America’s Cultural Revolution?

When I was 16 years old, I came across a book in a small, state-owned bookstore in China. I don’t know how it escaped the government’s censors, but I was soon mesmerized by Chatting About America. Here I encountered a world foreign to my experiences but intriguing to my curious soul. It was about a land of freedom, where people were encouraged to think independently and critically and to participate in a market of ideas. This place was America.

During a book-reading report, I talked about this book and the idea of liberty with my classmates. My zeal was received with apathy from my classmates and dismissed by the teacher. That’s when I started to dream about escaping from the Chinese schools that seek nothing but to indoctrinate young minds and transform human beings into “animal laborans” (in Hannah Arendt’s apt words). I wanted to pursue a classical liberal arts education in America so badly that the daydream tormented me for years.

Nearly two decades later, I finally set my feet on the land of freedom only to find that slogans of diversity, equity, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and preferred pronouns have swept across American campuses. I was shocked at first and then bewildered—this was not the America I had dreamed about. Rather, American schools increasingly resemble the authoritarian Chinese schools that aim at transforming human beings into an instrument that serves the state. What I find more chilling is that the American replication of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is engulfing academia, media, the schools, the tech sector, Hollywood, sports, and government—that is to say, everywhere in society. And I wonder: how long will it take before the revolution creeps into households and regularly has people turn on one another?

The situation deteriorated rapidly between 2015, when I first started a master’s program at Pepperdine University, and 2020, where I am now in my third year of a PhD program at Purdue University. Despite the best efforts of a handful of professors like Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson to struggle against identity politics, the universities are overwhelmingly lost to ideology. All of the slogans now serve as building blocks for the cathedrals of the now-ascendant religions of diversity, inclusion, and equity. All three have the same grandmother—intersectionality.

Intersectionality was first proposed by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s. Three features of the theory can help us understand why the American left’s new civil religion threatens the land of the free.

As hermeneutics, intersectionality provides a theoretic ground for competitive victimhood. Intersectionality views humans only as members of a group. Hence, your personhood is defined first and foremost by your group identity. It focuses on explaining different ways that group identities, not individuals, can be marginalized. For example, a black person can be discriminated against according to race identity. A black woman can suffer discrimination due to her second marginalized identity—her gender. But a homosexual black woman can then be discriminated against because of her third identity—sexual orientation. According to intersectionality, these three cases face escalating injustice because of the overlapping intersection of each new marginalized identity. You see how the game plays out? The end result is this: The person who is stamped with the most marginalized identities has the greatest claim to victimhood. Their victimhood entitles them to the greatest voice in the new regime.

Thus, intersectionality offers the most oppressed group the greatest power to censor their oppressors, real or imagined. The underlying justification for this power to control speech flows from something called “standpoint epistemology.” This theory holds that group identity gives members a unique wisdom that other, less oppressed group identities do not have. A particular standpoint gives one unique knowledge of the world, knowledge about which only they can claim the final authority. For instance, a white man—putatively superior in his whiteness and manhood—only has the standpoint of being a white man, with all of the “privilege” that entails. A white woman retains the so-called privilege of whiteness, yet experiences the standpoint of womanhood. Hence, the white woman has special knowledge of sexism that white men cannot access, and this knowledge gives her the authority to speak where men ought to remain silent.

Standpoint epistemology presupposes that reality as we know it today is constructed by white western heterosexual men. Therefore, the more oppressed you are, the more unique perspectives you can draw to expose the injustice of the white man’s world. Oppression generates authority, and the most oppressed person is the most authoritative in defining and fighting “injustices.” When identity is primary in this sense, the basis for rational dissent disappears—one can never escape from being the oppressor. One can only beg for mercy, as even a good-faith dissident will be reminded that any opposition to anti-racism is itself racist.

Classical liberals should realize that this theory allows no room for either dissent or debate. Infidels who do not subscribe to standpoint epistemology and who propose to empirically test the theory or to challenge its logic will meet a response that can be described as a repudiation of scientific universality.

One question left to answer is this: How did intersectionality, essentially a form of sophistry, gain dominance in society?

The left has the ingenuity to claim higher moral ground under the guise of “isms” that intuitively appeal to humanity’s righteous mind and covetous heart. In China, we saw this in Mao’s Land Reform of the 1950s. In the name of “beat the landlords and take their lands,” an estimated 8 million “landlords” and their families were killed. Note that they were not the landlord class as known in the European feudalism. Most of them were free peasants who owned small plots of land. Nevertheless, tarred as the “exploiting class” and demonized with disparaging propaganda, those land owners and their families were shot, strangled, dismembered, or buried alive. The lucky ones were killed in mass rallies, while others perished later in forced labor camps after suffering unspeakable tortures. As Philip Short observed, “Within three years of the founding of New China, the landlords as a cohesive class, which had dominated rural society since Han times, had simply ceased to exist.” With the demise of a group of people who were widely viewed as gentry of the villages throughout ancient history, Mao and the CCP did not just rip off the traditional societal tapestry in the countryside, but fundamentally deformed that society’s traditional mores.

Americans must recognize the dangers of intersectionality. If left unchecked, this weaponized ideology will destroy American liberty. If not, Americans will learn the truth that power, not freedom, is truly irresistible.

We are seeing something similar now in America’s own cultural revolution. The American left constantly redefines common language to muddle thinking and extort moral commitment out of citizens. Justice is infinitely repackaged as “social justice,” “racial justice,” or “reproductive justice,” and the list goes on. America’s traditional admiration for equality is transmuted into the more demanding, if not totalitarian concept of equity. Equity requires reparation for past wrongdoings and perceived “injustices,” with special attention given to how systems propagate oppression. Equity demands we treat people unequally to level the play field. The only diversity it can respect is that of group identities. Racism, a word that was once used to describe personal prejudice, is now hijacked by the phrase “systemic racism.” Hence, intersectional theorists point to a universal “white privilege” because they claim society disproportionally benefits white people, especially men.

Focused as it is on the Holocaust, the Western world remains largely ignorant of the fact that Mao produced the deadliest regime in modern history. Both Stalin and Hitler have been remembered as monstrous murders and yet Mao’s portrait remains enshrined in some leftists’ campus offices. In both Germany and Soviet Union, mass killings were undertaken by agents of the state. Mao and the leftist cadres went further, and inculcated hatred and resentment in the masses, mobilizing them to perform wanton murder of their fellowmen. It is not just that average Chinese citizens were turned mass murderers—women and children were made observe these mass murders, Mao destroyed humanity. I see a chilling parallel in the American left’s tactics and rhetoric that fabricate a racial divide and incite riots and looting.

For years, I have seen social justice warriors across American campuses shut down events they dislike, scream at professors who don’t support their views, or physically attack speakers they hate. I worry that the campus violence reveals a larger issue than the crisis of free speech. My concern has less to do with coddled American students’ intolerance for dissent or offense than that they are used as cannon fodder for the purpose of advancing an agenda—or indeed a revolution. As a student of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, I can hardly overlook the stunning similarity of the rhetoric and practice between BLM protestors who raise their fists and Red Guards who hold high the Little Red Book. To purge the upper echelons of power, Mao set a group of screaming, self-righteous Red Guards in clamorous motion. In the name of overthrowing the Four Olds (Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Customs), belligerent Red Guards demanded to assign new names to historical sites, destroyed statues and temples, burned books, and publicly reviled teachers and intellectuals. Once given license to denounce all authority, those young, radical students, some of them no older than fourteen, were emboldened to torture and kill the innocent.

For a decade, the Chinese Cultural Revolution thoroughly wrecked the economy, uprooted traditions, destroyed social trust by turning family members on each other, and worst of all, killed well more than a million people. One can only wonder how far its American replication will go.

I came to America for liberty, not equality. I prefer Tocqueville’s “inequality with freedom” to the democratic nightmare of “equality in slavery.” What Tocqueville couldn’t foresee back in the 19th century was how depraved a taste for equality could become. Americans must recognize the dangers of intersectionality. If left unchecked, this weaponized ideology will destroy American liberty. If not, Americans will learn the truth that power, not freedom, is truly irresistible.