David Bernstein
David Bernstein
Free speech proponent in the Jewish world

The Conversation about Critical Race Theory You’ll Never Hear

Recently I’ve been holding a series of discussions with liberals and moderates on Jewish Institute for Liberal Values’ and The Speech Project’s Podcast, The Speechcast, about the current challenges to freedom of expression. They’ve been fascinating, but some of the best discussions I’ve had will never see the light of day. 

The other day I spoke to a Rabbi who contacted me privately and wanted to get my take on “cancel culture” after he read some of the material I had sent out. He stated in an email “to be honest, some of what I see here doesn’t resonate with me, but I respect you a lot and am sure I could learn from hearing your thinking.” 

We spoke about Critical Race Theory, which he studied for many years and uses in his teaching. “I do agree it is often being used in a rigid manner,” he said. I told him that I thought CRT was a completely valid theoretical lens that has given me insights about the world I would not otherwise have. But, I stated, “I think it’s not just being used in a rigid way but in a stifling way.” Most of its adherents are insisting there is no other valid way of understanding disparities, making it difficult to have genuine dialogue. 

We were on the same page more than either of us thought going into the discussion.  

I asked him if he would come on our podcast to model the thoughtful and respectful dialogue we just had. “People need to hear this nuanced conversation,” I stated. He paused. “I’d have to think about it because I might hurt some people.” I said I understood. 

It occurred to me later that his reluctance to speak to me in a public way was precisely the challenge we face in today’s discourse. He inadvertently validated my critique of cancel culture. Please understand I am not accusing him of cancelling me. I completely understand his reluctance. He may pay real world consequences for speaking with me. 

But he decided not to speak to me in the open because it would put certain professional and personal relationships at risk. Those who would be hurt and possibly penalize him for talking with me–not, mind you, agreeing with me but just speaking with me–are making it difficult to openly discuss issues. They’ve successfully prevented a Rabbi whose life work is to model the values of civil and ethical discourse from doing it. We don’t have to call this form of social pressure “cancel culture.” But whatever we call it, it is having a chilling effect on our social discourse and generating resentment.   

And because of his reluctance to put his relationships in jeopardy you will likely never hear the thoughtful exchange.

About the Author
David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and is a former CEO of Jewish advocacy organizations.
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