“What does it require for a subperson to assert himself or herself politically? To begin with, it means simply, or not so simply, claiming the moral status of personhood. So it means challenging the white-constructed ontology that has deemed one a ‘body-impolitic,’ an entity not entitled to assert personhood in the first place. . . . One has to learn the basic self-respect that can casually be assumed by Kantian persons, those privileged by the Racial Contract, but which is denied subpersons. . . . One has to learn to trust one’s own cognitive powers, to develop one’s own concepts, insights, modes of explanation, overarching theories, and to oppose the epistemic hegemony of conceptual frameworks designed in part to thwart and suppress the exploration of such matters; one has to think against the grain.” – Charles Mills, The Racial Contract 118 – 19 (1997)
It is in Mills’ tradition of political assertion that we should read unrest on campuses today. Students are demanding recognition of their claims to knowledge about their own social experiences and broader structures of oppression, but beyond that they are demanding justice (which is not to suggest the two are distinct). Across the country and world, students are agitating for change. Whether it’s Mizzou, Yale, or Capetown. And somewhere in the bowels of the White Dude Thinkpiece Establishment, Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff, Conor Friedersdorf, and others sit and wonder where it all went wrong. Kids these days can’t take the heat of intellectual challenge, asking to be coddled on campus, and it’s hurting them psychologically. This is part of Haidt and Lukianoff’s conclusion in the “Coddling of the American Mind,” approvingly cited by Friedersdorf in his latest dismissive commentary on student activism at Yale. This view seems to be getting a lot of uptake in the media and among a wide swathe of diverse sorts of (mostly) white people—young, ivy-league white people; old puffy white people; white people who would be happy to explain why you’re wrong and they’re right.
But who’s really being coddled here?
Is it students who are concerned about social justice, about making their schools safe for the expression and exploration of ideas without facing a constant stream of nonsense? These students are repeatedly, and in myriad ways, calling out serious problems on their campus, from the diversity of their faculties, to the way their endowments are destroying the earth, to the racist symbols that permeate the very history of their institutions, to the serious problem of sexual assault and harassment, and beyond. They are developing their own languages to talk about these problems. They’re banding together to make their voices heard, and they are making demands of people in positions of power. In some cases, the most successful cases, their demands are backed by the only kinds of threats that seem to work—threats of united strike and disruption. They are not doing this in a vacuum, but rather against the backdrop of one of the most successful activist movements of the last 50 years, Black Lives Matter, which has been successful largely because of, not in spite of, its willingness to be unapologetically disruptive. The media pick up single incidents here and there that represent the culmination of frustrations on campus while sustained complaints about systemic injustice are largely ignored.
Meanwhile, defenders of the status quo–who largely do not see themselves as such, but rather as well-intentioned ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’–view these incidents acontextually and assert that kids these days are losing their edge. They demand that such tactics be denounced. They clamor for assurances that they will never be treated this way, so unreasonably, so dismissively, simply for suggesting something so normal or for failing to say just the right thing. They complain that they are unable to maintain an untarnished grip on reality in which things are, really, not so bad. They express concern over the state of the youth, about their lack of coping skills or rational faculties, instead of recognizing that the best coping strategy for injustice is resistance. They want certain speech not to exist because it makes them uncomfortable. It makes them feel like they’re losing something to which they are utterly entitled, which is the right to say or do anything that’s always been said and done and not have to pay social consequences for having done so. Most of all, they are worried that they will lose the right to be ignorant and that their own distinct, situated worldview will no longer be accepted uncritically as objective and neutral.
So who’s being coddled? Who’s asking for unreasonable concessions to their worldview? Who’s refusing to grapple with reality? Who’s unable to cope with a changing world?
“[A]s a general rule . . . white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years . . . . And these phenomena are in no way accidental, but prescribed by the terms of Racial Contract, which requires a certain schedule of structured blindness and opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity.” – Charles Mills, The Racial Contract 19 (1997)