The Crime of Yoga

The Crime of Yoga

What’s wrong with yoga? If you haven’t been paying much attention to recent moral concerns of the American left, you might assume any opposition to yoga would come from those on the right who object to it as culturally alien or associate it with Eastern religion. For example, recently parents in a Georgia school district objected to the use of yoga and mindfulness practices to reduce student stress. The statements of two of the parents make clear their concerns about the religious (and non-Christian) nature of the practices:

“No prayer in schools. Some don’t even say the pledge of allegiance,” Cobb County mother Susan Jaramillo told NBC affiliate WXIA. “Yet they’re pushing ideology on our students. Some of those things are religious practices that we don’t want our children doing in our schools.”

Christopher Smith, whose sons attend Bullard, shared a similar sentiment on Facebook.

“Now we can’t pray in our schools or practice Christianity but they are allowing this Far East mystical religion with crystals and chants to be practiced under the guise of stress release meditation,” he wrote. “This is very scary.”

It might come as a surprise, then, that yoga has also started to become controversial on the far left. At the University of Ottawa, Jen Scharf had been teaching a free yoga class for the disabled for years with the Centre for Student Disabilities before the Centre began having concerns with what they called “cultural issues.” The problem, apparently, was that that yoga comes from India, and it is therefore “cultural appropriation” for non-Indians to practice it. The instructor suggested changing the name — from “yoga” to “mindful stretching” — but the class ended up being canceled.

Shreena Gandhi, of the Religious Studies department at Michigan State, and Lillie Wolff, “organizer, facilitator, and healer,” also have concerns about yoga. In “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation,” they even link yoga to “white supremacy.” They lament that yoga teachers in the U.S. “do not learn about Hindu tradition or Indian cultural history.” The physical aspects of yoga are only part of the practice, and by using these outside the larger context, Western practitioners “are perpetuating the re-colonization of it by diluting its true depth and meaning.”

This is “cultural appropriation,” they say, and it is “a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism, maintaining the pattern of white people consuming the stuff of culture that is convenient and portable, while ignoring the well-being and liberation of Indian people.”

They do not recommend that Westerners stop practicing yoga, but they do implore readers to “take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.” They ask them “to go beyond an unaccountable surface level relationship with yoga to a deeper, more transformative place of practice, awareness, contemplation, and engagement.”

Oddly, the complaint of conservative parents in Georgia is that yoga is a religious practice that shouldn’t be taught in schools, and the school officials say it’s just exercise. But the complaint from the left is that it’s just being used as exercise without embracing the religious and cultural practices that gave rise to it.

As different groups of activists draw from such divergent, incompatible moral frameworks, following contemporary debates can be bewildering. To a rural, conservative Christian who associates yoga with urban liberals, and who might be suspicious of its Hindu origins, the claim that it is (or usually is) a white supremacist practice must seem nearly insane. It may even confuse cosmopolitan liberals for whom dabbling in a wide variety of cultural practices is a sign of tolerance and openmindedness.

When did cultural appropriation become a crime? When did it become white supremacy? As the emerging victimhood culture spreads, expect to keep hearing of new kinds of offenses like cultural appropriation. Expect to see old terms like white supremacy used in new ways. Expect to see practices long thought of as benign, perhaps even liberal, come under attack.

Photo by lululemon athletica (Flickr: Yoga Journal Conference) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Fighting Words and Free Speech

Fighting Words and Free Speech

In the past few years on American college campuses we’ve seen canceled talks, violent protests, resignations of professors and administrators, and much more. But the events at Evergreen State College in the spring of 2017 still stand out as the most extreme of all the victimhood eruptions. There activists vilified and threatened Professor Bret Weinstein for objecting to a “Day of Absence” where whites were encouraged to leave campus. The administration sided with the activists, and at one point Weinstein had to teach his classes off campus when the police told him they couldn’t protect him. Eventually Weinstein left, but the college has faced declining enrollment and bad publicity since then.

But as Weinstein says in a recent Twitter thread, the college “refuses to comprehend what occurred, and so digs down, not out.”

Weinstein discusses a recent talk at Evergreen by civil rights attorney Alan Levine on “Campus Protests and the Fight against White Supremacy.” At the talk Levine portrayed attempts to silence and punish speech on campus not as illegal or even undesirable censorship, but as part of a noble struggle against racism. As Howard Dean did recently, in doing so he apparently smeared Nicholas and Erika Christakis and other critics of campus censorship.

But how did a civil rights attorney defend censorship? He did so by appealing to the Supreme Court’s “fighting words doctrine” and claiming that it allows universities to regulate offensive speech. Levine isn’t the first to invoke the fighting words doctrine in this manner, but he is wrong about what it says. And given the history of the doctrine, it’s also very strange to see the left invoking it.

“Fighting words” are indeed an official category of unprotected speech, along with obscenity, true threats, and some others. But the Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision in which the Supreme Court formulated the doctrine was the only time the Court has ever upheld a conviction for fighting words. In that case a man was convicted for insulting a police officer. This is hardly known as progressive decision, and subsequent rulings have undermined it enough that many scholars think of the fighting words doctrine as dead.

What’s also strange about the efforts of some contemporary activists to resurrect the fighting words doctrine is that the kinds of laws the Court was upholding in Chaplinsky have their origin in 19th-century honor culture. As Jeffrey Rosen explains, the laws worked as an indirect way of prohibiting dueling. Under the old honor code, certain kinds of insults demanded an aggressive response, so in addition to prohibiting the aggression, one way of preventing duels was to prohibit the insult. Legislatures thus passed laws not only against dueling, but also against provoking duels. They prohibited fighting words — words that in an honor culture would be expected to lead to violence.

Chaplinsky was a throwback to this era. As Rosen notes, even at the time of the decision, the culture had changed substantially:

The foundation of the fighting-words doctrine had collapsed long before the Supreme Court enshrined it as marginal constitutional law in 1942. The Chaplinsky Court defined fighting words as those that “men of common intelligence would understand would be words likely to cause an average addressee to fight.” In a culture based on honor, there was a consensus about the meaning and impact of fighting words. It was perfectly obvious that being called a liar would have provoked a 19th-century gentleman to insist on fighting a duel. But by the 1940s, no such consensus existed.

So the doctrine has seldom been used. And as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) points out, “As the Law is understood today, it is obvious that a citizen calling a policeman a ‘fascist’ [the issue in Chaplinsky] is protected by the First Amendment.”

Now the culture is changing again. In The Rise of Victimhood Culture, Jason Manning and I argue that the new emerging victimhood culture among campus activists has at least one thing in common with the honor cultures of the past — sensitivity to slight. Thus we see current activists on the left repurposing Chaplinsky and the fighting words doctrine. Once again, certain kinds of offense just can’t be tolerated.

A Prophecy of Victimhood

A Prophecy of Victimhood

In his blurb for our our book, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was kind enough to call us “prophets of the academic world.” He referred to the fact that our first article on victimhood culture – “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” – came out in 2014, a time when few people outside of activist circles had ever heard of microaggressions. In our paper, we posited the spread of microaggression complaints, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other manifestations of victimhood culture. It wasn’t until after our article was published that a series of high profile victimhood eruptions – the Halloween costume controversy at Yale, mass protests over an email at Claremont McKenna, a president pressured to resign at Missouri – brought greater public attention to these things, and to the idea that something strange and new was going on at colleges and universities.

We appreciate Haidt’s compliment, and we do indeed take some pride in diagnosing and explaining the moral shift before many others were even aware of it. But at least some of this recent moral evolution is an acceleration of older trends, and there have been other astute observers who saw where things were headed.

We recently became aware of a piece published by Joseph Epstein in The New York Times in 1989 called “The Joys of Victimhood.” Had we known about it sooner, we surely would have cited it in our book, for Epstein’s argument, written decades before ours, makes some similar observations.

Epstein opens by noting that speakers at the previous year’s Democratic Convention seemed to take pride in advertising things such as having been to rehab for alcoholism, having suffered from addiction to diet pills, or having been born an illegitimate child. He considers this a willingness to embrace the identity of being a victim, and notes that: “Victims have never been in short supply in the world, but the rush to identify oneself as a victim is rather a new feature of modern life.” We likewise argue that, while people in every society might complain of victimization, contemporary victimhood culture is unique in the degree to which people emphasize and advertise their neediness, disadvantage, or suffering.

In our work, we note that portraying oneself as a victim can be a useful conflict tactic, and is often geared towards winning sympathy and support from third parties. Epstein likewise notes that “to position oneself as a victim is to position oneself for sympathy, special treatment, even victory” and gives examples of how victimization works as a tactic of social protest.

We argue that contemporary victimhood culture is most developed and entrenched at colleges and universities, where it shapes not only student life but entire fields of study. Epstein likewise remarks:

“There has come into being a large number of people, many of them in universities, who, if not victims themselves, wish to speak for victims or rouse other people to a sense of their injury as victims. They are the intellectual equivalent of ambulance chasers. Perhaps the best place to see the traffic of victims and ambulance chasers in full flow is in the contemporary university. I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that nowadays if you cannot declare victim status, or find some way to align yourself with putative victims, in the contemporary university you don’t figure to have much standing.”

In our book, we address the seeming paradox that victimhood culture is most highly developed not at the lowest reaches of society, but among the relatively affluent populations of private colleges and Ivy League universities. On this point, Epstein quotes Harvard Graduate Christopher H. Foreman, Jr.: “’The psychological comfort of being simultaneously privileged and oppressed seems too enticing for many people to forgo.” Epstein adds: “The scene thus presented is that of the fortunate teaching the privileged that the world is by and large divided between the oppressed and the oppressors, victims and executioners, and that the former are inevitably morally superior.”

In our work we note that victimhood culture’s sympathy with those recognized as victims is often paired with hostility toward those seen as privileged or as in any way (even unconsciously) contributing to oppression. Critics of contemporary victimhood culture often draw attention to this punitive side of the moral system, and some use “crybully” as a perjorative term for those they think use victimhood claims to dominate others. Writing in 1989, Epstein prefigures this term: “A subtle shift takes place, and suddenly the victim is no longer making appeals but demands . . . . Public pronouncements from victims take on a slightly menacing quality, in which, somehow, the line between victim and bully seems to blur.”

Epstein’s observations suggest that the foundations for contemporary victimhood eruptions were being laid decades ago. In our book, we make a similar point about the intellectual foundations of victimhood culture – neo-Marxian ideas that percolated through the academy for decades before achieving their contemporary prominence. This raises the question of why victimhood culture has accelerated so much in recent years. We suggest some relevant factors in our book, and perhaps readers can think of more.

(Hat tip to Mark Steckbeck for pointing out Epstein’s article:
(Photo by Mark Schierbecker – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Victimhood Culture and Howard Dean

Victimhood Culture and Howard Dean

The clash between dignity culture and honor culture that Jason Manning and I discuss in our book is not the familiar clash between between left and right. The new victimhood culture comes from the campus left, to be sure, but many on the left reject the new culture’s focus on minor offenses, or the blurring of the boundary between speech and violence. Barack Obama for example, has spoken out against it, saying that he doesn’t agree “that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

It is perhaps strange, then, that Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, former Democratic presidential candidate, seems to embrace even the extreme manifestations of the new culture, such as the attempts to prevent conservatives from speaking on campus or to punish people for even mild objections to the campus activists’ aims and tactics.

Here is Dean, starting at 26:47, recently defending the students who vilified Yale professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis in the fall of 2015:

You might recall that the Christakises were the headmasters of one of Yale’s residential colleges until students became outraged that Erika wrote an email questioning whether the university needed to be involved in policing Halloween costumes. She suggested that maybe students could handle offensive costumes themselves through conversations with one another, through self-censure, and social norming. At one point a group of students confronted, berated, and cursed at Nicholas, and the uproar eventually led the Christakises to leave their positions as headmasters after the end of the term.

Dean’s summary of the events is one falsehood after another. He mischaracterizes the content of Erika Christakis’s email, and, laughably, claims he later found out that Nicholas Christakis was the leader of the William F. Buckley Society at Yale, which Dean says he “thought was rather fitting.” (Christakis is a lifelong liberal and was not the leader of the William F. Buckley Society.)

Nicholas Christakis pointed out these and Dean’s many other errors in a series of tweets.

Of course, anyone might just half-remember a story and not realize it, but this isn’t the first time he’s gotten things wrong in defending the extreme manifestations of campus victimhood culture. During a controversy over a planned talk by Ann Coulter at UC Berkeley, last April, for example, this is what Dean tweeted:

Here again Dean was factually wrong. The Supreme Court has been clear. But it’s remarkable that these kind of statements now come from mainstream political figures and journalists, not just campus radicals. Whether out of confusion or conviction, or more likely, some combination, Howard Dean believes Erika Christakis’s congenial, thoughtful email deserved angry denunciations and more, and he even rejects longstanding first amendment jurisprudence. Victimhood culture is on the march.

(Photo by Matt Wright, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Outrage and Inquiry

Outrage and Inquiry

From our new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The new activist culture calls for colleges to confront the small, perhaps unintended slights known as microaggressions, to provide trigger warnings for course material that might offend or upset, and to become safe spaces where ideas go unchallenged. It is characterized by extreme moral sensitivity, and in this way is similar to honor cultures of the past where men were highly sensitive to insults and responded to perceived slurs against their character with duels and other forms of violence.

The new culture is less concerned with slights against individual character than with anything perceived as furthering the oppression of victim groups. In either case, though, extreme moral sensitivity presents a problem in an academic environment. As we warned, “Honest inquiry and communication are bound to offend someone,” so if colleges are to be places of inquiry and communication, “they must have a climate where people are less — not more — prone to outrage than elsewhere.”

Read the whole thing here.