Watching Liberalism Flail

Yesterday I wrote some unkind words about Prof. Eugene Volokh of the UCLA law school, who nauseates me. Today I would like to point out something he has written that is correct.

(It was necessary to condemn him yesterday, because I knew that today I would write about something that I agree with him on. And I find his beliefs so sickening, so antithetical to everything I treasure about human beings and the world, that I cannot possibly speak his name without making it clear just how far I stand from him, and how dearly I long for a time in which nobody thinks like he does.)

In the Washington Post, Prof. Volokh draws attention to a recent occurrence at New York University’s law school. In the wake of a Halloween ball at the school, the student Mental Health Law and Justice Association sent the following open letter:

During last night’s Fall Ball, which was organized by NYU Law’s Office of Student Affairs, there were video projections on the windows inside of Greenberg Lounge of silhouetted people engaging in what we can only imagine were intended to be “spooky” activities. One of the images projected displayed a man dying by suicide. Because MHLJA follows the recommendations of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to not discuss suicide methods and firmly believes in publishing content that is safe for all members of our community, we will not provide any more details about the projection. However, members of our organization do have photographs of the images, should your administration need corroboration. Suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Worldwide, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. For members of our community who have lost someone to suicide or who have had personal experiences, this topic is not a Halloween gimmick… Our campus should be a safe space for all members of our community, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Violence and the difficult mental health challenges people face are not a joke, a gimmick, or a spectacle… We also encourage all students who may have been triggered yesterday to visit NYU Counseling and Wellness, located at 726 Broadway, 4th Floor, Suite 402. Walk-in hours are available today from 10am to 6pm, Saturday from 10am to 3pm, and Monday – Thursday 10am-8:30pm… Dean Belk and Dean Morrison, we urge you to issue a public apology to all members of our community who may have been triggered and ask that you make a commitment to ensuring that all future events, communications, and programs are verified to avoid harm to members of the mental health community and those whose lives have been touched by suicide. The Mental Health Law and Justice Association makes itself available to the administration to discuss how this can be achieved moving forward.

The school’s Latin American Law Students Association also issued an open letter, which included the following text:

Violence and the difficult mental health challenges of people are not a joke, a gimmick, or a spectacle. As a community, Latinxs* continue to experience significant rates of suicide and chronic depression.

*Because LaLSA is committed to fostering a safe and inclusive space for all members of our community, we use the term Latinx, pronounced “La-teen-ex”, as a gender-neutral alternative to the usual gendered designation of Latino/a and Latin@.

In his commentary on the letters, Prof. Volokh attempts to restrain his judgment somewhat. But it is evident that he finds them ludicrous. And based on the evidence of the letters, I agree with him.

Of course, a preliminary point is that it’s very difficult to actually know the situation we’re dealing with here. One of the eeriest parts of the Mental Health association’s letter is its refusal to actually describe the controversial images in question, except extremely broadly. Because they do not want to “discuss suicide methods” and want to offer “safe” content, they will not detail the thing they are actually upset about. I find this incredibly bizarre. First, it would be shocking to me if there was a conceivable situation in which describing the Fall Ball’s objectionable content made a student more likely to commit suicide. In fact, I cannot even conceive of a situation in which a slightly more detailed description would cause someone any harm whatsoever. Second, I think they may have misunderstood the Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s recommendation not to discuss suicide methods. Mentioning a broad type of method does not seem to me to be “discussing methods,” I think “don’t discuss methods” means “don’t go into detail about how to commit suicide, when potentially suicidal people might be listening” i.e. don’t describe how many of a certain pill one needs to take to guarantee death, or how to tie a noose. That’s quite different from “Don’t ever speak the word noose.” My suspicion here is really that the Mental Health Association does not actually suspect that describing the images will cause harm. In fact, it just realizes that any description will make the complaint sound utterly trivial. If the association really felt that any specifics would cause devatasting traumatic “triggering,” they could have simply included a warning that they were about to describe things some people might find disturbing. If you truly think words can be this harmful, just bracket it and don’t make people read the queasy part.

Because of the association’s refusal to actually disclose the evidence that makes their case, it’s therefore difficult to evaluate just how serious this thing was. (As a side note, one should be very worried and suspicious about any organization with a tendency to incriminate someone without being willing to disclose the details of what that person is said to have done. That’s kangaroo justice. “Trust me, it was bad” should never persuade anyone.) But by contrast with conservatives who criticized the NYU students (like the American Conservative, who simply wrote Halloween is supposed to be scary and transgressive, you morons!”), I think there could be legitimate grounds for complaint here. If the “images of a man dying by suicide” were, say, the photo of the falling man from the Twin Towers on 9/11, one could fairly claim to have had the Fall Ball ruined. Yes, Halloween is supposed to be “scary.” But it’s supposed to be cartoonishly, joyfully scary, not disturbing. It’s supposed to get us just close enough to death to get a creepy tingle, not so close that we can’t stop thinking about the mutilated bodies of the victims of violence. The 9/11 falling man would, indeed, cross a serious line, because it is far too vivid. But because of the Mental Health association’s refusal to discuss the content, I don’t know that this was anything like that.

do agree with the conservatives that applying a standard of sensitivity and safeness to Halloween is inevitably going to force Halloween out of existence. Halloween is a cultural ritual in which we engage the macabre and ghoulish, and if the macabre is inherently considered unsafe and disturbing, then Halloween cannot go forward. As a holiday, it simply isn’t compatible with the idea that people must be protected from all violent imagery, since Halloween costumes are bloody and monstrous and tasteless. The Mental Health association ought to be honest, and admit that by its principles, the very concept of Halloween is problematic.

There has been a lot of commentary in the press about the rise of “social justice” politics, with its rhetoric of “safe spaces” and “triggering.” Often this is from conservatives, who believe that it shows a liberal paranoia about perceived injustices, and a pathetic refusal by entitled young people to confront the hard nature of reality.

I do not quite share that analysis. I, too, believe that something pernicious has taken hold among liberal activists on college campuses. But I do not ascribe it to softness of spirit so much as political impotence and an excessive faith that ideas and language (rather than state and economic resources) are the realm in which power is allocated.

The contribution of the Latin American association is instructive here, I think. Recently, the term “Latin@” was adopted, instead of “Latino” or “Latina” because it was felt that using either of these terms excluded the other gender, while the “@” symbol cleverly incorporated both an “a” and an “o” in a single glyph. Now, that was a recent development, which was designed to add gender equality to language. But now even “Latin@s” is considered “gendered” and has been replaced with the (unpronounceable) “Latinxs,” which has not just achieved gender equality, but has thrown out gender altogether. Anyone caught using “Latin@s” in a “Latinxs” era is a bigot who is reinforcing gender binaries.

We can leave aside the practical question of how one could possible “degender” the rest of the Spanish language, which is fundamentally predicated on a gender binary between male and female words. I’ll leave that task to the NYU lawyers. I think what’s instructive about this is the delusion that adjusting words, and enforcing new language principles, is somehow an act of political consequence.

The left has been doing this for a long time. While a lot of what conservatives call “political correctness” is simply the belief that people shouldn’t use hurtful slurs, some of it seems to come from a position that adjusting language use can create justice. If we can just find the right words, if we can just eliminate words like “crazy” (for its ableism) or “Latino” (for its genderedness), we will be making a better world.

Of course, in its practical consequences, these adjustments do not make a better world. Instead, they make a world in which people who are not “with it” on all the latest fashionable terminology (who will disproportionately be the less well-off and less educated, unaware of the words that have newly been deemed offensive) will be made to feel bad. And they do literally nothing for the material conditions of the vulnerable populations they supposedly support, other than intricately readjusting the language about which such populations are spoken.

It’s telling, to me, that this comes out of NYU law school. I have a strong sense that many of the people of the Mental Health organization and the Latin American association will go to work in big law firms, and do very well for themselves. Thus this kind of activism, which looks for problematic content like gendered language and unsafe imagery, is a way for privileged people to reassure themselves that they are doing good, even while they in no way adjust the balance of political and economic power in our society.

As Prof. Volokh warns, it looks like this approach may be taking hold in the left. That’s deeply unfortunate, because it means becoming far more concerned with how we talk about things than the things we’re actually talking about. The Mental Health association will spend its energy trying to get the suicide picture out of the Fall Ball, rather than trying to actually get more resources to the mentally ill. The Latin American law students will decide whether an “x” is more just than an “a” or “o”; meanwhile the bigoted Donald Trump will coast happily into the presidency on a campaign demonizing Mexicans as rapists.

To see emails like these from NYU is to watch liberalism flail, to see intelligent, privileged law students refuse to recognize the real sources of the injustices they profess to hate. Sending emails like this may make them happy; it may make them feel as if they’ve done good work to denounce the Dean and demand an apology for the Fall Ball. But if they truly cared about mental health, or Latin American communities, they would quit playing inconsequential, childish games and start thinking about real harms rather than imaginary ones.