This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on March 28, 2016.
For a country founded on the principle of human equality, it’s jolting to read of “White Student Unions” rising on, of all places, college campuses. So shocking is it that, at first, some in the media deemed it merely a “hoax.”Would that it were. However, subsequent journalistic investigation confirms it as fact. A number of American, as well as Canadian, universities now boast such race-based organizations.
Why would some students promote the racial separatism that the Declaration of Independence, which announces that all are “created equal,” set out to destroy? The answer is as sad as the development itself: Racial separatism is what is now taught in too many universities. More precisely, what we teach provides no principled barrier to separatist agendas.
How did this transmogrification occur? We begin to glean the answer on examining the Declaration of Independence’s “theory of justice,” which informed the construction of the Constitution. Consider Lincoln’s words from an 1858 speech he delivered in Chicago:
We have besides these men descended by blood from our ancestors-among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, … if they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none,… but when the look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.
Lincoln’s primer on the Declaration reveals three things: First, the principle of human equality is the central tenet of the four self-evident truths (equality, inalienable rights, government instituted by consent, and the right of revolution) that constitute American justice. Second, “Americanism” is defined, not by narrow “identity–creed, birth, race, or sex–but by adherence to the principles of equality and liberty set forth in the Declaration. Third, American justice is grounded, not in subjective preferences, but in “self-evident truths.”
What are self-evident truths? They are not, argues the Declaration, truths evident to all, but only to those who reason rightly about what it means to be a human being. Self-evident truths are absolute truths. Their truth owes not to societal agreement, but to human nature. Through the use of reason, we discover rather than merely create these guiding principles.
Thus, the American experiment in self-government stands or falls by the power of human reason to discover truth and to organize moral and political life in conformity to reason’s discoveries. In short, American devotion to liberty, equality, and tolerance is grounded in the conviction that there are absolute truths.
However, over the last century, the belief in absolute truth has largely succumbed—certainly in our universities—to moral relativism, which holds that all so-called “Truth” is in fact relative to the speaker. For moral relativists, all moral principles, which relativists label “value judgments,” are merely subjective preferences. Reason, in this account, can discover no hierarchy of “values”; all values are equal, because all are equally groundless.
For the most part, American academics—rather than decrying moral relativism as a doctrine that equates the principles of Martin Luther King, Jr., with those of, say, Adolf Hitler—has instead welcomed it as the precondition of a new form of American society, one made finally tolerant. How? Their argument takes this form: If no one believes that any way of life is better than any other, no groups will attempt to “impose their values” on others. Instead, all ways of life will be “celebrated.”
This tolerance-seeking defense of relativism is doubtless well-intentioned but radically defective, in fact, self-defeating. Recognizing its defects helps us better understand the rising racial separatism on our campuses. According to the Declaration of Independence’s central principle of equality, what separates us (e.g., race, sex, class) is far less important than what unites us—our natural rights. Moral and political virtue consist in advancing and ensuring these rights.
But relativism denies any rational basis for morality. What then is the status of the Declaration’s alleged absolute truths? They must be regarded as “preferences” that enjoy no more intrinsic merit than any others. Here lies the dilemma: If all values are equally groundless, what of the value of tolerance and our efforts to promote it? More precisely, how can a society that embraces relativism in order to promote tolerance simultaneously defend tolerance against the intolerant? Intolerance, after all, is also a “value.” And relativism holds that all values are equal, which leaves us without a defense of the very tolerance we cherish.
Apparently oblivious to these defects, America presses on to curb the “imposition of values.” The latest form of this project goes under the name of “multiculturalism.” The term does not merely signify that America houses citizens who have come from a variety of cultures. Multiculturalism today is grounded in relativism, asserting not only the fact of cultural multiplicity, but also the moral equality of all cultures. Cultures, after all, embody values.
Rejecting natural-rights doctrine, that which is now argued to be fundamental—be it class, power, race, gender, sexual orientation—no longer unites us, as did the Declaration’s world view, but, instead, forever separates us. Be the distinctions black/white, female/male, proletarian/bourgeois, Aryan/non-Aryan, all find our fundamental differences to outweigh the sameness to which the Declaration looks in positing a human nature (essence or soul), and on which its rights doctrine relies.
The challenge then becomes how to construct community out of a multiplicity of unconnected “selves” with different and, at times, opposed (yet morally equally) viewpoints. Relativism-based multiculturalism’s answer is to “celebrate diversity.” Having jettisoned the conviction that there are authoritative standards of virtue and vice, equality in our rights (the Declaration’s project) is not only insufficient, it is insulting and oppressive in the eyes of those for whom only equal dignity can be justice.
Hence, under the new dispensation, diversity-as-monolith (=political correctness) imposes the communal value of value non-imposition (=diversity celebration) in the name of the lawless liberty of the soulless self.
In this light, the “diversity-enforcing” speech restrictions so in vogue at a growing number of universities appear as but the first step in a project whose fulfillment requires its extension to society as a whole. “White Student Unions,” which appear to be a backlash against this project, are no less partisans of “identity politics” than those they oppose. Both have abandoned the Declaration.
In all this, we are only reaping the harvest whose seeds were sown with our acquiescence in moral relativism. The West no longer believes in its highest principles. Thus, we no longer believe in ourselves. We now scramble for the same, scattered aspects of “identity” that the Declaration happily dispensed with for the sake of political equality and individual liberty.
So, both Black Lives Matter and White Student Unions have sprung up to fill the moral vacuum. But don’t blame the students alone for advancing illiberal agendas. They are only acting on what they’ve been taught.
Make no mistake where these agendas will lead. The racial separatism that the new dispensation requires cannot help but to increase misunderstanding between and among the races. And with greater misunderstanding usually comes heightened hostility. The new American Apartheid is upon us, courtesy of American education.