Image: Katharine Birbalsingh, CBE, founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School
This year, students at my alma mater asked the university to topple a statue of Abraham Lincoln on campus. In its place, they wanted a plaque detailing Lincoln’s supposedly sordid past. So how is it that a few undergraduates feel entitled to castigate the man who ended slavery in the US and reunited the nation after the civil war? Have they really done more for racial justice than Lincoln?
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that he didn’t want his children judged by “the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Many progressives judge men not by the content of their character, but by the purity of their opinions. Thus, a graduate student who has retweeted an ideologically approved op-ed may believe that she has done more for racial justice than Lincoln.
This new ethic stems from the idea of systemic injustice—that justice depends not on individual acts of right and wrong, but on right or wrong laws and systems. Critical theorists postulate that even if every individual in a system acted justly, the system would still produce unjust outcomes because of the way in which it was formed.
Many ancient Greeks advanced an ethic of right living and proper action. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius contends that actions ought to be virtuous regardless of circumstances. An action is right if it’s courageous. A discourse is proper if it’s humble. While the Stoics considered knowledge of the truth an essential element in an ethical life, it was only one consideration among many. They believed that it is the small, habitual actions that determine the morality of an individual, not her political beliefs or connection to systems.
Cicero contends that the use of another person’s wealth or property does not constitute generosity—only someone’s own individual sacrifice deserves that designation. Consider the discussion of poverty relief in the west. In the US, the left favors wealth distribution through taxation and the right opposes it. Because of their policy proscriptions, Republicans have a reputation for disregarding the poor when they actually provide disproportionately higher charitable contributions. The actions of individual Republicans don’t matter: only their view of taxation.
In the critical worldview, action is less important than opinion. CEOs of companies and even regular workers often get cancelled for heterodox opinions, regardless of their commitment to the company concerned or the quality of their work. A Twitter campaign has castigated Chris Pratt for his political views, while disregarding his acting skill and philanthropy.
It is not the color of people’s skin, their gender, or even their actions that determine the ethical judgement heaped upon them: it’s their ideology. A right action undertaken within a broken system is considered wrong. Nothing Lincoln could have done would have warranted praise since he existed within a capitalist economy. Systems remain preeminent and only the opinions of those who seek to topple the system are just.
Many of the consequences of this ideological shift are obvious: effective policies suffer ridicule merely because of their association with a specific political party, virtuous individuals suffer public scorn for their heterodox views and public pressure can cripple freedom of expression.
There’s another fallout to this line of thinking, too—truly improving a society is difficult work. Determining the best route of action requires intellectual rigor. When we reduce our ethics to op-eds, social media campaigns and virtue-signaling, we disincentivize that work.
I’ve taught at a poor, inner-city school. Discovering how to do that well takes endless hours of work, introspection and commitment. Comprehensive reviews have found that charter schools outperform traditional state schools, especially for the poor and for students of color. Pioneering teachers like Katharine Birbalsingh and Doug Lemov have published bestselling books to spread the secrets of their schools’ success. They are actively improving the educational landscape.
Nonetheless, both figures regularly find themselves under fire. Reviewer Peg Robertson has decried as “shallow” the very techniques that have rocketed schools like Lemov’s to success. Twitter users frequently pile on Lemov for his insistence that students keep screens on during online learning. Since charter schools are linked with conservative policy, media pundits malign them, regardless of their results.
Protests are an essential part of any democratic society. But taking down a statue requires little effort. Sitting down with a child and teaching her to read takes hours of committed work. If we hold individuals accountable for their opinions in place of their actions, we may sap people’s motivation to put in the effort to improve the very society they hope to correct.