At the root of the identitarian Left’s politics is a form of self-contradictory morality that demolishes the presumption of innocence and uses coercive shaming tactics designed to ‘promote’ good behaviour. Although identity politics trade on virtue and shame, nothing can be worthy of praise (nor blame) that is not a voluntarily chosen act (or omission) by a free moral agent in circumstances where she could reasonably be expected to have chosen differently.
One of Critical Race Theory’s canonical scriptures, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, exemplifies the logic of blaming people while simultaneously removing their agency. White Fragility is the brainchild of a white author who claims that all white people have unconscious bias. Robin DiAngelo’s message is that white people are racist and that it’s not their fault. For those who can accept this essentialist diagnosis of their heritable disease, there is a strong incentive to accept the cure. Healing restoration comes through acknowledging their condition (read: guilt), reciting CRT’s ideological doctrines and ceasing to evaluate them (since critical ‘denial’ of the diagnosis is a key symptom of the disease).
The refusal to countenance any analysis of its claims is apparently not a sign of Critical Race Theory’s fragility, but a core tenet. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s best-selling CRT text Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is illustrative. She pre-emptively dismisses all white commentary on her theses as a power-play. With staggering irony, a self-proclaimed anti-racist is asserting that arguments are to be evaluated not on the basis of the individual’s reasoning, but by the skin colour of the person making the argument. This short circuits any basis for communication between people of different ethnicity and encloses us into separate ghettos and tribes, which is antithetical to what education (never mind anti-racism) is all about.
In the real world the presumption of guilt and the assiduous zeal to root it out plays out in myriad ways: in corporate diversity training (DiAngelo’s previous occupation), de-colonising educational curricula, media, culture and sport and the micro-management, surveillance and policing of “diversity and inclusion” which requires an ever-expanding bureaucratic industry that conflates serious acts of racism (that can be measured in empirical ways) with more dubious and ill-defined “microaggressions” and “hate speech”. Local District ‘Diversity Councils’ have popped up all over the United States overnight to enforce compliance and to announce and police the new ‘behavioural borders.’ The following definition of potential infractions comes from a ‘Diversity Council’ in Southlake, Texas that was presented to the local schoolboard for adoption in August 2020.
NOTE: Microaggressions are defined as everyday verbal or nonverbal, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized or underrepresented group membership.
Imagine a society where all of us were compelled by a dictator to be charitable. We could probably eradicate poverty forever. Yet “we” would help the poor not from a selfless impulse to support those in need but from a selfish impulse to prevent ourselves from being punished by the morality police. We’ve seen what this looks like in practice. The Soviet experiments in the last century give ample proof of how this kind of ‘community spirit’ works. Visit Saudi Arabia today and you won’t find religious conflict or dissent. Everyone lives in peaceful harmony. But its citizens (especially women, religious moderates and homosexuals) know only too well the price paid to achieve this unanimity. Such a ‘good society’ starts from pessimism about human nature and ends in totalitarian control over it, thus bringing into actual existence myriad human evils that had formerly only existed theoretically as props for the regime, which used these abstractions to legitimate one evil after another in the real world.
Managed morality is little more than slavish obedience, motivated by fear and self-preservation, not virtue. In its dependency on a vast bureaucracy of public surveillance, monitoring, and intimidation (if not downright violence or excommunication), identity politics is more like theocracy or a Maoist Cultural Revolution than a genuine improvement in social justice.
Liberalism works better. It brings about gradual social changes that are deeper and more stable, because they involve genuine conviction and transformation of the individual’s character, not just his or her outward behaviour or socially mediated rhetoric. Under liberalism, individuals are persuaded by appeals to reason, not coerced by instincts like fear or cajoled via endless public propaganda.
Liberals are optimistic, yet realistic, about human nature. They believe in the plasticity of human nature (it being neither inherently good nor evil) and the power of education and the free flow of ideas both to advance individual learning and to reform social ills. It is no mystery why identity politics have targeted the university as the primary site for coercive ideological control. Liberal educators believe that, given sufficient information, humans can figure things out for themselves and come to reasonable conclusions. They believe that a full, varied and broad education gives students the tools to make their own (good, not perfect) decisions. ‘Good decisions’ tend to weigh the total situation and take a wide range of viewpoints into account. To address the claims of Critical Race Theory we need education and analysis, and this is why liberals welcome discussion and debate and encourage the expression of multiple viewpoints, including those they don’t like. But, as Alka Sehgal Cuthbert has noted in Letters on Liberty,
“today’s anti-racists don’t intend to meet and talk with people of different skin colours. Neither are we supposed to read widely, think deeply or write our thoughts freely in a way that is true to ourselves. No, the new meaning of ‘educate yourself’ means to read uncritically a small number of books that share the same message. And if you haven’t read those books, you must say you have and say you love them, or be condemned as ignorant.”
Part of education is the transmission of empathy. Many teachers, myself included, believe that the best education involves not simply practical wisdom (phronesis) but also education in ethics (arete). At the same time, we believe that there is a distinct difference between education and indoctrination. As Sehgal Cuthbert has argued, “it is true that a white person cannot experience life as a black person experiences it, but this is true of any individual. If we go along with the CRT claim that all language is a tool of oppression, as Eddo-Lodge and others claim it is, white people can contribute nothing but their atonement. This”, says Sehgal Cuthbert, “is what ‘educate yourself’ ultimately means.”
By contrast, good education lays the groundwork for laissez-faire virtue, and creates the best conditions in which it will thrive. It is not Utopian, but it works better in the long run and creates more lasting positive social changes that are self-sustaining (and do not require authoritarian ‘management’). This is because virtues that are brought about through education, persuasion and free choice are more durable and deep-rooted than those that are compelled by forces outside of the individual who is made to follow a (fallible) set of rules reluctantly or from fear. Where vice is impossible, genuine virtue is as well.
Imagine if doctors were expected to spend every waking hour ensuring that we have all taken our vitamins, checking our fridges for vegetable content, and smacking pints of lager and cigarettes out of our hands. This would be to expect doctors to do things that are better left to the individual. It would be to assume that doctors have a duty to make us healthy rather than to cure our ills. We would transfer our responsibility (and our liberty) to an expert class by obligating doctors to obsess on our well-being rather than to deal with our (empirically detectable) health complaints. Doctors can reasonably be expected not to harm their patients, but is it reasonable to expect them to cause good health in all of us?
If so, there would be no point in doctors giving us advice to reduce our sugar consumption or take more exercise. Of course, they could micro-manage that for us. In a dystopic future, one can imagine a scenario in which, if a citizen didn’t take an ideal number of steps per day on his fit-bit, he could be fined or denied a doctors’ care. But it is not a doctor’s job to make us healthy, it is ours. Under liberalism, it is the individual’s sovereign right to choose how far he wants to pursue the end (of perfect health) and it is also his responsibility to reap the consequences. We all pay into the (public or private) health pot, and we should all be permitted to draw from it.
The twentieth century philosopher Hannah Arendt smoked a ghastly number of cigarettes each day, while devoting her time and energy to philosophical teaching, writing and thinking. She was a towering intellectual who left many gifts to her students as well as to posterity. She perhaps could not have done so had she instead obsessed on her health. Her full attention was on her work, and this meant neglecting her health and perhaps even using smoking as a crutch to help her to focus.
In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the liberal philosopher Karl Popper warned us to turn away from “utopian social engineering” and towards “piecemeal social engineering” with life on earth in mind. None of us can do everything that is good all of the time. We make choices and we prioritise our values. Every choice involves negation (I want this, not that.) Choices necessarily involve gain and loss, and consequences, some of which cannot be predicted in advance. To remove them would be to eliminate our political liberty, and with it our human flourishing. Genuine human goodness is only possible where it is self-determined, not managed by a paternalistic bureaucracy towards fulfilling utterly fallible notions of perfection. Human life cannot be risk-free. It cannot be perfect, but it can be good.
M Murray is an American essayist, author and educator. He lives and works in London, UK where he teaches religious studies, film studies and civics in Secondary Education. He has changed his gender for this essay and names of private individuals have been altered to protect their identities.