Social-Justice Blowups Are Mostly About Intraelite Jockeying

On the ridiculous campaign against Bright Sheng

Bright Sheng is an exceptionally talented musician with an inspiring life story. As Robby Soave notes in Reason, he “is a professor of composition at the University of Michigan. He was born in China in 1955; when he was a child, the Red Guards took away his family piano. Nevertheless, he grew up to become a widely celebrated musician: He received a MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellowship in 2001, and has twice been a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in music.” You can read more about his life here.

Now, though, Sheng is facing a firestorm at his UM School of Music, Theatre & Dance. That’s because during a composition class he taught in early September, he showed a video of Laurence Olivier performing in blackface in a 1965 British production of Othello. It was controversial back in 1965, at least in the anglophone world, and definitely doesn’t fly today.

Cue loud outrage and open denunciation from some of Sheng’s students and colleagues, a statement condemning his acts from his department, and the opening of a Title IX investigation. Sheng quickly apologized twice, pleading cultural ignorance, but his critics were unassuaged. On October 5th, the Michigan Daily reported that he is no longer teaching the class.

Let’s get this out of the way: If, as has been reported, Sheng did not contextualize that clip or explain why he was showing it, that was a very bad idea. His superiors certainly would be justified in sternly explaining to him why. That said, there’s literally zero evidence Sheng acted out of malice rather than a lack of cultural fluency — he is an immigrant, and even if he has lived here for a long time, it’s not a stretch to imagine various ways in which he might not have picked up every nuance about what is and isn’t acceptable in this particular area. That’s especially true given that until not too long ago, satirical blackface, at least, was still shown on major networks, on shows like 30 Rock and SNL, and that content has only recently started getting pulled offline and out of broadcast rotation. Overall, in the absence of any evidence Sheng meant to cause offense, it’s genuinely unclear what there even is to ‘investigate’ here, or why his punishment should be anything harsher than a warning that he probably just shouldn’t do this again.

Really, the anger at Sheng is being driven mostly not by individuals who were genuinely harmed or who have a coherent case that this should be a very big deal, but by elites and elites-in-training jockeying for position and status. Both here and in other, similar blowups, people don’t appreciate this nearly enough. They often think that if there’s an attention-getting controversy over social justice, there’s some sort of big, important issue lurking at the center of it, some significant thing that needs to be addressed or resolved. If there’s excess, it’s excess in the service of virtue.

But really, a lot of the time (though certainly not always), these dumb blowups are just about intraelite squabbling, about people who are already in privileged situations in life jockeying to improve their position and take down their enemies. That’s the biggest there there. A pretense for outrage pops up, and then, some fresh meat having been dropped into the center of the arena, a bunch of hungry people rush in to see how much of those tasty calories they can score for themselves.

Though by ‘hungry’ I don’t mean, like, literally hungry. The people who are most motivated and best equipped to exploit a social-justice blowup to their advantage really are overwhelmingly likely to be from elite backgrounds. To know the right language to use, the right sort of hurt to express, and the right sort of redress to call for, you need to have had a lot of education and to have been inculcated in a certain very specific set of values and politics. 

Which brings us to one of the primary outrage entrepreneurs of the present controversy.

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