DEI Training Session At My School
In the recent DEI training session, I asked a question about what was meant by the “myth of universality,” which was included as one if the mistakes to be overcome to progress beyond level one of something called the “cultural competence continuum.” I felt cut off when session leader rapidly changed the subject and ended up feeling that it is possibly not safe for me to speak my mind in this place. Had I been allowed to continue, here’s what I would have said:
I find your definition of universality, that every one is the same, inadequate. For me, it is axiomatic that what is unique to the human species is the capacity for empathy, and that empathy gives each of us the ability to identify with an experience that we have not had. This is what I wake up every morning affirming. This is what makes it a joy for me to stand up in front of a classroom of students and talk about literature. This is why I have dedicated my working life to the study of literature. So, if progressing beyond level one on the cultural competence continuum means I must deny Spinoza and four hundred years of Humanist philosophy, I expect to be stuck at level one for some time to come.
In the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx argues that humankind is a “species being,” a foundational statement for his radical critique of capitalism. So, I find the denial of universality, potentially, at least, quite reactionary and disturbing. In the Guillermo del Toro film, Pan’s Labyrinth, I remember the fascist torturer sitting calmly at dinner, scoffing at the idea of the universality of humanity.
I was also disturbed by the discussion of intersectionality and the tacit disapproval of any criticism. It was presented as the only possible correct attitude. Here again, it seemed not safe to speak my mind. Whatever good intentions may have initiated the concept, the actual practice has been unfortunate. It has come to mean dividing up the world into a false binary of victimized and victimizer categories and assigning moral superiority to the victimized categories and moral turpitude to the victimizers and denying them a legitimate political voice.
I am remembering a previous faculty meeting on diversity in which the presenter showed a video in which a white man encountering an Asian woman on a running path, embarrasses himself by maladroitly mouthing racist commonplaces about Asian women. Everyone thought the video very funny. I felt there was a terrible irony here. While the video made the obvious point that stereotyping minorities is foolish and hurtful, no one noticed that the video was indulging in the stereotype of the clueless white guy. No one objected to this stereotype because straight white men are victimizer category and, therefore, fair game for ridicule.
In a similar incident, I was talking with some colleagues some time ago about the Trump campaign, when someone opined, “Of course this is all happening because of white men.” I asked her to please redefine that category into one that did not include me. She was taken aback by my request and couldn’t understand why I might think it did, so casual and pervasive has this categorizing become. In a recent school assembly, everyone thought it as very funny when Ava du Vernay made a joke out of the tag line, “Some of my best friends are white guys.” I was not amused.
Perhaps the best example of how destructive this kind of categorizing has become comes from an article in The New Yorker about student activism at Oberlin College.
In a campus discussion, a student objected to vague language in a sexual harassment statute because he felt that such vague language could lead to targeting ethnic groups. He was accosted afterwards by another student: “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male.”
Here is the downside of intersectionality. The student who made the comment, unfortunately for him, inhabits the intersection of three victimizer categories. As such, it was unthinkable and even maddening to the screamer that he might presume to have a legitimate political voice. So, if you are unfortunate enough to be in a victimizer category, you are automatically suspect until you prove yourself to be one of the good ones through some act of self-abnegation. This is deeply wrong.
Having pointed out how destructive this categorizing can be, I must say that I am not overly concerned about the hurt feelings of those caught on the wrong side of this false binary. My concern is about the Oberlin screamer and others like her who do not question this false binary creating a political and social movement that excludes and humiliates according to predefined categories, all the while patting themselves on their backs for their correct attitudes. We have been down that road before. It is not pretty.
As I read over these comments on the DEI training session, I am struck by the anger I seem to evince. I think what has stimulated my pique is the presumption on the part of the partisans of intersectionality and identity politics that they define what it means to be left wing. My sense of the left is that working-class unity is the springboard to justice. The identity politics partisans care nothing about class unity. If they talk about class at all, they see it as simply another item on the intersectionality checklist, not as defining feature of American life. They are content to break up the working class into competing constituencies. They have no idea of the damage they are causing.