Perhaps you’ve heard the term “precious little snowflakes.” Youth who are regarded, first by parents and then themselves, as wondrous and unique. Those who use the phrase sarcastically, as most do, imply that the snowflakes’ sensibilities are impossibly delicate, and shatter when confronted with the horrible realities of the world, such as capitalism or people who are insufficiently troubled by the link between climate change and industrial lettuce production. True, true — but a few billion snowflakes piled together can shut down a town, and even a handful down the back of your neck can make you shudder.
On an unrelated note, some Berkeley students are mad about a class that is just plain othering the living heck out of them. From a piece they wrote for the Daily Californian:
We are calling for an occupation of syllabi in the social sciences and humanities. This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings. The course syllabus employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men. The syllabus did not include a single woman or person of color.
It also did not include a tricycle or Denver omelette, to name two other things that did not have a great impact on classical social theory. Later in the piece, you can see how this ruins people’s ability to sit in a room and listen to someone say something:
When lecturing on Marx’s idea of the “natural division of labor between men and women,” the professor attributed some intellectual merit to this idea because men and women are biologically distinct from each other, because women give birth while men do not. One student asked, “What about trans* people?’” to which the professor retorted, “There will always be exceptions.” Then, laughing, the professor teased, “We may all be transgender in the future.” Although one might be tempted to dismiss these remarks as a harmless attempt at humor, mocking trans* people and calling them ‘exceptions’ is unacceptable.
The authors prefaced the above example thus: “Sometimes, we were so uncomfortable that we had to leave the classroom in the middle of lecture.”
If the statement “women give birth while men do not” makes you have to leave the room, you make an actual snowflake look like a tardigrade, a microscopic beast that can survive in the vacuum of space. Of course the offended student knows that trans people are not the norm, but that’s because the binary concept of gender was imposed on us in a.d. 437 by The Horrible Society Council to trick women into thinking they wanted to sleep with men and vice versa. So being trans is not an exception, it is simply one point in a beautiful circle.
Sorry, sorry: trans*. That’s what the article said. How that’s pronounced, even Victor Borge wouldn’t know. I know that asterisk means something. It’s like “cis.” Every time I figure it out, the information is lost like a Post-it note placed on a wet wall in a hurricane. It’s almost as if my brain doesn’t consider it critical info, except as a means of identifying people who confuse jargon with insight.
Anyway, back to the canon. Marx is derided for being a white male, which seems to be the least of his sins. It’s like criticizing Mao for bad dental hygiene. There’s not a soul on the right who ever regarded his works and thought “it’s a muddle-brained exercise in utopian twaddle that inevitably leads to statist tyranny, but I am strangely drawn to its precepts by the author’s possession of testicles.” Likewise a conservative on Foucault: “Sure, he was a leftist who praised Ayatollah Khomeini, but he was a milky-skinned guy who peed standing up, and that’s gotta count for something.”
It’s possible there are white male Berkeley students who bask with smug smiles when the canon is revealed to be all-bro, all the time, but it’s more likely the properly acculturated student would enter the class eager to ferret out fallacies and false consciousness, waiting for Socrates to come up so he could object to the phallocentric nature of his last words. (And then leave the room, uncomfortable.)
It brings to mind a similar complaint that began a few years ago that curricula should stop being about Things That Happened, and instead replace the facts of history with Empowering Narratives that celebrate the marginalized. The argument went like this: (1) Western civilization oppressed women at every turn, never letting them be writers, painters, and scientists, so it shouldn’t be studied, and (2) why don’t you teach about the women writers, painters, and scientists?
Of course, there were women writers, painters, and scientists. The French chemist Antoine Lavoisier was assisted by his wife Marie-Anne, who also sketched his experiments, translated documents, and edited his memoirs. She was a writer, painter, and scientist, in other words. Ada Lovelace is known for being the first computer programmer, not Lord Byron’s daughter. There’s that Frankenstein authoress. And so on. But they’re not as numerous as the accomplishments of men, because they didn’t have the opportunities. We should teach as much as we can about the contributions of women who did what they could in a time of narrow options. But it’s like saying a survey course of High Renaissance art should toss out one of the big names in order to shoehorn in a minor painter who influenced no one.
If there’s one thing you take away from the Daily Californian essay, it’s the pursed-lip’d narrow-eyed glare of someone who is being forced to sit in a room and NOT BE VALIDATED. (Some of the complainants may be angry because they are witnessing the non-validation of others and are compelled to be enraged on their behalf.) College, apparently, is now a place where the notions of people freshly matriculated from high school must be handled with oven mitts and lightly buffed with soft cloth lest their orthodoxies suffer the slightest abrasion. Like the school that canceled the annual performance of The Vagina Monologues because it othered non-traditional women who lacked the titular orifice, it’s a delightful example of leftist autophagy. Marx is in foul order in Berkeley not for his ideas, or the heaps of corpses accumulated in his name, but because he had a prostate.
By the way, Foucault died of AIDS, so you can dismiss everything the students wrote. Homophobes and haters. No, kids, don’t bother defending yourselves. As your heroes would no doubt say: If it wasn’t true, we wouldn’t have accused you.
— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.