Issues & Insights

Hester Prynne Arrives

The Nathaniel Hawthorne character, branded with a scarlet “A” for her adultery, is becoming a recognizable paradigm in today’s highly charged American society. The use of labelling, perhaps more aptly described as branding (as in cattle), has become a method of punishment for those who disagree with an ideology and effective blackmail to force others into compliance.

Labels – sexist, racist, homophobe, etc. – are now the currency of social justice enforcement and wokeness activists. They no longer limit branding to actual acts of discrimination. For them, it is not enough to assure that opportunities, whether jobs, school slots, social positions, or the like are available to anyone based on relevant capability, experience, and commitment, without regard to identity.

These activists not only demand special consideration based on identity (a topic for another day), but they are also exploiting our various biases as leverage to create guilt or fear of disagreement. That those biases may be based on experience or reasoned learning does not matter. The threat of “outing” a real or claimed bias and associating it with a defamatory label is used as a cudgel to exercise fascistic control of expression.

Today’s most potent weapon for activists is to threaten someone with the label “racist” even when there is no tangible act to support it. The supposed justification for the label may be based on a presumed bias, a distorted interpretation, exaggeration, or extrapolation of one’s statements, or even by imputing the meaning of silence. The latter evokes the case of Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded by Henry VIII solely for his silence’s implied disapproval of the king becoming head of the church to declare his own marriage annulment.

Police are the most often vilified group even though it is entirely logical that they will approach street situations based on experience and the inevitable biases that follow. That is not in itself racist, though groups like Black Lives Matter would want you to think so. Research conclusively shows that inner-city minorities want more police, not fewer. It is likely those people understand the difference between racism and biases that sometimes leads to inappropriate law enforcement behavior. 

Sensible and long-accepted concepts such as personal responsibility and accountability are seemingly no longer applicable when a minority is involved in crime (never mind that victims of crime are similar minorities). Instead, we see ideas that run counter to the basic principle of equality under that law, like the proposed “poverty defense” in Seattle. To criticize those initiatives, or others that effectively annul laws, may merit a racist label. And do not question why identity should take precedence over protecting the most vulnerable when it comes to a COVID vaccination, even though it will inevitably cost more lives if implemented.

Acknowledging non-racist causes for inequality, such as poverty, illegal immigration, failing public schools, or far too many broken families is legitimate and necessary. But activists instead tend to co-opt these factors and attribute them to “systemic racism” to bolster the reach and power of their condemnatory tactics.

The activists’ prescription for atonement is usually to abandon “white middle-class norms” (though “white” has little to do with them). This message is rampant in “social sensitivity training” being forced upon white teachers, city employees, and even the military. Attendees to these mandatory sessions are told that they need to forfeit values like merit, hard work, seeking comfort, etc. The effect is to drive everybody down to the lowest common basis of equality. Would most of us freely accept those ideas without coercion?

Likely, the answer is a resounding “no”. These activists should instead be working to solve the underlying causes of racial inequality. That means supporting charter schools by rebuffing the teachers’ unions and politicians in thrall to them. It means speaking out publicly about the importance of family, the value of higher expectations, and the importance of personal responsibility. It means acknowledging merit as the core of equal opportunity and the antithesis of racism.

To drive acceptance of an extreme notion of sexism, similar blackmail-like threats suppress opposition. Most rational adults understand that there are biological and behavioral differences between the sexes. Each sex has its strengths and differences, yet the gender activists seem to believe that equality means expecting each sex to be comparable in all respects. Lawrence Summers was ousted from the presidency of Harvard University simply for asking if aptitude for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) might differ by sex. He drew no conclusion at all and made no value judgment. His unjustified persecution and silencing as sexist were fascistic at their core and antithetical to American values.

Transgender activists have adopted their own scarlet branding (“transphobic”), using it to promulgate the dissociation of sex and gender throughout our society. Is this really for the greater good or just for a relatively small cohort? Recently, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) was roasted for introducing legislation that would deny access for biological males to women’s sports, thus banning an oxymoronic practice counter to the purpose of sexual separation to begin with. Hopefully, she will not easily retreat.

Abigail Schrier also recently earned the enmity of the transgender community for expressing concern for minors being overly influenced by peers, parents, or the media to deny biological reality before they can independently choose for themselves. Though there is no doubt that authentic cases of gender dysphoria exist, the idea of allowing self or parental diagnosis of a serious syndrome is absurd. Like it or not, we are born with organs that define our sex (except true genetic rarities like XXY or XYY). Separating gender from sex and choosing pronouns may be a method for an individual to deal with personal preferences or issues, but why is it transphobia to acknowledge the role of biology or show concern for minors making potentially irreversible and ill-considered decisions about drugs and surgery?

There are many more examples of scarlet-letter-like labels: Islamophobe, climate denier (for not acknowledging the alleged imminent apocalypse and for recognizing the many nuances of the issue), Nazi (for disagreeing with something favored by the woke), anti-masker, etc. This style of branding and blackmail is a malign practice. Cattle may be branded involuntarily, but people are not cattle. Actions matter far more than biases, thoughts, or beliefs. We need to return the paradigm of Hester Prynne to the realm of fiction.

Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases.

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