People Over Principle

A number of years ago, Noam Chomsky wrote a book called Profit Over People. It was a brief polemic against neoliberalism, in which he accused corporations and western governments of valuing profits over people, both at home in the West, and in the rest of the world. It was a rousing call to value human beings over corporate profits or economic efficiency. If you haven’t read it, you should. Your nearest socialist public library might even have a copy if you don’t want to buy it.

As the 2016 presidential election has dragged on and on, and we slug our way gradually to the finish line now, I have seen a similar problem emerging on the left. I call this the Principles Over People problem. It is no surprise that the conservative Right would prioritize ideas over people—ideas have to take priority over reality because their ideas never actually touch reality—but it is a little surprising to find large numbers of people on the progressive Left doing the same thing.

What do I mean? Very simply, I mean that there are large numbers of people who call themselves progressives who seem perfectly willing to sacrifice real, actual people that are alive right now, for the sake of ideas that might come to fruition down the road, maybe. Right now these people are generally the people still adamant about voting for Jill Stein instead of Hillary Clinton.

Why are they still voting for Jill Stein? Early on in the race it looked like Stein and surrealist mime Gary Johnson might have had an opportunity to surge enough in the polls to gain access to the debates. That would have been a game-changer for party politics, and I was interested in Stein at the time for that reason (and because her platform is better than anyone else’s). But Stein never got past 4% in the polls, and quickly sank back down to around 2%. By any reasonable account the progressive base would shift back to Clinton as the best third option (after Bernie and Stein). But instead Stein’s campaign shifted rhetoric around getting “enough” support in states to get federal funding down the road. The argument changed from a short-term (she might get in the debates and become a real challenger) to the usual long-term goal (future possible viability).

This is where a substantial number of people on the Left started to advocate for the Principles Over People approach. Their argument is essentially a purity argument: Hillary is an “impure” candidate, compromised. Ideologically inconsistent. Imperfect. Therefore she must be rejected in favor of the pure candidate, Jill Stein, and the pure party, the Green Party.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I want Jill Stein’s platform. But I’m not going to get Jill Stein’s platform. Third-party voters are also right that if everybody who said third parties aren’t viable voted for a third party, that party would become viable. But at a certain point you know that a third party will not be viable this election cycle.

But here is the point: there is always an element of selfishness in voting for ideological purity over people. I want Stein’s platform, but I’m not going to get it. I can either out of sheer obstinacy vote for that anyway, in an effort to make myself feel good about my actions, or I can recognize that while far from perfect, Hillary Clinton’s platform is much better in lots of areas than Donald Trump’s platform. I can recognize that poverty is a precarious position to be in, and that even slight changes in policy can result in large numbers of people going hungry or ending up in the streets rather than in public housing. Yes, Clinton is a hawk on foreign policy. Yes, her environmental record isn’t great. But it is better than Trump’s. He wants to get rid of the EPA (or as he referred to it, the “Department of Environmental”). Clinton isn’t going to cut funding for school lunches for low income kids. She’s not going to cut public housing funds, or HUD programs. She isn’t going to try to get rid of Social Security, SSI, Disability, welfare, food stamps, or any of the other hundreds of necessary programs that are assisting poor Americans get by day to day, week to week, month to month.

To refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she isn’t perfect is, in my view, ethically obscene. It is to say to the very real, embodied poor right now, “Your suffering does not matter as much as my good feelings. It does not matter as much as my ideological purity. You do not matter as much as my ideas.” It says, “I am allowing you to suffer in the present so that maybe we can make better changes in the future.” Guaranteed suffering now, for possible benefits down the road. This is nothing more than warmed-over paternalism, privilege of the highest order, and starkly anti-democratic.

There is no way in hell that Jesus would ever endorse such a strategy. He said to clothe the naked and feed the hungry right now, not let them go hungry just another four, eight, twelve years so we can maybe help them then.

What we need, when thinking about ethics, especially in relationship to American and global politics, is to renew our commitment as progressives to the philosophy of John Dewey, one of the great titans of American progressivism. His work Ethics is a good place to start. He was a proponent of pragmatism in ethics; that is, of situational ethics. The needs of people in every given moment define what is good in that moment. Joseph Fletcher’s Stituation Ethics is another good place to start wrestling with this idea. Fletcher took the concept of pragmatism and showed that it was, essentially, very similar to Jesus’s own ethics. That is, Jesus’s love was defined not by an idealist system, but by a response to the immediate needs of the people in front of him. As they were in need, he acted to meet those needs. Whatever systems or principles got in the way had to be overcome for the sake of love.

A proper Christian humanism, a proper Christian ethics, would say that nothing is categorically good except love itself. This is what I call the People Over Principles approach. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Principles are only tools in God’s hands, soon to be thrown away as unserviceable,” (Ethics, p. 8). Abraham Hershel similarly wrote, “The insistence upon generalization [principles] at the price of a total disregard of the particular and concrete is something which would be alien to prophetic thinking. Prophetic words are never detached from the concrete, historic situation. Theirs is not a timeless, abstract message; it always refers to an actual situation. The general is given in the particular and the verification of the abstract is in the concrete,” (God in Search of Man, p. 204).

Did you catch that? Abraham Hershel, the great Jewish theologian, stated that those who insist upon prioritizing generalization (his term for principles) at the cost of disregarding the particular and concrete situation, and the particular and concrete individuals in that situation, is completely contrary to how the prophets thought and acted.

In the words of Paul, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” (Gal. 5:14). What, do we imagine, we are obligated to do by the command to love our neighbors as ourselves when faced with Donald Trump? Voting for Stein brings no help at all to our neighbors, because she holds no public office and will not be President. So the first question for the pragmatic ethicist who prioritizes love is: who will actually viably affect policy? The answers are either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The second question is: who wants to strip away the last vestiges of the social safety net, and who will more or less preserve it or even improve it? Whose governance will actually improve the real, embodied lives of actual, living Americans? Not Donald Trump, that’s for sure.

We fancy ourselves sophisticated thinkers. But we need to start asking ourselves more difficult questions. We need to stop prioritizing ideas over people. People are what matter, and acting in love toward those people in the situation is what matters. People over principle are people of true principle.


My Top 14 Nonfiction Books of 2015

These were my favorite nonfiction works of 2015. They don’t have to have been published in 2015 (most of them weren’t), but I did read them in 2015. (Yes, I am getting around to this late.)

“Some-men-see-things-the-way-they-are-and-ask-‘Why’-I-dream-things-that-never-were-and-ask-‘Why-not”-—-George-Bernard-ShawAllah: A Christian Response (Miroslav Volf)

In this solidly researched book on Islam, Volf proves once again that he is one of the most thoughtful and clear writers in western Christian theology. Here he deals with the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and finds that they do. He finds a lot more than that as well, however; he discovers that what the Qur’an condemns about Jesus and the Trinity are actually heterodox presentations of Christian doctrines. That is, what the Qur’an condemns about the Trinity, Christians also condemn as misunderstandings of the doctrine.


51WvO2MyFwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity (Dianna Anderson)

Anderson comes out of the post-evangelical world of Rachel Held Evans and Benjamin Corey, and her book is a live grenade lobbed into the evangelical world of Pharisaical sexuality. Rather than condemning one another’s sexual choices, she argues that the church must focus on real purity; that is, that sexual mistakes do not “ruin” us or turn us into damaged goods, that enthusiastic consent must be the absolute rule for all sexual encounters (rather than non-consent, dubious consent, and consent against conscience), and that issues of justice and love of neighbor still apply in the sexual realm. She highlights the ways in which modern evangelicalism fails on these points.


51RLXuU414L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (Linda Tirado)

This was a surprise book for me; I heard about it on NPR. Tirado is a woman who has lived in poverty her whole life, and in this brutally-honest book she tells all about what it is like to live in what she calls “bootstrap America,” highlighting the stress and intense pressure that comes with life on the bottom, the injustices in the workplace that prevent them from moving up out of the bottom, and the psychology of poverty. I will never look at poverty the same way again.


111217No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Alfie Kohn)

This is the classic defense of cooperation over competition, originally published in 1988. Kohn is another master of clarity, able to clear vast swaths of “common sense” in a few short paragraphs. In this book he highlights the vast amounts of documentation which show how bad competition is for children, adults, the press, political elections, schools, sports, women, minorities, and literally everyone. You won’t believe what the science tells us until you work through this delightful, and freeing, book.


41pmy6SUmkLThe Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting (Alfie Kohn)

Another book by Kohn, this one published in 2014. Here he takes his characteristic clarity and insight to the notion of the “spoiled millennial.” Even in the respected, popular press you will find people lamenting about all of these spoiled millennials and the terrible parenting practices that produce them. He goes on to show in this book that older generations have lamented the “moral collapse” of younger generations since the time of Plato, that there is no real evidence that millennials are any more narcissistic, selfish, arrogant, or spoiled than any other generation in American history, and in fact that they tend to be more altruistic, volunteering more and being more open and interested in issues of justice than their parents. Another mind-blowing and ground-clearing book by Kohn.

51t8qZqd4WL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Steve Fraser)

In this free-wheeling economic history, Fraser manages to take something that might have been very dull, and turns it into something compelling. He documents the long American tradition of resistance to organized wealth and power, beginning even before the American Revolution and continuing up until the 1960s. From that point the people virtually gave up and have allowed the wealthy to take our money and kill our economy, and offers suggestions on how to revitalize the populist resistance once again.

513lQScdtPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Jennifer Harvey)

Harvey’s book was one I just stumbled across because it looked interesting. She argues that if we really want to see genuine racial reconciliation in the church, we must abandon our white privilege and instead practice radical solidarity. She documents how the white church abandoned the black church during the end of the civil rights era when African Americans began to demand reparations. This was a bridge too far for white America, says Harvey, and the civil rights movement splintered and died an ignoble death shortly thereafter. We abandoned them, she says. The only way forward, thus, is to start with justice and restitution, not reconciliation. Reconciliation can only come after repentance, and the only acceptable act of repentance is to make reparations. I pray the church will heed her words.

41TPRJ9JDJL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (George Lakoff)

Lakoff is a respected cognitive scientist, and in this book he explores what makes liberals different from conservatives. He finds that the different policy positions that define liberalism and conservatism have nothing in common except for their root cognitive metaphors. Once we see that Americans view their government and their nation as a family, we can look at how conservatives and liberals envision the ideal family. What he discovers is that conservatives operate on a “hierarchical father model,” and liberals on an “egalitarian parent model.” The various specific policy proposals get support or opposition depending on how they fit into these central, governing metaphors about national life.

51D6lUfiR8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Gabor Mate)

Gabor Mate worked as a medical doctor and therapist to low-income and addicted persons in Canada for a number of years. This book is the fruit of his research into addiction, and it is groundbreaking. In it he shows that addiction has its root in early-childhood development, when children suffer emotional stress, distress, or lack of proper attachment to their parents. He documents how this lack of emotional balance results in neurological damage, and how addicts use drugs or alcohol (or sugar, binge television, unhealthy foods, obsessive collecting or hoarding) as a means of self-medication and self-comfort, to address the howling emptiness inside. They quite literally cannot help it, he argues, from the overwhelming conclusions of the medical science and psychological research. He ends the book with some great suggestions for reform of national drug policies.

51Phsoq5N3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Ilio Delio)

Delio is a theologian working to extend Teilhard de Chardin’s work and bring it up-to-date for the 21st century. This book was my first exposure to her work, and to the work of Teilhard de Chardin. A breathtaking book about integrating evolution into the Christian narrative.

51CyqS68sOL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Journey to the Common Good (Walter Brueggemann)

Brueggemann remains a favorite writer of mine, and this little book is an argument for reclaiming Christian efforts for the common good of the world. He works through the exodus liberation, the Jubilee, and then through the sweep of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and shows how the issues of solidarity with the poor, justice, and mercy are the central themes throughout. The clarity of this short work is ideal for handing out to friends or family who might not yet have discovered the Christian journey to the common good.


Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (Chris Hedges)

Hedges’ latest work is a series of essays on two interconnected subjects: 1) the moral necessity of standing up against injustice, oppression, and hate, and 2) the high price that reformers generally pay for doing so. In so doing, he recovers the old Norse model of the hero, the one who stands in the breach and fights to the death not because he necessarily believes he can win, but because it is the right thing to do. I found the book wonderfully inspiring. It does not do what many books about justice do, which is try to frame justice in terms of its pragmatic or utilitarian ends. Hedges is agnostic on whether justice can win its fight, but he insists the battle is no less worth fighting because of that.

51ZTVN94m5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Walter Wink)

Wink’s careful and well-documented work is an inspiring piece of theology which explores what the phrase “the principalities and powers” means in the New Testament. He concludes that the powers are the inward spirit in any form of organization, structure, business, school, nation, or government, which becomes its own “essence,” invisible and unspoken. Thus, the New Testament’s call to wage war against principalities and powers is a call to expose the invisible gods of our world, our social constructs, our privileges, our hidden rules that exist beyond human intentionality or consciousness, and by exposing them, exorcise them as demonic forces, and construct new systems built around the call of the gospel.

2374980The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind (Cynthia Bourgeault)

This was a fascinating and inspiring book that seeks to reclaim Jesus as a mystical teacher of wisdom, not a political cynic or a first century Zealot or any of the various proposals that have been made about him. The book carries an endorsement by Richard Rohr, which is what drew me to it in the first place, and I found it powerful and stirring. One of the most interesting things about the book is her argument that Jesus was not an ignorant peasant, but rather spoke at least three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and probably Greek as well) and that Galilee, where he grew up, was actually a highly cosmopolitan area, due to the fact that the Silk Road from the far east passed directly through it, where Jesus would have been exposed to a lot of wisdom theology.

Daily Office Scriptures (April 28, 2016)

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face to shine upon us,Selah
that your way may be known upon earth,
    your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth.Selah
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
    God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
    let all the ends of the earth revere him

In this psalm, the poet begins with the request for blessing, which is fairly common. The request is then seen to be granted  already in v. 6, and a request for continued blessing ends the meditation (v. 7). The psalmist’s view moves from asking for blessing to accepting that the community had already been blessed. There’s no time passage here, or anticipation of future blessings. It is almost as if the poet, in reflecting on how God needs to bless them comes to realize that they have already been blessed. “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us,” (v. 6). They already possess blessing, in the harvest season.

The psalmist also has an agenda for requesting blessings from YAHWEH: “that your way may be known upon the earth, your saving power among all nations,” (v. 2). This is not entirely, or not really, a call for blessings as the relief of need. This is a call for blessing that the nations will notice. There is a selfless orientation to the request. God, they hope, will show forth his blessings in such a way that the nations will desire those blessings too. Later this is connected to justice. The nations should be “glad and sing for joy” because YAHWEH evaluates communities in “equity.” Equity here is mishor, which means “fairness” or “equality.” God is fair, but he is also interested in equality. This means he doesn’t play favorites (how? Doesn’t he play favorites with Israel?), but it also speaks to the Old Testament’s vision of justice as solidarity, redistribution, and activism on behalf of those forgotten or left behind. God will not merely deal equally, but will make all nations equal.

Proverbs 2:1-5

My child, if you accept my words
    and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
    and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
    and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
    and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.

Proverbs, as a book of aphorisms and wisdom sayings, is meant to shape the hearer in certain ways. Its purpose is to cultivate wisdom, so for all those who want to treat it as a list of things that are absolutely true in the world, or as a collection of natural laws, are not merely reading it incorrectly, they are not letting the text mess with them. Here the author advises the reader/hearer, as a father would to a child, to approach the book with an open mind and an open spirit. The meaning is not simple, but must be sought carefully and deliberately, over time. The one who yearns for wisdom must “seek it like silver” and “search for it as for hidden treasures,” (v. 4). In such pursuits there are many attempts and false starts where no silver or treasures are to be found. Only those who really want it will persist long enough to “strike gold,” as it were. This should be our approach to all of Scripture in any case, open and receptive, though not passive. God wishes us to wrestle with the text and with the Spirit, not limply accept whatever a leader or charismatic person says it means on the basis of authoritarian fiat alone.

Cruel God Christianity

It wasn’t until 2010 that I realized how dangerous one’s beliefs can be. I was part of a church that was everything that conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals say they want in a church; patriarchal; authoritative, with an emphasis on church discipline and courts; courtship instead of dating; creation not evolution; women and wives made the food and wore the dresses; men submitted to the elders and the women submitted to the men; staunchly libertarian, strong support for men like Ron Paul; dominionist, liturgical, conquest-oriented; homeschooling not public or private schooling. Our pastor was friends with many of the bigwigs in homeschooling and conservative theological circles – R. C. Sproul Jr, Doug Phillips, Geoff Bodkin, Doug Wilson, etc.

When my time at the church ended and the smoke and debris of my departure had settled, I had a serious case of PTSD and could not drive past a church building, or look at my Bible, or pray, without being overwhelmed by panic attacks, nausea, and terror. This intense level of reaction continued for a full year, and in each year following has only gradually diminished. Today I still have mild anxiety about attending worship, and at least once a month simply cannot face the prospect of going.

What I learned is that certain forms of the church, certain structures, have certain results. What I discovered is that the thirst for authority frequently translates into a thirst for authoritarianism in doctrine, worship, and practice. The thirst for strong leadership frequently translates into dictatorial power.

Conservatives insist these are bugs, not features, of their beliefs.

In his fascinating book, Cruel God, Kind God, retired Presbyterian minister and psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo explores just how wrong these conservatives are. He shows how psychological and spiritual abuse are, in fact, the staples of conservative theology. His sub-title says it all: How Images of God Shape Belief, Attitude, and Outlook.

The thesis of his book is startlingly simple – our view of God shapes our view of everything. If the God we worship is wrathful, cruel, vindictive, and merciful only after being appeased by blood, only conditionally, then this leads to certain kinds of theologies, and people are shaped in certain kinds of ways.

In the book, he pinpoints the origins of what he terms “Cruel God Theology” and “Cruel God Christianity” in a system that he terms the “Plan of Salvation,” a system rooted in the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which then creates theological sub-constructs in the Latin (or Western, or Augustinian) doctrine of original inherited sin, the infallibility of Scripture, the predestination of the elect and damned (in some instances), and the doctrine of eternal torment in hell. All of these sub-doctrines are constructed to defend and conceal the vindictive core of Cruel God Christianity, a wrathful God that can only be appeased by death and blood.

Once exposed in this way, the consequences of such a view are easy to predict for anyone with knowledge of the psychology of abuse.

Anxiety, shame, and neurotic guilt are common consequences of such process. Less easy to detect but nevertheless perceptible in the attitudes and behavior of Christians who have been affected by conservative theology, is the inhibition of the full development of personality. In this case, intellectual and affective elements are sacrificed in order to achieve an inner appeasement that reconciles the contradictory attributes of God and calms down the feelings that stem from these attributes. (p. 5)

The suggestion that the anxiety, shame, and neurotic guilt which result from the abusive theology of Cruel God Christianity reduces intellectual and spiritual development is no partisan slight. It is well known from the investigation of other forms of psychological abuse that intellectual, emotional, and psychological maturity are hampered by such traumatic systems, and that the brains of those involved do not develop properly.

As Lotufo notes,

The doctrine of penal satisfaction is the dorsal spine of the plan of salvation and of conservative theology as a whole, so this book dedicates more attention to it than to other doctrines, but one must bear in mind that such conservative theology promotes a doctrinaire system and can be understood only in the context of this system. We shall see that there is evidence that shows that the beliefs that make up this plan of salvation are harmful to mental health and also to spiritual life. (p. 22).

Holy Impatience

Western theology has often been focused on future events, somewhere off over the horizon. Walter Brueggemann seeks to challenge this notion in his book In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith.

A provocative title for a provocative book. In this book, Brueggemann looks at wisdom literature in the Bible, particularly the life of David, and finds that wisdom sets us free.

Thus, the life which wisdom sees as the goal and meaning of human existence is the well-being of the community and each of its members, i.e., shalom. Moreover, “peace” for the whole community is intensely here and now. There is no “reward in heaven.” There is no deferred dividend. Rather, the life which results from wise action emerges together with the wise action.

Wisdom does not ask a person or the community to wait. Well-being comes in the process of choosing wisely. Thus, wisdom affirms that the goal of responsible living is intrinsic in the very process itself. Being able to live shalom is both the wise action and the happy consequence.

Wisdom represents a protest against such a deferred goal. It is pragmatic and impatient. It affirms that life’s values are embraced or rejected here and now–any other approach which lets us off the hook is quite irrelevant. Any talk of the will of God which doesn’t lead to life for the community here and now is idolatry. Anything which creates life for the community, no matter what its source, is the will of God. (pp. 15, 16, 17).

Sacred Economics

We must begin to explore new ways to shape human society. I have written about the vision of shalom in my book The Fall of Jerusalem and the kind of community that God wants us to create. Here is an interesting and insightful exploration on “Sacred Economics.”

The Moral Rightness of College Protests

The recent civil disobedience of college students at Yale, Mizzou, and all over the country has been the subject of ridicule in the last few weeks. The protesters, predominately students of color, have been called every manor of name by the media and the commentariat. Conservative shill Roger Kimball called them “crybabies” in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal. Likewise, conservative George Will complained that this was all about thin-skinned and overly sensitive liberals demanding that the politically-correct need to never be annoyed is an entitlement. An anonymous adjunct professor was apparently so terrified he dares not discuss anything challenging in class. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt waxed feverish about the effort to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” in the pages of The Atlantic back in September. Nine days ago The Atlantic published another piece, this time by Conor Friedersdorf, titled “Free Speech is No Diversion,” on how the protesters are “overwrought.” You know, like those women who get fits of the vapors. In a thinly-disguised allusion to the sexist phrase “man up,” Mark Oppenheimer opines in “Person Up, Yale Students,” that they have been “infantilized,” and just need to grow up and act like adults.

The one thing these pieces all seem to have in common is the belief that college students today are coddled, overly sensitive, and nothing like the go-getting, grown-up, wonderful intellectuals these middle-aged prognosticators and their peers were back when they were at university. Partly this is the shallow veneer of hindsight that all previous generations see their own time through. But there is a deeper issue at hand, and that is the dismissive view of Millennials generally. If Millennials are coddled, overly sensitive, and desperate to avoid the difficult rigors adult life (as is repeatedly claimed, with depressing regularity, despite absolutely no evidence whatsoever), then surely the answer to these protesting students and their concerns about “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” must be part of this overall trend as well. Of course, there is no empirical evidence that millennials are any better or worse than any other generation.

The other common thread each of these pieces have (with the exception of Kimball and Wills, of course) is the pains each author goes to present their liberal bona fides. It is as if the authors instinctively know that their positions are virtually identical to those of their conservative counterparts but want to avoid the accusation that their white, male privilege is showing. They don’t want to listen to what these students of color are saying, but they also don’t want to be called on this, lest their paternalistic liberalism be revealed for what it really is. They are all, so far as I can tell, white, middle-to-upper class males, and all part of the power/structure system of our cultural institutions. System-supportive whites in positions of power rarely find protest, civil disobedience, and disruption of the smooth-running of the institution to be an appropriate response to perceived problems.

We frequently forget that the Civil Rights movement of a generation ago was found wanting in just the same ways by whites, for having problems of tone, of being too passionate, of minorities appealing to paternalistic government agencies for help rather than behaving like adults, and that their protest and civil disobedience were inappropriate because they disrupted the smooth functioning of the system. The rose-tinted glasses through which whites look back on the Civil Rights movement today is largely a white construction, a mythic revision of a history that we opposed in precisely the same ways many whites today oppose the Black Lives Matter movement and these student protests.

What all these paternalistic white liberals forget as they go about scolding students of color for their activities and opinions is the racist history of “civil” discourse. Joan Scott pointed out in her excellent piece “The New Thought Police” for The Nation that the real culprits for the enforcement of correct speech on college campuses are the administrators and powerful interests that run them. She observes the distinctly hegemonic assumption behind the demand for civility; the powerful demand the respect of their lessers, and this is rigidly reinforced. As she notes, “the notion of civility consistently establishes relations of power whenever it is invoked. Moreover, it is always the powerful who determine its meaning—one that, whatever its specific content, demeans and delegitimizes those who do not meet its test.” Anything less is seen as unacceptable.

But there is also a darker assumption behind the demand for civility, the hegemony of a racialized Western supremacy. The origins of the term “civility” is in the word “civilization,” which is constructed in contrast to the word “barbarian.” When students of color are told by their white, privileged professors and administrators that they are behaving with incivility, they are exercising code words for barbaric, irrational, dirty, and playing to the very worst presumptions of 19th century social Darwinism. Here is Scott again, and see if you can’t pick out how directly applicable her words are to the present conflict on campus:

the dissident claims of minority groups go unheard in the public sphere when they are tagged as departures from the protocols of style and decorum—dismissed as evidence of irrationality and so placed outside the realm of what is taken to be reasoned deliberation. They are, by definition, uncivil, and thus beneath contempt. Once a certain space or style of argument is identified as civil, the implication is that dissenters from it are uncivilized. “Civility” becomes a synonym for orthodoxy; “incivility” designates unorthodox ideas or behavior.

These words are an apt description of the complete unwillingness on the part of some to actually listen to the students who are protesting. This inability to hear minority groups is not limited to conservatives, as has become abundantly clear. Paternalistic liberals are vulnerable to the same blindness and deafness; indeed, nothing seems to turn paternalistic liberals into conservatives more quickly than the possibility that millennials are, somewhere, somehow, taking matters into their own hands. It is evidently too much for some to stomach that millennials, particularly millennials of color, are constructing their own safe spaces and confronting the ways in which paternalistic liberalism, for all its good intentions, masks and perpetuates inequality, injustice, and preserves an oppressive cultural and political system.

The ongoing debate over “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggression” in our institutions of higher learning is largely a debate over how systemic the violence and oppression within our institutions really are. It is difficult not to think that the offense of these practices is that they come from below; far from being coddled and looking to be protected by paternalist institutions, students are taking protection into their own hands, however imperfectly. This exercise of self-agency on the part of millennials seems to strike terror into the hearts of those who want all the ideas to flow exclusively downward. One might be forgiven for suspecting that paternalistic liberal institutions might not be so opposed to these things if they had been applied by system-supportive intellectuals rather than by minority students outside authorized channels and beyond the pale of “acceptable” speech.

Far from being concerned with “offensiveness,” which is how these issues are commonly framed by conservatives and perpetuated by structural-supportive liberals, these are matters of oppression for marginalized groups. The benchmark of progressive critiques of violence and oppression rests upon the study of how structures, systems, and institutions perpetuate injustice, and the reason seemingly trivial issues are amplified by our college students is that the growth of semiotic theory and linguistics have shown that language can be just as violent and oppressive as anything else.

In fact, language functions as a root metaphor that controls how marginalized groups are perceived by the wider population, and trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and other approaches are an attempt to unveil how language itself can be violent and give rise to physical violence. We routinely recognize that the use of language to dehumanize an enemy or group is the precursor to genocide, yet we are reluctant to carry this fact into our evaluation of our own uses of language. All-too-frequently, language constructs bring about life-or-death matters for minorities in this country. It might seem to be trivial to crack down on frat boys being stupid and sexist, but young women who have to worry about being raped or killed by men for having their sexual advances denied or requests for a phone number turned down don’t find it trivial in the slightest. Transgender people are disproportionately targeted with physical violence in part because they apply gendered language to themselves in a fashion that challenges common constructions.

In his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, continental philosopher and intellectual Slavoj Zizek writes that there are two kinds of violence, subjective and objective. Subjective violence is what we always think of as violence, criminal violence or revenge. But objective violence is what our focus on subjective violence actually masks. Zizek writes,

subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call “our house of being.” As we shall see later, this violence is not only at work in the obvious–and extensively studied–cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.

I thus suggest that the negative and critical reaction to these social and campus movements by conservatives and those I have called paternalistic liberals is precisely because it exposes the two kinds of objective violence to which Zizek draws our attention. Through their protests, they destabilize the smooth functioning of the system and the violence that is part of its “normal” performance and which is not seen as violent by those whom the system benefits and prioritizes. And through their practice of self-protection, the students expose the inherent ways in which our language choices demean, dehumanize, marginalize, and oppress minority groups. The exposure of lingual violence is taken to be trivial and over-sensitivity by those with the blindness of privilege, when  it is in fact an attempt to actually deal with the root causes of structural and physical violence themselves. America’s unwillingness to address the roots of violence in general provides the river into which such critics form a tributary. If experience has shown us anything, it is that we want less of the violent result (shootings, domestic abuse, etc.) without the determination necessary to cut out the roots that actually bring about such violent results.

The common media framing of campus conflicts as free speech issues often serves to disguise the enforcement of systemic oppression by campus administrations. Tariq Khan penned a piece for the Hampton Institute in which he notes that “in the present-day United States, a shallow idea of ‘free speech’ is often wielded by the privileged as a way to direct attention away from critiques of existing conditions and systems; particularly critiques of capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.”

Issues of free speech are complicated, and I don’t know of any students on any campus in the United States that doesn’t grant this. Matters of oppression are also a matter of perception to some degree, but I also don’t know of any students who don’t acknowledge this. Certainly reading what the students have said about themselves in each of these protest incidents gives no fodder to support calling them thought police or the new totalitarians. Free speech concerns the ability to express one’s opinion. It does not concern freedom from the consequences of that free speech. So far no student I know of has said that the KKK should not exist, or that KKK members should be hunted down and imprisoned. But should a KKK Grand Dragon be invited to speak at our university campuses? Such an invitation would constitute a legitimization of oppression as a reasonable viewpoint, would it not? Tolerance has never extended to oppressive ideology, otherwise intolerance would devour tolerance entirely.

Highly publicized protests of Bill Maher or Condoleeza Rice on college campuses, for example, have to do with the fact that they say racist and bigoted things about Muslims (in Maher’s case), support U.S. hegemony in the world (in both cases), and served as a hegemonic propagandist that got us into a war in which the U.S. committed war crimes (in Rice’s case). Giving Islamophobia and warmongering an equal position with enlightened opinions is dangerous (and there are no shortage of venues eager to hear them); actual Muslims and Iraqis die as the consequence of such ideas, and the positions themselves marginalize Muslims, non-Westerners, and those who are not American. Such opinions are offensive, to be sure, but primarily they are oppressive; or rather, their oppressiveness is the cause of their offensiveness. All opinions are protected under the law, but that does not mean all ideas are equal, nor that we must give them all equal respect. Primarily, though, the concern is with ideas that perpetuate oppression and marginalization, ideas which actually manufacture violence through their use of language. As Khan writes,

Student initiatives on campuses to challenge things such as racial or gender micro-aggressions are not challenges to free speech and they are not based on the idea that micro-aggressions are “offensive.” Micro-aggressions must be challenged because they are oppressive, not because they are offensive. Racist speech leads to an environment that is conducive to racist violence. It marginalizes students of color and makes the university not “uncomfortable,” but unsafe. Anti-LGBT speech makes campus unsafe, not merely “uncomfortable” for LGBT students. Misogynist speech creates an environment that is conducive to sexual assault. Any decent social scientist knows this. It is not about people being “uncomfortable” or “offended.” It is about people being unsafe and oppressed. White frat boys would have us believe that they are being unfairly “silenced” because women and people of color don’t laugh at their misogynistic or racist jokes, meanwhile anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist students and professors face actual repression from law-makers, wealthy donors, campus administrators, police, and vigilantes. The same foolish people who boycott stores for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Lord Jesus God Almighty and the Bible Christmas!” complain that Black students fighting against actually-existing racial violence are “oversensitive.”