Yesterday I made observations about the sad way events in Ferguson followed a familiar script. Some readers responded in a fashion that was also very much on script. In various ways they accused me of racism.
I expected as much when I penned the piece on Michael Brown’s death and the aftermath. Over the last fifty years a very rigid speech code has developed on any topic touching on race. It operates in a narrow range. Deviation is punished immediately.
There are good reasons to expect discretion in public discussion. That’s certainly true when we talk about race—a difficult, painful, and sometimes explosive topic in our national history. I’m not in favor of a let-it-all-hang-out approach. There’s a conservative, anti-PC mode of outrageous violation of liberal pieties that is really just the mirror image of the transgressive gestures of the cultural left. I don’t like either.
That said, in this and many other areas of public life, acceptable speech has become highly ritualized, shutting down discussion. It’s not an accident that many commentators focused on the militarization of police forces. That’s a problem, a serious one, but it’s also a safe topic. There are exceptions. I cited Juan Williams. But most steer clear.
(In all fairness to my fellow opinionators, it’s not just the desire to avoid running afoul with enforcers and their accusations of racism. They steer clear in part because of what I wrote. The standard script on race has become so familiar that it’s hard to find something fresh to say.)
This narrow, ritualized speech code rigidly enforced degrades civic life, perhaps more so that the loud-mouthed transgressors on right and left. Of late many have bemoaned the fact that the study of the humanities has declined and the majority of Ivy League graduates go into finance and consulting. It’s a trend that suggests less engagement with fundamental moral and social questions.
Some chalk this up to a money-oriented culture among the young. Perhaps. But it’s also a result of our politically correct educational culture. Any sensible eighteen-year-old quickly recognizes that talking about pressing moral and social issues is almost certain to bring grief. By what right does a young white male even have to an opinion about young black males? Isn’t that itself evidence of racism? Better, he concludes, to be silent and move on to topics less likely to rouse the speech police.
Recently a young friend reported to me that in Columbia University’s famous Western Civ classes the American-Anglo students aren’t interested in Kant or Rousseau or other seminal figures. By contrast, the Chinese and Indian and other foreign born students are.
I opined that this could be explained by our dominant liberalism and its anti-intellectual complacency. He disagreed, saying that most American students now have a great deal of experience with political correctness already in secondary education. They’ve learned that it’s very dangerous to give unscripted answers to moral and cultural questions of the sort raised by great books. These are not topics to be discussed, and so they’ve moved on.
Let’s not move on. Let’s actually talk about things that matter rather than recite from a tired script.