Diversity Vigil at Princeton Theological Seminary

Ashley Thorne

Last night I attended the forum at Princeton Theological Seminary, “Know the Facts: Race and Symbols in American History.” It was to be a time of “healing” after some seminary students put up flyers on campus about the link between eugenics and African American abortions. The event, sponsored by the Association of Black Seminarians, the Women’s Center, and the Student Government Association, hosted a panel of professors who spoke and answered questions. At least a hundred audience members, most of whom seemed to be students and faculty members, were present.

For me, it was a powerful experience to be there in person, to witness the emotional and angry rhetoric of those who had fully absorbed the diversity doctrine.

Panelists

Yolanda Pierce, professor of African American religion and literature, spoke first. Her cool manner of emphasizing each word set the tone of high moral seriousness for the rest of the event. Her key phrase, to which she and others returned throughout the evening, was “historical amnesia” – a set of false memories propagated in America that produce nostalgia for what didn’t take place and that take the place of “necessary memories.” Professor Pierce referred to the images in the flyers as symbols and said, “If you find yourself defending symbols that are hurtful, painful, and derogatory, you need a self-examination to really think about why you’re holding on to those symbols.”

Peter Paris, professor of Christian social ethics and liaison with the Princeton University African American Studies Program, spoke next, saying that “this country has chosen to conceal its history of genocide and enslavement,” and that the seminary was leading students astray by training them in the “nation’s history of concealment and deception.” “Amen,” called someone in the audience.

Mark Taylor, professor of theology and culture (and the lone white member of the panel), honed in on the “demon word.” “The N-word should never pass the lips of a white person in this seminary or anywhere,” he declared. A student sitting near me murmured, “Thank you.” Professor Taylor said this should not be out of squeamish deference to political correctness, but out of “respect for the performative power of that utterance.” He told about a time in his seminar when a white student quoted an African American scholar, and the N-word was part of the quote. At the time he said nothing, which he said was “a sign of my own white privilege” and “amnesia.” When a black student later expressed offense at the use of the word, he took a half hour from his next seminar to address the issue. Taylor said he was impressed, not only by the remorse of the white student, but by the dignity of the black student, who did not grant forgiveness in such a way as to dismiss the seriousness of the crime.

Denise Reeves, who said she was a professor of multicultural counseling, characterized the flyers as “micro-assault,” a type of “micro-aggression.” Both she and Professor Pierce said the flyers created an atmosphere of fear.

Questions

After the four panelists gave their talks, the moderator read questions that had been submitted by those who could not attend the forum. In my opinion these questions offered the greatest opportunity for debate and dialogue that evening, but unfortunately the opportunity sailed by without much notice. It was clear that there was only one right answer. No one said a word in defense of the Seminarians for Life or the right to distribute posters.

These three questions stood out to me:

  1. How are the flyers different from the poster used to publicize tonight’s event?  

The poster advertising last night’s town hall discussion was headlined by pictures of slaves on a ship, slaves on an auction block, and members of the Ku Klux Klan, among others. They were not the same images used in the pro-life flyers but had the same themes.

Mark Taylor said that what matters is context, and how the images were being used. Yolanda Pierce added that the ones in the flyers were intended to “mock, degrade, instill fear, and insult,” not to educate about history. “You can erect a cross or you can burn it on someone’s lawn,” she said.

  1. Why are some African Americans supporting the use of the images on the flyers? 

“That’s a good question,” whispered several audience members around me.

The presidents of both the Black Students for Life and the National Black Pro-Life Union have stated their support of the flyers and the student that distributed it.

Again, Yolanda Pierce cited “cultural historical amnesia” and said that those who supported the images just “may not know enough about history and whose blood waters the soil.”

  1. What constitutes hate speech? Do the flyers fit that description? If not, should they be protected by the First Amendment? 

Peter Paris answered that this was a legal question and that we’d need a panel of lawyers to answer it, and that even then they could debate the question all night. Mark Taylor said that the “courts have interpreted the First Amendment in such a way as to make it very difficult to prosecute discrimination.”

Both he and Professor Paris said that hate speech had no place at Princeton Theological Seminary.

It was telling that not one person spoke in support of freedom of speech. And the question itself displays a misunderstanding that hate speech is also protected by the First Amendment.

No one (at least overtly) encouraged censorship or advocated that the student who put up the flyers be punished. But it was clear that everyone thought the student had acted in the wrong and was to blame for “much, much [psychological] damage.”

Audience Q&A

During the time of questions from the audience, several white students stood up and joined in the outrage, characterizing themselves as allies in the fight against “white privilege” and wanting to “know when I’m being racist.”

Those who challenged the leaders of the event challenged them for not being racially sensitive enough. One woman (presumably an administrator) defended the hiring of diversity consultants, which Peter Paris had criticized earlier as a knee-jerk reaction when racially charged incidents occur, and she accused Mark Taylor of trying to “drag” all white people into his obliviousness of the posters (he had said he thought it was possible that had seen them but walked by unaware of their implications).

Toward the end, a British man articulated his “outrage” that the poster for “Race and Symbols” included a picture of a Muslim man next to a Klansman. His comments produced a buzz of confusion among the audience and the panelists, who replied that all the pictures were outrageous.

Observations

I took away several themes from last night: contradictions, victimhood, and closed-mindedness.

Contradictions

The panelists seemed to contradict one another in regard to the concept of security: one said that African American students should feel protected and safe so that they can “raise these issues.” Another one said that the seminary should have an admissions application question about the applicant’s “experiences in a diverse situation”—so that the person would realize this is “not a homogeneous place of security” like their family. So should students feel safe or unsafe?

Similar discrepancy occurred with the idea of making people uncomfortable. Professor Peirce said that discomfort was a good place to start a dialogue. The pro-life flyers had made people uncomfortable and had started a dialogue, but clearly the panelists were not in favor of this kind of discomfort.

Victimhood

The theme of victimhood hinged on that word “amnesia.” Those at the front of the room were determined to perpetuate a narrative of grievance, white guilt, and moral high ground. The idea was, I’m not going to let anyone forget what has been done to me. Of course we must remember the history of slavery and injustice to black people—just as we must remember all history of our civilization. But those who spoke at this event advocated bringing to the forefront courses on black history, black theologians, racism, and white privilege, and they bemoaned the amount of space in the curriculum taken up by white male theologians such as John Calvin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Several panelists also lamented the disparity in the numbers of white and black faculty members, and the lack of Hispanic professors. One advocated aggressive recruitment and organizing of faculty members (“I’m not talking about tokenism”) to create a “density of representation.”

Building race-themed curricula and undertaking race-based recruitment only sustains the cycle of victimhood. When a black student is repeatedly taught that to be black means to be wronged, he absorbs that into his identity. When a professor is hired on the basis of race, he is made vulnerable to doubts as to whether he got the job because of the quality of his work. These things run counter to the principle of equal treatment and perpetuate injustice.

It was clear from the Amen’s that most of the people in the room last night put their faith in a narrative of oppression rather than in a narrative of hope. I couldn’t help but think how sad it was that they had absorbed this mindset, that it had become so ingrained in them through education and politically correct culture. They felt that anger was the only way to rise above what they saw as largely hopeless.

The insistence that those who truly know their history would find the pro-life posters racist is more fuel for the victimhood fire. It dismisses any African Americans who would resist victimhood and says to them, “You are simply ignorant of your own history; you’ve been deceived by white lies.” This means then, that the only educated people are the ones who find their identity in terms of mistreatment.

In times past, when someone didn’t like what someone else was saying, they would invoke significant reasons for trying to censor that speech, for example, that the person was damning his own soul by uttering heresies, or that the person was endangering the safety of the state by uttering treason. Here, the reason for repressing speech is that the person caused hurt feelings. Hurt feelings, of course, may provide a compelling reason for the offending person to retract statements and make apologies, especially in a religious community. But protesting over hurt feelings is still immature and ego-centric. Such complaints are encouraged by the therapeutic university, and last night PTS provided a poignant example of what this looks like.

Closed-Mindedness

What amazed me the most was that the emotion and anger were not turned toward the eugenicists cited in the pro-life literature. Mark Taylor and Yolanda Pierce had said that what matters is context and whether the images were being used to educate or to denigrate. The flyers did intend to educate, and they were not just pro-life but pro-African-American life. It’s hard to imagine how they could be interpreted as hateful toward black people when their goal was to prevent abortions of black people.

The real issue here, I believe, is that this is a turf war. The pro-life materials appropriated terms commonly found on the Left: “social justice...genocide...slavery...racism.” The academic left will not cede this rhetoric—or images representing “social justice...genocide...slavery...racism”—to the pro-life cause. That’s the reason for the outrage. All this hysteria over a few flyers is simply evidence of closed-mindedness: closed-mindedness to the applicability of the Left’s arguments to a Right cause, and closed-mindedness to true debate over the ideas advanced. Not once were any points about African American abortions from the flyers discussed. One speaker said, “The issue was not about abortion. It was about the images.” In focusing so exclusively on the images, however, the seminary shut out all receptiveness to the arguments, and made it clear that the entire community should do the same.

To me this conflicts with the reigning PC theme of openness and sensitivity. Where was the sensitivity for the student who wanted her classmates to be informed about a serious issue in society?

Posters

I saw the posters for the first time this morning. Two were put up in November by the student group Seminarians for Life. The group was hosting a screening of the documentary Maafa 21, which traces the eugenics movement’s connections with abortion for African American. The poster for the film is titled, “Black Genocide in 21st Century America.”

The second item posted in November was a poster from Life Dynamics called Klan Parenthood. It says, “Lynching is for Amateurs” and has an image of a cartoon abortion doctor wearing a KKK hood. The disturbing image of an aborted baby in this outdated version of the poster was removed before it was put up at Princeton Theological Seminary.

The other two flyers were placed at the end of January by one student acting on her own behalf. One is a Black History Month bulletin that quotes Deuteronomy 30:19: “So that you and your descendants may live, CHOOSE LIFE.” It portrays a black father embracing his infant son. On the back it says “SOCIAL JUSTICE FOR ALL.”

The other item posted in January was a 12-page newsletter-style brochure, “Did You Know?” On one page there is a picture, embedded in an article titled “Reproductive Racism,” of a noose encircling a 1939 quote by Margaret Sanger: “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” At the end of the brochure is a cartoon panel depicting a slave woman on an auction block. Somewhere in the crowd, someone says, “I agree, it’s wrong dear, but we mustn’t inflict our morality on others.” 

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