Who Are the Student Mobbists, and Does David Brooks Understand Them?

In a recent essay, David Brooks seeks to extend “empathy” to some people he calls “student mobbists.” Brooks’ empathy consists mainly in the following two claims:

1. The demands of racial justice have transformed from the interpersonal to the structural: “Now the crucial barriers to racial justice are seen not just as individual, but as structural economic structures, the incarceration crisis, the breakdown of family structure.”

2. Reason no longer matters. “Today’s young people were raised within an educational ideology that taught them that individual reason and emotion were less important than perspectivism — what perspective you bring as a white man, a black woman, a transgender Mexican, or whatever.”

The first claim is arguably empathetic in that, if true, it would go some way toward justifying the frustrations of student activists. The second claim does not seem empathetic to me at all, since it attributes a kind of explicit irrationalism to student activists.

Brooks offers very little in the way of evidence for his claims, so it’s pretty hard to evaluate them. I suspect they will just feel right to some readers (especially, conservatives and those liberals who are in or around Brooks’ generation) and wrong to others (especially, the people who the claims are actually about). That being said, he at least locates the claims in time and space. So, when were the demands of racial justice interpersonal rather than structural? And when did reason matter? Brooks’ answer is: the 1980s.

I would begin my stab at understanding by acknowledging that I grew up in one era and they grew up in another. I came of age in the 1980s. In that time, there was an assumption that though the roots of human society were deep in tribalism, over the past 3,000 years we have developed a system of liberal democracy that gloriously transcended it, that put reason, compassion and compromise atop violence and brute force.

There was also an assumption that while we might disagree on the means, we all wanted basically the same things. For example, though America was plagued by economic divides we all wanted a society in which social mobility and equal opportunity were the rule. Though America is plagued by racism, we all wanted more integration and less bigotry, a place where talent and character mattered more than skin color and prejudice.

Unfortunately, Brooks offers about as much evidence for his praise of the 1980s as he does for his condemnation of the contemporary scene.

The idea that racism has only recently been seen as a matter of a structural rather than an individual problems would come as a surprise to leading activists and theorists who lived well-before Brooks’ Golden Age – for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. The idea that there was an “assumption” that we “all” wanted social mobility, equal opportunity, more integration, and less bigotry is odd in an article that acknowledges the problem of mass incarceration, which even less-racialized accounts acknowledge as becoming a serious problem beginning in none other than the 1980s, during Reagan’s tough-on-crime politics and the then-nascent War on Drugs.

As for what Brooks calls “perspectivism,” it’s hard to know for sure what he has in mind. If pressed, could he find some activists or, better, some prominent, influential thinkers who they rely on, who claim that “perspective” is more important than “individual reason and emotion”? The world is a big place, so, maybe.

It’s more likely that Brooks is obliquely referring to an ideology that has an intellectual grounding in what is sometimes called standpoint epistemology. If so, then Brooks deeply misunderstands the view. The idea of standpoint epistemology is not that one’s standpoint (or “perspective”) trumps reason and the emotional life. Rather, the idea is that certain standpoints (that is to say, certain social, cultural, religious, etc. … positions) in fact give one a better, more accurate perspective on particular issues or aspects of issues. The idea is not that, for example, in virtue of being a black person in America, you are automatically an expert in, say, statistics regarding racial bias among police officers. Rather, the idea is that, in virtue of their racial position, black Americans will tend to have better access to what racial bias among police officers is like, what it is like to live in a context of being intimidated on the basis of such bias, experiential expertise in identifying racism in ways to which those outside of the position have little access, and so on. This view is squarely within the domain of views that take “individual reason and emotion” very seriously.

Whatever one thinks about individual vs. institutional analyses of racism, and whatever one thinks about standpoint epistemology, Brooks’ historical and philosophical claims about both issues are pretty implausible.

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