Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 2.5 of 4

Continuing from the first half of Part 2.

Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff

Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height) and Greg Lukianoff  wrote an article for The Atlantic in 2015 about how trigger warnings and the language of microaggressions reinforces exactly the opposite kinds of reactions that ought to be fostered for psychological and emotional health. Since then, Jonathan Haidt, who has been involved in research that certainly relates to these issues, has been included on many panels concerning the rise of the identitarian left. Haidt has noted (see this video here) that there is a good kind of identity politics, but it bears almost no relation to the victim-oppressor power framework that is used to interpret everything. In an excellent conversation with the much-maligned Peterson, he does talk about the modern notion of identity politics and social justice: “there are some people who see inequality, and want to end it; there are some people who see inequality, and want to reverse it.” He calls this “common enemy identity politics” vs. “common humanity identity politics”, the former entailing a “permanent condition of guilt and shame” for having certain identities, leading to perpetual conflict.

Haidt and Lukianoff wrote a book that was a follow-up to that article titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up A Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018).

There, they confront the idea that words can be violence (pp.94ff.), and note that interpreting words as violence is a choice, and one that leads to pain and that does not lead to emotional or psychological health. Speech and violence are distinct. They connect this to Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as well as to Buddhist, Stoic, and Christian texts of moral ascesis. Interpreting speech as violence, however, sanctions the use of violence in response to speech.

Haidt also talks about the origins of microaggressions (his paper summary here), relying on the research of Manning & Campbell. In the book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the two of them deal with the prioritization of impact over intent:

More generally, the microaggression concept reveals a crucial moral change on campus: the shift from “intent” to “impact.” In moral judgment as it has long been studied by psychologists, intent is essential for assessing guilt. We generally hold people morally responsible for acts that they intended to commit. If Bob tries to poison Maria and he fails, he has committed a very serious crime, even though he has made no impact on Maria. (Bob is still guilty of attempted murder.) Conversely, if Maria accidentally kills Bob by (consensually) kissing him after eating a peanut butter [43] sandwich, she has committed no offense if she had no idea he was deathly allergic to peanuts.

[…] It is undeniable that some members of various identity groups encounter repeated indignities because of their group membership. Even if none of the offenders harbored a trace of ill will, their clueless or ignorant questions could become burdensome and hard to tolerate. […] [46] It is crucial to teach incoming students to be thoughtful in their interactions with one another. A portion of what is derided as “political correctness” is just an effort to promote polite and respectful interactions by discouraging the use of terms that are reasonably taken to be demeaning. But if you teach students that intention doesn’t matter, and you also encourage students to find more things offensive (leading them to experience more negative impacts), and you also tell them that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are “aggressors” who have committed acts of bigotry against them, then you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in your students. They will come to see the world –and even their university– as a hostile place where things never seem to get better.

If someone wanted to create an environment of perpetual anger and inter-group conflict, this would be an effective way to do it. Teaching students to use the least generous interpretations possible is likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate.

For people who have not seen this kind of new morality in practice, this probably sounds ridiculous, and over-exaggerated. As professors across U.S. college campuses have noted, however, this morality seemed to have appeared out of nowhere starting in 2013. It may seem like it’s “out there”, but it won’t remain so for long. I’m already seeing how the sensibility from this new morality is beginning to exercise a controlling influence on how material is taught in high school.

Jonathan Haidt (& Kwame Anthony Appiah)

There was a conference at NYU Law School on March the 2nd of 2016 about, basically, freedom of speech with regard to trigger warnings &c. The event is populated with remarkably insightful and articulate panelists. The language of impact vs. intent appeared several times across the duration of the many conversations. Jonathan Haidt and Viviana Bonilla López had several excellent exchanges there, one of which concerned the tensions between classical liberal arguments with regard to freedom of speech (Haidt) vs. speech that contributes to systemic oppression (Bonilla López). The exchange begins here (that’s Haidt), continuing here (with Bonilla López). Bonilla López talks about “impact” there, and “accountability for our impact”, with regard to the way that she claims our speech can harm our fellows and reinforce their marginalization and systemic oppression. It’s worth your time to take the five-or-so minutes needed to hear both sides, and the mutual replies (Haidt’s reply is here, Bonilla López’s counter-reply –with Haidt clearly offering words of disagreement– is here, where she talks about how the institutions of higher education were built to perpetuate the marginalization of the marginalized, and that “violent acts” are “thrown her way” in classrooms that don’t meet trigger-warning-type standards of advertising their content; there are other replies [1]).


Now, Bonilla López laudably suggests we should “assume best intentions”, which is very good. I wish it were typically so among the advocates of this language. Call-out culture seems to be where this whole thing leads without other principles that would intervene to arrest that motion, and, as noted recently, call-out culture is very cruel. Sam Kriss, in his recent post concerning the Covington Catholic students, laments this kind of mob behavior. I suggest that it is built into the word we often hear in our high schools, “snitch”, and suggests a widespread mistrust that our institutions and systems that are responsible for peace and justice can deliver the justice they are set up to deliver — the tribe, not the state (or city, or school), is what is to be trusted; it is the tribe’s justice that is real justice. The shaming that the mobs of call-out culture generate follow the myopic kind of power matrix that Haidt outlines above, with the added layer of reasons and justifications being a cloak for the raw exercise of power:

Shaming is okay as long as it’s directed at men by women, the powerless against the powerful. But that doesn’t address what to do afterward, if someone is found to have been wrongfully shamed, or when someone rightfully shamed wants to put his life back together.

[…] The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.

[…] There is no content to a shame storm. It is mindless by its very nature. It is indifferent to truth, even in cases where the truth could possibly be determined. Therefore, like the Ring, it cannot be used for good.

[…] We should all develop a robust sense of what is and is not any of our business. Shame can be useful —and even necessary— but it is toxic unless a relationship exists between two people first. A Twitter mob is no more a basis for salutary shaming than an actual mob is for reasoned discussion. [1a]

Best intentions may be on the lips of the likes of Bonilla López, but the morality she represents does not, on the ground, behave that way. One key feature of the new morality –the one that generates the whole “impact over intent” idea– is to secure allies in your grievance against perceived oppressors, and to reach for institutional support to “address” the issue, rather than to deal with things privately. As for reasons being a cloak for the raw exercise of power: there is a reason I mentioned, in the first half of this post, that the ideals of the identitarians and the social justice warriors (not necessarily the same crowd, as I have discovered between writing the first half of this post and finishing this second half –the politics of dignity & recognition can conflict with the politics of just redistribution— though the latter dissolves into the former here for all intents and purposes) are quite other than the politics these ideals actually fund. I know someone who was a student at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) during the riots, and who knew the eight or so students who agitated the riots. The Dean Spellman did offer some infelicitous words in her response to the expressed frustrations of students (I’m not sure that students who came to her were ever “unsafe“), but it was reported to me that these eight-or-so students are largely misanthropes, who just want society to burn, and who blame racism and oppression for their bad grades, and for the fact that they are bad students. That does not mean that there is not a real insensitivity or even injustice occurring in some cases that drives these kinds of conflicts. [1b] Real insults and offenses need to be addressed, but the cause of justice and reparations is not aided by this language; it doesn’t help us deal with cases of failures of character or habitual neglect of care and decency. As for the allegedly misanthropic students who allegedly externalize their problems, the crowd who gathered around the (apparently it started within a general student council meeting as a way of addressing the legit grievance of the infelicitous wording, which, in context, is infelicitous) was sympathetic until, after an Asian CMC student began speaking, and saying things the agitators didn’t like, they saw them grabbing the mic away from her. The crowd lost interest in supporting these students after the incident, I am told. Because these kinds of people are always grieved, though, and because the larger culture is sympathetic to the victim (not a bad thing), there will always be fresh blood to join a new mob, on the pretext of justice, that is after power.


Here, Haidt begins another reply, now to an intervening discussion about whether learning can occur in a classroom where professors hold to a position that makes students uncomfortable. He thinks that trigger warnings are “political warfare by other means”. Bonilla López replies to him by talking about “accountability”, where the “positive intentions” of a professor who speaks and nonetheless has a “negative impact” and “hurt[s]” a student is something that a professor should be “accountable” for. Waldron interjects that he agrees, but that “accountability” means that professors should not “silence themselves”, but should rather be prepared to give an account for why they said this-or-that thing in the classroom. The moderator (Kwame Appiah) then suggests that “what is needed” is that there is an atmosphere in which people can be asked to give an account within the classroom, and reasons can be exchanged. Suk then noted that “accountability” can basically be a cipher for power tactics, deploying the university as a mechanism for punishing professors and, in serious cases, firing them. “Hostile environment” claims can be used to shut down conversations, the very mirror of the social justice left’s stated claim that some speech is “violent speech”. Haidt then stated that “accountability sounds like a great idea”, but wondered “how it would play out in practice”. He immediately goes into the story about the event in his own teaching career which made him wary of the illiberality of the social justice left. This is why you see headlines like “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me“. Professors are combing through their syllabi to eliminate anything that could offend the feelings of the most sensitive students, because the self-appointed “vindictive guardians of what they see as the moral order” will punish them through the mechanisms of “hyper-accountability”. Suk responded to Haidt by saying that when professors whitewash their course materials from any controversial content, it diminishes the teaching experience. She also says that professors should “stand up” to this “cultural development”, and include controversial material, even if they’re falsely accused as being racists or homophobes.

A student asks Bonilla López about the line between trigger warnings and difficult people or groups who use this language to disrupt the learning environment:  where does the responsibility fall with this, given that professors are trying to teach difficult material, and some students end up in these classes who find it too difficult? Whose fault is that? Bonilla López replies that it is “scarier” to be the student “impacted every day of their lives because of an identity that they hold” by the class material than it is to be the professor who could be called to give an account. We should, rather, call to the professor’s attention that this-or-that thing that was said meant this-or-that to them, so that the professor is made aware. There is a burden on marginalized individuals to say these things. Those who were not aware of this before, because they held a kind of “privilege”, now need to be aware.

Another student stated that there is a difference between educating those with privilege about the experiences of those who are marginalized, and obstructing learning because someone is uncomfortable. No one gave Haidt a generous interpretation of his intentions when he was called to give an account to administration. Where is the line? The balance of power currently does not seem to be in the professor’s favor. Bonilla López replied that we need to “believ[e]” people who say they are hurt, have experienced trauma, listening to them, and “giving validity” to their experiences. We should not label people as “too sensitive”, we need to listen to them. Haidt followed up on this by saying that Bonilla López is right on this particular matter, that “diversity is hard”, and that we need to know how to have these difficult conversations. He also suggested that students have assigned to them for their summer reading list, not books about racism and colonialism and other books “that train kids to be upset about privilege”, but John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Dhammapada. “Yes: we need to give one another the benefit of the doubt, and this is what has disappeared. The idea is accuse first, and then social media after that. If you think someone has done something, talk to that person first; don’t bring in the adult reinforcements.”

One student asked Haidt how he could be consistent in his holding of a free-speech perspective, given that what seemed to have happened in his classroom –that Haidt objected to– was that a student had an objection, expressed it, and then took to social media where others held it, and expressed it. Haidt then said he didn’t see how it was a free speech issue, or an inconsistency in his position. Haidt reiterated that the issue under discussion was “accountability”, that “the process is the punishment”. “We’re all really busy“, and if we’re going to lose a month of research, we’re going to scrub our syllabus. “If we think that classrooms are safe spaces,” and if we think that professors are accountable to their students’ “safety”, then “that is not a place where I want to teach.” Appiah replied to Haidt and Bonilla López that “we haven’t developed appropriate norms of responsibility”, that this does not mean there should be laws against irresponsible speech, but that we must build a culture of responsibility, and that we must establish (a) that someone said something, and that (b) it has the significance we’re claiming it has, before we make accusations. “I’m afraid that that does not look like the world of the web to me.”

Bonilla López urged that we listen to and learn from our students about what hurts them, what language is appropriate, “what things you can say, what things will strike them this-and-that way; this information is out there”. Haidt interrupted her final words by noting that “that would not protect you”, and spoke about the situation at Claremont McKenna College in 2015. [2] “It’s basically a Maoist shame circle”. “Listening to students will not protect you. The new regime is: if anyone is offended, you have committed an act of aggression. Microaggression, but it’s an aggression nonetheless, even a form of violence. And so, this is where we are.”

My Personal Frustration

I don’t want to open myself up to ad hominem attacks, as I think the reasons given thus far –and which I intend to give in future posts– are sufficient and public. If I may, I will offer some reasons why this particular principle of the social justice identitarian left upsets me on a personal level (their other principles upset me on other levels personally, in addition to my other criticisms of them). I want (A) to have intimacy with other people, even across differences of opinion (without needing to hide mine, or for anyone to fear being ostracized) and (B) I want to have the right to call “nonsense” to things going on in, or commitments held by, any community or institution to which I belong.

I want to have intimacy with people, and that requires that they be sincere, and vulnerable. It means we need to be able to rely upon habits, conventions, and customs that we share in order to make space to inhabit together. It also means that we need the freedom to negotiate this space, if we need to create it, or build upon what we have in common. I need to be able to “show up” as who I am, and the other person needs to be able to do the same. Yet this kind of identitarian language seems uninterested in building anything, and incapable of it; it is locked into an over-determined sense of what it means to belong to this-or-that community, and it hides the real sources of the kind of profile-based oppression they say they are fighting (which are not rooted in speech, but in material arrangements). I want to be understood, and to understand others, and in order to do that, we need to be able to open our hearts; but these rules would police all of that, and teach people to play the game and groom themselves to say the right things to evade being flagged and attacked (it would just drive bigotry deeper underground); these rules would mean that my intentions, or your intentions, don’t matter, and that the interpretations of those who don’t like you or me gain power over the meaning of what we say. How can we have intimacy if we aren’t allowed to be heard for what we intend to say? [3]

This gutting of the role of intention, and the logic for doing so, seems to shut down any criticism from anyone who is not part of the party line, privileges certain kinds of projects and outrages as being more important than others without the ability to propose alternatives. The emotional grammar it reinforces is rigid and merely blinks at anything that is not clearly friend or foe, and seeks to resolve any middle ground to war-party positions. I want to have dialogue, and this shuts down dialogue. Even the in-group can’t dialogue. Dialogue means that the parties cannot control where they will end up — and the identitarian social justice warriors want to control the outcomes. Even conservatives and my conservative friends are open to debate; the best of them hone their positions and refine their commitments in the light of defending and even shifting their publicly-displayed positions. I wish identitarianism didn’t hold sway over the environments of my liberal friends, because it means that I have to suss-out my fellow non-identitarian liberals, because for the rest, relationships are difficult — and dangerous.



There is one reply by another panelist Jeannie Suk on the question of systemic oppression and preventing the language of violence from creeping into non-violent forms of frustration and alarm, and another reply by Jeremy Waldron, who says that we “can’t run a University as a reinforcement society”, so we need to learn how to criticize and be criticized and to respond to criticism. Kwame Anthony Appiah solicits Jeannie Suk to answer how to address the idea that the classroom is an oppressive environment; Suk replies that “distress” cannot be subjective, that there must be objective, substantive standards that need to be laid out in order to determine whether a classroom environment is actually a hostile environment that undermines learning, and that the idea of trauma is not helpful to set these standards, because of how it is not suited to outline the conditions that need to be met in order to determine whether the classroom has, in fact, become oppressive.


See here. It responds to this video.


So hear one Palestinian-American CMC student’s report here. My friend from CMC does not know about this particular incident, and doesn’t remember any follow-up on it. My friend does, however, affirm that there were a couple professors this one knew who would say some vulgar, offensive, abrasive, insensitive things, or who would offer female students an extra ten points on tests because girls “were inherently worse at math” and somesuch — a kind of charity-nested-in-bigotry that is impossible for me to untangle at the moment..


See the Guardian, Inside Higher Ed., The Atlantic, and The New York Times.


Granted, there are times when the motives for what we say are not available to us, but that doesn’t mean that access to the real sources is likely to occur if we follow the logic of the way that the identitarian left pursues social justice. The unconscious is accessed by other means.


Header image found here

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