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On Tiger Moms, Scissor Statements, and The Permanence of Shit-List Membership

On Tiger Moms, Scissor Statements, and The Permanence of Shit-List Membership


I have a couple friends who are significantly interested in a particular pocket of the internet that you could refer to as something like “posts about relationship problems with ridiculous or unreasonable causes”. One of them sent me this gem:

My wife divorced me because sometimes I leave dishes by the sink. It seems so unreasonable when you put it that way. It makes her seem ridiculous and makes me seem like a victim of unfair expectations.

We like to point fingers at other things to explain why something went wrong, like when Biff Tannen crashed George McFly's car and spilled beer on his clothes, but it was all George's fault for not telling him the car had a blind spot. 

This bad thing happened because of this, that, and the other thing — not because of anything I did.

Sometimes I leave used drinking glasses by the kitchen sink, just inches away from the dishwasher. It isn't a big deal to me now. It wasn't a big deal to me when I was married. But it WAS a big deal to her.

Every time she'd walk into the kitchen and find a drinking glass by the sink, she moved incrementally closer to moving out and ending our marriage. I just didn't know it yet. But even if I had, I fear I wouldn't have worked as hard to change my behavior as I would have stubbornly tried to get her to see things my way.

To get something out of the way: I don’t want to attack either person here. Divorce is a hell of a hard thing from what I understand, and I’m sure they are going through a lot. But there is something that stands out about this excerpt to anyone that has been around a lot of relationships: there’s almost certainly more going on here than what was stated.

It’s like, yes, it’s possible this is entirely about cups being left by a sink. It at least in theory can happen that an entire marriage fails over one fairly insignificant thing. But I think it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s more likely that something else (or a lot of something elses) were in play. So to the extent I read the rest of that article, it was looking for clues to what really happened. When something strikes you as off, looking for explanations to resolve the incongruity is the normal human response.

But whatever interest you are imagining I had in cups-as-grounds-for-divorce and whatever effort you’d guess I put into figuring out that weirdness, you should now multiply by 50 or 100. Got that mental image? Great: that’s about how it is to look into the ongoing cancellation of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother lady.

I was not really all that aware of Amy Chua (the aforementioned Tiger Mom) before this week; I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the name but it’s equally possible I’m just confusing it with any of dozens of other similar stories about people on the university-system cancellable-persons list. I would have missed the recent news stories about her entirely had an internet-friend not asked me to look into them, assuring me they were weird.

The basic breakdown of the most-recent controversies goes something like this. Chua is arguably most famous for writing Tiger Mother, but is also notable for being a relatively influential Yale Law professor, someone at least at the “occasionally on a talking head panel” level of professional fame. Since it’s hard to cancel someone from “having written a book once”, all the attempts to harm are focused on Chua-the-professor as opposed to Chua-the-author, and involve various groups convincing Yale to punish her in some way or another.

So it happens that Chua has been removed from her small group leader-duties. Yale seems to have scrubbed the site of any reference to the small groups for whatever reason - every page I can find was like this one (let me know if that link ever gets repaired, please) - but the purpose of them is sort of an extended orientation group; students are placed with several other first-term attendees to help facilitate networking and friend-making. Implied in all this is a possible bonus - since this is the first close, extended contact students have with a particular professor, it represents an early chance to gain a mentor.

A professor leading or not leading a group is not a huge deal except to the extent that not being allowed to is intended to signal Yale’s displeasure. Yale’s justification for this is that Chua had students over to her house - just that, and nothing else (for this incident, that is; there’s still a lot of article to go). But note that in this case, off-hours interaction with students is something that Yale generally loves:

The small group is a defining part of the first-year experience at the Law School, with students in the same group attending all the same classes in their first semester and relying on the professor for initial mentorship, academic advice and professional connections. Students form strong relationships with their small group leader and often interact with the professor outside of regular class and office hours, according to law students that spoke with the News.

It’s also something that’s not explicitly against any YLS rules. The most specific policy YLS has regarding this kind outside contact is the following, written in a very generic “fine unless it’s exploitative” type of language:

They maintain proper professional boundaries and never exploit the unequal institutional power inherent in the relationship between faculty member and student or trainee.

To further confuse things, Chua says she didn’t do this and wasn’t given any opportunities to defend herself; in Chua’s telling she learned about her small-group privileges being stripped only after receiving a call from the Yale Daily News about it; they had been told of her punishment before she had. She further notes the weirdness of being punished by not being able to socialize with students for the crime of, well, socializing with students:

Let me also just say that by asking me to teach a Small Group—in fact twisting my arm to do it!—the School was obviously expecting me to socialize with students, so the notion that I was under some kind of ban is hard to understand.

But there’s more to it than that. If you are just reading my article and not clicking on the links this looks a bit bizarre, but those of you who did the homework of reading that whole article already know that there’s some substantial wrinkles in what I’ve left out so far. To start: one of Chua’s complaints is that the Yale Daily News had knowledge of several supposedly confidential details from a 2019 agreement not to teach in the 2020/2021 term. This small group appointment came in tandem with her return to teaching.

So at this point, we want to understand the current weirdness where a teacher is being punished for something that’s not against any rules. We want to know why Yale might be leaking confidential personnel information to the paper and strategically minimizing Chua’s ability to defend herself.

This is drive-someone-out behavior; it’s what you do when you want someone to quit, or you want to give yourself enough cover to fire them. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad; after all, there might be good reasons to drive someone out or fire them. But to know that, we need to go back a bit and understand why Chua was being censured in the first place. Only somewhat oddly, our step back involves Brett Kavanaugh.

The year was 2018, and for reasons half of us consider legitimate and half of us don’t, the media was desperate for any dirt of any kind that anyone at all could dish up on Brett Kavanaugh. It was a quaint time. Michael Avenatti was still taken kind-of seriously in those pre-Nike-extortion case days; all accusations of any kind were given serious screen time. Regardless of what you believe about Kav, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t good business; we were pretty much all watching for some reason or another.

In June of 2018, Chua wrote an opinion piece based on her knowledge of working with him as a part of her work with YLS’s clerkship committee for the better part of a decade.

Here’s a challenge: Try to find something negative about her in print before that date that doesn’t have to do with parenting style in relation to her controversial parenting book. Seriously, go. I couldn’t - it wasn’t for lack of trying. Granted it’s not an easy Google search to do, so I might have missed something; tell me if I did, keep me honest.

In September (note: Kavanaugh was confirmed in October) entirely anonymous accusations started to surface - Chua, who had defended Kavanaugh, was reportedly now telling students he preferred to hire pretty girls and that they should dress slutty for the interviews. You might note the meta of the story is particularly strong in one direction. See? Kavanaugh is a pervy rapist type. See? Anyone who defends him is literally pimping girls to him for him to rape.

The article is designed to capture both elements. Re: Chua-as-pimp:

Chua advised the same student Rubenfeld spoke to that she ought to dress in an “outgoing” way for her interview with Kavanaugh, and that the student should send Chua pictures of herself in different outfits before going to interview. The student did not send the photos.

There is no allegation that the female students who worked for Kavanaugh were chosen because of their physical appearance or that they were not qualified.

And re: “See? Kavanaugh is a rapist, this proves it!”:

Kavanaugh is facing intense scrutiny in Washington following an allegation made by Christine Blasey Ford that he forcibly held her down and groped her while they were in high school. He has denied the allegation. The accusation has mired Kavanaugh’s confirmation in controversy, drawing parallels to allegations of sexual harassment against Justice Clarence Thomas by Anita Hill in the 1990.

From later in the article:

However, the remarks from Chua and Rubenfeld raise questions about why the couple believed it was important to emphasize the students’ physical appearance when discussing jobs with Kavanaugh. The couple were not known to do that in connection with other judges, sources said.

Chua, for her part, denies all this:

Everything that is being said about the advice I give to students applying to Brett Kavanaugh – or any judge – is outrageous, 100% false, and the exact opposite of everything I have stood for and said for the last 15 years,” Chua said in a letter that was sent to the Yale Law School community.

I don’t think you guys are dumb and heaven knows I’m not subtle; I think you know already the direction I lean regarding the veracity of these particular accusations, at least to the extent that they were relayed with anything like the same tone they were delivered. But holding off on that, let’s assume the what they’ve accused her of is true; that she told some of her students that Kav tends to hire pretty women, and that if they want to be hired they should look pretty. This is at least plausible:

Kavanaugh with his law clerks in 2014–15, in Washington, the first all-women law clerk class in the history of the DC circuit.

These are pretty women, and Kav is known for being an exception to other federal-level-or-higher judges in the sense that he hires a lot of women as clerks. That’s a knife that cuts both ways, depending on whether the Left likes you or not; if he was something other than a Republican nominee he’d be lionized for it. Here it’s evidence of being creepy rather than ally-ship; to be fair, both are possibilities.

But there are differences between “sending women to a for-sure rape situation”, “sending women to a sexual harasser” and “sending women women to a guy who you’ve noted hires pretty women, but despite that being true you aren’t completely sure he knows of his own habit”. Wokeness doesn’t allow for any of that kind of nuance.

Neither does it allow for the difference between literally pimping women to a rapist or giving adult women knowledge of a sub-optimal but none-the-less true reality and then letting them do with it what they will. Actually, I’m kind of lying here; it does. But it doesn’t do it when you are a political bad-guy-who-deserves-destruction. Chua became that, completely and absolutely, when she stepped out of line on Kav.

Part of the reason is her primary persecutor is YLS dean Heather Gerken; there’s basically no chance she isn’t pissed off by all of this. Gerken, for context, is a former Obama administration senior advisor, founded and runs the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project (which isn’t explicitly left, but focuses almost entirely on woke-friendly resume-building types of litigation), and is on President Biden’s pack-or-destroy-SCOTUS committee. Under Gerken, someone like Chua isn’t allowed enough nuance to make it possible for a scenario like believing Kav offers his interns, some of them women, a lot of support while still preferring pretty ones. Gerken’s general philosophy demonstrably doesn’t allow for someone to think he’s just a little misogynistic while not thinking him a rapist.

If you don’t believe me on this, look how she’s being punished - this isn’t the “giving imperfect advice to match the imperfect reality” version:

In the letter, Gerken explains that Chua would not teach any required courses — which include small groups — for the 2020-21 academic year and would not resume teaching required courses until the Law School is “assured that the kind of misconduct alleged will not occur.” Chua also agreed to a “substantial” financial penalty, the amount and nature of which remains unclear.

The letter also explained that “under [Gerken’s] deanship,” Chua would not serve on the clerkship committee, which helps Law School students secure judicial clerkships. Chua told the Guardian in August that she voluntarily gave up this role and that it was a “pleasure to step back” because she “never wanted to be on the committee.”

Additionally, Chua also agreed “on her own initiative” to stop drinking with her students and socializing with them outside of class and office hours, according to the letter.

As mentioned previously, there’s another element of punishment that quote doesn’t make explicit - all that punishment is supposed to be confidential; Yale can and has leaked it without any serious risk to themselves; Chua can’t respond to how it’s being characterized in any detail without getting fired.

The blessed few who click through and read links in articles already know this, but I’ve been burying one of the ledes for a while now: Chua’s husband Jed Rubenfeld is accused of various kinds of sexual harassment. I say various kinds, because our knowledge of the accusations has changed somewhat over time. It started out as something like the summary here:

The picture we got from these conversations is not one of straightforward abuse but rather a fraught and uncomfortable situation full of insinuation and pushed boundaries that can make learning difficult and has the potential to push women out of the pipeline for the most prestigious and competitive areas of the law. This type of behavior, which is frequently dismissed as “borderline” or “creepy” and not worth making a formal fuss over, can have very real consequences.

It eventually evolved into claims like this:

Rubenfeld was suspended for two years following a 2018 University Wide Committee investigation into allegations of verbal harassment, unwanted touching and attempted kissing in the classroom and at his home. He “categorically and unequivocally” denies these allegations, Rubenfeld wrote in an email to the News.

Because of the generally confidential nature of these kinds of investigations (when not leaked), about the best we can get of summaries of the evidence against him are reports like this, from a student group trying to get him perma-banned from campus who can uncover nothing more damning than unrelated jokes by a comedy revue and two anonymous posts on a forum.

Rubenfeld’s troubles are of a different kind than Chua’s. You can argue (and I do) that Chua’s punishments are at least somewhat for things beyond what she’s accused of - that her punishment for supposedly saying that Kavanaugh hires pretty women are more related to her going to bat for him in an “everyone agrees he’s a rapist” environment than anything else. But sexual harassment charges are a bit different - they have enough weight by themselves to spark investigations without any other political controversy pushing from behind.

But, as you might guess, that controversy exists anyway. In 2014, Jed wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that title IX-driven university sexual assault investigation policy was flawed, and that affirmative consent was a dumb, unworkable standard. Both those views are much more mainstream today, but in those simpler times the woke-ish buzzword of the day was “rape culture”. Suggesting that semi-formal and explicit pre-bang verbal contracts weren’t realistic and that accused rapists deserved robust defenses before being punished were about as verboten then as suggesting police don’t kill minorities at a disproportionate rate due to racism is today. Reactions to his piece were all more or less like this:

The worst offense is Rubenfeld’s apparent belief that there is a “debate” to be had – as if there are two equal sides, both with reasonable and legitimate points. There are not. On the one side, there are the 20% of college women who can expect to be victimized by rapists and would-be rapists; on the other side is a bunch of adult men (and a few women) worrying themselves to death that a few college-aged men might have to find a new college to attend…

Rubenfeld doesn’t get any more creative with his rape apology as the op-ed goes on. He also writes that we need to stop being “foolish” about booze on campus and that “a vast majority of college women’s rape claims involve alcohol”. (Paging Camille Paglia!)…

It’s not only that we don’t know how to stop rape – we don’t even know how to talk about it. And giving prominent platforms to regressive rape apologists isn’t helping.

So while sexual assault and harassment are different from telling students something negative about a potential employer in that they have a kind of oomph you’d expect to be sufficient to spark investigations and harsh punishments of their own, we again have a situation where it’s also easy to build another narrative of wrong-think-as-felony. And the direction we go with this is important, regardless of guilt.

Scott Alexander once wrote Sort By Controversial, a short story about a computer program that spits out maximally controversial statements. The statements themselves are designed to maximally split audience opinion; depending on your respective sides in the culture wars, you and another observer on the opposite side might come to completely opposite conclusions. For story reasons, late in the tale Scott lists these probable Scissors:

Of the Scissor’s predicted top hundred most controversial statements, Kavanaugh was #58 and Kaepernick was #42. #86 was the Ground Zero Mosque. #89 was that baker who wouldn’t make a cake for a gay wedding. The match isn’t perfect, but #99 vaguely looked like the Elian Gonzalez case from 2000.

I think Rubenfeld’s and Chua’s stories both have these kinds of Scissor-y elements built in to them in a way that’s probably predictive of what side of the political spectrum you live on. I think for the most part you already know I’m very suspicious of the motivations behind Chua’s punishments; that ends up, for me, also feeding into the higher-ed prosecution of Rubenfeld. But that’s at least in part because I’m moderate right - it affects how I see certain things.

This is a perfect storm of just those exact things, too: It’s two people who say un-woke things being destroyed by an elite institution over what seem from the outside to be unproven, mostly anonymous accusations. If you wondered what semi-public figure conservatives have nightmares about when they go to sleep at night, it’s this.

And I get it: if you are on the left, it’s extremely unlikely you see things this way. There’s a good chance you believe Chua was fully pimping pretty women to for-sure rapist Kavanaugh, so that he might sexually abuse them at his leisure. If that’s the case you think she if anything got off easy; some people go to jail for conspiracy to rape - why does she keep her job?

Obviously I disagree with you (you can tell from my tone alone). But even if you do hold the opposite view on the veracity of the claims against Chua, I still have a point I want to make: regardless of what you think she was guilty of in the past, what’s happening to her in the present is pretty damn bad, and bad in a way everyone should oppose regardless of her guilt, innocence or the actual moral implications of a teacher telling her students about a perceived moral flaw in a third party.

In last week’s controversy, we have a situation where Chua had served her time for some perceived crime, but was accused of something akin to violating her parole - namely that she once again had big parties at her house with students. She was tried, convicted and punished in absentee for this, and then her judges leaked the results of her trial and a number of confidential things from her personnel file to a newspaper before they saw fit to inform her she stood accused.

Absent some massive revelation that Chua’s files weren’t leaked and that she wasn’t denied any chance to defend herself, what’s happening is pretty clear: At some point she went to bat for a guy her employers thought was guilty and gross. For doing that, she was punished to an absurd degree for supposedly telling her students that a potential employer was flawed, something most people wouldn’t even think was wrong, let alone punishable. And now her employer has gone a step further - they’ve decided that all accusations made against her in any case are now de facto true and that she deserves immediate punishment for any alleged crime by unquestioning default.

I’m lucky enough to not have an editor (which shows in other ways as well, I think). An editor might stop me from saying this: That’s bad! That’s bad even if the person you are doing it to is bad! And, very specifically: if you want this to be the standard for anyone on Earth who stands accused of virtually anything that carries a significant punishment, that’s a bad thing to want. If you want that, the part of you that wants it is the very worst part of you; it’s the diseased part that will accept anything bad happening to your perceived enemies, deserved or not.

Listen: I’m not perfect in this way either. I jump to negative conclusions about people. But we can do better than just abandoning all principles of fairness when bad things are poised to happen to our own personal baddies. It’s not a stretch to guess that if you don’t think what’s happening to Chua is bad, you probably think the same thing is bad when it’s happening to someone else - say when a black person is illegally stopped and searched because someone recognized him as a former criminal and assumed he must be doing more crimes. And even when it turns out that person was committing new crimes (he did have a gun, after all) it’s still not OK. We have to be better than that; there has to be some sort of protective norm besides “well, I’ll just hope my enemies never have the power to ruin my life”.

I think Chua is probably innocent of what she’s accused of, or at the very least that her punishment is vastly oversized for her non-crime; you might think the opposite. But we can do better than just believing that anything that happens to anyone we don’t like is fine. Let’s do it together.

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