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A year ago in April, a student group at the university where I teach invited Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to speak on the topic of racial inequality. Days before the talk, the faculty email list exploded with vituperative attacks on Wax and on the student group that had invited her.
The tenor of the remarks was astounding. Wax’s work was characterized in scatological terms. The abusive language was justified on the grounds that speaking in such a way is a prerogative of marginalized minority groups, who are excluded from scholarly discourse thanks to white supremacy. Faculty called Wax’s published writing the equivalent of a swastika or a burning cross. The students who had invited her were called fascists who would soon enough turn to violently assaulting students of color. The departments and programs that had helped defray the cost of the talk were denounced. One department succumbed to the pressure and rescinded its contribution. One faculty member inquired as to whether there would be trauma counseling for faculty and students harmed by Wax’s appearance. Another called on the rest of us to attend a conference taking place that week at a nearby campus. The topic: the state of being white as a grave threat to American democracy.
Theorist - Fervor - Symbolism - Convulsion - Field
As a social theorist, I was struck by the emotional fervor and moral symbolism that characterized this convulsion. I thought my field expertise might illuminate this episode and others like it, so common today on American college campuses. Multiculturalism, I find, has the characteristics of a primitive religion, albeit a confused one.
Émile Durkheim described religion as “a vast symbolism,” a structure of ritual and teaching that enables a social group to bond in powerful and lasting ways. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he focused on the...
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