I interviewed John McWhorter recently. That interview was supposed to be episode 17 of Half Hour of Heterodoxy. I recorded the interview using an app that has worked very well in the past. Unfortunately, it failed me this time; the audio quality of this recording was extremely poor. Instead of releasing the interview as a podcast episode, I decided to release the transcript instead. It’s a long interview, so I added headings to make the transcript easier to navigate.
1. On Political Theater
Chris Martin: The first thing I want to talk about is the idea of the political protests or political theater and what you mean by that and why you think that’s problematic.
John McWhorter: Well, I think that one of the most awkward aspects of all this is that there’s a certain contingent who are inclined to think that if you have a problem with the kind of protest that we’re seeing on college campuses right now, that you have a problem with political protests and especially from the left.
So—many people’s analysis of this is that we who have a problem with all of these speakers being shouted down—we are modern-day equivalents of the people who saw student protests in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and felt that all those students needed to just cut their hair and go back to the classroom. That’s a really off analysis because the crucial difference with today is the new idea that certain people aren’t to be just protested, but they absolutely aren’t to be heard; that their speech is to be shut down. And it’s not only directed against people who are openly arguing for concepts that most of us consider nauseous: outright white supremacy, and branding other races as troglodyte groups who are set to be exterminated or to fall behind. That’s one thing. But also just buttoned-up sorts of people saying things that could be taken as supporting X, Y and Z. Even people like this should not even be allowed to open their mouths.
That’s something quite different from what most of the student protesters were doing 50 years ago. I think that the fact that so many people who are New York Times or New Yorker readers, who listen to NPR, are having trouble with this new form of protest—it’s evident that this isn’t just the parents and the graduates who don’t like what’s going on with the kids.
We’re seeing something that even reasonable people find to have gone over a certain edge of coherence, not to mention civility.
Chris: So when you say political theater, you’re not so much concerned with the theatrical aspect per se as you are with the idea that the goal of the political theater is to make certain ideas anathema. Is that correct?
John: Definitely. When I say theater, yes, there’s theater in any kind of protest. The very fact that you’re making a loud noise in a public forum is theater. The very fact that you’re trying to attract people’s attention who otherwise would not be inclined to give it, that’s theater. That’s part of politics. But there’s a particular theatrical aspect to all of this in that I find it simply incoherent—it’s not believable—that a psychologically healthy person and one intelligent and ambitious enough to have gotten into a selective school, in particular, is somebody who is constitutionally unable to bear hearing somebody express views that they don’t agree with, or that they even find nauseous. It’s one thing to find views repugnant. It’s another thing to claim that—to hear them constitute a kind of injury that no reasonable person should be expected to stand up to. That’s theatrical because it’s not true. Nobody is hurt in that immediate, lasting and intolerable way by some words that a person stands up and addresses, in the abstract, to an audience at a microphone.
There’s an argument as to whether somebody can be harmed by being called names directly over a longer period of time. But the idea that hearing ideas that can be construed as being complicit in something as abstract as societal racism—hearing these ideas constitutes injury along the lines of, for example, somebody calling you a nigger to your face once a day—it’s not that I don’t agree with this idea; it’s that it doesn’t make any sense. It isn’t true.
To claim that is a kind of theater in itself. You are pretending—and that really is the only appropriate word—you’re pretending that something that you find unpleasant to behold is injurious. And I think that the theatricality of that kind in the argument is a response in part to the fact that to make your case otherwise—that somebody just shouldn’t be heard—is difficult. You have to pretend that it’s hurting you like a punch in the stomach, because otherwise it becomes a little inconveniently transparent that, really, you’re just insisting that you have your own way because you’ve decided that a certain way of thinking is what’s on the side of the angels.
2. John’s Experience at Columbia
Chris: Could you find this playing out at Columbia University in the way you’re describing or is Columbia handling these situations differently now?
John: Well, so far Columbia has been largely spared the kind of scenes that make national news. There was a hint of it a few weeks ago when one speaker was essentially shouted down. It happened off of what’s technically considered the campus, and as with many of these things, the ringleaders of the protest seemed mostly to have been people who weren’t connected to Columbia itself.
But on Columbia’s campus, there has not been a scene like this. It’s interesting: I have said in the presence of some of the powers that be that there’s no particular reason why this doesn’t happen here, and I think that we ought to brace ourselves for it because the fact that it hasn’t happened may be just due to chance. And the general response to me was that there’s something about Columbia that makes it unlikely. I felt almost unwelcome in saying this [saying we ought to brace ourselves] at Columbia.
To the extent that it’s true [that Columbia is tolerant], it may be because the lines of communication are kept considerably open between the administrators and the students who might be inclined to that kind of protest. And I think that some of the powers to be are quite aware that this is something that could happen here and that we need to think about it.
But no, that has not happened on my campus. When I think of that, I think of that as something that has happened on other campuses. But I openly acknowledge that every time I see it happening on a certain campus, I think there, but for the grace of whoever, goes Columbia, and sometimes I even worry about myself.
Chris: Yeah. I think maybe one thing that’s happening at Columbia is that because it’s in New York City, you have a lot of international students and you have this international community. So to a large degree, you do come up against people whose ideas are very different from yours, which is kind of different from being at a college like Middlebury or a college in a secluded location and perhaps that has something to do with it?
John: No. I’m not being facile in saying that and I’m not trying to be some sort of doomsdayer. But yes, there’s a lot of diversity, but to the extent that the diversity means that you will encounter somebody who has a highly direct and uncompromising Christian-infused view about sex, or even about gender roles—it’s not as if at Columbia you learn to somehow be more tolerant of that than you might be at Yale.
There are various students who feel that to be a student of color at Columbia is to endure racism on a regular basis. The question in my mind is why there hasn’t coalesced a movement against it of the tenor that there has been on other campuses.
But no, I don’t necessarily think it’s that diversity that you’re talking about because I think that vocal minority—and it’s always a minority—it’s not by any means most of the student body. It’s a vocal and scary minority—that kind of inclination exists among a small number of students at Columbia. But for some reason, they have not been inclined to do this list of things that has happened on other campuses. In that, I salute them. But I cannot identify the reasons.
3. The Use of “White Supremacy”
Chris: OK. So in your classrooms you mentioned people throwing around the term “white supremacy” pretty liberally. Do you find that happening in your classrooms and class discussions? Do you find students or maybe other professors using the term “white supremacy” to describe any kind of racial bias?
John: You know, the truth, Chris, is that I happen not to have taught a class in which that kind of terminology would have been encouraged to any considerable extent since 2014. I haven’t taught my philosophy class since then, and I haven’t happened to teach socio-linguistics since then, and really there has been a major sea change over about the past two or three years. So in my classroom, white supremacy? Maybe it has been said once or twice. But I haven’t noticed it as a new meme although I did notice a new way of thinking and a new way of responding to certain statements, arriving in 2014, which was the last year that I taught that kind of course, where racial issues, class issues, issues of injustice, affirmative action, et cetera, would have come up. This was in my philosophy class.
But I can certainly see it on flyers. It’s definitely there in terms of how various events are advertised. And there are protests at Columbia; it’s not as if students who have a leftist commitment are somehow quiescent. The issue is just whether or not speakers who come to campus will be shouted down. But there are protests, which are healthy in themselves, where that term “white supremacy” is certainly used in a way that wasn’t before and I can only think of Katherine Franke, the law professor at Columbia using the words “white supremacist” against Mark Lilla for his book counseling liberals to focus less on identity politics and [more] on economics in order to have a Democratic president and not the current idiot in the White House.
The fact that Katherine Franke felt so comfortable using that word, saying that he was supporting white supremacy, is indicative. I don’t think 10 years ago she would have used that term. It’s fashionable. In my classrooms, I can’t give you those anecdotes, however, because something has changed so much over just the past two years during the [period when] particularities of my teaching experience haven’t lent themselves to me hearing that word terribly often. Ask me in a year and I may have heard it more.
Chris: I’ve noticed that trend too: I’ve noticed it not only among college students, but among liberals in general. It has been used as a synonym for racial bias. To some degree, I try to push back on it. To some degree I understand that limiting the definition of white supremacy solely to the KKK is also problematic because I think there is this tendency among certain white conservatives to think that America really is primarily for European immigrants and you can hear them talk about it. There’s this underlying sense that European immigrants are the ones who come here and work hard, and immigrants from elsewhere and African-Americans are collecting welfare checks, and it’s not tied to reality. But it’s the sense that they have. So do you think that’s an appropriate way to use the term “white supremacy”? To talk about people who think that America is essentially for European immigrants only?
John: I think that if somebody really does have white supremacist views, if somebody actually thinks that white people are better, or the corollary, that white immigrants who came here did it the right way, and the ones who have come since aren’t doing it the right way—Sure, white supremacy is a great term. White supremacy should not refer solely to the Ku Klux Klan. It should not refer solely to the views of people who are most prominent 100 years ago. Terms evolve.
However, I think that the way it’s being used today extends far beyond people like that to what just about 10 minutes ago was being called racist or institutional racism. White supremacy has come into use not because it referred to something new but as a punchier way of referring to racism in a climate where, perhaps, it has gotten to the point that just to say “racism” no longer makes as many people jump in their seat as it used to.
Nowadays, if you say something is racist, there are people who for better or for worse roll their eyes and say, “Why do you have to keep pulling up the race card?” And I think that it’s healthy that a certain number of people, left of the right, although it’s not enough, are beginning to understand that there’s a contingent who call too much racism. That there’s a point at which what’s being called racism is really either accidental or an issue of individual difference or an issue—this gets really complex—that racism can create cultural traits that outlast the racism itself, which is something that people have a really hard time with, and especially when it refers to blacks rather than white people. It’s interesting. Everybody finds the point readily comprehensible when it’s written about in Hillbilly Elegy which is about whites. But extending that same argument to black people is being somehow unjust.
But white supremacy is a way of calling somebody a racist or calling something racist in a way that at least, in 2017 and 2018, shut a lot of people up because the image is so graphic and it makes you think about lynching.
I think–and this is something that a linguist rarely says because generally we have spectators and we like to watch language evolve and we know that we can’t stop it from evolving—but I think calling people white supremacists for saying things about race that you don’t agree with is an abuse of language. I think the cleanest way of putting it is that, I think, it’s often mean. There are people who think of it as constructive and articulate. I think it’s just mean, and I really think that people should be more judicious about when they use that term.
4. The Post-Election Discussion in John’s Classes
Chris: I want to talk about something you said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We published a blog post about your talk there and you were talking about the day after Donald Trump was elected and you came to your class and you felt like—well, some students were crying and everyone was very upset and you said—I’m quoting here—you said, “I said what we’re going to use this session for is talking about why these people voted this way. And we’re not going to call them racist, we’re going to figure out what led to them to voting for someone like this, and how we can keep it from happening again. How did that discussion play out? I know it’s almost a year ago now. It’s actually slightly more than a year ago. But do you recall how that discussion played out?
John: I do recall how that discussion played out, and maybe some of the students were holding off because most people aren’t openly confrontational. But I felt that it went very well and for whatever it’s worth, I did it twice. One smaller class and then one very large class.
My sense was that most students were open to looking at it that way. It’s very easy to think that college campuses are full of these people we’re calling “snowflakes” who are ready to jump out into the streets and make sure that Charles Murray and Heather MacDonald don’t get to speak. That’s not true. It’s a minority and I think most of the students found it a relief, in my sense, from things that were half-said and things that were said to me both before and after was that most of the students didn’t want the professor to do that sermon about how the country is full of racists. The students are aware that’s unnuanced, especially since a lot of them have relatives who were among the people who voted for Trump, and they know that their uncles and grandparents and maybe even parents are not terrible people.
And so I think that it was the right way to go. And, of course, some students were inclined to push the racist point although not to any uncivil degree. But I think, with all humility, I think that a lot of students then learned something and, of course, my point was that Trump is repulsive. I think that he is repulsive and inept and in the wrong place to a truly alarming degree.
That, of course, helps that discussion. Moreover, I was not saying I’m a Trump voter. I was not saying you need to not be upset about it. I’m saying yes, this is a catastrophe. But the point is that this is a catastrophe that we cannot analyze as having been created by white supremacists.
And nevertheless, as you and I both know, that is what the leading pundits on race—and Ta-Nehisi Coates is just one of them—have been saying ever since then and I just find it–it’s wrong. It’s unsubtle. It doesn’t really qualify as analysis to say, “I can’t forgive you because you voted for Trump,” as if you’re proud of the idea that race is your wedge issue and you’re going to vote with your melanin, et cetera. It’s unsubtle.
The students though, I think that they liked it. So for professors, to say anything except the sort of Mother Jones line, is going to get them in trouble with the student body—I think at least on most campuses, that’s not true. It’s going to get them in trouble with a certain kind of person who is part of a vocal minority, and those people can be scary, because those people are going to call you a white supremacist if you go wrong. This is students, as well as the professors, and sometimes administrators who back them up.
The question is whether or not a critical mass has the guts to allow ourselves to be called those names and to keep on. Because I can attest, in terms of the hills and the valleys that I’ve been through, that if you just let people yell like that, let them call you the names, and just stick to your guns, you’ll live.
I mean some people really just may not be up to being called names. So if you think you can stand being called names and then keep going to the grocery store, years will pass and ultimately those people end up just looking shrill and unless you are a white supremacist, in which case the truth will out, it’s better to hold your head up. And I really hope that more people connected with colleges and universities can do that in order that the genuine truth in this case ends up coming to the surface.
Because otherwise, we have this appearance, only this appearance that this kind of unreflected intolerance, in the guise of intellect and higher reasoning, is somehow an advanced way of thinking—that somehow this is the final frontier of humane and intelligent thought. We all know it isn’t. But it’s certainly beginning to look like it and we’re all beginning to act like it, not only in terms of what we say, but mostly in what we don’t say. It’s not only in what we don’t say—and not only in what we call for, but what we just allow. It’s not a good thing.
5. Alternatives to Ta-Nehisi Coates
Chris: On the issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates, you’ve talked to Glenn Loury a lot about Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Glenn Show. I didn’t want to go over that territory again. But I do want to ask you this—if you were talking to undergrads or grad students or anyone about race and wanted to mention an alternative to Coates, who should people read? If they’re skeptical of what Coates is saying.
John: Yeah. The nature of this is such that if I was to point them to somebody who they should read, it’s by definition not going to be somebody who is as famous as him, because I think that the establishment, the mainstream media establishment, of which I consider myself a part, is inclined to enshrine views on race to the left of what they genuinely believe. They think that’s what they’re supposed to put out here. Or at least that they’re supposed to give as much air as possible to that view.
But to tell you the truth, yes, me, to the extent that I think that my few views are worth hearing (laughter). I would refer to myself, or more to the point the things that Glenn Loury writes. I wish Glenn would write a little bit more. To get a sense of how he feels about race, you have to watch Bloggingheads. But definitely Glenn.
These days Thomas Chatterton Williams is writing some really good stuff about race, where he’s fully aware that racism exists, but he’s not—well, I’m not going to say afraid—but he’s not reluctant to say that change has happened. And that just because the world isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean that we have to pretend that it’s still 1950.
So I think that his work is very good on points of view like this. Another person who is worth reading, although he hates everybody, is Adolph Reed. If anybody thinks Glenn Loury is a contrarian, Adolph Reed is a contrarian in that I think he hates every black writer from any perspective. So not only the right, but anybody from the left. But reading Reed, you realize how many different perspectives there can be on how you would improve lives for black people, such that it’s not only Clarence Thomas whom he would hate, but he also doesn’t approve of Henry Louis Gates. He doesn’t approve of Glenn Loury. If he has ever written about me, I doubt that it was in praise. But that shows you that issues with race are not as simple as we’re often encouraged to think.
So those are the people who come to mind. Jason Riley who writes for the Manhattan Institute these days has useful things to say. Jason is great. I’m not sure he always reaches out as far to try to convince the NPR-listening person as I would, but still he has very good things to say.
Chris: Yeah, I’m familiar with his work. I think he used to write for the Wall Street Journal. He may still write for them. I’m not sure.
John: He’s no longer with them. But yeah, he was with them for a long time and he’s part of that general family.
Chris: Yeah, I do remember him being a little strident, more strident than he needed to be, even though I agree with some of the points he was making.
John: Yeah. There’s a black Right how–Jason is a very mild-mannered guy. But there’s a black Right who’s basically saying, “Come on. Get over it,” and the problem is that for a certain kind of person, once you say, “Come on. Get over it,” their ears just shut down and if you don’t want those ears to shut down, then you have to talk around that, and you have to really think about where those people’s heads are at, and try to come up with points where you can really bring them offshore, and they can realize there are different ways of thinking about this.
I think there’s another [Black Right] tradition that just says, “We have the truth. We have expressed it articulately and our job is to keep saying it.” That’s kind of the black think-tank world, and Jason is part of that. There are different ways of going about these things.
6. Black Professors
Chris: Right. So to close this, the last question, I want to talk about you and Glenn Loury. I have really enjoyed your chats. But there’s –
John: Thank you.
Chris: You’re welcome. But there’s a sense, prevailing in academia, that most black people are easily injured by words even if there’s only a mild connotation of something that they might disagree with.
It’s clear from listening to you and Glenn, not to mention Jason Riley, that there are a number of black professors and intellectuals who are heterodox liberals or centrists, depending on how you want to refer to them. Do you feel like there’s more of them than we think and they tend to not write as much and not publish as much? Or do you think people like you are in a minority when it comes to African-American professors?
John: You know, Chris, I’m not sure I know–that’s a sincere answer. I am fundamentally somebody who sits at desks and writes. And I read a lot and I’m a sit-down hobbyist. I have small kids. I only get around so much. I don’t seek positions on this council, and that committee, and the Ford Foundation. So I don’t know many professors nationwide, much less black professors. So I don’t know.
There’s definitely a certain number of black professors—and I imagine it would find more if you circled out of humanities, and got into fields where there was less of a commitment to these sorts of issues in general—there are black professors who do not agree with the orthodoxy. But yes, you have to pick your battles and we all have lives and if race issues aren’t what you wake up thinking about in the morning, you may decide I don’t agree with the usual but I’m more interested in doing my X, Y and Z. I don’t feel like making the usual suspects angry. I don’t feel like having students coming into my office angry. So I’m just going to kind of shut up.
In a way, for example, Stephen Carter is like that at Yale. If you go back 25 years, he was famous for about 10 minutes for writing his book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, where he expressed some views that are now associated with the black Right and that was refreshing. It was interesting. He did the interviews. He has never jumped back into that since then. After that, he wrote books about religious faith. He has written – I’m aware of two novels, and I can tell you, I don’t know Carter. I’ve never heard him saying this, but it’s clear that he did not want to spend his career being a controversialist about race. He figured that he is genuinely interested in issues of legal doctrine, in issues about religion, in being an artist, and he just didn’t want to be bothered. That’s my guess.
I’m sure there are other Stephen Carter sorts around. But to tell you the truth, when it comes to humanities in particular—and I would think also the law—a lot of the reason that you wind up pursuing those fields is because you’re pursuing an anti-discrimination agenda to an extent. And you may not put it that way but that’s going to be one of your primary commitments. And even if it isn’t, the field tends to winnow out people who are not interested in that kind of thing. You might end up finding that if you are somebody who doesn’t believe the certain basic tenets, and isn’t interested in arguing them, that you don’t feel like you’re really one of the gang, you might fall out along the way.
And so I would say, “What field do I know?” And unfortunately, it’s not one of the sexy ones like political science or literature where I’d be used to talking to you about this. I belong to this weird little field called linguistics. But linguistics does extend into social issues. There are linguists who study language and society.
I would say that—of all of them that I know, and I’m really trying to think of whether this is true—all of them are studying what they study, whether they are white, black or something else, out of a commitment to a leftist agenda. And I don’t mean that a leftist agenda is in itself bad. But the idea is you are advocating for people who have traditionally been downtrodden and dismissed, and what that means is that it definitely shapes your views. And I would say that most of these people are not ones who would be shouting down somebody who came to campus, by no means.
But on the other hand, none of them would contradict people like that too loudly. There’s a basic sense of allegiance with the views of people like that. So they would say, “Oh, no. You should give people their say.” But that’s not something they would write an editorial about, and I frankly think with all due respect for them, they’re not too terribly upset to see a Charles Murray chased off of a campus.
I remind you, I’m talking about people of all colors. I doubt if that’s not representative of how academia goes. It’s interesting—I know one person in linguistics who puckishly told me about 20 years ago that he votes Republican. But goodness gracious! You would never know it from anything he writes. You would never know it from what he had thought of everything that I’ve written since. He would never say anything against the Ta-Nehisi Coates-and-Cornel West orthodoxy in public. One time he told me off in a corner at a conference that he votes Republican, but you would never know it and he wouldn’t want anybody to know it. So that’s what I know from my little world.
7. Religion and Heresy, Politically Speaking
Chris: OK. I think that’s a good place to wrap up. Do you have any closing thoughts?
John: I think that the framing issue here is that we have a group of people who are telling us that we are at the end of intellectual history—that they found the answer, that all of the rules are supposed to govern civilized debate are suspendable here because we’re talking about something that is just simply a God-given truth. And I say God on purpose because these people are, unbeknownst to them, exactly what Galileo was up against. These people don’t understand that their behavior about these issues is identical to that of people who are burning heretics, and really that includes that a lot of their views about what we’re supposed to call discrimination, et cetera—those views are not ones that humanity is necessarily going to view as accurate.
These people are not as correct as they think they are, and to the extent that they’re proceeding from a measure of correctness, we need to be brave enough to tell them that they need to persuade, not eliminate. And that if they don’t understand that, then they are no better than people who engage in book burning, and chase heretics out of town, and burn them at the stake.
It’s the exact same thing and the people who are doing all these things centuries ago felt as correct and as anointed and as self-satisfied as these. They must be made to realize that by those of us who are the majority. I hope that that tide can turn. But at this point, I really can’t say whether I’m optimistic enough.
Chris: All right. Well, maybe we can chat in about a year and see how things have developed.
John: Let’s see how things have gone.
Chris: Yes. Well, who knows where thing will go? There’s is a degree of unpredictability in what happens in academia. But I think with Heterodox Academy, there’s some pushback. There’s some recognition of the fact that not all the people who are pushing back against those leftward trends aren’t necessarily white people or white men. There’s a number of people, men and women, people of various races, who are just very concerned with these developments, who don’t think censorship is appropriate in academia. And I think just last week, there was a case of a student at Wilfred Laurier in Canada who recorded a conversation with the authorities who were censuring here, and eventually the authorities apologized to her for treating her unfairly. So that might be a healthy development.
John: Wow! Good to know, good to know.
Chris: All right. Well, thanks for your time.
John: Thank you, Chris.