The Myth of the Neutral Center

Recently, Mike Shammas, Editor-in-Chief of The Record, wrote an article declaiming the present state of democratic discourse. His targets ranged from Donald Trump and his supporters to “student protesters”:

We see [the death of ‘productive discourse’] in Donald Trump’s xenophobia. We see it in the smug rise of a regressive, illiberal “liberalism” on college campuses that interprets (and misinterprets) the other side’s words in the most negative possible light—even trifling dissent is labeled a product of white male privilege or (when the opponent is neither white nor male) simple ignorance. We see it in any online comments section—cesspools of racism, sexism, xenophobia, naked hatred. At its most extreme, we see it in tribalistic mass murderers, from Dylann Storm Roof to the San Bernardino shooters.

Shammas is not the only person to make comparisons like this. Bill Maher recently compared student protesters at Yale to Ammon Bundy and his followers, who have occupied a federal building in Oregon. The argument here is familiar: The times are simply too contentious and emotionally overwrought; what is needed is calm, rational debate. Consideration must be accorded to both sides in a deliberate manner. Only such a cordial, empathetic debate can rescue our glorious republic from certain doom.

This argument sounds prudent. It is actually facile. Not only does it establish a straw man argument on behalf of college protesters, it indulges in a false equivalence that bolsters the persona of the speaker. This persona boost is achieved at the expense of people of color. This is especially true when the speaker is white. Let us be clear: these days the term “student protesters” generally refers to students of color. The recent uprising on college campuses around the world has tended to focus on issues of race and they tend to be led by students of color.

Shammas initially proceeds by choosing to characterize the term “white male privilege” as some sort of an insult. “Even trifling dissent is labeled a product of white male privilege . . . .” This description fails to take account of the complex nature of the term “white male privilege.” Male privilege encompasses the subtle (to men), often unnoticed ways in which society privileges male views, male concerns, and male voices. White privilege encompasses the subtle (to white folks), often unnoticed ways in which society privileges white views, white culture, and white concerns. These are neither curse words, nor contumelies — they are concepts. They have a long history of reflective philosophical formulation. They cannot be merely dismissed as if they are just labels that have no application to reality. And when they are used, the white male hearer need not be defensive, but should be introspective. In what ways might my position in society be affecting my world view? How might the privilege I have obscure the suffering of the fellow human being in front of me?

Note how asking these questions truly takes account of the speaker’s views and respects their contentions. Surely this would constitute the “democratic discourse” for which the middle ground advocates pine? Instead, middle grounders persist in maintaining the baseless assumption that “white privilege” is just a pejorative term, unworthy of the discourse in a democratic nation. And that is ultimately the most harmful aspect of this particular logical fallacy – it advances the assertion that terms developed by marginalized peoples to name the sources of their oppression are unserious constructs devoid of intellectual validity.

This effect is only compounded by the false equivalence drawn by Shammas’ comparison between Donald Trump and his political supporters, racist mass murderer Dylann Roof, the mass murdering San Bernardino Shooters and marginalized students of color. Setting aside, for a moment, the vapid intellectual malaise that characterizes the unfortunate and racist and sexist campaign of Donald J. Trump, the most obvious difference between university protesters and mass murderers is, well, the murdering. Violence has not generally occurred at America’s Universities. For the murderous few which are named above violence is the only argument they advance. And as it turns out, Donald Trump and his supporters seem to be generally in favor of violence against marginalized peoples as well. If any side is destroying present day discourse, it is certainly not the university students.

Moreover, the pernicious effect of this false equivalence is often used to further enhance the persona of a neutral, rational, peaceful (read white) middle grounder. This takes advantage of a common American (read white) myth that describes white people and especially white men as rational and peaceful. This same narrative stigmatizes people of color as irrational and violent. Thus, the call for “rationality” and “productive discourse” is actually a rhetorical move, which operates by boosting the credentials of the speaker and by denigrating the status of student protesters of color. In claiming to seek “rationality” and “productive discourse” the middle grounder actually achieves neither. After all, the myth that student protesters of color are irrational is itself irrational and what is more, it ignores the arguments of student protesters, which makes truly “productive discourse” impossible.

Thus the neutral center – the ideal, rational sphere of public discourse – is neither neutral nor rational. This rhetorical posture does a grave injustice to student protesters generally and student protesters of color in particular. Student protesters here at HLS and across the country are nearly universally nonviolent, intelligent, and articulate. Should their words cause offense, should their tactics disrupt peace of mind, the truly democratic response is not to compare them to mass murderers and Donald Trump. It is to listen. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

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