All posts filed under: Culture Wars

Does Suffering Provide Meaning and Purpose in Life?—A Reply to Freya India

A recent article in Quillette by Freya India raises the age-old problem of how to understand the connection between suffering and meaning in one’s life. India’s argument is that some suffering is unavoidable, but more suffering may be beneficial if one is able to understand its advantages. Generation Z—those born since 1997—are historically unique insofar as they arrived in the Internet and social media age. But is suffering experienced differently according to a person’s circumstances? And are today’s under-25s that much different from earlier generations in the way they respond to stressors? A key characteristic of the social climate in which today’s under-25s live is that they cannot afford to ignore the pressures of creating and maintaining an identity on social media, and of trying to avoid the many hazards presented by aggressive activism and what has become known as “cancel culture.” This environment brings its own anxieties, because what is done on the Internet is very difficult to undo. Arousing serious and/or widespread antipathy from others may ruin one’s life-chances with no means of …

Towards Practical Empowerment

The following critique of anti-racism is intended to empower people of color and stave off the modes of disempowerment I see in my field of rhetorical studies. Rhetorical studies examines persuasion in all its forms, but just like everyone else, rhetoricians have a hard time communicating with one another, especially when it comes to anti-racism. I’m not suggesting that all scholars, activists, and pedagogues interested in anti-racism abide by the detrimental ideology of orthodox anti-racism, but enough do that a dissenting voice is in order. Critiques like mine are often understood as oppression or “punching down” because they threaten a narrative of anti-racism in which people of color are perpetual victims fighting the ubiquitous and systemic specter of white supremacy. Anti-racists go to great lengths to discredit such views, even—or especially—when they are espoused by people of color. Consider the newly coined term “multiracial whiteness,” which NYU professor Cristina Beltrán defines as: …an ideology invested in the unequal distribution of land, wealth, power and privilege—a form of hierarchy in which the standing of one section …

Struggling with Pixar’s ‘Soul’

In the COVID era, my wife and I are homeschooling our small children. Their endless questions often send me to Google. Why do clouds change color? Where did language come from? Why did our ancestors paint on cave walls? They are not only curious about life after death, but also about life before life. They have concocted the Not-Existing World—an antechamber to life where they were friends before birth. So they naturally loved Soul, Pixar’s foray into the twin metaphysical realms of the Great Before (pre-life) and the Great Beyond (afterlife). Soul opens on Joe Gardner (a black middle-aged jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) becoming a permanent teacher at a public school as his dreams of professionally performing music fade. Miraculously, there’s a coveted opening in the Dorothea Williams quartet that same day, and Joe nails the audition. Euphoric, he struts through NYC, oblivious to its dangers, and plummets down an open manhole. Suddenly, he’s a fuzzy green-blue blob among other blobs—disembodied souls. (Joe is distinguished by his glasses and spiffy hat.) The souls …

Unspeakable Truths about Racial Inequality in America

This is the text of a lecture delivered by the author as part of the Benson Center Lecture Series at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on February 8th, 2021. I am a black American intellectual living in an age of persistent racial inequality in my country. As a black man I feel compelled to represent the interests of “my people.” (But that reference is not unambiguous!) As an intellectual, I feel that I must seek out the truth and speak such truths as I am given to know. As an American, at this critical moment of “racial reckoning,” I feel that imperative all the more urgently. But, I ask, what are my responsibilities? Do they conflict with one another? I will explore this question tonight. My conclusion: “My responsibilities as a black man, as an American, and as an intellectual are not in conflict.” I defend this position as best I can in what follows. I also try to illustrate the threat “cancel culture” poses to a rational discourse about racial inequality in America that …

A (Failed) Campaign to Smear a University of Toronto Scholarship Student as a Bigot

Arjun Singh is an Indian-Canadian student of mixed Sikh and Hindu ancestry, set to finish a four-year undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in just three years, while reportedly boasting a 3.96 cumulative GPA in his course work with the departments of Political Science, International Relations, and American Studies. His LinkedIn page indicates that he speaks multiple languages and has work experience with the US State Department. So no surprise that this high achiever has earned numerous awards and scholarships. In recent days, however, 13 fellow students (six of them white, for those who count these things) publicly expressed their claimed “shock” that Singh had received the Political Science department’s $1,000 David Rayside Undergraduate Scholarship, awarded to “students who have demonstrated commitment and leadership in co-curricular activities, on or off campus, promoting greater public understanding of social and cultural diversity and enhanced inclusion of historically marginalized populations: for example racialized minorities, women, Indigenous communities, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities, sexual minorities. Award is based on academic achievement and financial need.” On January 31st, …

Sexual Assault and the Taboo of Sound Advice

One recent Friday, campus police at University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), sent out a school-wide welcome email offering safety tips to students, some of whom are incoming freshman and the rest of whom would be on campus for the first time in a while. “With the first week of classes now underway,” the email began, “I’d like to take this time to remind you that University Police Services is focused on preserving an environment where you can study, live, and work safely.” The opening tips were in the realm of those familiar body-language prescriptives that some find hokey but that self-defense experts swear by: “Look confident, keep your head up and walk with a confident stride.” The email emphasized that merely making eye contact could establish one’s status as an alpha and thereby “deter a potential attack.” The advice continued: “Be aware and alert to your surroundings. Don’t talk on your cellphone or listen to music when you are in an unfamiliar area” and “If you jog alone, stay in public areas that are …

‘More Weight’: An Academic’s Guide to Surviving Campus Witch Hunts

In the fall of 2020, I became the target of a cancellation campaign after I’d suggested that the best policy for a university seeking to support underrepresented groups, while staying true to its mission of producing knowledge, is to ensure that hiring and admissions decisions are based on merit. It’s an idea that directly reflects bedrock principles advanced during the Civil Rights movement, and which are still supported by a large majority of Americans. But to the mob, I was just an irredeemable enemy of progress and social justice. As part of the now-standard playbook, my attackers formed a Twitter mob and wrote a denunciatory public letter, cynically misrepresenting my views, demanding that my research and teaching at the University of Chicago be restricted, and urging that my department formally denounce me. Fortunately, at a crucial juncture in the proceedings, the Free Speech Union launched a change.org petition in my support, which was signed by more than 13,000 people. (The list probably includes many readers of this essay. Thank you so much for your support!) …

Scottish Nationalists in Turmoil

Who would have thought that Scotland’s largest party would be roiled by sex scandals? Sex is not normally seen as part of Scotland’s national brand, but it is now and it has not added lustre. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has, for nearly 90 years, sought the break-up of Britain, believing that the Union of 1707 between Scotland and England was illegitimate. It was attained by bribery of the Scots parliamentarians, thereby destroying the Edinburgh parliament and absorbing political Scotland into Westminster government. The home of eccentrics and literary men and women, nationalism was for a long time regarded by most Scots as a tartan fringe and a wasted vote. Before and during the Second World War, some of its leaders even leaned towards the Nazis, in the cranky hope that a German victory over England would deliver liberation for Scotland. To this end, the most prominent Scots writer, Hugh MacDiarmid, wrote unpublished poems calling for the Luftwaffe to destroy London, “the earth’s greatest stumbling block and rock of offence.” The electorate remained unconvinced. Nevertheless, …

First, Do No Harm: A New Model for Treating Trans-Identified Children

We are two psychotherapists, husband and wife, with professional involvement in the therapeutic treatment of trans-identified individuals in the UK. The material that follows is connected to a paper we presented at a multi-disciplinary conference on January 23rd, Do Not Adjust Your Set: Sex, Gender And Public Policy, and reflects our serious concern about the transition of children before maturity—though, as we would like to emphasize, we are not taking a position in regard to an adult’s right to transition. Indeed, we understand that transition is, for some adults, the optimum way to lead their lives and present to the world. In all cases, we encourage a psychotherapeutic model that provides a process of psychological exploration, in which an individual’s personality structure, beliefs, defence mechanisms, and motivations are assessed and examined in a supportive environment. All of these elements, we believe, are helpful for anyone planning this kind of life-altering decision. Between 2003 and 2007, I, Susan Evans, worked for the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock Clinic in London, a specialised facility …

Why Is Biden Trying to Punish Charter Schools for Their Success?

As yet, it remains to be seen exactly what President Biden has in store for America’s network of charter schools. Following the Democratic Party primaries, the Biden-Sanders Unity Taskforce called for accountability for charter schools and a ban on federal funding of for-profit charters—approximately 12 percent of the total. Increasing accountability does not necessarily sound like a hostile act against charters but the taskforce is specific that this will involve “requiring all charter schools to meet the same standards of transparency as traditional public schools, including with regard to civil rights protections, racial equity, admissions practices, disciplinary procedures, and school finances.” For those of us who have followed the charter school debate over the years, this statement appears to be framed with the concerns of these schools’ opponents in mind. Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that charge no fees and have more flexibility than regular government schools in how they manage their affairs and run their programs. They are similar to free schools and academies in England and the model has been adopted with …