Alas, another incident at Yale Law School has given even more grist to the cancel-culture mill. On Oct. 13, The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website whose penchant for beating the anti-woke drum is only matched by its hyper-nationalist saber-rattling, published an audio recording of two administrators meeting with Trent Colbert LAW ’23 about student complaints following an email Colbert had authored inviting students to a party at his “trap house,” co-sponsored by the Federalist Society and the Native American Law Students Association. For several weeks, the well-oiled anti-woke outrage machine went into overdrive. Cue: predictably histrionic and confused comparisons to Maoist reeducation camps, witch hunts, Communist East Germany, and — perhaps the most hilariously misleading — the McCarthy Era.
I am not interested in debating whether Colbert’s usage of “trap house” is or is not racist. Or whether the students’ response to Colbert’s email and the deans’ meeting with him amount to an insidious attempt at “cancellation” or a good-faith effort to educate a student. Or whether the presence of a single junior staffer responsible for diversity work in the law school’s Office of Student Affairs — an office, as one YLS professor noted, with a campus reputation for bringing in left-wing students following complaints from their conservative peers — evinces a sprawling, woke bureaucracy of Kafkaesque proportions. Enough ink has, regrettably, already been spilled on these questions. You can likely tell where I stand on them.
Instead, I am interested in the conspicuous silences and omissions that characterized nearly all of the coverage of the incident. While Colbert was feted to round after round of fawning media treatment — a softball interview on CNN, a chummy Q&A with prominent legal commentator David Lat (in which Colbert brought along his friend as a character witness) — almost no one covering the incident deigned to speak with any of the law students who raised complaints about his email and tried to engage with him. Several students I spoke with resorted to posting testimonies on Medium after being ignored or stonewalled by media outlets they’d reached out to in attempts to correct the record.
Throughout the media coverage, the actual voices of minority students were drowned out by a facile caricature, one immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the cancel culture playbook. In recent years, the figure of the “offended” student, the “triggered” student, the “censorious” student — the student who just won’t let something go — has taken on a phantasmagoric quality in the minds of the cancel-culture obsessed. A strange combination of debilitating fragility and terrifying omnipotence, it stalks the anti-woke imagination, often appearing in implicitly and not-so-implicitly racist and sexist forms (e.g., the memefied “Shrieking Girl” of Yale Halloween scandal lore).
What, we might ask, does the figure of the censorious student do for those who invoke it? “By hearing student critique as censorship, the content of that critique is pushed aside,” argues feminist writer and academic Sara Ahmed. “When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge is without substance.”
For anyone actually interested in the content of the law students’ critique, a good place to look is an October 18 letter published on The Wall (an online forum available to all YLS students) by members of the Dred Scott Society, an affinity group for students of color who identify as descendants of oppressed, colonized, segregated and enslaved peoples. For members of the group, Colbert’s use of “trap house,” intentional or not, was inseparable from the party invitation’s association with the Federalist Society, the Yale chapter of which co-sponsored the party (Colbert sits on its executive board).
An arch-conservative network of 70,000 students, lawyers and professors founded at Yale in 1982, the Federalist Society — “FedSoc” to the initiated — is by many accounts the most powerful legal organization in the United States (six of nine current Supreme Court justices are or have been members). As the Dred Scott Society students note, FedSoc has been the leading edge of a conservative legal movement that has, over the past four decades, transformed the law in ways detrimental to poor people and people of color (for the full receipts, read the students’ letter).
These reactionary intentions existed from the organization’s beginnings: the chemical and munitions magnate John Olin, who provided the seed money to found the society, decided to start pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into pushing universities and law schools to the right after a group of Black students took over the student union at Cornell, his alma mater, in 1969. Following the protest, Olin vowed to use his fortune “to help preserve the system which made its accumulation possible.” (In many ways, he’s been successful; far from a left-wing radical, the average Yale Law student exhibits significantly more selfish economic preferences than the average American).
Despite its flagrantly political agenda, FedSoc claims to be a nonpartisan organization dedicated to “debate,” “discussion” and “intellectual diversity.” Yet, as the Dred Scott Society letter argues, “FedSoc fears open, transparent, and honest conversations that would shine a light on the toxic issues they continue to support.” Indeed, behind FedSoc’s seemingly anodyne appeals to the importance of debate lurk deep pockets invested in climate denial, in the rollback of civil and labor rights, and in the current anti-CRT race panic. Its powerful donors, from the Koch Brothers and Mercer Family to Chevron and ExxonMobil, couldn’t care less about debate and discussion. More recently, FedSoc has refused to disavow or even publicly acknowledge its members’ many links to the January 6th insurrection. When Colbert ignored repeated invitations to dialogue from both individual students and student groups while simultaneously claiming to care about “rigorous enquiry and open-mindedness,” he was copying a page straight out of FedSoc’s PR strategy.
In a comment to the News, Colbert argued that the students who criticized him “are less interested in discussion than domination, which is worrisome, considering the importance of this institution.” Beyond the fact that many students did reach out to try and have discussions with Colbert, what is so laughable about Colbert’s argument is that Yale Law School and the Federalist Society have long been reliable producers of right-wing graduates for whom domination is much more seductive than discussion. Think of the sputtering masculine fury of Brett Kavanaugh’s LAW ’90 confirmation testimony, of Josh Hawley’s LAW ’06 imperiously raised fist egging on a white supremacist insurrection, of Samuel Alito’s LAW ’75 recent sneering attack on journalists who even dare to question the Supreme Court’s putative impartiality (all three are current or former FedSoc members). I could go on.
The media-generated “cancel culture” spectacle elides this deeper context. It treats the right as a good-faith conversation partner and not a fundamentally anti-democratic political formation, one that cynically deploys claims of censorship in order to avoid having to actually engage in dialogue. It reveals a widespread and complacent belief, shared by many in the elite commentariat, that American society is a placid pool suddenly disturbed by the censorious splashing of students too quick to take offense, and not a raging storm of domination, subordination, and injustice. And it misrepresents American law schools — especially elite ones — as institutions dedicated to knocking down entrenched hierarchies instead of reliably reproducing them.
There are some students out there who would offer a different, more truthful perspective. It’s a shame no one seems interested in hearing what they have to say.
JACK MCCORDICK is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.