It’s the one-year anniversary of the day on which mild-mannered leftist Jewish professor Bret Weinstein was confronted in his classroom by a mob of angry students. By a strange twist of fate, I myself was the focus of a mob’s terrifying hostility a few days ago. Our experiences are very unlike in degree of severity and in circumstances. Of course, my experience was more serious. I had genuine and plausible fears for my life. Several times, I thought it would be the end for me, a startlingly sudden end, there on a street in one of Bombay’s northern suburbs, surrounded by 20-30 hostile men, a few days before my fiftieth birthday. But I was struck by an underlying similarity, something common to all confrontations between individuals and mobs, which intensified and clarified some aspects of my political thinking. This isn’t just about the Bret Weinstein case. But first let me outline how I viewed that incident at the time.
Evergreen: The Events of May 2017
“One’s right to speak or to be must never be based on skin color.”
This sentence, part of a nuanced email response to a college initiative, so enraged the students of Evergreen State College in Washington that its author spent the next couple of days stalked by an angry mob. The bullying tactics soon extended to his wife, Heather Heying, and students (the biology majors in his class stood by him and, as a result, their names and faces were distributed to the protestors over social media, as “racist traitors”). As things escalated, some student protestors patrolled the campus with steel batons (at least one has since pleaded guilty to assault). The police took this seriously enough that they stated that they considered the couple to be in serious physical danger and advised that they could not guarantee their safety on campus.
There had been, that early summer, a few similar incidents. Most troubling, to me, was that Yale University awarded a prize to two student ringleaders of a mob that shouted, screamed at and terrorized another husband-and-wife faculty couple, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, this time over her plea in an email for a little calm and humor with regard to politically incorrect Halloween costumes. The Christakises both later left their jobs, citing fear as the motive. The message sent by administrators at both colleges was clear: students, threatening violence is effective and bullying pays.
It’s been ten years since I worked in academe. The United States is a big country with millions of students. So I don’t want to scaremonger or exaggerate a few isolated incidents. These may have been completely unrepresentative occurrences, spurred on by a few troublemakers and encouraged by a few pusillanimous deans (though it’s disappointing that they included the head of such a prestigious institution as Yale).
But I think we have to be clear in our response to this. Students at university should be engaging in debate, not in witch hunts. Faculty and guest speakers should never have to fear for their physical safety at the hands of a hysterical mob. We should be talking, not screaming our heads off. And it’s the job of universities to punish, not reward such behavior.
I’m not suggesting that racism is not a real problem in American society. It is. That’s part of the problem here. These purity tests in which the left devours its own distract from the real issues. (The problem with the little boy who cried wolf was that there was a wolf.)
But there is a growing movement on the authoritarian wing of the left which regards it as morally OK to scapegoat individuals for things they did not do, to punish them for the sins of their ancestors. For some, simply having white skin or even treating people with white skin as fully human is enough to qualify you as a racist. This is every bit as heinous as implying every Muslim is a terrorist or as spitting in the face of a random hijabi as “retribution” for the Manchester bombing.
Some people have a rather pedantic definition of the word “racism” which excludes actions discriminating against the supposedly privileged (though the historical illiteracy required to think that the Jews have been a historically privileged group is staggering). But, whatever you call this attitude, it is an eye-for-an-eye style vindictiveness that victimizes innocent people. And we should be absolutely firm and clear in our condemnation of it.
Beyond Bret Weinstein
With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, I want to go further in my condemnations of these incidents. We should not just defend the individual against the mob when we believe the person concerned has done nothing wrong or when we admire or subscribe to their ideas (as is the case, for me, with the Christakis couple and Bret and Heather). We should always defend the individual against the mob. No matter who that person is and how despicable or heinous their opinions, values and even actions. With no exceptions. Because when we condone mob threats and violence it dehumanizes us.
I am in favor of peaceful protest, including mass protest and shows of numerical strength, but only in cases in which people are banding together to fight against a powerful government or official body. Sometimes, strength in numbers is the only strength you have, especially when your adversary has the police and army at their disposal, or the power of economic might. Sometimes, you must band together to win attention and sympathy for your cause. I feel for the protestors in Venezuela, in my Argentina, and here in India. A few days ago, as I faced an angry group of men kicking, shoving, hitting and shouting at me in a language I don’t speak, leaving me terrified and bewildered, at the same time, down in Tamil Nadu, police had opened fire on protestors, killing nine.
Protest government policies and actions, yes. But never intimidate a lone individual, however much you disagree with their ideas or opinions, however dangerous you might believe those opinions are. The threat of brute force, of the many against the one, can never be the way we arbitrate morality.
Addressing the protestors last year, Bret remarked, with admirable calmness, “history could pivot in this hallway.” That’s the nature of mobs. They are profoundly unpredictable. The tiniest thing can set a chain of events rolling, with sickening inevitability, which can end peacefully, or have tragic consequences. That is why we must protect the individual’s rights to safety; we must not allow mob intimidation even the smallest foothold.