Hermeneutic sclerosis

The chief affliction of ideologues is something I’m calling hermeneutic sclerosis, a hardening of interpretive schema. An ideologue has lost control of her gestalt formations, and her world of meanings becomes fixed and inflexible.

This matter is on my mind today because I just finished Nellie Bowles’s The Morning After the Revolution, a tour of the excesses of the world since 2020. This book casts harsh light on how both “antiracism” and in trans activism employ the same move to resolve deep conflicts within its own ideals.

Both movements appear entirely unable to avoid stereotyped understandings of the world. “Antiracists” and trans activists view black people and women in especially stereotyped ways, which, by normal standards necessarily result in bigotry. But progressivism condemns bigotry. Fortunately, according to itself, bigotry is only problematic if that bigotry involves an oppressor identity imposing negative stereotypes on an oppressed identity. The reverse case — bigotry against an oppressor — is not only permissible bigotry, but a laudable form of activism, which helps to re-balance the cultural prestige books by humiliating oppressor identities who have become too uppity, and puts them in their proper place. After enough humiliating oppression at the hands of the oppressed, equality will be restored, and no further humiliation of anyone will be required. But until then it is important to express generalized hatred of masculinity and whiteness and heteronormativity. (And now, of course, Israel.)

(How the oppressed are able to impose their will so effortlessly and why oppressors are powerless to stop the humiliation is a question progressivists work tirelessly to avoid asking. If your ideology is against power per se, and believes the that true sources of an oppressor’s power and even their true identity must be unnamed and concealed, discovering that you, yourself, possess overwhelming societal power and that you are very much viewed as the oppressor class by an underclass who resents you, not because they are vicious bigots, but simply because they resent you, their oppressor — to see this clearly for once, would spell total moral collapse. So, they employ a combo punch of argument from incredulity and argumentum ad hominem: “La la la la la! I don’t understand how anyone could possibly reject our gospel of social justice! Those who reject it must be dupes of foreign propaganda! They be in denial and unconsciously want to preserve their own power! La la la la! They must be totalitarians who want to abuse their voices and votes to subvert Our Democracy! La la la la!”)

The redefinition of bigotry to encourage categorical hatred against oppressor groups, is fortunate, for it affords a possibility for escaping damning labels like “racist” or “sexist” or “transphobe”, even when escape from seeing in stereotype is impossible.

Or perhaps this redefinition was established out of the necessity of breaking out of this otherwise impossible condition.

Either way, here is the move: The progressivist gives up on the hopeless project of willful refusal to acknowledge their authentic stereotyped perceptions, and gives over to them entirely. But they reverse the value judgments of each stereotyped perception. What, before, was assigned a negative value and called vice is now reversed into a positive value and celebrated as virtue. And what was extolled as virtue is reversed and condemned or mocked as vice.

The activist who sees exclusively in racist stereotypes find liberation in reversed valuation, pretending that what was bad is good, and what was good is bad.

The chapter on Tema Okun is revealing:

Born in 1952, the daughter of a well-known progressive professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tema rebelled against what she saw as an overly intellectual family life.

She went to Oberlin and majored in physical education. “I knew it would freak my father out if I was a P.E. major, because it was anti-intellectual. So those three things kind of converged, and I became a P.E. major,” she said of the choice. She started a graduate degree in sports medicine at Chapel Hill but failed the training exam and never finished her degree. (Later, she went on to complete a PhD at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with a thesis titled “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know.”)

After a breakup, she moved to Seattle, worked as an aquatic and fitness director for a local YMCA, and got into the clogging scene, joining a group called the Duwamps Cloggers. She started working in the anti-racism world, and she liked it, eventually partnering with anti-racist educator Kenneth Jones.

When they worked together, Tema was often in charge of details like plane reservations. Kenneth didn’t care much about details. She would get upset and feel resentment, creating what she described as a relationship of “belovedness and tension.”

But Tema always stayed a little different from the others in that alphabet soup. They were all too focused on formal nonprofit structures and minutiae, she thought. They were focused on just what was right in front of them.

Tema was having a spiritual experience. One night, after a frustrating day seeing a lot of bad white behavior, Tema sat down and something “came through her.”

“I operated mostly as a vessel and the words came through me rather than from me,” she wrote in 2021, in a self-published retrospective about the list. “The original article was my one and only experience of producing something that came through me.”

The document was so simple. The list was so clear. It did not ask those white women to learn about Puerto Rican political figures. It did not tell them to phone bank and mail letters to their congressmen or get on a plane. It told them to release their perfectionism. It told them that urgency itself was white supremacy.

Under Tema, the anti-racism movement could shift from a political movement grounded in facts to an emotional and spiritual one. The battle did not need to be about structural realities and governments. It could be about ourselves. Objectivity — facts — it’s all racist. Whiteness is a virus that kills.

“The purpose of white supremacy and racism is to disconnect us from each other,” Tema said one day during a talk with a reverend. “To disconnect each of us from spirit, source, creativity or whatever you name the energy that connects all of us. White supremacy and racism are designed to disconnect us from the earth, the water, the wind, the sky, the sun.”

The goal of Tema’s work is not necessarily to raise up black and brown people but to take down the white supremacist system. It is not to add more diverse faces at the boardroom table but to dismantle the table.

“The underlying assumption is that this white world is the default world, the normal world that we should all aspire to,” is how she put it to a crowd at a conference once. “This white world is in deep trouble. What we need is an entirely new table or perhaps no table at all.”

This is what made Tema different from the rest of those Bay Area anti-racists. It’s why it was so powerful.

“An assumption of racial equity work in the past was that racial justice was to the benefit of people of color, and we’re going to lift people of color into the white world, and that’s the goal,” Tema says, in a keynote address to a data science conference called JupyterCon. “And what I see changing, which is really, really critical, is that more and more white people understanding that that’s not the goal. This is not about simply including people into the white world. It’s about questioning the world.” She has a lean face and long gray hair. She speaks slowly, carefully. Sometimes she holds her hands together as if in prayer.

Whiteness, to Tema, is like the serpent. She calls it a “constant invitation” that has to be turned down.

She often talks about anti-racism in openly religious terms.

And the new anti-racism has been embraced by a liberal Christian world that articulates whiteness as a sort of satanic possession — an original sin. The anti-racist movement grew, and the scenes were familiar Christian scenes. In June 2020, white police and activists in Cary, North Carolina, washed the feet of black protestors and asked for forgiveness.

Some anti-racist training programs are semireligious organizations, sometimes explicitly. One diversity training program with four locations around the country was called Crossroads Ministry. They’ve since rebranded as Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training.

Tema makes appearances to religious bodies. She appeared with the Reverend Tami Forte Logan, a preacher with the African

Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The event is put on by Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. The event began with the audience being asked to breathe deeply together.

In the recording, Tema comes on in a purple blouse, a gray sweater over it. There’s children’s artwork behind her. The room is dark but she is lit, which is how she styles most of her appearances.

The Reverend Tami, who is black and younger than Tema, says when white people are exhibiting the traits of whiteness, they seem crazed.

“From the outside looking in, I’ve observed that often unfortunately it almost looks like a possession, like something just takes over white people,” the reverend says.

Also there is Pastor Marcia, who is white and with Grace Church. She agrees.

“What is it that makes whiteness so seductive?” Pastor Marcia says. “It internalizes itself in white bodies but also black, indigenous, and brown bodies. It gets into our cells. It changes the way our bodies work. What is it about this that is so seductive that we literally eat it and drink it and let it seep into our bones?”

Whiteness seeps inside her. She’s drawn to it, and she hates it.

When someone gives in to that temptation for whiteness, they die, Tema says. Anyone can drink of whiteness. Anyone can die of it.

“People from different ethnic communities that end up giving up their ethnicity in order to join whiteness, it is death. It is completely death and the actual suicide, addiction, depression, all those rates are much higher in the white community, and I think there’s a direct connection,” Tema said. “We have this sense that we are involved with something that is so wrong and bad.”

Freedom from the traits of whiteness is the goal. Freedom from the urgency, freedom from the written word, freedom from perfectionism. These are white values, and we can be better and happier without them.

“This isn’t about helping others,” Tema says. “It’s about how my life, my happiness, my belonging depends on helping to enact racial justice in our world.” Pastor Marcia agrees.

“Tema, I want to say hallelujah,” Pastor Marcia says. “I see white people being set free from their own bondage.”

The chapter on trans activism does the exact same move with female stereotypes.

My own diagnosis of this painful and pain-inflicting condition is to “flip the script” as some new agers like to say, and claim that the problem is one of far too much reliance on emotions. Progressivists try to achieve with pure willful emotional manipulation what can only be achieved with thought — specifically philosophical thought — thought with provides us new modes of interpretation, and with these new modes of interpretation, now experiential givens with new valuative valences.

This is why I’ve coined this term hermeneutic sclerosis, or if you want to avoid being a presumptuous blowhard, “interpretive hardening” or hardening of the understanding. Today’s huge-hearted, hot-blooded political sentimentalists are so sure that thinking is a cold, logic-bound, argumentative, aggressive force (something belonging to the world of those detestable creeps, the white men) that they subscribe to a notion of justice that knows only compassion, forgiveness and forbearing and excludes all rational judgment, limits, discipline.

We can see this very clearly in Brene Brown’s mangling of the definition of empathy. Empathy has (until its recent ideological capture, deformation and fetishization) meant the effort to understand the experiences of another person when such understanding is not immediately accessible. It is a function of coordinated thought and feeling. Sympathy is spontaneous feeling-with another person.

But in Brene Brown’s hands, “empathy” means double-plus sympathy. It means really, really feeling in an involved way instead of not really feeling in a distant, uninvolved, phony way.

There is no trace of hermeneutical thinking in Brown’s definition. And most young people I’ve talked to about it see no problem, because they share her prejudiced blindness toward thought, and fail to recognize thought’s indispensable role in human understanding and justice.

They have no method of understanding the experiences of other people except to listen carefully to their testimony, paying very close attention to the emotions they report having, to assign truth status to that testimony and to have the most intense and expansive emotions of their own about the fact that the other had such feelings.

“Empathy” among progressivists is not empathy. It is a mixture of political sympathy — the natural feeling-with their like-minded ideologues, usually of resentment, rage and hatred — plus imaginative pathos of the kind people enjoy when reading a novel. It is, again, an exercise of hypertrophied sentimentality and atrophied intellect that knows only one mode of interpretation, the unbiased, objective one that all benevolent, intelligent and educated people agree is the truth.

Until this prejudice against philosophical hermeneutic genuinely empathetic thinking is overcome, I fear things will get worse and worse, stupider and stupider and more and more evil.

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