Why is it that people who say they are speaking truth to power are often the ones with the power?
Why is it that people who claim they are being bullied are actually the bullies?
Why is it that people who are the safest often claim the highest levels of fear and terror?
All irony is apparent not real. It disappears under the microscope. You get a little frisson in your brain when it chafes at a juxtaposition, sensing that objects that should be distinct are too close to one another. But there they are. Pick at the ironic proposition a little and you find that it has its own logic and consistency.
The way to understand these apparent ironies is through a recognition of the dialectics in which they arise. People with less power, and who use the phrase “speaking truth to power” as a tool , sometimes end up with more power. Victims catch the bully cootie and given half a chance indulge in it themselves.
That little frisson is an emotional state, not a state of logic. The phrase “speaking truth to power” is just four words. Their literal meaning is clear enough but ah the mysteries of language! Meanings of words and phrases are inseparable from the cultural — and emotional — contexts in which they are uttered. Put another way the only true way to grasp the meaning of something is not from the outside-in (what is the literal meaning of the phrase and does it apply to what I want to express) but from the inside-out (begin with the inchoate impulse and grab for what is on hand).
Consider the work of neuroscientist Antonio D’Amasio, whose research suggests that the logic function of the brain loses its traction if the parts of the brain that support emotion are disabled. His
essential insight is that feelings are “mental experiences of body states,” which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli.
To quote D’Amasio on language:
Language — that is, words and sentences — is a translation of something else, a conversion from nonlinguistic images which stand for entities, events, relationships, and inferences.
We often regard language as a system of disembodied signs. But it is rather a system of the body, a system based on the body state differences. The body state differences are represented in images in the brain, and the images are sources of linguistic expressions.
“Speaking truth to power” as uttered by many nowadays is not a clinical description of a situation, to be taken off the shelf for use when conditions are suitable. Nor is it limited to operating as a complaint or a brave challenge. In the current moment it most often is evidence of a victory dance.
How else to explain the seeming paradoxes on abundant display nowadays? The rhetoric of victimization appears to be positively correlated with the fact of bullying. The former does not diminish the latter, and cause it to recede. It eggs it on, in a cycle. Victory dances are fun, and the blazing primal fire around which the dancers celebrate needs to be fed. The fire must get hotter and more fierce — throw on more crooked timber!
Thus also the strange phenomenon of students on elite college campuses–about the safest places invented since the dawn of time–apparently terrified for their safety. Moreover, the objects of their fear are not those, like actual criminals, who might in theory cause harm if they were to make their way to the verdant vale. Very often the terror is claimed to be prompted by individuals and groups, like political conservatives, with no track record of violence to speak of (unless you consider a speech on campus by Charlie Kirk to be violence).
Which brings me round to the topic at hand: goings on at my alma mater, Syracuse University.
I first heard of the wildfire at Syracuse a couple of days ago on the CBS Nightly News. The story was a familiar one. A white nationalist manifesto was being circulated on campus. White fraternity members harassed a black female student with the “n-word.” These two events were the main focus of the CBS story, though they appeared to follow a string of racially-tinged events on campus, including offensive graffiti in bathrooms and a swastika drawn in the snow.
Did the story at the moment it went national have the bones to do so? I was suspicious. The national press is good at saying it will not run with stories–like Jeffrey Epstein–that they say are not well enough documented. They are good not covering things–like Biden-in-Ukraine–and then announcing any such stories are “discredited”.
But a possible rape by a Supreme Court nominee nominated by Trump? Or racial strife on college campuses? Bring it on! Thus my suspicion that the story was not really ready for the national news.
When you dig down into the actual news coming from Syracuse a different and more complex picture emerges.
On the one hand the predictable rush to judgment is in evidence. The Syracuse Police Department is leading an investigation into the white manifesto–this without any description of what crime may have been committed.
The university has suspended all fraternity and sorority activities for the rest of the semester.
Students are “terrified” after the dissemination of the manifesto. They present demands to the Chancellor. The Chancellor agrees to meet the protesters’ demands.
The Chancellor faces pressure from Governor Cuomo, who took the unusual step of intervening in a controversy at a private university, saying the Chancellor’s steps were inadequate and did not instill confidence.
All this of course before any actual findings of what happened with the manifesto, nor any evidence concerning the “n-word” event, nor any actual adjudication of anything, whether violations of law, policy or simply goodthink.
And some things seemed not quite right to this reader. There is of course the backdrop of fake college hate crimes, something I wrote about before most people were aware the phenomenon existed. Might there be a hoax in here somewhere?
For one, while the Chancellor says “substantial evidence” exists that the fraternity members acted inappropriately we don’t know what that consists of, who has been charged, what their response is or what the context might have been.
We are told that an investigation is underway. But in the meantime let’s shut down the entire Greek system, transmit a presumption of guilt by the gist of our actions, and then have the investigation proceed, as most do, without transparency, without due process and without a full accounting of the particulars when it is concluded.
More troubling to me was the manifesto issue. By the time it reached CBS the headline read
Purported white supremacist manifesto may be circulating at Syracuse University
Then as things got clearer we saw that things were not so clear. It was the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto–illegal to own and read in New Zealand but legal in the United States. That manifesto was allegedly air dropped to several cell phones at the library. But even that was not certain. The Department of Public Safety’s carefully worded (though ambiguous) account of the event read as follows:
The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has received multiple reports of a document purported to be a white supremacist manifesto being posted in an online forum and allegedly “air dropped” to several cell phones of individuals sitting at Bird Library. No individual has reported directly receiving the air dropped document at this time. If you personally received the document through an AirDrop, please contact the Department of Public Safety immediately at 315.443.2224.
So an objectionable though legal document which had been posted in an online forum was then air dropped by person or persons unknown to “several cell phones” — although “no individual has reported directly receiving the air dropped document at this time.”
My conclusions as I sat down to write this post first thing in the morning of November 21:
-that the University and the Governor have done another rush to judgment of the type all too common nowadays.
-that the national media ran with a story way before it was ripe to run.
-that students are doing the whole “speak truth to power” victim-bully victory dance.
Ah but was there an actual hoax in there? I had my suspicions but figured let’s let things develop. Then when I was in the middle of writing I thought to do another scan of the web and sure enough . . .
Here’s the new headline from (wait for it!) CBS News, posted 5:01 AM today, less then five hours ago as I write this:
Reports of racist manifesto at Syracuse University likely a hoax, chancellor says
Breaking news! But so far just a CBS online post.
Full story tonight on the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell?
Hmmmm . . . . we’ll see if any inconvenient new angles are covered, or covered up.
“If you personally received the document through an AirDrop, please contact the Department of Public Safety immediately”
This is the problem right here. A department of public safety should NOT protect people from a document, by definition, since that would mean interfering with the freedom of speech. students must have the opportunity to “seek shelter”, if they are so afraid of that document (I am very certain there is no lack of “shelter” at modern universities), but a public department should not be involved at all.
People simply sleep through how anti-constitutional principles are normalized in society. That is very dangerous.
A department of public safety should NOT protect people from a document.
yeah that nails it right there
i feel for the public safety department. who knows the rank and file may be themselves pc punch drunk. but i would not be surprised to find that they are sensible folks. their main press release assures students that there is no evidence of threat to the university. but then they have to caveat that six ways to sunday. if you are scared call us and we will give you a ride! remember you can always drop a dime, anonymously, on that person who told that joke at the bar on the 24/7 ethics hotline! so they can only go so far being reasonable. the culture is nuts and they can’t wander too far from the nuts script. and meantime in the process of trying to seek some reasonable balance free speech goes under the bus.
to quote an american general in a different context: NUTS! but i repeat myself.
Yeah, I like to believe even most of the HR workers are decent people, or sometimes they are students; I talked to someone who mans the sexual harrassment/campus safety telephone line, and most of the time, he has to tell the girls who call right away that what they describe is not sexual assault.
The HR administrators are to blame, or are they? They were decent folks 20 years ago, and became worse 10 years ago. Now they are worse than even that. But they are mostly still the same people! It’s a gradual transition into madness, and the culture sets the pace.
Social Justice is like an engine with Marxism as top-speed.
I might add to that analogy: not only do SJWs try to be faster everyday, they work on the engine everyday to take the goal even past Marxism into total societal entropy.
I was a senior administrator at a college around 20 years ago–in the middle of Small Early Woke before the pause and the return of Big Late Woke in the last several years. We had a materials store for art supplies needed for the heavy duty works: piles of clay for sculpture, that sort of thing. As such it had a workaday quality somewhat at odds with the largely upper middle class student population. The store had been run for many years by a warm and friendly old-school guy, blue collar and of the local ethnic stock. Everybody loved the guy. But then came the 1990s and things changed.
Previously it would not have been a big deal for him to put his hands on the shoulder of a female student affectionately while she was making a purchase. No longer. A complaint was filed. The HR person — as you say a decent and reasonable person in my experience — came to the conclusion that the guy had to go. From her point of view she was just keeping up with the law and the culture. Was there a slight emotional quality to the decision too? Did her poised and professional exterior hide her own set of inner changes that gave internal life and lift to her seemingly neutral decision? I don’t know. Maybe.
I was senior and both the retail function and HR reported to me so I intervened and asked for a separate meeting in which I could weigh the matter. Of course everyone around the table had already come round to the conclusion that firing was recommended and so I was treated to a series of arguments about the necessity and inevitability of the step.
To my eternal shame I went along with the recommendation and he was let go. I pass this along only as a tiny case study in the way these changes creep in.
I see some of this in the public safety aspects of the Syracuse case. The police do what they can do within the new scripts people are to follow in these dust ups. But each time they make a compromise, and agree to bring the city cops in to investigate free speech or remind students that they are welcome to a ride if they are feeling threatened by Nazis they move the needle further along. As I did.
Good point – there is a certain pressure on people to move along with premade conclusions. Many people in academia like to see themselves NOT as salespeople, but they are. The HR committees and title IX section chairs sell their vision of someone needing to be let go or punished. They pull the right emotional triggers, and their colleagues buy. Good sales(wo)men ARE able to sell their product to almost everyone. You have a story that is more or less always the same and you adjust it to the context; the customer/colleague will come up with a handful counter-points that you can already predict based on your story; you rebut those points with arguments the other person has never heard before, so he buys/accepts.
We may be able to prepare ourselves to not get railroaded by woke administrators, but if it is even difficult for us to do it, how easy to convince will the general public be?
It is not good that Woke jumped sectors as well as the shark as it slithered out of the academy into the so called real world. You would think normal adults would be more resistant than callow youf. And maybe they are.
Google executives have caught the cootie and for now, as an unchallenged elite in a New Gilded Age, they are free to impose PC rules on peons–their employees via threat of termination and the public at large by throtting discourse. One hopes it is only their outsized power that permits them to continue in this awful regime, and that if they are taken down a peg or a thousand some return to common sense will be possible. But one never knows does one?
One thing that gives me hope is the Trump administration’s steps to reign in Title IX in colleges. “Yes means yes” was about to become law of the land, and it has in some states and jurisdictions already, but the cancer is stopped at the source, for now.
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