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One of the more striking spectacles of the recent protests has been white people kneeling and asking for the forgiveness of African-American protesters. This behavior is perplexing—in part because it has the aura of a religious ritual and because the motives of those kneeling often seem unclear. But similar behavior was analyzed by Albert Camus seventy years ago, as part of his extensive criticism of revolutionary excess.
Camus calls the kinds of people who act this way “judge-penitents.” His last completed novel, The Fall (Le Chute), is a character portrait of a judge-penitent. The narrator is a retired man troubled by his own lack of moral direction. He was a successful lawyer, often defending the poor, but he knows that his behavior was merely a performance. His motives were superficial and self-interested: he acted in a way that would earn him praise. He has no ethical convictions that would bear up under duress. Lurking deep within him is a troubled conscience, which he succeeds in suppressing. He longs for a day when an authoritarian power will take control of society, and of himself, so that he need not feel discomfort over his own lack of moral convictions. But authoritarianism has not yet been achieved, so he comes up with an interim alternative:
I discovered that, while waiting for the masters with their rods, we should, like Copernicus, reverse the reasoning to win out. Inasmuch as one couldn’t condemn others without immediately judging oneself, one had to overwhelm oneself to have the right to judge others. Inasmuch as every judge some day ends up a penitent, one had to travel the road in the opposite direction and practice the profession of penitent to be able to end up as a judge.
It is a clever strategy. He feels that his life is pointless and inauthentic, but he is unwilling to take on the burdens of ethical reasoning and personal responsibility. Instead, he will abase himself, in order to earn the ability to abase others.
Camus saw the judge-penitent as a potentially influential political force. The judge-penitent desires a kind of servitude: a servitude, in part, to a simplified world and ethics. And the judge-penitent enjoys the feeling of purpose and power that comes from judging others.
This concept was strangely illustrated by the public fight between Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre over revolutionary politics. Camus’s The Rebel (L’Homme Révolté), published shortly before The Fall, is an attack on revolutionary movements, especially revolutionary Marxism. Sartre and his colleague Francis Jeanson published scathing reviews of the book in their journal Les Tempes Modernes. Writing in his personal notebooks in the early 1950s, Camus refers to these criticisms using terms he would later use for the judge penitents: “something in them aspires to servitude. They dreamt of going [into servitude] by some noble pathway, full of thoughts.”
It might seem odd to describe Sartre as having something of the judge-penitent. Sartre was, after all, assured of his own genius. One cannot imagine him kneeling and asking forgiveness. But, in his fierce open letter to Camus, Sartre writes, “You may have been poor, but you are no longer poor. You are a bourgeois, like Jeanson and me.” For Sartre, there was nothing more despicable than a bourgeois. Furthermore, in the Marxist theory Sartre accepted, a bourgeois is corrupted by material conditions and cannot be a genuine member of the workers’ movement. The only hope is that a self-denunciation of one’s own bourgeois nature could at least make one an ally of the proletariat.
In an eerie echo of our current moment, Sartre ends his diatribe against Camus with the claim that, although he and Jeanson might be called apologists for Stalin’s mass murders, Camus is the real terrorist: “Terror is an abstract violence. You became violent and a terrorist when History, which you rejected, rejected you in turn. That is because you were no longer anything but an abstraction of a rebel.”
Sartre’s point is that, because Camus believes he can be critical of all sides, he has rejected history. Sartre equates embracing history with taking a side in the struggle for justice. We see the same sentiment today in the disturbingly frequent use of slogans like silence is violence and silence is complicity.
The contemporary exemplar of a judge-penitent is Robin DiAngelo. Her book White Fragility, now a best seller, recommended if not required by HR departments and universities everywhere, reads like a contemporary parody of The Fall. Just as in The Fall, the narration is full of contradictions and deceits. The rhetorical force of the text depends upon confused redefinitions and changing meanings. DiAngelo tells us that the primary features of white supremacy include individualism and objectivity—defined in a way that no defender of either would support. “Individualism holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others,” writes DiAngelo. Thus, like Milton’s Satan, white people believe that they create themselves ex nihilo. And “objectivity tells us that it is possible to be free of all bias”—a claim contradicted by the entire history of science as a set of methods designed to limit the influence of our personal biases. DiAngelo reports that, “as a sociologist, I am quite comfortable generalizing” about white people. But one of the evils of whiteness—the insidious ideology that corrupts all white people—is that it is partly constituted by generalizations about black people. Other examples of wicked generalizations, for DiAngelo, include child development theory, because “theorists present human development as if it were a universal.” We could escape the appearance of paradox here if we had a way to distinguish bad from good generalizations, but we do not, since objectivity is itself a form of whiteness. The end result is reheated Foucault: we must identify inequalities and take the side of the less powerful. Thus, generalizations favorable to whiteness are bad, and generalizations critical of whiteness are good.
The master strategy of whiteness is white fragility, which enables the evasion of responsibility for racism and which manifests in “behaviors such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal” in response to accusations of racism. In other words, white fragility manifests in any behavior other than agreement that one is a racist and, in itself, proves that every white person is a racist.
The entire book is a kind of semantic version of an M. C. Escher painting. Tangled definitions and circular arguments trick the mind into believing that the staircase really can go both up and down in the same direction. DiAngelo endorses the semantic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida: that all meanings are constituted by opposition. Thus, “whites need black people; blackness is essential to the creation of white identity.” The right question to ask about any claim regarding white racism, she tells us, is not “Is this claim true, or is it false?” but “How does this claim function in the conversation?” Well, how do her claims function? Every time she makes a gesture towards defending the claim that all whites are racist, she cites carefully cherry-picked statistics about inequality. If we treat this as her operationalization of the word racism, then for her the word means nothing more than inequality. But, of course, she doesn’t mean inequality. She means just what you and I mean by racism.
DiAngelo’s account of racism is all semantic sleight of hand. She explicitly defines racism as a system in which “a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the legal authority and institutional control.” This prejudice is largely unconscious. This is standard structural racism talk.
DiAngelo is impatient with the endless parade of white people she encounters who bristle at being called racists. They are indulging in a white supremacist trick, she argues, in which they protect their privilege by associating racism with bad character, whereas they should recognize it as a structural feature of our society. (Here is another contradiction: DiAngelo demands that white people take personal responsibility for structural racism. In fact, repentance and perpetual struggle with one’s personal faults are more important than structural changes: “systems of oppression are deeply rooted and not overcome with the simple passage of legislation.”)
But, like an illusionist wowing a crowd, DiAngelo changes meanings while we are looking elsewhere. For racism is clever and adapts over time: “All systems of oppression are adaptive.” How has racism adapted? It has changed from intentional, malicious behavior, motivated by the explicit belief that white people are superior, into a system in which those beliefs are not widely accepted, but that still lends institutional power to prejudices that are largely acquired unconsciously. But DiAngelo defines racism as a system that lends institutional power to prejudices that are largely acquired unconsciously. So, what is adapting here? How can a thing B adapt from being A to being B? There must be something that endures and does the adapting. DiAngelo tells us that, “Interrupting the forces of racism is ongoing, lifelong work because forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play.” It is unclear whether those two sets of forces are the same and, more importantly how a contingent social arrangement can be “always at play?” What is this thing that endures while society changes?
The answer is that we, the readers of White Fragility, have a series of associations with the term racism and it is those features of racism that DiAngelo is really talking about—when she isn’t offering definitions that she does not actually use. She is an ersatz Freudian, not a sociologist, unearthing the horrors of the white Id—only sometimes it is a personal Id and sometimes it is a monstrous collective Id with its own beliefs and emotions (e.g. “the white collective derives [glee] from blackface and depictions of blacks as apes and gorillas.”) This is the most revealing of the book’s many contradictions: she tells us, in chapter two, that race is a social construct, but then she stands in judgment of the strange, transcendental essence that is the “white collective.” A charitable reading is that she cannot see her own errors, and falls constant prey to the fallacy of composition (she repeatedly describes the white collective as feeling spiteful glee and hate, as being guilty, and as having consciousness, prejudices and trauma) and the fallacy of division (each individual white person has the white collective festering within). A literal reading is that she believes that individuals are merely expressions of their race.
For years now, the kind of racial politics that DiAngelo peddles has been spreading. In an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Krista Tippett begins by quoting from Between the World and Me: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage.” She adds: “And you are right. And I carry that in my body, in my white body. I carry that cruelty and that violence. And what do you say to people when they ask you that: ‘What do I do with my whiteness, the legacy of my whiteness?’”
This is nakedly essentialist racial theory. DiAngelo endorses a similar view, citing Resmaa Menakem’s claim that a “form of racialized trauma lives in the bodies of most white Americans.” In true judge-penitent style, this bigotry is ostensibly directed against oneself. But, just as Sartre can denounce himself as “a bourgeois,” while confident that, in a Marxist revolution, he would not be purged, the racial judge-penitents of our time imagine that they are the good whites, who will be accepted into the new order that such discourse demands.
Camus believed that the judge-penitents of his day were dangerous because they sustained, protected and might even emulate Stalin’s tyranny. Some of their apologetics for Stalinism were consequentialist: some communists believed that the wrongs of Stalin were justified by the benefits of the coming communist utopia. But more important was the naïve belief that they would do communism better when they were in charge. We can see the same reasoning in DiAngelo and others who wish to apologize for their collective guilt. We know that racial politics has been toxic in the past. We know that nations whose leaders endorse racial theories and make accusations of collective guilt have always been characterized by division, cruelty and violence. But the new judge-penitents blithely believe that a politics based on race will be better when they are in charge.
In White Fragility, DiAngelo repeatedly recounts how white audiences find her diversity training seminars a kind of torture. She takes this as proof that they are racists. Yet, this is the best case future that DiAngelo offers us: society as an endless diversity training seminar, in which we spend our lives ferreting out and denouncing the racism that will always lurk in white individuals, white bodies and the white collective. DiAngelo and others like her will be the accusers and the judges at this perpetual struggle session, having earned their right to preside because they are the most repentant.
The worst case future that DiAngelo offers is far more terrifying. Her racial politics encourages us to abandon the enlightened norm that race should not matter in moral evaluations. DiAngelo says that this will not produce racism, because any resulting animosity will be directed at the powerful. She and others also claim that, since we never really had a fully enlightened norm, there is no norm to abandon. But norms have force not because everyone believes them or follows them, but because many of us agree that we should follow them. If these judge-penitents succeed at getting large numbers of people to reject the enlightened norm and believe that individuals are merely excrescences of their racial collectives, then liberal democracy will fail.