To the Editor:
I happen to be a liberal reader of Academic Questions and I write to share some thoughts on Michael Rectenwald’s “`Social Justice’ and Postmodern Parentage” (Summer 2018). Understanding the Left/Right intellectual divide has become an avocation in my retirement. One of several ways I have understood this divide comes from the writing of Reinhold Niebuhr, a twentieth century theologian who argued that social systems are always faced with the need to balance out the poles of Justice and Order for the well being of the whole. Conservatives focus most heavily on the pole of “Order” while liberal thinkers focus more on the pole of “Justice.”
Though I do not know professor Rectenwald’s ideological inclinations, I believe Niebuhr’s framework can be useful for understanding his article. For Rectenwald, “progressive orthodoxy” is limiting “constructive dialogue” and “rational counterargument” on American campuses. Leftist college students, whom he dubs “postmodern,” use a number of tactics and devices to convince administrators to punish any deviation from “progressive orthodoxy.” Rectenwald sees a “current irrationalism” and “challenges to reason on the contemporary campus.”
These are all terms that frame and constrain how the actual behaviors and language used by the current generation of undergraduate students are understood in a conservative worldview. This is not to suggest that the behaviors of students and the sorts of arrangements that the university has made to encourage these cultural expressions aren’t happening. Banning speakers, mandating classroom discussions as “safe spaces,” bias reporting hotlines to which students can anonymously report any deviations from political correctness, and the gender “pronoun wars” exist, and for many conservatives, seem to violate the norms of rational modernism and lead us into a postmodern quagmire of irrationality and emotionalism.
Rectenwald’s disdain for these campus developments reflects the conservative prioritization of “order” over “disorder.” As I have been absent from a university campus for over three decades of retirement, I can’t pretend to fully understand what Professor Rectenwald has found so annoying and irrational about the “postmodern” rage over social justice. But my liberal intellect resonates most readily on the need to attend to “Justice” more intensely than on the need for “Order,” and I sympathize with the postmodern students who put social justice front and center. I see this as a response to social differences that are now, in fact, becoming relevant in the polarized politics that prevails in the present moment with a patently non-intellectual, even ignorant, Republican President.
Rectenwald believes that focus on the “linguistic constructivism” of postmodernism entails a lot of academic palaver and that social justice institutions like “safe spaces” and “speaker disinvites” are unreasonable. These concerns have some legitimacy, but I believe they pale in comparison to the educational importance of addressing the problems at the root of social justice demands: the American sins of racism, sexism, and even anti-intellectualism in a large swath of citizens.
As it turns out, Rectenwald’s send up of transgenderism as some sort of cult left me confused until I realized that he was holding it up to ridicule, which it deserves. Even so, I have a hard time believing that this acceptance of transgender theory is so widespread that the mere expectation that transgenders be accepted for who they are has morphed into some sort of cult to set people right about the reality of a trans in their midst. There aren’t enough trans in any university setting to fuel the sort of cult he is describing.
I understand that the protests that flare up around “radical right wing” lecturers raise the specter of free speech violations. Isn’t this just caving to the postmodern social justice crowd who are good at creating disorder when not respected? Maybe these postmodern, social justice-spouting, annoying students are being coddled. I wouldn’t worry about that too much!
David R. Cook, Ed.D
University of Wisconsin, Stout
Michael Rectenwald Responds:
David R. Cook’s letter in response to “‘Social Justice’ and Its Postmodern Parentage” leaves me frustrated and slightly confused. His complaint represents a misreading of my essay, while also evincing a lack of knowledge and clarity regarding the situation at hand.
Cook suggests that I blame “Leftist college students” for the social justice mania on college campuses. But I suggested nothing of the sort. While some students do engage in no-platforming, while some do demand safe spaces and trigger warnings, and while some are apparently willing bias reporting hotline snitches, such students are merely singers in a social justice choir. The social justice choir is directed by faculty indoctrinators and activists and enabled and exculpated by the swelling ranks of administrators—especially the relatively new cohort of chief diversity officers, directors of diversity, associate provosts of diversity, assistant provosts of diversity, diversity consultants, and so on and so forth.
Cook claims that my argument can be understood in terms of a conservative’s demand for “order.” Nothing could be further from the truth. My position is actually culturally and intellectually libertarian and latitudinarian. I am more liberal than the illiberal leftists whom I criticize. It is actually the illiberal left that attempts to impose its own notions of “order” on our institutions of higher education—an order based on their stealthy will to power. Leftist faculty members, with the assistance of their student acolytes, demand complete acquiesce to social justice dogma. They regularly initiate and engage in campaigns of harassment, intimidation, and defamation, with the ultimate object of eliminating from academia anyone with temerity to express a viewpoint at variance from their own. I expand upon this behavior and trace it to its postmodern theoretical roots in my new book, Springtime for Snowflakes: ‘Social Justice’ and Its Postmodern Parentage (New English Review Press, 2018).
Cook apparently has little to no idea about the outsized impact that transgender activists are having in academia and beyond. Transgender activists have managed to have their demands regarding pronoun use enshrined in policies and law all over North America. The adoption of transgenderism comes at the expense of empirical reality and despite the fact that gender dysphoria is a documented psychological disorder and that it afflicts only a fraction of one percent of the population. Would Cook also be content if schizophrenics demanded that we recognize their delusions and establish laws and policies on the basis of them?
Finally, Cook asks whether the no-platforming of right-leaning speakers amounts to “caving to the postmodern social justice crowd who are good at creating disorder when not respected.” The answer is “yes.” But it is not the speakers or their disappointed prospective audience members who are caving. It is the university that is caving to the postmodern social justice crowd. If this is what Cook means, then at last we can agree on something.