with John McWhorter
Recently, John and I sat down for a conversation with Edmund Santurri of St. Olaf College, where he is professor of philosophy and religion and, at least for now, director of the Institute for Freedom & Community. Unfortunately, technical difficulties forced Ed to drop out of the conversation after only about 15 minutes (to see the whole thing now, become a subscriber). We intended to talk at length with Ed about the St. Olaf administration’s recent decision to remove him from the directorship of the Institute after a number of students grew angry about the speakers he invited to campus.
Keep in mind, the speakers we’re talking about are not fascists or eugenicists or anything of the sort. We’re talking about people like Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, the philosopher Peter Singer, and even John himself. Some of the topics they were invited to discuss may be controversial on progressive campuses, but very often their views are shared by many, many other people in the US.
The excerpt below begins just after we lose Ed. John begins by stating his contempt for the St. Olaf administrators who caved to student pressure, and I’m in total agreement with him. I think the students were misguided in their efforts to protest and deplatform speakers with whom they disagree. That’s a problem. But it’s nothing compared to the cowardice evinced by the college itself. If the administrators of St. Olaf cannot stand strong and defend the principles of free inquiry they supposedly support, they have no business running a university.
After John explains the important work of the advocacy group FIRE, the conversation takes an interesting turn. Accusations of censorship are coming from both the right and the left, after all. Where the right and center-right (and likely more than a few on the center-left) are concerned about campus censorship, the left is concerned about the suppression of gender identity issues at the grade school level. I find the latter objections far less worrisome than the former, but John tries to explain the thinking behind the left’s own cries of censorship.
I think this is a rich exchange, and I’m curious to know your views!
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GLENN LOURY: We're back. It's Glenn Loury. I'm with John McWhorter. We were with Ed Santurri. He was talking about what's going on at St. Olaf and his troubles in running a speakers series at the Institute for Freedom & Community at St. Olaf College. It's an important case. FIRE is involved in it, am I not correct, John?
JOHN MCWHORTER: It is. And they should be, because it really is an egregious case of censorship from the left. And you get the feeling it's based on intimidating statements made by very few people. And craven administrators are caving in, because they'd rather buy their groceries than stand up for principle.
And yeah, I hope that the case is shouted far and wide, because, in this case, it's not as if we're talking about Milo Yiannopoulos or something like that. We're talking about perfectly sensible people saying sensible things that middle-of-the-road people around the country understand, and/or people being deplatformed for single opinions they hold out of hundreds. It's all of this churchy performativity, and it needs to be called out wherever it happens.
And Ed is justified in wanting to save his position. That's particularly important. As I'm sure he knows, there's also the larger issue of whether intelligent people are going to allow small bands of religious zealots to determine who runs what and how things are done. The people who are responsible for this at St. Olaf should be ashamed of themselves, and they should be made to be examined by the whole country. What they're doing should be seen by everybody and evaluated and condemned for what it is. These people are small. They think they're large, but they're small. And they must be called on what they're doing. The only way to keep this country from being run by the Elect in all intellectual quarters is to stand those people down. That's clearly not what's going on at St. Olaf.
Now, what is FIRE? Tell people what FIRE is.
FIRE is an organization that's devoted to protecting professors who find themselves in situations like this, for the most part. The idea is for free speech to be the guiding tenet. And if your freedom of speech is being interfered with in an unreasonable way—we're not talking about people who were advocating for slavery or something like that. But if your freedom of speech is being interfered with in any way, then FIRE can help provide resources for people like this to have defense without going broke.
And the idea is to stand against the scourge of this sort of thing happening around the country, both from the left and the right. It's not only about the wokesters. It's also the people on the right who were trying to ban books and criticizing people for, you know, misinstructing students, et cetera.
I beg to differ, actually. I don't think there's any equivalence between the culture of cancellation for outrage over people who ... Peter Singer. I don't know the arguments that he has made with respect to the disabled, so I'm certainly not going to try to paraphrase them here, but he's made whatever arguments he's made. We know the arguments that Heather Mac Donald makes about the different issues that she addresses herself to. We know what Bari Weiss might have to say about antisemitism. We know what a person critical of the 1619 Project might have to say, or someone who's skeptical about DEI might have to say.
Those are real, dug-in ideologies. I don't think you have anything like that on the right. On the right, I think you have a reaction to the left. I mean, on the critical race theory people, the anti-critical race theory people. I think they're over the top in instances. I'm not supporting everything that they're trying to do. But on campuses, the real threat to the culture is coming from the left, I would say.
Without a doubt. Although it's one of the criticisms I get most often these days, and so it leads me to think about it. A lot of people are equally appalled by right-wing efforts to get certain books pulled out of libraries or not taught to children in school. Or there are ample cases of teachers being fired for, for example, teaching critical race theory or some outgrowth of it or the like. And there are people on the left, and I suspect that most of them are Elect themselves, frankly, but there are people watching that from the left who see that as alarming as what most alarms you and me.
And I think that part of it is that we're talking about an attempt, which may be doomed, to save academia and the arts, roughly. Whereas what we're talking about from the right is a matter of the education of small children. There are different threats, but I think many people from the left are worried about the kids and are equally appalled about the right. And many of them—I'm inclined to disagree with them—many of them think what's going on on the right is equally large, equally important that they're battling—
I'm sorry to interrupt you, John, there at the end. So gender fluid teacher, non-binary, Libs of TikTok. You know what I'm talking about?
No, Libs of TikTok. You know the controversy about Libs of TikTok?
Oh, okay. So it's too long for me to go into. Somebody has put up a montage or a string of videos of people posting about themselves at TikTok that focuses on exposing how many early grade school teachers are fairly, you know, avant garde and modern in their gender identity positions and in that way exposing “what's being put in front of our kids.”
So the little pushback that I was going to try to get to was, if a parent says, “No, I don't want my kid being, in effect, introduced to the world of sexual and gender identity in this way. I want to have more control over what my kid thinks about,” this kind of thing. That I don't want to equate to the tantrum-throwing black kids who can't stand that somebody's going to come to campus and talk about why defund the police is a bad idea. I don't want to equate those two things.
I want to say that the presumption in the former case, in the case of the parent concerned about gender fluidity being put in front of their seven-year-old, is with the parent. And I want to say that the presumption in the latter case, where they don't want to have somebody come here and speak because their feelings are hurt by it, is with the institution and with openness and with having the person come to speak. The kids went to college precisely to get dislodged from their comfortable identitarian niches. The point of the institution is precisely to [put the] arguments that are making them uncomfortable […] in front of them so that they can grow and that they can learn. A seven-year-old is being nurtured into maturity and so forth and developed with ideas that are contestable.
Anyway, this is the position that I want to take. Some people may say these ideas are not contestable and that they lie entirely with the progressive and the avant garde dislodging of certain conventionalities. But the position I'm taking is that the very same civilization that we're trying to defend when we say “keep the campus open so that arguments can be made” is threatened by undermining parental governance over the nurturance of children when they're seven years old and making that institutionalized and subject to the very religious fervor that you wrote a book denouncing.
I think that the people on the left watching, say, the non-binaryesque grade school teacher being given trouble, they do see that as a horror show in the same way as we see Ed Santurri dismissed from his post.
We may occupy, despite that we have the same […] demographic, slightly different worlds, partly because I'm a little younger and so I have smallish kids. But in my world, roughly—this is probably overshooting it—but it's about every eighth teenager, once they get past about 10, is gender fluid or non-binary in some way. You get very fluent with the “they.” You get used to a 13-year-old who doesn't consider themselves a boy or a girl. It's no longer something unusual.
That's now just normal.
One in eight?
I want people to know that's not an official statistic. But when I think about my life, when I think about aggregates of children that I know in various settings of my life, it's now something where you don't even think twice. And the parents that I know, mostly 30 and 40-something educated white parent, look upon this with a certain bemusement, but they embrace it. And some of them, I think frankly, kind of like it. I'm not saying that somebody who claims that they're non-binary is just jumping on a fad. Some of them are, but quite a few of them aren't. But I think it's fashionable now for one of your kids to be what you call a “a pronoun person.”
And the idea now is that to be gay, that's boring. That's easy. I get the feeling that there's a certain tacit sense that gay is not interesting, that what you're really supposed to do is try to be a kind of in-between person. Curb Your Enthusiasm had a joke where the Larry character goes to an office, and the office staff is clearly various things. And there's one rather masculine-looking woman, a black woman actually, and she just says, “Oh, I'm not non-binary. I'm just gay.” Like, “just gay.”
[Laughs] That's interesting.
And I thought, that's the world. And so for them, for people like this, I can think they are horrified that somebody doesn't want a book to be in the library because the book is exploring homosexuality and I'm just describing this. That's why to them, it's an equally grievous problem, because they live it in a way that I get the feeling you don't. And to me, I'm just kind of standing on the sidelines, anthropologically observing. Neither of my children have presented this so far, but it's very alive in this world.
First of all, I want to contradict the one in 8 statement McWhorter makes about gender fluidity. The actual stat (from the very recent Canadian census. Canada is the first country to do this properly with a question on sex registered at birth as well as gender indentification) is one in 300 or 0.33% for the population at large. The stats were released at the end of last month and did not get much play. The reason why he may see a higher rate where he lives as opposed to say someone in rural Kansas is also included in the census -- the concentration does tend to be in urban areas. According to the Canadian census 9 in 10 non binary people lived in an urban centre with a concentration of over 100 k. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/220427/dq220427b-eng.htm gives the official breakdown.
Second, it is worth remembering that the US has a long tradition of limiting speech by public officials operating in a public capacity. The current case of Kennedy v Bremerton School Board seeks to overturn some of the existing prohibitions which have existed since Engel v Vitale. It has to do with teachers expressing philosophical beliefs in the classroom and whether or not it tramples on the parents/guardian's long established right to bring children up according their own philosophical beliefs (something which is guaranteed in the 1st amendment, second clause) as well as in the UN Charter of Human Rights. How can religion be said to be free if one cannot teach one's children one's own beliefs?Once people are adults, they have a right to choose their own philosophical beliefs. Does the teaching of gender theory to grade school students constitute a philosophical belief? I would argue that it does and thus is different what is going on at St Olaf.
Third, in the UK, there is currently an employment tribunal going on -- Allison Bailey (a black, disabled lesbian with gender critical views) is suing her chambers and Stonewall (the leading LGBTQ+ charity) because according to her they colluded to withhold work on account of her philosophical beliefs. The tribunal is on going. Yesterday, however, was instructive. In the morning, one of the representatives from Stonewall admitted that their Diversity Champion scheme and training should be seen as part of their lobbying efforts to affect change, rather than an impartial group which is seeking to explain the actual legal position. In the afternoon, complete with his support dog, mother and solicitor in attendance and requiring frequent breaks, Stonewall's Head of Trans Inclusion Kirrin Medcalf (preferred pronouns they/them/he/his) explained why a white male who identifies as trans should fear sharing a bathroom with Ms Bailey and why he sent a formal letter of complaint to Ms Bailey's chambers about the subject. He also denies the existence of male and female bodies and believes that anyone who believes differently should be shunned. It is an interesting insight into the gender identity culture. https://tribunaltweets.substack.com/p/allison-bailey-vs-stonewall-and-garden-baa?s=r
The right of dissent aka the right to be wrong without being accused of being disloyal is under threat in the Western world. According to Edward Murrow, it is that right which vanishes first when a nation stumbles down the road to totalitarianism.