Blueprint for a Tower of Babel

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of Clarion Calls dealing with summer reading programs. Today’s article is about the 2008 choice for the often-controversial Carolina Summer Reading Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. On Friday, April 18, we will post an article about the program’s flaws and what a well-designed program really could offer. Then the fun starts. Members of the Pope Center staff will propose their own programs on April 25. Then it’s your turn-—we want your ideas as well. The grand prize is (drum roll please)–nothing! But we will publish your ideas on our site.

Sometimes an idea comes along that is bad, really bad. An idea bad enough to rip apart the ties that unite a nation. The conclusion of the book Covering, by Yale Law School professor and gay activist Kenji Yoshino, qualifies. Indeed, the polarizing potential of his proposal was so glaring that the author was compelled to acknowledge that it might cause a modern-day “Tower of Babel.”

Despite the dangers present in Yoshino’s polemic and the juvenile rationale it is based upon (or perhaps because of them), UNC-Chapel Hill is promoting the book to all incoming freshmen as this year’s choice for the Carolina Summer Reading Program.

It is not the first time the program has made an awful selection. The year after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the school picked Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. The book appeared to critics to whitewash Islam’s violent image by avoiding many of the more aggressive suras (chapters) used by radical Muslims as a justification for holy war and for the religion’s crueler aspects. Other choices have been ill-concealed attacks on American institutions, such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Marxism-inspired Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America, the choice in 2003.

Yoshino, who is a law professor at Yale, defines “covering” as: “to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” He suggests that the pressure felt by people to conform, whether imposed on them by others or arising from within their own psyches, is a form of discrimination as oppressive as real forms of bigotry, such as the refusal to hire somebody because of his or her race or gender. Yoshino concludes that this need to “cover” one’s “authentic self” is psychologically damaging, and it can and should be ended with sweeping legal reforms.

What Yoshino is proposing are two major changes to the theory and practice of discrimination law. The first is to extend protection from discrimination on account of an individual’s characteristics that are considered immutable, such as his or her particular race, gender, religion and sexual preference, to characteristics of chosen behavior. To cite one of Yoshino’s examples, not only should businesses and government agencies be subject to anti-discrimination laws in the hiring of homosexuals, but he wants overtly homosexual behavior, such as exaggerated effeminacy by gay men, to be protected on the job as well. (Today, their behavior would not be protected, since they can readily choose to act less feminine without contradicting the immutable fact that they are gay.)

In fact, Yoshino wants all such “authentic” behavior to receive legal protection, even “flaunting,” which is behavior that aggressively expresses one’s adherence to a group other than the majority. And an individual’s “authenticity” is to be self-defined. Therefore, if an individual feels that part of his authentic behavior is to express contempt for what he perceives to be historical wrongs performed against his self-selected group, he can do so. It is not hard to imagine the chaos this could inflict on the conduct of business and governmental affairs.

Yoshino’s second legal recommendation is to switch the burden of proof of discrimination from the individual to the institution. He proposes a “new paradigm” of universal rights: a right to appearance, a right to language, a right to expressing ethnic identity, and so on. Instead of the current system, where an individual who claims to have suffered discrimination must sue the allegedly discriminating enterprise, Yoshino argues that the enterprise should have to prove that the behavior of the individual is injurious to the enterprise before infringing on that individual’s “rights.”

Adopting Yoshino’s paradigm could have fearful implications for America’s future existence. As we have shed more and more of the common culture that existed in past generations for multiculturalism, the workplace has remained one of our few unifying institutions, for it is there that we must get along and work for common goals. By conforming at work, we accentuate characteristics and behavior we share in common to focus on the task at hand.

Yoshino, however, wants us to accentuate our differences. This is folly – to emphasize differences is to drive a wedge between people and stoke old wounds and grievances. It is certain to cause conflicts and rip us apart further. With the diminished ability to restrain anti-mainstream activity, there will be even more aggressive behavior pushing the envelope of the monoculture past its limits, until there is nothing binding us together at all. Our ordinary affairs, such as deciding where to build a new school or how to sell more cornflakes, will likely become enmeshed in a debilitating tangle of group politics, extraneous emotions, and affected personalities.

Yoshino’s argument is also clouded by contradictions. For instance, he suggests that behind the American pressure to conform is a thinly veiled system of white supremacy, yet he also states, “[E]ven now, I am moved by the American ethic of inclusion, which contrasts so sharply with the Japanese ethic of exclusion.”

Societies based on racial supremacy are rarely so inclusive of other races. Yet, faced with the knowledge that American society is open to all, Yoshino still chooses to base his personal philosophy on the belief that America is a racially supremacist culture.

Such willful fallacies are not the stuff of clear-eyed legal reasoning; rather, they are the emotional products of spoiled children and irrational zealots. Yoshino is sounding the grand battle cry of immaturity, equating a childish “you’re not the boss of me” crusade against practical conformity with a fight for real freedom.

And that might be the appeal to many of the entering freshmen who will read the book at UNC’s urging. Despite their high native intelligence and strong educational backgrounds, it is unlikely that most of these eighteen-year-olds will be able to discern how illogical and potentially damaging Yoshino’s argument is.

The people in charge of the reading program might fall back on the common defense of bad choices, suggesting that Covering was meant to be the starting point for a discussion of important issues. After all, the book will be discussed in seminars at the start of the fall semester. If so, wouldn’t it be better to have a discussion about good ideas that have stood the test of time, rather than about terrible, trendy ones?

Jay Schalin is a writer for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.