In a 2021 lecture at Yale University titled “The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind,” psychiatrist Aruna Khilanani described her “fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way, burying their body and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step, like I did the world a favor.”
Around the same time, a scholarly article in a peer-reviewed academic journal described “whiteness” as “a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which ‘white’ people have a particular susceptibility.” The author, Donald Moss, had also presented his paper as a continuing education course for licensed therapists who would presumably treat patients with this condition. The paper advises: “There is not yet a permanent cure.”
This is a sampling of the new racism that is gaining purchase in American society even as its advocates relentlessly punish speech they deem harmful and threatening to people of color. It parallels the acceptance of anti-male rhetoric that casts masculinity as “predatory” and “toxic,” or just casually demeans males as oafish and clueless, which allows the Washington Post to give a megaphone to Northeastern University professor Suzanna Danuta Walters to ask: “Why can’t we hate men?” (Her conclusion: We can and we should.)
The escalation of this inflammatory rhetoric is reaching the highest levels of American society, as when President Biden insinuated in a fiery campaign speech last week that Donald Trump supporters are “white supremacists” and when he maligned conservative mask skeptics last year for “Neanderthal thinking."
What strikes a casual observer is that such language would be instantly denounced if it targeted racial minorities or other protected groups. Just as remarkable is that this new rhetoric is not coming from dropouts and loners at society’s margins; it is being advanced by successful professionals who have scaled the heights of respectability and are given a platform on social media and in prestigious cultural outlets.
And though each of those examples generated a public furor, such inflammatory rhetoric is defended or downplayed by cultural gatekeepers. The incidents have been piling up especially in the past few years, especially since the election of Donald Trump to the White House during the ascent of Black Lives Matter in the age of social media, and even include cases of people calling for the hate of privileged groups and insisting it’s not hate speech.
In its ultimate sign of success, this messaging has taken hold in public schools, corporate workplaces, medical journals, scientific research and even diversity training in federal agencies. It’s not limited to any single race but endorsed by whites, blacks, Asians and others, and disseminated in diversity materials and workplace-recommended readings that characterize white people as flawed, predatory and dangerous to society. Its sudden spread has caused a sense of culture shock and given rise to acrimonious school board meetings and employee lawsuits over hostile work environments as legions of teachers, students and workers have been educated about white privilege, white fragility, white complicity, and the moral imperative to de-center “whiteness” so as not to “normalize white domination.”
This new take on speech produces a moral paradox, particularly among academics and journalists: Those who are most militant about policing what they deem to be hate speech against minorities, women, gays and trans communities are often the most tolerant of demeaning depictions, incendiary rhetoric and violent imagery against whites and men.
To those who see a double standard, such routine disparagement of masculinity and whiteness is a case study in hypocrisy that upends longstanding norms against stereotyping entire social groups. It’s a manifestation of what Columbia University linguist and social commentator John McWhorter dubbed “woke racism” in a 2021 book of the same name that warns of the dangerous spread of “the kinds of language, policies, and actions that Orwell wrote of as fiction.”
But its advocates insist there is no double standard; they argue they are simply speaking truth to power, which should cause discomfort. In this belief system, reverse discrimination can’t exist because social justice demands tipping the scales to favor marginalized groups to correct for centuries of injustice.
They include Rutgers University historian James Livingston who, in a Facebook critique of gentrification, described a Harlem burger joint as being “overrun with little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do. Slide around the floor, you little shithead, sing loudly you unlikely moron. Do what you want, nobody here is gonna restrict your right to be white.”
The post concluded: “I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. Yeah, I know, it’s about access to my dinner. Fuck you, too.”
In a phone call, Livingston, who is white, said his Facebook post was a joke targeted at white people who are privileged and therefore require less protection than marginalized groups.
“White males have been the norm of our culture and our politics and our society and our economy for so long that unearthing the unstated assumptions that go into that is pretty hard work, and it reveals things that make us uncomfortable,” Livingston said. “So do they need to be protected? I suppose. Everybody needs some protection. But I’m not too worried about people telling me that I have no right to speak on the issue of transgender individuals.”
Although Livingston was initially found in violation of Rutgers’ discrimination and harassment policy, Rutgers later reversed its decision, accepting his claim that his Facebook post was satire protected by academic freedom.
Festering for Decades
It can seem that such putdowns and trash talk have burst out of nowhere in the last few years. But the underlying justifications have been percolating for decades, and they are seen by skeptics as a modern repackaging of ancient us-versus-them tribal reflexes. Telltale signs of role-reversal have been described by serious thinkers, such as 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote that “He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself.”
More recently, author Douglas Murray has warned of the tendency for social justice movements to “behave – in victory – as its opponents once did” – which is to say: meanly – and which ultimately results in “the normalization of vengefulness.”
The idea that stereotyping and denigrating entire groups has no place in a society that strives for equality is one of the signature achievements of the Civil Rights era. By the 1970s, openly expressing racist slurs and jokes against black people was seen as a distasteful holdover from the Jim Crow era, an Archie Bunker-ism signifying low education and low intelligence.
The prohibition against racist speech rapidly became generalized to all identity groups. Ethnic slurs against Poles, Italians, Asians, and others became verboten as did mockery of gays and the disabled. Many words once commonly used to describe women, such as “dame” and “broad” became unacceptable, while terms that were once seen as neutral or descriptive, such as “colored,” “Oriental,” and “Negro,” suddenly took on negative connotations, and became unutterable in public (creating a replacement term, “people of color”).
But at the same time that these language taboos against expressing prejudice were becoming widely accepted across the political spectrum as a matter of civility, a far-more radical effort to regulate speech was percolating on the left.
This movement sought to limit speech on the rationale that language was a form of social control and therefore the source of oppression and violence. The assumption that hurtful language leads to harmful policies ultimately produced today’s cancel culture phenomenon, where otherwise well-regarded professionals are investigated, suspended, canned, or booted from social media for simply questioning the factual claims of Black Lives Matter, for affirming biological sex differences, for satirizing ritual land acknowledgements, and even for publicly saying the Mandarin word “nei-ge” (because it supposedly resembles a racial epithet in English).
The core proposition of this mindset can be traced to philosophers like Michel Foucault, who developed theories of language as a form of societal power and domination, and Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist scholar whose now-classic 1960s essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” argues that the oppressor class and the oppressed cannot be held to the same standard. Marcuse proposed that the classical liberal doctrine of free speech is a mechanism that benefits capitalists and others who wield power, that the struggle for “a real democracy” paradoxically necessitates “the fight against an ideology of tolerance.”
The subversive intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s passed on the torch to Critical Race Theorists and radical feminists, and in the 1990s the critique of bourgeoisie liberalism was taken up by Stanley Fish, a post-modernist literary critic and critical legal scholar who ridiculed the idea of “free speech” and “reverse racism,” giving wider exposure to these esoteric scholarly arguments.
“By insisting that from now on there shall be no discrimination, they leave in place the effects of the discrimination that had been practiced for generations,” Fish wrote. “What is usually meant by perfect neutrality is a policy that leaves in place the effects of the discrimination you now officially repudiate. Neutrality thus perpetuates discrimination, rather than reversing it, for you can only fight discrimination with discrimination.”
Thus it came to be accepted that creating a just society will require controlling speech to disempower the historically privileged and empower aggrieved groups, and to undo sex, gender, and racial disparities in society.
At Georgetown University, for example, it means that academic freedom is balanced against an “equally important” competing goal – diversity and “equity,” the latter vaguely defined – which puts the two policies on a collision course.
Just this year, constitutional legal scholar Ilya Shapiro resigned from a plum job at Georgetown’s law school over a tweet in which Shapiro voiced his frustration that President Biden had promised to name a black woman to the Supreme Court. Shapiro recommended Indian-born federal jurist Sri Srinivasan and lamented that Biden’s racial litmus test meant he would instead nominate a “lesser black woman.” That phrase – which Shapiro subsequently described as “inartful” and for which he apologized, taking down the tweet – prompted an internal investigation by the university’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action.
Georgetown’s law dean denounced Shapiro’s January tweet as “demeaning” and “appalling,” but in his subsequent resignation letter Shapiro noted that Georgetown defended the academic freedom of a feminist professor when sent this tweet during Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearings:
“Look at this chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.”
In a phone conversation, Shapiro said his experience serves as a reminder why free speech standards should apply uniformly to all citizens, rather than trying to compensate political identity groups based on theories of intersectional oppression. Such attempts end up being arbitrary, ideological, and political.
“Those kinds of theories are laughable,” said Shapiro, who is now director of constitutional studies at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “This idea of punching up and punching down, it all depends on definitions.”
Shapiro said that definitions can be rigged, so that the term marginalized or underrepresented in the academic context never refers to conservatives or libertarians who constitute ideological minorities on campus and have been documented as being reluctant to express their opinions for fear of cancel culture.
“If you define it in ways that privileges your ideology, well then you’re going to get the output that you’re looking for in the first place,” Shapiro said. “It’s arguing that you’re rectifying a structural power dynamic when what you’re doing is shifting the power to favor your preferred group.”
It may come as a surprise that one of Shapiro’s defenders was Christine Fair, the Georgetown security studies professor who in 2018 had tweeted about castrating male corpses and feeding them to swine.
For starters, Fair said Shapiro’s tweet wasn’t offensive. But even if it was, she said, that shouldn’t matter: “We have no right not to be offended.”
Fair thrives on controversy and provocation. She has a blog called Tenacious Hellpussy, subtitled “A nasty woman posting from the frontlines of fuckery.” She publicly defended her 2018 tweet at the time, tweeting: “I will not use civil words to describe mass incivility. … I will use words that make you as uncomfortable as I am with this regime.”
“I detest cancel culture,” Fair said in a phone interview. “I don’t think they fundamentally understand freedom of speech. They think there is a right to freedom from speech.”
But what was her motive at the time to use such gratuitously graphic language that was guaranteed to blow up in her face? She summarized her motives as giving her political enemies a taste of their own medicine: “Let me show you what structural violence sounds like.”
Fair said that her 2018 tweet was not without grievous consequences. After receiving death threats and rape threats, her teaching duties were suspended for a year out of concerns for her physical safety. Even as she publicly defended her free speech rights to be provocative and outrageous, Fair “lugubriously apologized” to staff and faculty members who were subjected to online threats and “terrorized” by trolls because of Fair’s intemperate tweeting.
Speech codes have been a staple of college campuses for decades but the stakes intensified after Donald Trump was elected president and the nation underwent a social transformation that some call the Great Awokening. Seemingly overnight the bar for permissible speech rose for the oppressor and dropped for the oppressed. And now it was overtly about politicizing and weaponizing speech to save humanity from itself.
On Christmas Eve in 2016, just weeks before Trump took office, a Drexel University political science professor, George Ciccariello-Maher, pulled an attention-getting stunt on Twitter: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.”
The next day, the provocative professor pushed the nuclear buttons again: “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.”
Drexel officials denounced the professor’s comments as “utterly reprehensible” and “utterly disturbing,” and subsequently put him on administrative leave (for his own safety). The professor denounced Drexel’s response as “chilling” to his academic freedom.
Ciccariello-Maher was just getting started. He went on the offensive in 2017 against free speech advocacy and took pride in being involved in a campaign to shout down conservative speaker Charles Murray.
“We’re actually fighting a battle,” Ciccariello-Maher said on a 2017 podcast, “and for that battle we need to use weapons, and we need to fight against the enemies that we have.”
He proclaimed: “We make a mistake from the beginning when we assume that speech is and has been free instead of a terrain for hegemonic struggle.”
The changing dynamic played out in public view at the New York Times in 2018, when the media organization hired and then quickly un-hired opinion writer Quinn Norton for several gaffes, including retweeting a tweet with the N-word and fraternizing with an alleged neo-Nazi.
Just six months after tossing Norton, the New York Times stood by another opinion writer, Sarah Jeong, a Korean-born graduate of U Cal Berkeley and Harvard law school whose Twitter oeuvre trafficked in crude racial stereotypes. Jeong, who was fond of the hashtag #CancelWhitePeople, tweeted out such sentiments as: “White people have stopped breeding. you’ll all go extinct soon. that was my plan all along.” And: “Dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.”
As the New York Times was pilloried for its double standard, progressive digital pundits at Vox came to Jeong’s defense, patiently explaining for the umpteenth time that Jeong was to be exempt from censure because “there’s no such thing as ‘reverse racism.’”
Ezra Klein, the former editor of Vox who’s now an influential podcaster at the Times, accused Jeong’s critics of “an absurd form of literalism.” He said the public misguidedly interpreted the online meme #KillAllMen literally, when Twitter habitués who are in on the joke understood that it really meant nothing more than “it would be nice if the world sucked less for women.”
Another Vox writer dismissed the idea that we should all play by the same rules and spelled out how the “social justice left” approaches the world: “What makes these quasi-satirical generalizations about ‘white people’ different from actual racism is, yes, the underlying power structure in American society.”
“There is no sense of threat associated with Jeong making a joke about how white people have dog-like opinions,” the Vox piece said. “But when white people have said the same about minorities, it has historically been a pretext for violence or justification for exclusionary politics.”
Many Americans are still trying to figure out the boundaries of acceptable speech at a time when striving for colorblindness and equal treatment mark a person as part of the problem. However sensible it might have seemed a half-century ago as a corrective measure or to alleviate pangs of guilt, the creation of separate standards for different groups now strikes some as profoundly regressive.
“The development of two separate language codes, one for whites and one for blacks, was ominous,” the conservative writer Christopher Caldwell observed in his 2020 book, “The Age of Entitlement.”
“The rules of American public decorum now resembled medieval strictures that permitted only noblemen to carry weapons or ride horses, or laws that forbade certain classes of citizens to address others by a certain name.”