12 February 2021
The President’s Apology to ASECS
I deeply regret the pain I've caused for a significant portion of our members.
After reading the many critical responses to my abstract--some public and some private-- can see why it elicited strong objections. The four lines of the abstract are structured by an opposition between liberalism and radicalism and the string of names attached to each made the opposition tendentious (by implying ‘good’ for liberal and ‘bad’ for radicalism). My desire was not to see liberalism and radicalism as good or bad, but to explore how the tension between the two has gotten expressed in the vexed legacy of Enlightenment freedom of speech. I see now that my abstract fell short of expressing this critical understanding of free speech.
I’ve been asked to explain the epithet “‘woke’ diversity radicals.” “Diversity” because diversity radicals have made racial, ethnic and gender diversity their highest value, and “radical” because their politics aims at an uprooting and positive transformation of existing values, practices, and institutions. [“Radical” is derived from Latin radix, radic, root.] To take an example from my own critical history of free speech, Critical Race Theory (CRT), by challenging the idea that “the Law” is neutral and universal, has developed a powerful legal and political argument for refusing to grant hate speech (‘words that wound’) First Amendment protection. By this argument words don’t just hurt feelings, they can do harm. I intended the term “diversity radical” to be descriptive, not ironic; but I now see that it can be heard as an insult.
The abstract of my lecture sought to incite interest, but instead incited pain and anger. As one critic wrote me, an insult, even if unintended, is not a good way to start a dialogue. I certainly agree! In future, I’ll seek a more collaborative way to engage topics of common concern.
William B. Warner
President of the American Society of Eighteenth Century Studies
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature
UC/ Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106