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The Evergreen Affair: A Window into the Belief System of a Micro-Society
In a hall outside of a classroom on a college campus in the pacific northwest, Professor Bret Weinstein stood surrounded by a group of agitated students accusing him of racism in the spring of 2017. Weinstein had objected to the Day of Absence/Day of Presence (hereafter DOA/DOP) demonstration, which expected white students and faculty to leave campus for a day. Historically, on the DOA/DOP students of color voluntarily absented themselves from campus, but the new formulation, he wrote, was “an act of oppression in and of itself.” Videos of this confrontation began to spread as the students turned to larger aims, effectively capturing the institution and administration. Three years later, this dramatic affair has been largely chalked up to social justice ideology, referred to variously as neo-marxism, ideological intersectionality, or applied postmodernism.
But far from merely being radical students gone amok, this was a coherent, organizationally patterned group of individuals cooperating for mutual self-interest, constructed through subgroups and mediated by shared beliefs, norms, and systems of expressing meaning. This phenomena should not only be understood in terms of the social movement or intellectual history, but rather as a sort of micro-society. The aim of this research is to understand the fundamental beliefs and moral considerations that underpinned this social group.
The Evergreen affair became a national news story in part due to the fact that the participants filmed and live-streamed their actions, which offered a compelling ‘on-the-ground’ perspective. There was about 18 hours of this footage, as well as images, social media posts, and additional videos published by the administration. I performed qualitative coding of this footage and other documents with MAXQDA, and primarily employed values coding to focus on values, attitudes, and beliefs. Codes were applied directly to the footage, although some events were first transcribed. In addition to coding, I recorded detailed memos of each video and occasionally wrote thick descriptions of particular interactions. In the end, there were 1705 coded segments.
The analysis offered below is a characterization stripped of affirmative content. It neither affirms nor criticizes the internal worldview of the Evergreen group, and instead offers a non-normative description of the form of their belief. This description, although it may appear stark compared to an affirmative interpretation, is intended to clarify and render intelligible the structure of this belief system.
The belief system of the Evergreen group can be characterized by five basic aspects.
According to sociologist Anne Wortham, Ethno-race consciousness is “a psychological, conscious, and volitional level of awareness at which an individual perceives himself and others according to characteristics of the racial categories to which they belong and the ethnic groups with which they are affiliated.”
As one Evergreen graduate said, “Every moment of every day, I know that I am black and that it matters. I am a black woman before my name is [Ava Johnson], I am a black woman before I am a student, I am a black woman before I am a citizen of the United States of America.”
This is essentially an answer to the question: What am I?
I, most fundamentally, am a part of my ethnic group. As opposed to the view which emphasizes the unitary individual, this worldview places ethnicity and race at the ground level of the self.
In addition, ethno-race consciousness is also the belief that race is the determinant of cognitive authority. Accordingly, race has significant moral, metaphysical, and epistemological implications. It is not that everything is relative and that race is merely a subjectivity, but that there are objective realities that only people of color (hereafter POC) can access.
While ethnic groups do have exclusive knowledge regarding their own collective experience, as a social group level aggregate, POC can access the reality that white people cannot. As Sensoy & DiAngelo once put it, white people are like fish unable to perceive the reality in which they swim.
The resulting psycho-social order arranges people into white and POC groups, and subsequently into their specific ethnic groups.
Note that there are some aspects of identity, such as sex, gender, and sexuality which are considered identity modifiers. While these are relevant dimensions, there is no aspect of identity which transcends the racial-psychological division, nor the fundamental social division between white people and POC.
This social division was elaborated, in part, by thick norms of interaction, and upheld by sanctions as well as practices of tone validation and tone policing. In short, there were heavy regulations on how a white person may speak to a POC—she may not shout, interrupt, display anger, look over the rims of her glasses, smile inappropriately, laugh inappropriately, or gesture with her hands. POC, on the other hand, were not subject to such restrictions, and instead were allowed and in fact encouraged to express themselves with the full spectrum of emotion and gesture.
When race is understood as both the foundation of the self and the determinant of cognitive authority, it follows that there is simply no such thing as a dyadic interaction. Interaction between people of different races is understood as inherently intercollective. What might appear to the methodological individualist as a black person talking to a white person is actually black people (as a collective) talking with white people (as a collective). As I have written elsewhere, “There is no I, only we. And there is no you—only y’all.”
While interactions between ethnic groups are intercollective, interactions within ethnic groups are intra-collective, and maintain a salient regard for the conceptual we. These ethnic collectives are perceived to have an extrinsic essence, referred to mostly as Blackness and Whiteness. The idea is that there is a metaphysical ideal of an ethnic group.
Black individuals can either adhere to or deviate from Blackness. Blackness is the ideal of authority, of justly reclaimed power, of necessary revolution, of collective concern, and of black cultural integrity. When a black person significantly deviates from Blackness, they may be regarded as anti-black themselves. This may be referred to elsewhere, perhaps, as the revocation of one’s “black-card.”
Whiteness is a negative ideal. As one Evergreen student said, “Whiteness is the most violent fucking system to ever breathe.” The Whiteness ideal is racism, assimilation, oppression, colonization, white supremacy, theft, and violence. In contrast to the black ideal, people must deviate from and reject Whiteness, and instead engage in conscious acts of anti-racism.
One might also expect there to be a Native-ness or Hispanic-ness (maybe Brownness). However, Blackness may also be the ideal for all POC, which would track onto the general status hierarchy of the Evergreen group, which often centers and emphasizes blacks, Blackness, and the black experience.
It appears, then, that there are two metaphysical poles of this belief system—Blackness and Whiteness. The former must be embraced and cultivated, whereas the latter must be actively rejected.
This may help us to understand in-group and out-group interactions. The in-group is defined as those who embrace blackness while rejecting whiteness, whereas the out-group either neglects to do so, or embraces whiteness while rejecting blackness. Indeed, an “anti-black” black person is as much a problematic outgroup member as an outgroup or dissident white person. Interestingly, in this situation any status hierarchy or interracial norms dissolve, as although an ingroup white person would never criticize, interrupt, or condemn an ingroup black person, all ingroup members appear free to condemn and criticizes outgroup members regardless of race.
The practices and attitudes of any society or culture are grounded in ideas about morality. These moral orientations underlie and inform social order, what Haidt calls a moral system. The dominant moral foundation of the Evergreen group, put simply, is victimhood.
In contrast to honor cultures and dignity cultures, a victimhood moral culture elevates the moral status of those who have been victimized and lowers the status of the victimizers.
This worldview is obviously collectivistic, but it’s not merely collectivism of ethnic groups as they are today, but also across time. This spatiotemporal collectivism, when informed by a victimhood morality, means that a person’s virtue is determined by the historical character of their ethnicity—ethnohistorical determinism. A black person in 2020 is herself a victim of slavery, Jim Crow, and other rampant violations of his civil rights, whereas a white person in 2020 is herself the person responsible for these atrocities.
At the Evergreen State College, a portion of the community held a “social justice” type worldview which can be characterized by ethno-race consciousness, intercollectivity, platonic collectives, victimhood morality, and ethnohistorical determinism. The social organization of this micro-society was underpinned by this belief system, which resulted in separation and stratification along ethnic lines. The primary social groups—POC and white—had group-based duties and responsibilities, which were buttressed by thick norms of interaction and regulated through sanction.
Why These Findings are Important
This belief system is largely incompatible with any kind of ideological diversity or pluralism. To perceive people only as parts of ethnic collectives guided by collective ideals, combined with the belief that race is the determinant of cognitive authority, renders dialectic between individuals impossible. While, of course, a person should be free to adopt and uphold this worldview, if we wish to preserve viewpoint diversity and open inquiry, this belief system must be regarded as one option within a larger pluralistic framework, and not as the framework which bounds all discourse.
In addition, it’s worthwhile to have a way to describe that which is normally value-laden and morally charged. Technical terms and definitions may help us to grasp and understand these beliefs without dealing with normative, ambiguous, and potentially incendiary definitions and concepts.
Finally, it is vital to understand how people with this belief system see the world. It is counter-productive at best to immediately dismiss them as brainwashed ideologues or antipathetic radicals. As with any encounter with the other, we must do well to regard them with due dignity and respect, and to make a good faith effort to understand before we criticize.
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