A Difficult Time


Crispin Sartwell, Associate Professor of Philosophy


I’d invite today’s social justice warriors on campus to think a bit about what and who they’re protesting against and why. In a nation bedeviled throughout its history and right now by systemic racism, a nation of mass racial incarceration and police violence, a nation of chronic economic and educational inequality, today’s movement for racial justice is focused on . . . a teenager’s Halloween costume? Let’s say that’s not where the problem is, and you are making your own movement and indeed your own situation appear to be extremely trivial. Back in the day, social justice warriors fought the powers that be. Now they pick out one relatively powerless college student and whip him with their displeasure. Well, that’s an easier victory, anyway.

It’s hard to change power structures, but it’s easy to change symbols. And it’s hard to intimidate policemen or presidents, but it’s easy to pick out one of your peers and ostracize him and turn him into a scapegoat. Even in this era, we do need to hold on to some sort of distinction between symbols and realities. No one has ever been shot to death with a toy gun. If you think that wearing a Kaepernick costume is itself an act of violence, I suspect you have never experienced violence. People are not being oppressed by words and pictures, they are being oppressed by handcuffs and jail cells, by employment discrimination, by environmental injustice.

This is a lesson that really ought to have been absorbed by now. Since the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the symbols have changed almost entirely. That movement, as well as the feminism of that and later periods, focused to some extent on the words people were using, for example. Many white people came to think that the essence of racism was the racial slur: they edited it out of their conversations and even their heads. They learned how not to talk like racists, and they took that to mean that they weren’t racists. And the systemic racism simply continued under the blanket of pablum. Ever-new euphemisms or generations of approved vocabularies had, roughly, no effect whatever.

Harvey Weinstein, for example, holds very correct liberal political positions. He may well have learned not to call women ‘chicks’ or even ‘girls.’ There is no reason whatever that he couldn’t talk like a feminist and be an abuser. Indeed, talking right might have been a relatively effective camouflage for the brutal sexist abuse he was in fact inflicting. You could have a whole society that talks like Obama and acts like Weinstein; perhaps we do, more or less, here and there.

Trying to change a culture’s vocabularies and symbol systems is one thing, ineffective though it is, but picking out particular people who violate your symbolic standards and holding them responsible for the whole history of racist violence is brutal and absurd. I think you’re looking for extremely easy victims and extremely superficial solutions. I think you are confusing living in a world of comforting fictions, constructed by constraining everyone’s expression, with living in a just world. I think you want to play ‘let’s pretend’ and force everyone else to play too.

Of course, I am aware of who is speaking: I’m a white guy, pushing 60. If you think that mine is not the sort of voice you should be listening to on this, or if you connect my arguments with my identity and disqualify them or me on that basis, I understand why that makes sense. Like a lot of professors, I’m a chronic mansplainer, but I do want to listen as well as talk.

So I say this as me and for what it’s worth, but I do say it: it’s been a ‘difficult’ time, a traumatic time, a time calling for dialogue, reflection, therapeutic intervention, etc. etc. Excuse me, but we are talking about one dude’s Halloween costume. Get real.