What happened just under two years ago at Evergreen State College needs to be seen to be believed. It also needs to be made sense of because, without an understanding of the ideology underlying them, the actions of Evergreen staff and students are extremely difficult to understand. To address this problem, documentary filmmaker Mike Nayna is unraveling the layers of the Evergreen story in a series of three short films on the bizarre and frightening events that rocked the small Washington College.
The first part of this documentary, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying and the Evergreen Equity Council, was psychologically disturbing—so much so that that several viewers reported feeling physically ill, and many compared the scenes to events within Maoist China. In that part, Nayna sets the stage for the Evergreen meltdown by depicting the fundamentalist religious nature of the belief system rooted in Applied Postmodernism that had taken root in the small, ultra-progressive school.
The second part, Teaching to Transgress, is available now, and it is altogether more straightforwardly physically frightening. It shows students—and on one occasion a faculty member—screaming abuse and profanities about white people and depicts unsettling scenes of mob rage and intimidation. At the eye of this storm, we have the solitary and vulnerable figure of Bret Weinstein, who calmly and articulately attempts to open a dialogue with students who do not want to hear or respond to his words, but instead chant that he is racist, represents a danger to students and has to go.
Because of its disturbing content, to watch the documentary is to viscerally experience two pressing questions: (1) What has given the students of Evergreen the sense of entitlement to act as they are acting? and (2) Why is the faculty accepting it and even giving in to it?
To answer these questions, we have to start by looking backwards. In briefest summary, Part 1 highlighted the intensely religious nature of the antiracist ideology circulating around campus. There, this ideology is shown to have been profoundly reinforced by the preaching of critical race education researcher Robin DiAngelo, who is the progenitor of the now well-known concept of white fragility. This idea, and ones like it in the surrounding academic literature, provides the plain answer to both of the viewer’s questions.
How? These beliefs came to define a cohesive system of shared ideology among enough members of Evergreen’s administration, faculty and student body to break the college. The mechanism is simple. The ideology they define was pushed upon the faculty and students of Evergreen, as Nayna shows, by guilt-laden repetitions of articles of antiracist faith, such as The question is not Did racism take place? but rather How did racism manifest in that situation? (One might recognize the similarity of this cognitive shift to the age-old question-begging trap, Have you stopped beating your wife?) Through these mechanisms, white students and faculty members internalized critical race theory, including a pervasive pressure to confess to their own racism and complicity in what they are led to believe is an inexorably racist system of domination over people of color, especially blacks. According to the doctrines of critical race theory, no white person can escape this, even at one of the most progressive colleges in the world during one of the most progressed times in history.
Teaching to Transgress continues this story by moving past the scenes of creed recital, ritual affirmations, and guilt-inducing sermons that set the stage at Evergreen, to the meltdown that made the college famous. Thus, where Part 1 was eerie and church-like, Part 2 presents the much more worldly and human atmosphere of self-righteous mob rage. Put more generally, where Part 1 shows the theory and its adoption at the college, Part 2 shows its application in practice. And, although it may appear otherwise, the target of this rage is not only Bret Weinstein—or even that ineffable, damaging, violent whiteness that must be present wherever white people are—but science, reason and evidence too.
Though it sounds hyperbolic, the situation that unfolded at Evergreen as the meltdown erupted created scenes that are inescapably and frighteningly reminiscent of those we have seen in more horrible circumstances. The yelling groups of students bring to mind scenes in which a rage-fuelled mob reacts to a claim that someone has burnt the Qur’an or ghastly historical images of other mobs which howled for the lynching of a black man accused of having propositioned a white woman. Evidence for these accusations was rarely examined. It was enough that the tribe had identified a dangerous moral contaminant in their sense of righteous unity. The repeated public humiliation of Evergreen President George Bridges mirrors many scenes of violence against LGBT. Throughout the entire episode, there’s an uncomfortable and inescapable feeling that someone is going to get physically hurt. Thankfully, nobody did.
Clearly, though the specific details in practice and ideology are altogether new at Evergreen, this story is not. Throughout history, groups of humans have become filled with a self-righteous, burning fervor to uphold a moral order and rid society of corrupting influences. In so becoming, they have often also become possessed of a kind of collective ideologically-inspired madness and thereby inflicted great cruelty on their fellow men and women. This is a part of humanity that must be acknowledged and mitigated. Modern, secular, liberal democracy, which is rooted in reason, evidence, freedom of speech and tolerance, has done rather well at channelling these impulses into more productive courses, despite the accusations the staff and students of Evergreen might be shouting.
Ironically, until quite recently, colleges and universities have consistently been at the center of this liberal drive for a greater respect for viewpoint diversity and for establishing a norm that we respond to ideas we do not like with reasoned argument and counter-evidence. The inescapable question is therefore, What went wrong at Evergreen?
Clearly, something has led its students—and many elsewhere—to feel entitled to behave exactly as this documentary reveals. Something has caused them to feel not only that such behaviors and attitudes are acceptable but also that they are morally justified and productive. Something has allowed them to feel so certain of their moral justifications that they were proudly acting out these behaviors on camera. Something has also led the faculty and even the campus police to stand down rather than making it abundantly clear that these behaviors are neither morally justified nor productive, to say nothing of whether they’re good representatives of the mission, vision and culture of Evergreen.
Evergreen College had been poisoned internally by a steady diet of Social Justice scholarship that has been distilled into a form that is user-friendly for activists. We have referred to the substance of this diet as applied postmodernism, and it incorporates intersectional feminism and critical race theory, particularly feminist and critical race epistemology.
Within the applied postmodern conception of society, society has been constructed in the service of dominant groups by their having created and perpetuated discourses—ways of speaking about things—that exist to marginalize people of color and particularly women of color, both actively and passively. That is, applied postmodernists believe the way we know what is true and the way society works has been artificially constructed by the talk of white people, including how we produce and communicate knowledge. Moreover, this social construction was, is, and always will be unless the activists can remake society.
The outlook is not optimistic from within these critical theories, for not only does the dominant social construction of society allow dominant (white and male) people to oppress people of color, especially women of color, but it also prevents them from even knowing they are doing so. Feminist epistemologist Kristie Dotson, for example, has developed a complicated philosophical explanation for the intractability of this problem with her concept of irreducible epistemic oppression. She insists that the systems by which we produce and share knowledge are designed to exclude those of marginalized groups from full participation and access, and this problem is necessarily unsolvable from within the system itself. In application, this requires breaking the system. Video footage from Evergreen has emerged of a student yelling “Higher education wasn’t meant for black people.” These were not the words of an angry and confused young student but a meme derived from the complicated philosophy they are being taught in the classrooms.
A shocking amount of applied postmodern scholarly effort goes into exploring why this would be the case, and it all reads like conspiracy theory. Charles Mills, for instance, insists white people have a racial contract in which they conspire to keep people of color down by the way they talk about things. José Medina claims white people suffer from active epistemic ignorance, which they need to counter by listening and becoming aware of their limitations. Barbara Applebaum tells us white innocence is the selfish motivation for white people refusing to see their own white complicity by practicing white ignorance (which she sometimes calls white ignore-ance). Alison Bailey says that to disagree is to engage in privilege-preserving epistemic pushback, and claims that the key motivation for resistance is to preserve one’s privilege.
As noted, critical race education specialist Robin DiAngelo has provided the most potent tool for articulating the most insidious method for how it perpetuates itself—white fragility. Recall the talk given by DiAngelo, shown in Part One of Nayna’s documentary, in which she says that no white person can avoid being socialized into racism and that in order to combat it, we have to be able to see it. True to the application of this theory, in Part Two, shown here, Weinstein describes having to defend himself against accusations of racism not only from the main activist on the faculty, but from the provost, who has simply accepted that all white people must be racist.
More shocking still, to ask for evidence of this systemic and universal racism of white people is itself problematic. As the students of Evergreen shout at Bret, they don’t need evidence of racism because they live it every day—thus, a request for evidence denies the reality of their lived experience and is construed as further racism. If he were to accept their claims instead and then ask them to share this lived experience with him, however, he would commit what Nora Berenstein calls epistemic exploitation. This occurs any time oppressed people are oppressed again by being expected to explain and justify their experiences of oppression, which is believed to benefit primarily the dominant. We see all of this in Nayna’s documentary as it is put into practice, revealing how the Social Justice scholarship has underwritten the activism that has overtaken Evergreen’s students and faculty.
As should be clear, the assertion at the center of the meltdown of Evergreen—that white people are all racist and need to be brought to see this, confess and work to dismantle it—has been diligently rendered unfalsifiable in the Social Justice scholarship. That is, there is no test that a white person could pass to prove that she isn’t racist. This, as Heather Heying rightly points out in the film, is one reason that these critical theorists are so eager to take out the sciences, which rely upon hypothesis testing and falsifiability. It’s no surprise, then, that one student in a closed-door meeting with Evergreen President George Bridges states plainly that more effort should be devoted to dealing with the problem of racism in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) than in other portions of the college. Most chillingly of all, he says that it is these professors that are in need of “extra emphasis on, like, adjusting those teachers.” Evergreen’s President Bridges agrees,
They’re going to say some things we don’t like, and our job is to bring them all in … or get them out. And what I hear us stating that we are working toward is bring ‘em in, train ‘em, and if they don’t get it, sanction ‘em.
Worse, the accusation that all white people are racist has been engineered into a kind of trap, in which any attempt to deny or avoid the accusation is reinterpreted as proof of the charge. So now imagine yourself as a faculty member at Evergreen State College, who has been imbibing this material and who, providing the most charitable of interpretations, wants to continue feeling like a good person. You’re almost certainly a progressive liberal, and so you care about social justice. You do not want to be racist. You do not want to contribute to oppression. Once faced with the accusation, if you have accepted even the vaguest premises of this ideology, you have no choice but to acquiesce. Your only option, unless you’re as honest and courageous as Bret Weinstein, is to acknowledge your complicity in oppression and the impact it has on people of color—and, because it is believed to be disruptive to the systemic supremacy of racism, you will probably have to do this publicly, particularly for other white people to see. In reward for your confession, you will be acknowledged and then told only that you’re not doing it well enough and to try harder. Thus we see George Bridges here forced to acknowledge his “shit”—his racism—and committing to do better before a mob of angry, mocking accusers who won’t even let him lift his arms while he speaks.
Similarly, imagine yourself as a student at Evergreen, one who is all-too-ready to accept the interpretations of critical race scholarship that seem to elucidate the various and subtle ways in which everything produced by a white society is imbued with racism. Imagine seeing other students, your professors and the administrators of your college declaring the rampant racism on campus and in society, their own racism, and their complicity with racism over and over again. Imagine seeing these confessions acknowledged and followed by demands to keep doing better. Imagine having every imaginable microaggression pointed out as yet another example of how intrinsically racist campus and society are, again with relentless demands to do better. And imagine being taught how these beliefs have been validated by top scholars who study these matters with what appears to be academic rigor, allegedly to help make things better—mostly by pointing out how everything is terrible and hopeless. Would you sit on the sidelines and watch this racism continue, or would you want to do something about it?
Now, enter Bret Weinstein into a campus which bears this critical conception of society. Whatever his progressive bona fides, he is a white man, so, according to the theory, he is assumed to be racist. Worse than this, he is a white man who openly disagreed with these accusations and thus demonstrated his white fragility. He’s merely demonstrating his active ignorance and complicity in the racial contract that keeps people of color marginalized. He recommends tools from within the epistemic system—dialogue, evidence, reason. In the moral universe described by the scholarship upon which increasingly many progressives rely, none of his actions are intelligible in any other way, and he was to have one option only: he was morally obligated to acknowledge, confess and address his own racism. To fail to do so and to explicitly counter the idea that all white people are racist can only be interpreted as being complicit in the oppression of black and brown bodies.
Therefore, according to the ideological theory that came to rule Evergreen’s culture, to have sent emails advising against having compelled antiracist self-struggle sessions being filed as part of the formal evaluation documentation for faculty, to have refused to get on the Equity Canoe depicted in Part One, and to have refused on principle to participate in the modified Day of Absence—a day in which white people were to be excluded from campus—could only have been interpreted as the epitome of white fragility, white complicity, and privilege-preserving epistemic pushback. In asking students of color for dialogue, Weinstein also sought to commit epistemic exploitation.
For these reasons, as you can see in Nayna’s Teaching to Transgress, the students repeatedly reference the emails Bret Weinstein had sent as a reason to view him as profoundly dangerous and in urgent need of being cancelled. For not having already fired him and removed him from the premises, the senior faculty are accused of white silence, which is considered a form of racial violence and also a sign of white fragility. Of note, had they not attended the meeting, they would also have been displaying white fragility. The only thing they could do was attend and agree, which they did. If one accepts the critical race belief system that had taken hold in Evergreen State College, everything that followed, including everything Bret Weinstein was put through, instantly makes a perverse kind of sense.
Thus, if we understand this conception of society that stems from the scholarship of DiAngelo and her cohort and how deeply it has been internalized within the most progressive wing of the left, we can understand why Bret’s email evoked that timeless human mob reaction that seeks to enforce the morality of a deeply held ideology and punish and eradicate any potentially contaminating influence. We understand those students shown yelling at him and calling him racist, the faculty member screaming profanity and rage, the black students talking to faculty about their alleged white complicity, the blame directed at science for the perpetuation of oppression and the entitled demands that these declared issues be acknowledged and remedied at once. We also understand why faculty and even police did not insist on an end to this behavior and assert the importance of civility, viewpoint diversity and freedom of speech at a college and the need to respond to words and arguments with words and arguments. All of these—civility, discourse, reason and evidence—are theoretically interpreted in the existing Social Justice scholarship to be just other ways that the white supremacist cis-heteropatriarchy enforces its ceaseless dominance over the marginalized.
We cannot know how many of the faculty truly believe this new moral orthodoxy, how many were using it cynically for their own purposes and how many were simply afraid of being called white supremacists or enablers of white supremacy, losing their jobs, or encountering the same mob that Weinstein did. One can never know these things. Still, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying have spoken of how many of their colleagues approached them privately and said they agreed with them but were afraid to say so. We can also safely assume that not all of the students agreed with the activists, given that we see Weinstein’s own students of color attempt to defend him as anti-racist, only to be shut down, ridiculed and re-educated by the protestors.
There is good reason to doubt that this new moral orthodoxy, which is rooted in the postmodern conception of society as constructed by discourses in the service of power and developed and perpetuated by scholars like DiAngelo, has wide popular appeal to either students or faculty. It is, however, impossible to doubt that it has power wherever it gets a foothold. It got a foothold in Evergreen College, and Nayna’s documentary shows the very real danger that resulted from even a minority of students and faculty believing fervently in it, under an administration which refuses to condemn it and assert the purpose of a university to defend the freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity.
The students at Evergreen College believed they were entitled to behave this way because they believed in this critical epistemology and its conception of society. They believed they had right on their side and a duty to remove all resistance to their ideology. They believed this with such conviction that they felt entitled to promote their views not through better arguments, but with rage-filled assertions that they were being done harm to by the existence of different (liberal and progressive) ideas. They reacted the way groups of humans so frequently do when they are fired up with moral certainty and righteousness and are not constrained by the expectation of liberal modernity that other ideas should be allowed to exist and be expressed.
To watch Teaching to Trangress is to face the questions of what could lead students to act in such a way, and what could lead a college faculty to accept and give in to that behavior. The answer to these questions may seem as strange as these behaviors themselves, but as Nayna is helping us see, it is the straightforward application of applied postmodernism in a context that was altogether too ready to run with it. This problem should not be underestimated and must be countered by all defenders of reason, evidence, universal human rights, non-discrimination and freedom of expression. We cannot allow a new unquestionable moral orthodoxy to be enforced by mob outrage anywhere and certainly not in our colleges and universities.
via Areo Magazine