America becoming a nation of the woke

Today’s festival of offended sensitivities was prefigured in 1991 at a Penn State University branch, when a female English instructor demanded that a reproduction of Goya’s “Naked Maja,” which had been hanging there for years, be removed from her classroom. Her alternative demand was — think about this — that a male nude be placed beside it. To balance the affront?

A campus executive ordered the picture removed because it could contribute to a “chilly” classroom climate. This harbinger of the era of “microaggressions” occurred while Congress was enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1991, adding to existing law a provision for compensatory and punitive damages for emotional distress.

Law shapes as well as reflects culture, and Gail L. Heriot of the University of San Diego School of Law argues in her essay “The Roots of Wokeness” that those new Title VII damage remedies propelled the nation’s downward spiral into identity politics. After the change, Heriot reports, there was “a dramatic increase in the number of harassment charges filed” and in the monetary stakes. In the final quarter of 1991, the number of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission harassment charges increased 71% over the same period in 1990.

The change discouraged racial and sexual harassment. At the considerable cost, Heriot argues, of “strengthen(ing) identity politics while weakening support for free expression” concerning race or sex. Because employers could be liable for a “hostile environment” created by employees, the change regarding remedial measures “made it pay for employers to start vigilantly policing their employees’ speech.” Because there were now “generous remedies for a vaguely defined wrong”employers tended toward “zero tolerance” policies.

So, a multibillion-dollar training industry was born to supplement the programs of corporations’ burgeoning human resources bureaucracies. Heriot says trainers and administrators wished to justify not just their basic services, but also the expansion of them: “The level of sensitivity they promoted grew ever more exacting, as exemplified by the popularization of the concepts of micro-aggressions and white privilege.”

For the sensitivity industry, the concepts of microaggressions and zero tolerance have become gifts that can never stop giving.

It has become legally fraught for employees to say “the most qualified person should get the job,” or “America is the land of opportunity,” or “America is a melting pot,” or “All lives matter.” America has become the land of wary people walking on eggshells.

In 1986, the Supreme Court held that the EEOC had correctly decided that employees have a right “to work in an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult.” Heriot correctly calls this “a somewhat unusual statement” because “no one has a general ‘right’ to be free from ridicule or insult, and the federal government cannot, consistently with the First Amendment, create such a right” for “the context of employment.”

The evolving law of “harassment” and “hostile environment” prompted attitudinal changes congruent with three emerging cultural ideas: That it is wholesome to define one’s identity with reference to race, sex or ethnicity. That this should make one acutely alert to affronts.

And that there is an entitlement to pass through life without emotional distress occasioned by abraded sensitivities.

Time was, America’s aspiration was for preoccupations with racial, sexual and ethnic differences to lose political saliency, and to recede as relations between the sexes and races became more relaxed. Instead, those preoccupations have intensified as government policy has encouraged them.

The Penn State instructor who objected to “Naked Maja” felt “embarrassment:” “I identified with her as a woman. … I have always felt that when one woman is portrayed naked and ridiculed, we all are.” Do people viewing the original in the Prado see ridicule?

The day Penn State ordered the removal was the day Congress passed the expanded remedies for “harassment.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today