KENDI AND DIANGELO DON'T DEBATE PEOPLE LIKE ME
.. and they shouldn't! It's time to let up on dissing them for not "debating."
If social media is any indication, many people seem to be of the opinion that people like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo should want to “debate” people like me and Glenn Loury. These people are roasted endlessly on social media for not engaging in “debate.”
It isn’t fair. I completely understand why they don’t.
I get the feeling people are moved by debates between people like William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal (this documentary likely helps stoke this) or the famous one between Buckley and James Baldwin.
But given the way people like me or Glenn Loury have discussed people like Kendi and DiAngelo on line and in print, how reasonable is it to expect them to “debate” us? I wasn’t nice to White Fragility last year and meant it, as that review needed to be written – but fully get why DiAngelo thereafter did not want to appear with me on Morning Joe. I didn’t write that review expecting DiAngelo to put on the gloves and “debate” me – I knew full well it meant that sometime in the future we’d be in a talk show green room carefully avoiding eye contact. Glenn has called Kendi an “empty suit” in our conversations and it has gotten around; I guarantee that I would never appear on the show of someone who called me that.
Some may be thinking that people like that are responsible for defending themselves in public competition, that this is the burden of the public intellectual. But the question is why they are supposed to do this in a live, back-and-forth sparring match.
Life is short. Why should someone spend even an hour or two of their time engaging with someone who has given all indication that they heartily disapprove of their work and even find them off-putting personally? Whether it was about winning or losing, who does this?
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I have been on the other side of this sort of thing now and then. A long time ago, a certain black commentator I will not name asked me to guest on his radio show. I agreed to do it because we had gotten along fine in the past. But then I happened to catch on Twitter that he was planning to roast me, with his fans all salivating at the prospect of seeing evil race traitor me getting what I deserved. I pulled out. For a little while after, the fans and the host accused me of refusing to debate.
Nah. I can debate quite comfortably when necessary, thank you very much, when there are rules and everybody has to behave – I think of here and here. But it never occurred to me that I was at all unusual in skipping being professionally ridiculed. It wasn’t that I think of myself as beyond debate, and it sure as hell wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t defend my views against (whoops, can’t say who he was!).
It was just that why in the world would I want to spend time I could use reading, writing, watching, exercising, socializing, or just being, to spend an hour being called names and treated as a cynical poseur? One could call this a “debate,” but the goal was not to hear me out but to call me out for a beating. Nothing I said would have mattered – between jokes, buzzwords and volume, that host would have held all the cards.
I can fully understand how much fun that would have been for this guy and his fans. I like watching a fight too. But a fight is all they were asking for. I am quite sure this host – I’ll tease you a little; first initial is R! -- would never “debate” with people who he knew thought he was absurd.
So, this business about how people like Nikole Hannah-Jones don’t want to “debate” Glenn Loury and me isn’t really fair to them. I stand by anything I have said or written about anyone publicly, but I do not think my charges render them responsible for having it out with me mano-a-mano. I fully get why they would rather be home having a nice dinner with their spouses and/or family members, or even playing Angry Birds. Because I would (except I’d switch out the Angry Birds for watching Looney Tunes).
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I would especially like people to stop lobbing this charge at Kendi, because it not only makes little sense, but is kind of cruel.
Back in 2000 in my Losing the Race, I wrote of seeing a young black graduate student of African-American Studies at a conference whose training did not seem to be exposing him to much beyond a certain Racism-Is-Everywhere bubble. I wrote that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at a conference ten years later bristling at being asked real questions.
I never did happen to encounter this particular guy. But in a way, I have – in the form of Kendi.
The purpose of African-American Studies departments is officially to explore blackness. However, too often, the reality is less exploration than mission: to identify the operations of racism, as I expanded upon here a while ago. This mission is compact. It isn’t exactly hard to find and describe racism in the past when it was overt and unquestioned. Plus, under the popular idea that any disparity between whites and blacks today is because of “racism” (termed systemic or institutional), it’s easy to find it in the present as well.
This means that someone trained under these auspices is never faced with real challenges. No advisor, faculty member or fellow grad student will ask them “Is that really racism?”
Someone trained in this context never encounters actual challenge to their points. You defend no theorem. You present no interpretation subject to alternate approaches – at least, any that a polite person would dare present to you.
This kind of training is why Kendi’s response to criticism is irritation. “How can anybody not agree with my scholarship?”, he all but says straight out. Many interpret this as him being some kind of power seeker. This is inaccurate – he gives no indication of being that kind of person. He is irritated at real questions because he has had no experience with actual academic give and take.
He likes referring to his work as “my scholarship,” for example, apparently thinking of “scholarship” as unquestionable: you just gather and present facts and you have achieved “scholarship” immune to question. Naturally, then, he assumes that criticism can only come from someone who just wants to give him trouble. Here, for example, he complains that his critics are dissing views he never expressed – genuinely unaware that clarification is a major part of defending one’s ideas (and often altering them). He openly says he won’t debate Coleman Hughes because it would entail denying that he meant this or that – genuinely unaware that this is much of what debate consists of.
We must note also that his record of refereed journal articles is thin -- there are fewer than one would expect at his stage, they tend to be on the short side, they are more about describing than analyzing, and they are almost all in venues easy to get things into. He hasn’t had to sweat and strain to get his articles into print in tough-to-crack journals by polishing his argumentational skills. His dissertation, meanwhile, was not an analysis but a “narrative history.” He gathered facts and told a story.
Hence: rhetorical resonance in place of argumentation (“Racism is terminal and curable!”) and reductive binaries: one hears that in one answer session, asked to fill out his definition of racism he answered “Last time I checked, a light switch is either on or off.”
I can’t work with that. Because he has never had to actually defend himself, he would have a hard time getting past just accusing me of making things up or being a racist. I would make quite sure it was clear neither of those things held the slightest water, upon which what I would get for my trouble was looking like a bully with 15 years on him. All he could see in me is an aging Uncle Tom running him down. What I would see in him is what I just wrote.
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What would the purpose of this “debate” be except entertainment for others? This is the ethos of the boxing match. It isn’t an accident, I suspect, that most of the people calling for this kind of “debate” are guys.
Honestly, people like us do “debate” in making our points in articles, on podcasts, and sometimes in tweets. None of us of any stripe are interested in climbing into a cage with people who find us unimpressive, and that makes us not cowards but ordinary human beings seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I shall not seek, and I will not accept, calls to “debate” people who find me dismissible, and I fully respect the same sentiment in others.