by Grant Addison
Reblogged from the Washington Examiner
It is a sad reflection upon modern life that the term "Orwellian" has become one of our most overused cliches. Invocations of George Orwell and his chilling masterpiece 1984 are so frequent and so flippant that they can almost be viewed alongside references to Harry Potter and the Handmaid's Tale as belonging to that "huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power," in the words of Orwell. Yet despite this, every once in a while, a situation arises that is so ludicrous, so baleful, that no other term can appropriately encapsulate it. Such is the case with Matthew Mayhew.
In mid-September, the Big Ten conference finally announced that it would be proceeding with a 2020 college football season despite worries over COVID-19, to the pleasure of many long-suffering fans. One such fan was Mayhew, a professor of higher education at Ohio State University. Together with Musbah Shaheen, an OSU graduate student, he took to the pages of Inside Higher Ed to share his excitement in a piece entitled "Why America Needs College Football."
"College football may be an essential element of our functioning democracy," wrote the pair. It "reminds many Americans of the community values that underscore higher education and by extension America itself," especially in times of "great isolation, division, and uncertainty." Though fans may root for different teams and argue over calls by the refs, they still share a deep respect for the game, which, Mayhew and Shaheen explained, can serve as a guide to help us remember to respect our fellow citizens, even across political divides. They further credited college football as a way to improve national morale and for providing student-athletes a public platform to speak for social change.
"We're all in this together" cliches aside, the desire to focus on the capacity of college football to be a positive, unifying activity represents a refreshing change of pace from typical contemporary discourse, especially within the academy. College athletics, and football in particular, are not what you would call "popular" among academics, a fact Mayhew and Shaheen themselves nod at with the concession that "we frankly hated writing this piece." Nevertheless, they conclude, "to many people, college football represents an America where competition is sanctioned, community is encouraged and disagreement is emotionally regulated. If nothing else, it gives us a reason to cheer."
Five short days later, Mayhew returned to the pages of Inside Higher Ed, not with a cheer but a lament. In a second piece (not authored with Shaheen), "Why America Needs College Football — Part 2," Mayhew declared, "It doesn't. I was wrong. And even worse, I was uninformed, ignorant and harm inducing." He further apologized for "the hurt, sadness, frustration, fatigue, exhaustion and pain" his first article may have caused.
Not a week earlier, Mayhew had praised college football's "bipartisan" appeal and how "football players become beloved community figures beyond the boundaries of the stadium or campus." But now, he extolled a brand-new conception, offering a full-throated recanting of his previous ideas "that I have recently learned are harmful."
"I learned that Black men putting their bodies on the line for my enjoyment is inspired and maintained by my uninformed and disconnected whiteness and, as written in my previous article, positions student athletes as white property," he wrote. "I have learned that I placed the onus of responsibility for democratic healing on Black communities whose very lives are in danger every single day and that this notion of 'democratic healing' is especially problematic since the Black community can't benefit from ideals they can't access. I have learned that words like 'distraction' and 'cheer' erase the present painful moments within the nation and especially the Black community."
At least when Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, finally undergoes his reeducation in Room 101, he is not made to confess his sins against the Party continually and beg unendingly for forgiveness. Mayhew, it seems, is not so lucky. He goes on to apologize further "to all communities of color and especially the Black community. I am sorry for causing pain by ignoring yours." "I hate that my students have to carry my ignorant racist energy with them at all times," he writes, in apparent acknowledgment that his crime of WrongThink is indelible. As recompense, Mayhew pledges to "begin the long process of antiracist learning ... to center the question: What can I do to unlearn patterns that hurt and harm Black communities and other communities of color?"
As Charles C.W. Cooke aptly noted, Mayhew's essay "possesses the quality of a confession extracted under torture." The heartfelt embrace of "antiracism" does not shine through so much as the fear simmering just underneath every line. "I am struggling to find the words to communicate the deep ache for the damage I have done," Mayhew states early on. Mayhew's entire servile apology reads as a frantic struggle to say exactly what is expected of him in precisely the right way, or else be denied absolution.
Typically, when an individual goes to such lengths to self-flagellate, it is in the aftermath of a social media firestorm. Yet this seems not the case with Mayhew. A cursory Google search reveals no discussion, negative or otherwise, of Mayhew's article with Shaheen until the professor's follow-up retraction piece days later. It's very much the same story on Twitter, which is usually the undisputed champion of ginning up online cancel mobs. Searching the first article brings up few posts concerning its original publication, and the handful of tweets that are critical of it have little to no interaction in terms of likes, comments, and shares. Searching "Matthew Mayhew" results in even fewer posts regarding the piece.
A public social media mobbing this was not. Instead, Mayhew notes that his newfound "learning" had come "through my students, wider social media community and distinguished academics like Donna Ford, Joy Gaston Gayles and Gilman Whiting." Later, he breathlessly emphasizes, "I am immeasurably grateful to the grace extended by Donna, Joy and Gilman and for their willingness to work with me on these issues." A collection of academics closing ranks on a peer who dared voice an unapproved opinion is given the Orwellian gloss "willingness to work with me on these issues."
This was a perfect example of the emerging reality: The censorious nature of our wider culture is enforced less by social media mob (though that helps) and more by a sort of guild bullying, with each group snuffing out the oxygen bubbles in their own area of the wider airless monoculture.
I have written previously in these pages on how the intolerant campus culture of higher education has come to infect virtually all of the body politic. The reeducation of Matthew Mayhew is emblematic of this type of ideological totalitarianism that dominates the academy and is pushing its way into other realms of public life. Many of the elements involved here, including manipulation of language and statements of untruths, the demand for ideological purity, and intra-professional coercion, are clear in recent controversies involving fields outside of the academy, particularly media journalism.
The writer Wesley Yang mused recently that "Orwellian dystopia is typically not total outside of ongoing states of exception like total war or revolution. It exists in certain niches and pockets and leaves most people only indirectly affected in their day to day lives." This observation strikes me as largely correct, and if one operates from this premise, it becomes quite clear that Orwellian episodes such as Mayhew's predominately occur in elite institutions and cultural spheres, which indeed constitutes a distinct pocket of society. This is important not simply because it is elite institutions that shape and dominate our politics, but also because such institutions and their members tend to care more about status than others.
A great deal of what we call "cancel culture" and its accompanying ills are an outgrowth of guild bullying, by which I mean the efforts of individuals and groups of individuals within a field, class, or profession to consolidate power amongst themselves. This includes neutering ideological opponents or rivals, yes, such as "canceling" someone or coercively reeducating them. But it also includes raising the barriers to entry in order to decrease future competition — think unnecessary occupational licensing requirements such as the bar exam or having a college degree but in the context of social behaviors. Higher education provides a prime milieu for guild bullying thanks to the isolation of the Ivory Tower and the necessity of many academics to provide continual justification for their own existence.
An example of this in practice are the Orwellian abuses to language we have increasingly witnessed of late. Mayhew wrote how he learned that "words like 'distraction' and 'cheer' erase the present painful moments within the nation" — in other words, that these terms only have meaning in relation to predetermined narratives, not the actual words themselves. Just last week, progressive activists and media flacks deemed the term "sexual preference" suddenly offensive after it was used by Amy Coney Barrett. The same day, Merriam-Webster's online dictionary was caught changing the definition of "preference" to include a note that usage in the context of sexuality was "offensive." 1
Arbitrarily redefining words puts an ideological thumb on the scale, but more severely, it confuses and destabilizes language in a manner that benefits only those in the know. As Washington Examiner contributor Nicholas Clairmont wrote recently, "Rather than empowering the marginalized, it condescends to them and entrenches the privileges of the already advantaged. It is a new face of the oldest con in the meritocratic capitalist handbook — namely, favoring the lucky and the powerful and the privileged while claiming to be crusading for justice."
I've focused on this idea of guilds because these are more related to power than to ideology. The growing totalitarianism of a certain pocket of our "elite" is in service to personal or group power, not social justice, progressivism, or the Democratic Party. Nor is it in service of institutions or their traditional role. Indeed, guild aesthetics are vastly more important than the causes they pay lip service to. It is far more important for the NBA as an elite cultural organization to gesture toward social justice and the black Lives Matter movement than it is to care sincerely about human rights or ideological consistency, for example. Hence "End Racism" and "Group Economics" were emblazoned on jerseys during the postseason, while Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was publicly rebuked by the NBA for calling out the human rights abuses of China's Communist Party. Morey, in fact, has just resigned.
In June, data analyst David Shor was fired from his job at the progressive consulting firm Civis Analytics after he shared on Twitter an academic study arguing that nonviolent civil rights protests were more effective historically than violent ones. But because his tweet was during widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd, some people online complained to Civis. Less than a week later, Shor was fired. As Yascha Mounk pointed out at the Atlantic, it was Shor's job to think about how Democrats can win elections. How does firing him for doing just that serve progressive causes or the Democratic Party? To Civis's predominantly white leadership, the power of guild aesthetics, what they looked like in the moment to a select group, was more important.
In this manner, enforcing ideological purity is far more important as a method for entrenching power than it is to actually serve ideological goals, much less institutional ones. Only in very narrow cases does getting a political opponent (or a political ally, in the case of Shor) fired from his or her job serve to advance your ideological or political causes. The petulant staffers of the Atlantic did not succeed in spreading progressivism or the pro-choice cause by getting the newly hired conservative writer Kevin Williamson fired in 2018. They did, however, avoid having to face the likely possibility of Williamson exposing them as intellectual mediocrities in the pages of their own magazine.
A similar situation was on display earlier this month at the New York Times after Bret Stephens penned a masterful opinion column taking issue with the numerous journalistic failures of the Times's factually challenged 1619 Project. Stephens included defenses of the project and praised both its goals and its head author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, but he had committed the unforgivable sin of explaining, in clear detail, just how hollow was her shibboleth. In response, the New York Times Guild, the paper's writer's union, demanded that Stephens be censored and punished. "To say that this is bizarre behavior from a union of journalists, of all people, is to woefully understate the case," Glenn Greenwald wrote in the leftist Intercept. "What kind of journalists plead with management for greater restrictions on journalistic expression rather than fewer?" The answer is the kind not concerned with journalism or the virtues of liberal debate but with power that they and their enlightened comrades can exercise over anyone and everything.
This is not a novel insight, of course. Moving away from the civility of the public square and the constraints of liberal debate represents a shift toward totalitarianism. And totalitarianism has always been about power, whether it cloaked itself in an ideological agenda or not. But it is important to strip this illiberal power-seeking bare in order for those who genuinely wish to aid social justice or poverty or any causes beyond themselves and their class to separate themselves from those they may wrongly consider allies.
Because the great irony is these cancel-culture mavens and would-be reeducators are working against the causes and communities they purport to champion. When one strips away all the obsequious prostration, Mayhew's newly learned argument against college football is ludicrous. His position, for example, zeroes in on black athletes as if they are the only race playing college football. Forty-eight percent of NCAA Division I college football players are black, compared to 36% who are white and roughly 15% who are other races. Should this majority of college football players also be precluded from playing due to historical marginalization? Is it less exploitative if they play but the black student-athletes do not? Both scenarios are risible.
More important, the argument that college football is inherently racist because it has an interracial fandom (at least that seems to be the argument) is condescending nonsense. Its very premise speaks down to black athletes as if they don't have personal reasons for playing football or college sports. "I learned that Black men putting their bodies on the line for my enjoyment is inspired and maintained by my uninformed and disconnected whiteness," he writes (emphasis added). Who is he to tell black men why they play football, and how does that choice have anything to do with him or his whiteness?
This "anti-racist" pablum Mayhew has adopted pretends away the existence of white, Asian, or Hispanic college football players only to place himself and his white guilt at the center of black athletes' experience with football. In effect, denying them any agency or enjoyment or pride over their involvement with playing the sport. That's far and away more racist than anything written in his original piece, but I suppose that's just part of what makes it Orwellian.
1 Historian Wilfred McClay trenchantly observes that
In the early years of printing, printers would often display a truncated version of a Latin proverb: Littera scripta manet, which means, "The written letter remains." The whole proverb reads: Vox audita perit littera scripta manet, which can be translated, "The heard voice perishes, but the written letter remains." It contrasts fleeting orality and settled literacy. What does such a proverb mean today, when our civilization — in which the great majority of inhabitants, as Christians and Jews, have been People of the Book — is fast becoming a civilization inhabited by People of the Screen, people tied to the ever-changing, ever-fluid, ever-malleable presentation of the past made possible by the nature of digital technology?According to Merriam-Webster, which would probably be the first to question the need for paper books when we have the miracle of the internet, this "ever-changing, ever-fluid, ever-malleable presentation...made possible by the nature of digital technology" now includes arbitrarily changing the definition of English words in online dictionaries because existing definitions do not cater to the politically-correct zeitgeist.