What could be wrong with a bit of diversity education, or perhaps teaching young people about the history of slavery? Surely, we can all agree that racism and slavery are bad? Why would we not want to teach young people about these evils so they may avoid them in the future?
It’s a reasonable pitch that I can imagine few teachers disagreeing with, but what many do not realise is that by inviting the salesperson making the pitch into your school, you are also inviting a spectral presence you may not be aware of.
There was uproar recently when James Lindsay, author with Helen Pluckrose of Cynical Theories, essentially trolled Twitter by stating that 2+2 does not equal 5. This may seem to be an obvious fact, yet a number of people, including mathematicians, took the bait. Probably in an effort to look cool rather than anything more calculating, they arrived on the scene to point out that if you redefined the meanings of ‘2’, “+”, “=” and “5”, redefined the meanings of numbers more generally, or perhaps referenced chickens or angles or gazpacho soup or something, you could indeed make 2+2=5.
What many of them did not seem to realise, until it was too late, was that Lindsay was drawing on a quote from George Orwell’s 1984.
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?…
…And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
Why does this matter? Why might a mathematician think it is cool to deny reality? Who are the cool kids whose approval they seek?
Well, rewind to 1619. Another piece of common knowledge is that the United States of America was founded after breaking free from Britain following a revolutionary war . The date of this foundation was 1776. However, the New York Times now claims that ‘the country’s very origin’ was in 1619, when a slave ship reached the British colony of Virginia. This new date and this new origin story is necessary to ‘understand the brutality of American capitalism’.
What 2+2=5 and 1619 have in common is a view that reality, particularly the reality described by the humanities but also, as we are now seeing, the reality described by mathematics and science, can be bent by force of will. This is not the first time adherents to an ideology have believed such a thing and, no doubt, it will not be the last.
In this case, the ideology is Critical Theory. Helpfully, a professor who teaches a course in Critical Race Theory at Brown University in the United States, has made the course materials available online, including a set of PowerPoint slides from an opening lecture. These slides outline various ‘tenets‘ of the theory. These include the tenets that Critical Race Theory, “Recognizes that racism is endemic to American life,” raising the interesting question of whether Critical Race Theory applies outside the US, and that Critical Race Theory, “Presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage.”
In this sense, Critical Race Theory is the opposite of a scientific theory. We are required to uncritically accept that correlation is causation, despite the imagined protestations of statistics professors. Are we allowed to openly question, for instance, whether racism has contributed to the fact that students with an Asian background are more likely to be accepted into top Colleges in the US, or is this fact to be ignored because it does not fit the Theory?
Because fictions need to be maintained.
One way is to ignore evidence that proves them to be false. Another is to deny the role of Theory: “It’s just a bit of diversity training – who could possible be against that?” Another strategy is to impugn the motives of anyone who questions these tenets. Maybe they are racist or, at the very least, perhaps we can claim their commonsense arguments and stating of the obvious should be seen as a manifestation of right-wing thought: “This is an argument made by the alt-right. This is a right-adjacent trope. Bad people have also made the same claims as you. Commonsense is fascist. Freedom of speech is far-right.”
And it works surprisingly well. The small minority of true believers have most of the rest of the chattering classes silenced for fear of offending them and being targeted as a result. And so totalitarianism seeps and oozes its way in to society and schools are particularly vulnerable.
The way this ends depends upon those who have remained silent up until now. Will teachers speak out against the 1619 project? Will parents object at attempts to make mathematics more subjective and activist? We will see.
Once upon a time there lived a powerful emperor. A crafty weaver came to his court and offered to make him a set of new clothes – the most magnificent ever seen. A couple of weeks passed. The emperor and his officials visited the weaver but never saw anything on his loom. Each time, the weaver remarked on how beautiful the cloth looked, but the emperor and his official said nothing for fear of looking stupid. Finally, the day came to present the finished garments.
“Look how magnificent they are, your highness!” the tailor exclaimed.
The emperor was confused. He could not see any clothes. Noting the confusion on his face, the tailor explained that they were so fine that only refined, intelligent and elegant people could see or sense them.
The emperor smiled, nodded and allowed himself to be dressed by the weaver.
A great parade was arranged for the emperor to show his new clothes to his subjects. As he slowly processed through the thronging crowd, there were looks of confusion and even mild amusement, but nobody said a word.
Until a little boy pointed at the emperor and cried, “The emperor has no clothes!”
As quick as a flash, the weaver shouted back, “Claiming that the emperor has no clothes is a right-wing dog whistle!”
What happens next in this story depends entirely upon the crowd.