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Uncomfortable Questions and People Who Think Differently
A friend of mine in the US was required by his employer to attend a session about racism. He was given the graphic shown here:
It's a very well-crafted piece, especially for the many of us who are in denial that we are in any way racist and/or don't appreciate the struggles that black people face (which is most of us in the frum community). And it's an excellent model for any area in which one needs to undergo personal growth. You start by identifying the problem - and acknowledge that there could be problems of which you are unaware and uncomfortable acknowledging. Then you engage in a process of learning, in which you still acknowledge that you have much to learn, and listen to people who look and think very differently from you (note to frum right-wing readers: Candace Owens does not count). Finally, you reach a position where you in a place to actually make a difference - while still acknowledging that there is still room for growth.
But I wonder: To what extent do people who favor such training, actually implement this?
Consider some of the lines here: "I seek out questions that make me uncomfortable..." And I was particularly struck by the line at the bottom of the circle: "I surround myself with others who think & look differently from me." Is this really something that the general society of people campaigning for racial equality are doing?
There's a great website called Medium.com, which is a platform for fascinating articles on a wide range of topics. Two recent articles came to my attention, both of which were shocking - albeit in very different ways.
One article is bluntly titled, "Yes My Dear, All White People Are Racist." The (black) author was emphatic that she was being 100% literal. Every single white person is racist. And she added that white people who claim not to be racist are the most dangerous of all, because they are in denial of their inherent racism.
(A hyperlink in her first use of the term shows that she is using a very specific and unconventional definition of racism, in which it refers to "the systemic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites)." But this is hardly the definition that is used in everyday conversation - and even with this definition, it's a far cry to claim that every single white person is part of this systemic subordination.)
Okay, so this is a pretty extreme article. But Medium seeks to "welcome thoughtful and civil discussion from a broad spectrum of viewpoints." And I am happy to read things from people who think very differently from me.
So then we get to the second article at Medium, which is also from a person of color - a professor at Berkeley, writing an open letter to his colleagues. He writes in alarm about the lack of diversity of opinion when it comes to analyzing racial problems. Here's an extract:
"I could not find a single instance of substantial counter-argument or alternative narrative to explain the under-representation of black individuals in academia or their over-representation in the criminal justice system. The explanation provided in your documentation, to the near exclusion of all others, is univariate: the problems of the black community are caused by whites, or, when whites are not physically present, by the infiltration of white supremacy and white systemic racism into American brains, souls, and institutions.
Many cogent objections to this thesis have been raised by sober voices, including from within the black community itself, such as Thomas Sowell and Wilfred Reilly. These people are not racists or ‘Uncle Toms’. They are intelligent scholars who reject a narrative that strips black people of agency and systematically externalizes the problems of the black community onto outsiders. Their view is entirely absent from the departmental and UCB-wide communiques."
Now, it may indeed be the case that the problems of the black community actually are solely caused by whites and by the infiltration of white supremacy and white systemic racism into American brains, souls, and institutions. Other explanations may indeed be incorrect. However, surely that is something that should be discussed and argued about, not taken as an unquestionable fact with which one must not even acknowledge the existence of other views.
Meanwhile, Berkeley confirmed the basic point of the letter by condemning it: "it goes against our values as a department and our commitment to equity and inclusion." Apparently, "inclusion," even for an academic institution, does not mean including questions that challenge a particular narrative, even to refute them. Whatever happened to the value of "seeking out questions that make one feel uncomfortable" and "surrounding oneself with others who think differently"?
Well, at least this letter was published on Medium, who "welcome thoughtful and civil discussion from a broad spectrum of viewpoints," right? Not so fast. Medium has flagged the article for being in potential violation of its rules and has blocked all comments on it. An article declaring that every single white person is racist is within the spectrum; an article complaining about the narrowness of discourse is not.
Of course, it's not just Medium that is guilty of such things. There's an excellent article by Matt Taibi - an award-winning journalist who wrote a book called "I Can't Breathe" about systemic racism in America and police brutality towards blacks, back in 2014. Taibi writes about how the news media is destroying itself by "replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation."
One striking example of this is with the New York Times, which ran an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton advocating for a military show of force to dissuade riots. The NYT did not only apologize for running the op-ed; the editor had to resign. As my friend Rabbi Scott Kahn commented, "The problem lies in the increasingly narrow range of what is considered acceptable. When printing a United States Senator’s words, ill-advised and offensive as they may be, is cause for losing your job and massive institutional self-flagellation, we can be sure that we’ve taken a wrong turn." And remember, this is a newspaper which had no problem printing an op-ed by Mahmoud Abbas, which entirely distorted the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!
And it's not just with regard to racial issues that this problem appears. J.K. Rowling is currently in a firestorm about comments that she made which were seen as anti-trans. It involves issues such as whether women have the right to want bathrooms which exclude trans, which in turn relates to the question of what it takes for a person to legally identify as trans; is it enough for them to merely "self-identify" as a female, or is more required? Now, in order to address such issues, obviously it's very important to study the extent to which people who profess to be trans are really serious about it, the extent of rates of de-transition, and so on. But it seems that there is a serious dearth of such studies, because such studies simply won't be done. And the reason is that nobody dares fund or carry out a study which runs the risk of falling afoul of the socially acceptable narrative.
The willingness to ask uncomfortable questions, and to listen to people who think differently, is not just important for people with suspected racist beliefs. It's important for everyone.
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