Identity Politics Meets College Politics With Predictably Stupid, Immoral Results
An unimportant story from Berkeley helps us understand an important one unfolding at universities around the country
On Saturday, before the football game between USC and UC Berkeley, fifteen protesters rushed the field at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley and refused to leave until they were arrested, delaying the start of the game. Some people mistakenly assumed the protest was a demand for a ceasefire in Gaza. The truth was much odder: The protesters, most of them students at UC Berkeley, were demanding the reinstatement of a suspended Berkeley professor. Ivonne del Valle, an associate professor of colonial studies in the Spanish and Portuguese department, is on leave and faces potential termination because multiple investigations have determined that she stalked and harassed Prof. Joshua Clover, a communist poet in the English department at UC Davis.
In addition to disrupting the football game, some UC Berkeley students are threatening a hunger strike in support of del Valle. “We reiterate, how far are you willing to go before you fix an injustice? Are you willing to risk students’ lives over this?” these maudlin students asked Berkeley administrators in a letter reviewed by Bay Area public radio station KQED.
Del Valle has become a cause célèbre despite having admitted to key aspects of the charges that led to her suspension, including that she keyed Clover’s car; sat outside his apartment and slid threatening notes under the door including “If you make me leave, it’ll be worse. I’ll keep doing this you can be sure of that”; spray painted “here lives a pervert” in the hallway outside his apartment; and dumped chunks of fermented pineapple on his mother’s doorstep. Extensive reports by KQED and the Chronicle of Higher Education, based on Berkeley’s Title IX investigation reports and interviews with del Valle herself, make clear that she was (and is) convinced that Clover, whom she barely knew before these incidents began, had hacked her electronic devices and was using the information he gleaned about her thoughts and actions in order to post coded messages about her on Twitter.1 Frustrated that police and Berkeley administrators did not take her delusional hacking claims seriously, she pursued a direct harassment campaign against her UC colleague, which she continued in violation of orders to stop contacting him. Again, del Valle admits these facts.
So why, in the view of del Valle and her supporters, is her suspension unjust? Well, it starts with the fact that she is a Latina and Clover is a white man.
Her student supporters, in an open letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, say it was “sexist” for the university to disregard her claims that she was the victim of cyberstalking by Clover.2 “Do women of color not enter into your version of feminism?” they ask. Del Valle, too, is avidly playing the gender and ethnicity cards. “I don’t want UC Berkeley to think that they can do this to a minority woman in order to protect a white, senior professor,” she said to KQED. “It’s not acceptable.”
I encourage you to read the KQED and Chronicle stories and ask yourself whether a reasonable person could consider the facts here and conclude that del Valle is the victim of Clover’s harassment. The answer is no. But for del Valle’s supporters, the issue is not objective facts, like the contents of voicemails she left for Clover, the number of times she called his office phone line, or the tweets she posted encouraging the FBI to ask his romantic partner about him; it is del Valle’s subjective, lived experience as a Latina immigrant in a society dominated by white men. KQED reporter Holly McDede describes a conversation with one of del Valle’s supporters, a graduate student named Alejandra Decker:
She said she and other students have read the records describing del Valle’s behavior. But she says organizers still stand by del Valle, and that it’s not her place to judge a woman’s actions when in turmoil and isolated. “Those reports — anyone who reads them, I think we can all admit that they are difficult to read because they paint Professor Ivonne in a way that personally I’ve never seen,” Decker said. “It’s a woman’s actions in her biggest moments of survival.”
This story itself — about a far-left-wing humanities professor with obvious mental illness behaving badly toward another far-left-wing humanities professor and receiving a ludicrous, histrionic, and identity-based defense of both her actions and her mental state from some of her students and colleagues3 — is not terribly important. But the manner in which del Valle’s supporters have convinced themselves to stand with her — by looking away from all the facts that conflict with their pristine moral worldview about who’s oppressed and who’s the oppressor — bears resemblance to a much more consequential form of left-wing moral idiocy that we've seen on college campuses in recent weeks: the willingness of many students and faculty to excuse (or even in some cases celebrate) Hamas’ terror attack that killed over 1,400 people.
Obsession with structural factors has led people on the identity-obsessed left to discard the idea that people are individual moral actors with responsibility for their actions. Instead, they rely on a moral framework that looks solely at a person’s or group’s position within a hierarchy of oppression, awarding culpability in any conflict to the person who ranks as less oppressed, regardless of actually existing evidence about who did what and why.
More broadly, any inconvenient facts must be re-explained in a way that allows any phenomenon to be shoved back into the framework of hierarchical oppression.4 Rising violence against Asian Americans? Must be white supremacy, even when the perpetrators are black. Anti-gay attitudes and policies in the Middle East? If they exist at all, it must be due to British colonialism. And the atrocities committed by Hamas and ordinary Gazans against Israeli civilians? Well, apparently they didn’t happen and also they were justifiable because every Israeli — even an Israeli who immigrated there to flee oppression in the Middle East or North Africa, and even an Israeli eight-year-old — is a settler-colonialist and therefore not a civilian.
In both the globally important case of Hamas and the trivial case of del Valle, left-wing students and faculty have shown an inability to analyze a conflict through any frame other than “systems of oppression.” That is, Hamas is less powerful than Israel, and therefore it cannot be morally culpable for murdering, raping and beheading Israeli civilians (or must not have done so at all); and del Valle is a minority woman, so if she spray painted a white, male professor’s door with a message that he is a “sex addict,” it must be because she didn’t receive adequate support from her employer that a white employee would have.
I believe this complete inability to cope with the idea that an “oppressed” person could be in the wrong is the reason we keep seeing leftists tearing down those “kidnapped” posters showing the faces of Israeli hostages — including child hostages — being held by Hamas. The left-wing Daily Dot published an article yesterday contending the posters are “bait” meant to tempt leftists into ripping them down and then getting canceled. To find the posters to be “bait” in this way is perverse, but it starts to make sense if your whole worldview of the blameless oppressed and the evil oppressor is undermined by the ugly facts contained on the posters. The posters cause cognitive dissonance; thus, they must be removed from view.
There’s also the fact that so many of the zealots holding and expressing these views are dilettantes. While some are literal adolescents and some merely behave like adolescents, they have often started engaging with politics only recently and have done so only through a highly emotive, sloganeering kind of activism, surrounded only by people who agree with them, and kept safe from ever having to consider the possibility that a moral question might be difficult. Basically, it’s a style of politics for children, and the people who practice it are completely unprepared for the complexity of the real world, even if they have PhDs.
How powerful and pervasive is this framework that treats oppressed identity as the sole determinant of moral agency, one that produces clean and clear results every time? It depends where you look. As we have seen over the past few weeks, it is obviously not the perspective of President Biden or the vast majority of Democratic party elected officials. It is rarely the sincerely-held perspective of university administrators, though they often promote it for cynical reasons, and they face gravitational pull toward these ideas because years of ideologically-driven faculty searches have left them with an ever-increasing number of true believers on campus. It is dominant within the left-wing charitable foundations that fund and shape the work of left-wing NGOs which, in turn, seek to shape the work of governments run by left-of-center officeholders. It is common at the staff level within liberal organizations, including the offices of Democratic elected officials. And it pervades the burgeoning DEI bureaucracies inside all kinds of not-otherwise-especially-ideological organizations.
So if you’re worried (or hopeful) that this rotten moral framework is going to drive US policy toward Israel anytime soon, you probably shouldn’t be. But on less-prominent topics where policy is more likely to be shaped at the level of staff and specialized political appointees — for example, government regulation telling universities how to conduct Title IX investigations5 — this identity-driven framework can and sometimes does carry the day. And depending on where you work, it might be very sensible to worry that you will face negative social or professional consequences based on your perceived membership in a privileged identity group. Over the last few weeks, Jews in particular have gotten a message that, at universities and on the far left, they are considered the white oppressor, not an oppressed minority.
It is reasonable for people to recoil from a moral framework that purports to judge culpability based on identity rather than actions — even when they suspect the people promoting the framework will lack the power to enact and enforce it, or doubt whether they sincerely believe in it.6 And one of the salutary aspects of the last month’s politics is that a lot of liberals who treated these ideas as a harmless academic diversion are now seeing the perverse moral places they can lead to.
It is perfectly reasonable for policymakers to look to rein in this insanity at universities, which rely extensively on taxpayer largesse and are supposed to serve the public interest but instead often produce a combination of radical politics and useless scholarship, egged on by a non-tenured, easily-firable DEI bureaucracy that seeks to perpetuate exactly this kind of “academic” “study.” Meanwhile, the rest of us need to deal with the fact that this insanity has escaped campuses and embedded itself as an identity-political bureaucracy within all kinds of organizations, while broadly animating the left.
The best thing you can do to push back on this trend is simply to say “no.” If you see someone ripping the “kidnapped” posters down, scold them. If your professor is stalking another professor, tell her that’s wrong regardless of her ethnicity. And remember to judge people on the basis of their actions, not their identities. Ultimately, the idea of doing otherwise is too ridiculous to gain purchase with most Americans. But that can only be made clear if we stand up for ourselves and say so.
Corrections, November 1: This piece was corrected to say that the death toll of the Hamas terror attack on Israel was over 1,400 people. A previous version said 1,400 Israeli civilians; most victims were Israeli civilians, but some were not Israeli and some were not civilians. It was also corrected to note that the widely-distributed posters about Hamas captives bear the headline “kidnapped,” not “missing.” And a footnote was corrected to say Israel’s Jewish population is approximately seven million, not six million. I regret the errors.
Many of the supposedly coded tweets del Valle has fixated on didn’t even come from Clover’s Twitter account. They come from a Twitter account ascribed to David Porter, which del Valle decided was Clover’s sock puppet. As the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports at almost exhausting length, the Porter account in fact belongs to a New York-based writer named David C. Porter, who does not know either del Valle or Clover.
To give you an idea of the quality of del Valle’s evidence that Clover had hacked her phone and laptop in order to illegally surveil her, here is a summary from the Chronicle: “She would message a friend, she said, and within hours, a post would pop up on Clover’s Twitter feed — or another she was convinced he had access to — that seemed to be indirectly referencing it. She wrote about planning to see a friend named Isis and he posted about a restaurant with the same name, she said. She was searching on the web for a good place for French lessons, and he tweeted, ‘Moving on to daily vous, daily ils elles.’ She had a cellphone conversation with her son about Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘Humble’ and over the next two days, the word ‘humble’ appeared on the two Twitter feeds where she accused Clover of stalking her. Where many would see coincidences, del Valle saw a pattern of harassment.”
Del Valle’s defenders include not just UC Berkeley students students, but also faculty. In a December 2021 letter, 12 of her fellow professors endorsed her claim to be the victim in this situation, arguing that “after three years of suffering without support, Professor del Valle sought to stop the harassment by writing to acquaintances of the person who is now her accusers. This desperate effort — again, one born from her years of suffering cyberstalking and harassment — led to disciplinary actions.” However, as the Chronicle notes, it’s not clear how much of the evidence from the Title IX proceedings her colleagues had knowledge of when they endorsed del Valle’s claim that Clover had cyberstalked her first.
I have often been astounded at the stories that identity-leftist academics tell each other with apparent sincerity in order to assume away any difficulty in resolving any societal issue through use of their strict moral hierarchies of oppression. To take another example, there is the problem of how valid interests related to sex and gender can come into conflict when setting rules for women’s sports. Many transgender women want to be included in athletic activities with other women, many elite female athletes don’t want to have to compete against males who have a natural biological advantage, and those interests can’t always be vindicated simultaneously. It’s a problem that requires a balancing of interests. That is, it requires a balancing of interests unless you tell yourself things like “the inequity between male and female athletes is a result not of inherent biological differences between the sexes but of biases in how they are treated in sports,” or “women's sport exists as a category because the dominance of men athletes was threatened by women competing,” in which case the moral conflict becomes extremely simple to resolve. All you have to do is believe some obvious nonsense that will cause any normal person outside academia to conclude you are an idiot.
I should note, by the way, that while Title IX investigations mostly get discussed in the press when they go badly astray, UC Berkeley’s process here appears to have reached an appropriate and fact-based result.
It is worth considering whether we should take identity-political ideas seriously even when we strongly suspect the people expressing them do not.
Land acknowledgements are widely derided as farces and, generally, I agree that they are. When Microsoft sets aside time to open its internal communications with a list of Coast Salish peoples that “since time immemorial” occupied the area that is now the company’s headquarters, this does not imply that they intend to return the land to the indigenous people who once lived on it, or even that they will do anything else substantive for their benefit. It’s just marketing, much as it is when REI does it at the start of a video urging its employees not to unionize. And yet, there has been quite a bit of surprise this month at the number of people who, when they talk about “decolonization” and the idea that Palestine should extend “from the river to the sea,” appear to literally mean that the seven million Jewish “settler-colonialists” who live there ought to be eliminated from the area, whether through death or expulsion.
Any argument that “decolonization” is a moral imperative requiring the removal of Jews from Israel applies equally to the non-indigenous population of the United States. Actually, it applies more clearly, given the ambiguity about who was really in the Holy Land first and the clear fact that Coast Salish people were in (what is now) Redmond, Washington before white people. Is it a good idea for non-indigenous Americans to adopt a rhetorical framework that implies we ought to give our land back and leave our home country on the basis of the idea that everyone knows we don’t really mean it? The dishonesty alone is reason enough to say “no,” but there’s also the risk that if we repeat these ideas often enough, some of us will start to believe them.