a document containing a long list of demands, including the removal of official police floats from future parades. BLM had taken on one of the most prominent civic events on Toronto’s annual calendar, and won. Two years later, it’s a different story. During the 2018 Pride festivities, BLM did not take part in the main parade, opting instead for the less popular, more overtly political Dyke March and Trans March. The move symbolizes a larger trend. Scan BLM’s media mentions across North America, and a pattern emerges: a spike in mentions during the group’s early protests in 2015 and 2016, followed by a steep decline in 2017, which has continued into 2018. This is a group that, not so long ago, could force politicians to walk back declarations that “all lives matter” (a slogan that was …

Jordan Peterson Rallies Portlandia’s Dissidents

PORTLAND, Ore. — Weeks of effort by activists to get University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson booted from his Portland tour stop ultimately failed as he delivered an uninterrupted speech to a packed-house on Monday at the Keller Auditorium in downtown. Before the event, around 50 protesters gathered across the street to shout at Mr. Peterson’s fans waiting in line. “Say it once, say it again, no excuse for violent men,” they chanted. Many held signs condemning his views on gender pronouns and women. One sign declared, “As many genders as we want.” Another read, “Infinite genders.” The protest comes at a tense time in Portland as activists have shut down the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office nearby for nine straight days. I recognized many of the same protesters, which include self-described anti-fascists, socialists, and anarchists. “We’re out here because there’s a classist, misogynistic, transphobic bigot named Jordan Peterson getting paid to spread his hateful ideology here in Portland,” shouted Rosemary Dodd through a megaphone. “We’re outraged by his words, yes. But …

The Folly of a Racialized Criminal Justice Reform Debate

In the wake of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent upheavals in Ferguson, Missouri, a number of political pundits implored Americans to engage in a “national conversation about race,” particularly as it pertained to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. These exhortations were understandable. America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world and—in state prisons—blacks are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. America has a well documented history of subjecting blacks to police brutality, and reform advocates will often claim that this racially motivated mistreatment persists today. Well intentioned activists seek to rectify this state of apparent racial injustice. However, almost four years after Ferguson, no federal legislation has been passed. While several states have enacted meaningful reforms, the system as a whole remains unaltered. What explains this failure? By all reasonable accounts, we have had the demanded ‘national conversation’ about race in the intervening years since Ferguson. Apparently, and perhaps predictably, that discussion has been unproductive. Race as a Distraction and Means of Alienation After high-profile incidents …