Thought Terminated, or Kafka at Kansas University
A Kansas University professor who used the n-word during a class discussion about race is on leave while the university investigates a discrimination complaint against her.
Thus begins an article about one Andrea Quenette, a thirty-three year old assistant professor of communications, whose career has just been permanently blemished, if not ended, because a small group of KU graduate students decided to “expose” her use of language they allegedly found personally offensive.
The outrage occurred during a November 12 graduate class discussion of the relation between black undergraduate retention rates and systemic racism. Addressing the issue of systemic racism at KU, Quenette noted that although “I don’t experience racial discrimination so it’s hard for me to understand the challenges that other people face,” she nevertheless had to admit that “I haven’t seen those things happen, I haven’t seen that word spray-painted on our campus, I haven’t seen students physically assaulted.”
According to all concerned, no student objected openly to her politically incorrect language violation at the time. After class, however, the students (plus another graduate student who was not in the class) signed a letter calling for Quenette’s termination. I assume they are asking only for the termination of her employment, though I sincerely doubt any of them would hesitate to demand the termination of a professor’s life, if they thought such a demand would stand up in the kangaroo court of academic review. (Give it a few years, kids; we’ll get there yet.)
Here is how the situation appeared from the students’ perspective:
“It was outright racism,” said Amy Schumacher, a first-year Ph.D. student who was in the class, which she said is composed of nine white students and one black student. “I don’t think that it was an open dialogue—she wasn’t receptive to hearing any other ideas.”
That’s what this is really about: “any other ideas.” Schumacher reveals the real story behind the sensationalism of “the n-word,” and the real crime that warrants a professor’s termination: Professor Quenette’s comments implied that black retention rates at KU might not be so easily attributable to systemic racism, a view which is inherently impermissible. That systemic racism exists at KU (and everywhere else) is not a debatable position. It is Truth, the Truth of the progressive faith, which trumps all reasoning, and all quaint traditions such as the one about the professor, rather than the students, being the leader of a class discussion. Therefore, Quenette’s mere suggestion that there might be other reasons blacks are not succeeding at the same rate as whites can be attributed to only one cause: racism. “She wasn’t receptive to hearing any other ideas” means she was not open to being re-educated, during her own class, by her students with their politically correct pieties.
Schumacher spells this out in the letter signed by the students:
“[Quenette’s words] articulated not only her lack of awareness of racial discrimination and violence on this campus and elsewhere but an active denial of institutional, structural and individual racism.”
Entertaining views not entirely consistent with neo-Marxist activism, then—”an active denial,” for Pete’s sake!—is no longer intellectually challenging to these scholars in training; it is simply Falsehood, Ignorance, Evil Itself. Terminate her!
And it makes no difference that Quenette clearly had no idea of offending anyone when she used “the n-word”—she probably thought she was appealing to the radical-chic sensibility of her students by using a little street talk. Nor does it matter that she felt only remorse upon learning of the charges against her. Remorse—and guilt.
“I didn’t intend to offend anyone. I didn’t intend to hurt anyone. I didn’t direct my words at any individual or group of people,” she told the Journal-World tearfully in a phone interview Friday.
She is tearful because she is sorry to have offended the students (she is apparently that naïve), because she is embarrassed (her whole class turned on her publicly—how humane!), and because she is frightened that after all her years of study, having finally landed the job every graduate student dreams of, she may be about to lose it over —
Over what, exactly? Here we arrive at the real heart of the issue. How does one avoid committing an offense when there are no learnable rules? How does one defend oneself against a charge as ephemeral as “being unreceptive to hearing any other ideas,” or “hurting students’ feelings”? The graduate students and professors of the communications department met to discuss the incident—without inviting Quenette—where it was apparently agreed in her absence that she was guilty of grievous wrongdoing.
The most remarkable moment in Quenette’s saga, however, is what happened at the next class:
At the next class meeting, on Tuesday, the graduate students demanded that Quenette read aloud their letter, “An Open Letter Calling for the Termination of Dr. Andrea Quenette for Racial Discrimination.”
Quenette said she began reading the letter but stopped partway through, stating that there were legal implications and that she would not read any more.
She then listened as some students read personal statements aloud.
This woman was being forced by her judges to read what was in effect a confession of guilt prepared for her by the accusers (the self-same judges). She was then bullied into sitting quietly as her judges took turns condemning her. When, during this tribunal straight from the depths of twentieth century totalitarianism, Quenette attempted to read her own prepared statement of clarification and apology, the students refused to hear it.
“Someone said ‘No, this is over,’ and they all got up and left,” Quenette said.
“No, this is over.” The Court had spoken. The charge was political incorrectness, the ultimate crime against the progressive state. There is no defense against this charge. The notion of defense presumes a charge that is rational and defined by a knowable and stable law. The rationale of defense is inapplicable in the world of progressive thought. You are guilty because you have been accused. You are accused because we have decided your action, in this instance, at this time, constitutes a crime. To answer the charge is to commit further offense. Do you find this incomprehensible? Trying to comprehend is your fatal mistake, as it suggests a deficiency of faith in the Truth of progressivism, a Truth which answers to no ultimate laws or higher reality, but only to the needs of the state and its administrators at this moment. As Orwell taught us, the essence of good citizenship in a totalitarian society is one’s willingness to say that two plus two equals five when that is the prescribed belief of the moment—and actually to believe it.
While Professor Quenette’s ordeal recalls the Stasi, the proceedings against political criminals in China, or, for the more whimsical, the Twilight Zone episode, “An Obsolete Man,” it is perhaps most reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial. For the complete submission of honest reasoning before the god of political power indicates more than the moral bankruptcy of academe, or the rise of neo-Marxist sloganeering as a social force, although it certainly does indicate those things. Beyond that, however, events such as the persecution of Andrea Quenette at the hands of her graduate students suggest something even deeper and more insidious.
An ordinary man is accosted in his room by two strangers who inform him that he is charged with a serious offense, although they never clarify what that offense is, or how he committed it. He seeks legal redress, but finds himself immersed in a bureaucratic maze so opaque that he never even seems to be able to find the right office. Gradually, his futile and increasingly half-hearted effort to figure out what he is accused of gives way to a gnawing feeling that he might be guilty—indeed, that he must be guilty, or else why would the accusation have been made in the first place?
This, in outline, is the plot of The Trial, perhaps the twentieth century’s definitive commentary on our age’s brilliant new mechanism of tyranny—the impenetrable administrative state. Kafka shows us, in living grayness, the essence of our time. We all stand accused before a faceless establishment. The precise nature of our crimes will never be disclosed to us, and probably couldn’t be disclosed with any clarity. Our guilt, though never in doubt, is as elusive as the “true” perspective on an optical illusion.
The only difference between our real bureaucratic world and the one inhabited by Kafka’s Josef K. is that ours is being gradually superimposed on a civilization with a long-standing tradition of rational justification and reliance on empirical evidence. Hence, our merry-go-round of unpredictable social laws and guilty verdicts without a hearing tends to provide its own trumped up rationalizations and a pseudo-scientific vocabulary to appease the groggy thinking of progressive man—though it brings only confusion to those still fully awake.
What the two worlds—Kafka’s dream and our nightmare—have uncannily in common is the overriding atmosphere of accusation, the awareness that “the trial” is not an event which occurs at a particular time and place, and for a coherent reason, but that one is always on trial, always in the process of being condemned. And our jury is not our peers, is not even human, but is a haze of superior sentiment issuing from one of those mysterious offices we can never find. This haze, which we sometimes call political correctness, is continually in flux, changing with the winds of radical theory, breezily condemning you this month for something that was not a crime last month, or that somehow still isn’t a crime for your neighbor today.
These winds blow most easily through the minds of the educated class, because education today means little more than having one’s mind fitted with a moral and intellectual revolving door prepared to accept anything the ruling class decrees, and to condemn dissenters as required, without so much as a twitch of self-doubt about the ever-shifting standards of judgment. In other words, the more time one spends in today’s academic system, the less rational one is likely to become, and the less open to having one’s platitudes challenged. For the most advanced scholars, i.e., graduate students and their professors, the winds of establishmentarianism have almost perfectly displaced the antiquated adherence to basic humanity and simple logic that were once considered the prerequisites of productive thinking.
In short, the university’s essence has been reversed. No longer a haven of philosophical detachment and open discussion, it is now the foremost exemplar of the mob mentality. No longer the one place in our excessively practical modernity where the theoretical life might get a fair shake, it is now the primary residence of fanatical activism, reason’s natural enemy.
Once, a student in my advanced composition class chose to write his final essay on the way popular portrayals of homosexuality obscure the less savory aspects of the homosexual lifestyle and its physical effects. As I teach in South Korea, which is roughly a generation behind the West in moral progressivism, and as this student was also in my class on Plato’s Symposium—the most serious of all discussions of that issue—I okayed the topic. Around the time the students were completing their first drafts, I asked each person to stand up and read to the class from his or her essay. This student read nervously, and with some awkwardness (the essay had quite a lot of graphic content which was uncomfortable for him to talk about in front of his classmates). When he was finished, I asked him some pointed questions to challenge his reasoning. Some students were probably surprised by his topic and his manner of expression, but no one was irreparably harmed by his ideas, and life went on. At the end of the semester, however, I felt it my duty to inform him that if he ever tried to write such a paper at a typical Western university, let alone read aloud from it, he would likely receive an F, become public enemy number one in the student newspaper, and possibly face expulsion from the university. Likewise any professor who allowed such an opinion to be expressed in his class.
Upon hearing this warning, my student—a fairly worldly, mature young man—was shocked. Such a thing had never occurred to him. I offer that as a simple demonstration of how far the West has fallen, and how quickly. Graduate students in the American heartland, the heartland of modern liberty, are demanding that a young woman professor be terminated, forcing her to read aloud from their condemnation of her, and walking out on her as she seeks their forgiveness—though neither she, nor they, nor anyone else in this Kafkaesque tragicomedy, can explain exactly what offense she committed for which forgiveness is needed.
No matter—explanation is neither possible nor necessary. One who dares to defy the winds billowing from those unreachable offices of the totalitarian administrative state, even one who has no intention of defying anything, is due for “termination,” reason be damned. And the end will not come gracefully; not in this world of perpetual, indecipherable accusation and guilt. Kafka teaches how it will be:
But the hands of one of the gentleman were laid on K.’s throat, while the other pushed the knife deep into his heart and twisted it there, twice. As his eyesight failed, K. saw the two gentlemen cheek by cheek, close in front of his face, watching the result. “Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.
Our “gentlemen” may be well-dressed politicians or careerist bureaucrats who belittle us with legislative enslavement for our sins. But if we are foolish enough to make education—the future of civilization—our life’s work, the “gentlemen” will likely be a goon squad of role-playing militant idiot doctoral students and their cheerleaders/puppet-masters, the professorial parasites. The shame of it, indeed.
A civilization’s future is only as bright as its educational establishment. Anybody got a match?
(Originally published in November 2015)