Mike Pence talks race relations
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Andrew Sullivan characterizes the movement in journalism away from objectivity (read: bothsiderism) as a threat to civil discourse. In reference to an article about how revolts are erupting in American newsrooms, Sullivan also takes issue with the foundational beliefs being put forward as media organizations grapple with police brutality.

And what is the foundational belief of such moral clarity? That America is systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start, that, as Lowery put it in The Atlantic,“the justice system — in fact, the entire American experiment — was from its inception designed to perpetuate racial inequality.”

For Sullivan, all of this is an attempt to silence the voices of dissent.

Question any significant part of this, and your moral integrity as a human being is called into question. There is little or no liberal space in this revolutionary movement for genuine, respectful disagreement, regardless of one’s identity, or even open-minded exploration. In fact, there is an increasingly ferocious campaign to quell dissent, to chill debate, to purge those who ask questions, and to ruin people for their refusal to swallow this reductionist ideology whole.

Similarly, in 2007, Glenn Greenwald suggested that there were speech rules that silenced discussions about race.

It is always preferable to have views and sentiments — even ugly ones — aired out in the open rather than forcing them into hiding through suppression. And part of the reason people intently run away from discussions of race…is because it is too easy to unwittingly run afoul of various unwritten speech rules, thereby triggering accusations of bigotry. That practice has the effect of keeping people silent, which in turn has the effect of reinforcing the appearance that nobody thinks about race (which is why nobody discusses it), which in turn prevents a constructive discussion of hidden and unwarranted premises.

Writing at the Unapologetic Mexican, Nezua didn’t attempt to spare his feelings in calling that out.

In this analysis (or this part of his post at least) the problem is the various unwritten speech rules. But guess what? There really aren’t any. There are just poor attitudes we keep about people who look different. Or who we’ve been taught to think of differently. And there is a “White” attitude of deciding for everyone else how they should live, be, self-identify, and do many other things. There are old slurs and old tropes that hurt people. These are the things that are flushed out when people speak: attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, manners of speaking that hint at lurking attitudes.

People avoid talking about race because they are scared of exposing their thoughts and views on race…They are not afraid of “unwritten speech rules.” They are afraid that what they really think and feel will cause them to be ridiculed or ostracized in public, or that they may see a part of themselves they have to feel bad about. So they keep the potential to themselves.

Our country is going through a fundamental transformation—especially when it comes to both patriarchy and white supremacy. In referring to presidential politics, here is how Rebecca Traister put it.

The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us…

Whatever their flaws, their political shortcomings, their progressive dings and dents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean a lot. They represent an altered power structure and changed calculations about who in this country may lead.

The first time this country grappled with these questions it resulted in a civil war that ended slavery. In the 1960s a civil rights movement rose up to challenge Jim Crow laws, resulting in laws that both prohibited discrimination and guaranteed the right to vote. As Reverend William Barber has suggested, we are now facing the possibility of a Third Reconstruction. While laws such as those designed to rein in police brutality and hold officers accountable are currently on the table, activists like those involved in the 1619 Project at the New York Times are going deeper, attempting to expose the ways that racism and misogyny have been built into our systems and culture.

That isn’t sitting very well with a lot of folks. As the saying goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” So Andrew Sullivan isn’t the only white man who feels silenced. The editors at the Washington Examiner expressed similar thoughts.

A republic in which people are not tolerant of those who disagree, in which the mob aims to erase parts of culture that are uncomfortable, is not one that can long endure.

No one is silencing Sullivan or the editors at the Washington Examiner, as the publication of these articles proves. What has changed is that their views have to compete with others in a culture in which the power structure is being altered.

As these movements begin to delve more deeply into the systemic nature of racism and sexism in our culture, foundational beliefs are being challenged. We can see that in the way that the dominance model of organizing human relations is being challenged due to its overt embrace by both Trump and law enforcement. Here is how Riane Eisler explained the issue in her book Chalice and the Blade.

The underlying problem is not men as a sex. The root of the problem lies in a social system in which the power of the blade is idealized – in which both men and women are taught to equate true masculinity with violence and dominance and to see men who do not conform to this ideal as too soft or effeminate.

These days, even the idea of wearing a mask during a pandemic is being challenged as weak and unmanly. So we’re having these conversations that are making a lot of people uncomfortable. That does not mean that there are speech rules or that anyone is being silenced.

What activists are attempting to do is to get at some of the ways that patriarchy and racism have been cooked into the culture that aren’t as obvious as calling someone the “n” word. As the power dynamics shift, that kind of conversation is going to be inevitable and terribly threatening to those who are intent on clinging to the past.

None of this is to suggest that we all need to simply embrace the views of feminists or those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. Here’s where I actually agree with Sullivan.

Liberalism is not just a set of rules. There’s a spirit to it. A spirit that believes that there are whole spheres of human life that lie beyond ideology — friendship, art, love, sex, scholarship, family. A spirit that seeks not to impose orthodoxy but to open up the possibilities of the human mind and soul. A spirit that seeks moral clarity but understands that this is very hard, that life and history are complex, and it is this complexity that a truly liberal society seeks to understand if it wants to advance.

The issue is that our culture is evolving to a place where patriarchy and white supremacy aren’t merely differences that need to be tolerated, but represent moral challenges that need to be exposed and eliminated. That process will require listening and being able to tell the difference between the truth and something that simply makes us uncomfortable.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.