When liberals succumb to the rising tide of intolerance

It used to be that when someone called me an abomination, I was in the presence of a homophobe. But a recent opinion column in Texas State University's main newspaper damned me for a different reason. I'm abominable because I'm white.

The column wasn't aimed at me personally but at my kind, and the Hispanic student who wrote it began by saying that "of all the white people" he had ever encountered, there were a dozen or so who rose to the level of "decent".

The allowance that 12 of us passed muster was perhaps the most generous passage in a screed that had an unambiguous message for white people, be they "good-hearted liberals" or "right-wing extremists". "I hate you," he wrote, "because you shouldn't exist. You are both the dominant apparatus on the planet and the void in which all other cultures, upon meeting you, die."

The headline: "Your DNA is an abomination."

Yes, this was deliberate provocation. By a college student.

And he's obviously right that people of colour have been systematically oppressed. But what college newspaper would have published a column by a white student telling his black peers that they're a wretched lot? What, beyond catharsis, did the column's author accomplish?

And what has happened to our discourse - and how we do we make necessary progress - when hate is answered by hate, prejudice is echoed by prejudice, extremism begets extremism and ostensible liberalism practises abject illiberalism?

Thanks in large part to social media, which incentivises invective and then magnifies it, our conversations coarsen. Our compasses spin out of whack. We descend to the lowest common denominator, becoming what we supposedly abhor.

Isn't that how President Donald Trump wins? This wasn't just one student or one campus or college campuses in general. This was a manner of thinking and language too prevalent among those who correctly call out racial inequities and social injustices but wrongly fall prey themselves to the bigotry behind those ills.

The far right set the tone, but the left shouldn't adopt it. Doing so won't get us to the fairer place that we must inhabit.After the "abomination" column, Texas State turned into a furious, distressingly familiar theatre of denunciation and counter-denunciation. The president of the university, understandably, condemned what the student had written as racist. So did the president of the student body.

Campus groups representing minorities said that these rebukes didn't take into account the slurs that they routinely endure. They'd been demonised and terrorised, so why such upset and outrage over a reversal of fortunes?

It's a legitimate observation. It's also a dead end. Turnabout may be fair play, but it's foul morality. It's also foolish politics.

Mirroring the ugliness of white nationalists and the alt-right just gives them the ammunition that they want and need. Which is precisely what some fevered activists at Evergreen State College did when they shouted down a white biology professor and the school's white president, who stood there as one woman screamed: "Whiteness is the most violent system to ever breathe." (I deleted the profanity between "violent" and "system".)

It's what an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware did with a Facebook post saying that Mr Otto Warmbier - the US student who was imprisoned in North Korea, came home comatose and died soon after - "got exactly what he deserved". The professor wrote that like other "young, white, rich, clueless white males" in the United States, Mr Warmbier thought "he could get away with whatever he wanted."

Meanwhile, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford used his Facebook page to post an incendiary story about the Republican lawmakers who found themselves under gunfire on an Alexandria, Virginia, baseball field. Its headline included the language "let them die", a phrase that the professor also folded into a hashtag accompanying a subsequent Facebook post.

Thanks in large part to social media, which incentivises invective and then magnifies it, our conversations coarsen. Our compasses spin out of whack. We descend to the lowest common denominator, becoming what we supposedly abhor.

I'm regularly stunned by the cruelty that's mistaken for cleverness and the inhumanity that's confused with conviction.

A few days ago Ms Neera Tanden, the prominent Democratic operative who presides over the Centre for American Progress, took to Twitter to cheer on the incineration of one of Mr Rupert Murdoch's homes. She linked to the news that the California wildfires had reached his property, and she quipped: "There's a God. And she's unhappy."

A few days before that, a Huffington Post writer, also on Twitter, reacted to Senator John McCain's 11th-hour support for tax reform by offering "congratulations" to his wife and children for "their upcoming tax-free inheritance". She seemed to be mocking a man's brain cancer, and she was actually treading more lightly than the writer who published a commentary on Medium months ago that took issue with Mr McCain's interventionist politics by saying: "I sincerely, genuinely hope that Arizona Senator John McCain's heart stops beating."

Too many of us go too far, no doubt incited by Mr Trump, for whom too far is a mere starting point. And there's a pattern of turning righteous causes into indiscriminate attacks, painting with a destructively broad brush and branding certain actors irredeemable, which doesn't leave them any room - or much motivation - for redemption.

On the website Acculturated, writer Bethany Mandel noted that one thread of discussion about Harvey Weinstein and sexual abuse posited that masculinity is inherently toxic and male sexuality inevitably brutal. It essentially told her and other mothers that "our sons are destined to become predators no matter what we do," she wrote.

She pushed back: "If we want our boys to be better, we have to raise them with the expectation they can be better, not tell them constantly that they are monsters in training." And if we want white people to be better, we have to tell them that they're capable of that. Because we are, all evidence in the Oval Office notwithstanding.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'When liberals succumb to the rising tide of intolerance'. Print Edition | Subscribe