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Shadowboxing with Words



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Conservative columnist and television commentator George Will is no fan of former president Donald Trump or his party’s embrace of his many lies. Nonetheless, Will recently argued that the nation’s universities are somehow rife with lamentable “woke” attitudes that are to be bemoaned and harshly criticized, much as Trump and many others in the GOP have often done:

More pervasive and sinister than institutions taking collective political stances is their policy of requiring applicants for faculty positions to express enthusiasm for a political agenda. In 2021, the American Enterprise Institute found that 19 percent of colleges and universities require applicants to submit DEI—diversity, equity and inclusion—statements affirming support of, and sometimes promising activism on behalf of, various race-conscious pedagogies and other policies. An American Association of University Professors survey found that 21.5 percent of such institutions take ‘DEI criteria’ into account when awarding tenure, and 50 percent are considering it. This is a mechanism for producing institutions so politically monochrome that they can comfortably make political proclamations without worrying about what a vanishingly small minority of dissenters might think.1

        Will has described an embrace of pluralism, demographic diversity and the call to ensure opportunities for individuals of all stripes to be represented in college and university student populations, workforces and curricula, as somehow problematic and representative of overreaching that will produce “politically monochrome” higher education institutions. He did not define what he meant by politically monochrome, but he appears to indict all efforts to address systemic social discrimination in university and college employment, enrollment and curricula.  I gather he is concerned that some “otherwise qualified” white applicants might be denied admission, posts or a preferred social standing based on efforts to overcome prejudice against many minority groups and women. Whatever Will’s animating concerns, his contention plays neatly into the hands of those in the GOP now mobilizing Americans based on xenophobic claims and arguments that these populations are somehow “taking their resources” from them via government and giving those to the undeserving.

        Will’s essay dripped with sarcasm as he claimed that intellectuals are the “last to know things” and that efforts to address discrimination against minorities in their enrollments, employment, curricula and programming are resulting in university and college campuses that are “saturated by politics,” and especially undefined progressive politics, that produce wickedly pernicious results:

Today’s thoroughly saturated academia is a reminder: The defining characteristic of totalitarian societies is not that the individual cannot participate in politics, but that the individual cannot not participate.2

        I believe Will generally to be a serious individual, if an often splenetic one who frequently accuses others of his own vice, but I have found myself wondering how his indictment of efforts to embrace the reality of our nation’s pluralism differs from the recent attempt by Fox media personality Tucker Carlson to promote resentment and anxiety among his viewers concerning how Mars Inc. has portrayed its popular and ubiquitous M&M candy mascots in its current marketing. Several other right-wing media commentators have mirrored and amplified Carlson’s reaction. Here is how a Time magazine article described the resulting concocted “controversy”:

In January 2022, the brand replaced the green M&M’s knee-high boots with flats and swapped the brown M&M’s stilettos for lower heels. It also announced that the orange M&M would embrace his anxiety; he would even start tying his shoelaces—moves many celebrated as more progressive. But others saw the revamp as an affront. ‘M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous until the moment when you wouldn’t want to have a drink with any one of them,’ Carlson remarked on Fox. ‘That’s the goal. When you’re totally turned off, we’ve achieved equity. They’ve won.’3

        Because this “problem” of representing a cross-section of human body types and experiences (as well, of course, as shoes) in the candy mascots that Mars has used to advertise the brand since 1954 is apparently so vital, Carlson took additional time earlier this month on his television program to argue:

‘Woke M&M’s have returned,’ Carlson declared on his show in mid-January. ‘The green M&M’s got her boots back but apparently is now a lesbian, maybe, and there is also a plus-sized, obese purple M&M. So, we’re going to cover that, of course. Because that’s what we do.’4

        Cover what, exactly? Taking feigned umbrage at a marketing campaign featuring candy mascots that look like the diversity of Americans on the grounds that cartoons should instead be “sexy,” as Carlson might define that term?  Apart from its ridiculousness and animus, it is more than unclear what one is supposed to be outraged about—the diversity implicit in humankind? A company that would dare represent demographic variety in its marketing?

        Like Will, Carlson seems to contend that all attempts to represent and ensure the equal treatment of the vital cultural and social heterogeneity of the nation are dismaying or even totalitarian. Why is diversity so frightening to these individuals, and why do they believe they must disparage and demean whole classes of individuals and institutions in its name? Carlson is driven by ratings as he prepares his televised rants, but what is it that he believes ultimately to be at stake for his viewers that will animate them to the rage he desires and to return for more of the same flamethrowing against anthropomorphized caricatures of candy?

        These two examples are of a piece in their expressions of concern and resentment of efforts to claim heterogeneity as a social and political norm. While nominally railing against an allegedly single-minded academic establishment comprised of simpletons, Will’s argument ultimately seems to be that individuals and institutions should be able to discriminate against whomever they wish and that a conception of equality that recognizes disparate experiences of equality, broadly understood, in the population and demands change on that basis, is somehow innately totalitarian. Carlson seems intent in encouraging rancor about the warp and woof of social change toward equality, too.

        Carlson’s use of M&M’s symbolic mascots and Will’s polemic against higher education, illustrate three tendencies in the current state of our country’s domestic politics. First, Will’s column is of a piece with many other efforts afoot on the Right to declaim against the country’s diversity and changing demographics. The Republican Party has employed such rhetoric both to mobilize its enthusiasts, and to distract them from many policies it has proposed that many of those individuals do not otherwise support.

        One may suppose that Will might have less concern about academic totalitarianism if those institutions were less interested in ensuring equality of opportunity for all in the face of entrenched norms and attitudes that have long made that aspiration difficult for women and minorities especially. But such a stance would gainsay the obvious: how will Americans actively embracing cruelly discriminatory attitudes be encouraged to consider those values afresh without efforts openly to discuss and challenge them by institutions explicitly charged with raising such concerns? 

        For his part, Carlson appears not to have any underlying conception of freedom or governance in view, but simply a desire to promote anger and angst and to scapegoat to engage an audience that has shown itself willing repeatedly to be galvanized by such efforts. For Fox and Carlson, the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” seems apt, as revenue and influence have repeatedly followed Carlson’s embrace of such farcical stands—irrespective of their intellectual emptiness and social and ethical implications.

        Second, each of these examples reveals a solipsistic arrogance in which Will and Carlson, in effect, informed their audiences that “their” view of the matters they treat—the purportedly innate and irremediable perils of social diversity and efforts to secure equality—is straightforwardly to be preferred because of the alleged stupidity of those whom they are attacking. This is ludicrous in both instances, particularly given the superficial and sweeping character of the arguments on offer. It is especially specious in Carlson’s case, as he offers nothing but his nominal anger concerning gender representations that simply reflect reality. He not only does not seem to have a principled concern beneath his contempt for any who might challenge his feigned outrage, his perspective seems finally to rest on securing the continued superiority of a particular style of male gaze. This is rancor for rancor’s sake and is especially strange when one considers his subject was cartoon representations of candy.

        Finally, both cases discussed here are examples of absolutizing rhetoric, a central feature of U.S. politics today. In Will’s case and based on information offered by an ideological think tank, we are told that asking would-be teachers how they would work to reach all the students in their classrooms or ensuring that curricula reach disparate dimensions of Americans’ historical cultural, social and political experience constitute wild eyed attempts to impose specific views on students. I find this assertion nonsensical. Presenting a variety of social and historical perspectives and occurrences hardly demands a dogma of anyone while simultaneously illuminating the stakes and challenges implicit in ensuring democratic possibility and human rights for all the nation’s residents. Will’s argument here is especially odd, as he often professes his devotion to just these claims. Even accepting the information he cites, the nation’s universities are not now uniformly acting in totalitarian ways based on “woke” attitudes in these terms, nor are they soon to do so.

        Carlson’s nominal concern is similar to Will’s, except there is no apparent argument beneath the pursuit of malice on public display. Carlson seems simply to be encouraging anger and rancor for ratings.  The talk show host needs to spur resentment to maintain viewership, and revenues and a measure of influence and his insistent recurrence to the absurd “case of the great M&M’s caper” is a manifestation of that reality. His highlighting of this marketing campaign appears to have been rooted in little more than a search for revenue because, as he aptly noted, “that’s what we do.”

        There is no simple way to redress what these two examples represent about the state of rhetoric in U.S. politics today, for they each highlight the central reasons why so many have shown themselves so willing to mistrust American institutions of all sorts and to embrace hate in its stead. Will and Carlson encouraged loathing of difference. Each also went further to contend that those whom they attacked are worthy only of contempt in the abstract, while never clearly stating what was at issue. These arguments suggest that one must detest without a clear exposition for reasons why. Rather, the assertion is that an amorphous “they” are undermining unstated values or an unexplained conception of equality and social hierarchy that demands unacceptable change of a vague sort. It is important to recognize the phenomenon illustrated here and to understand that the present conflict for America’s soul is being fought via often carefully contrived rhetoric designed to rankle and anger, and to accuse an undefined and projected “other” of treachery. Abusive abstract rhetoric has emerged as a well-sharpened weapon of political war. As these efforts continue, the nation’s broader population must navigate the challenge created by those who would, paradoxically, deepen political and social conflict by shrilly waging it via rhetorical shadowboxing with fantasies.


1 Will, George. “Where colleges take political positions, they show who isn’t wanted,” The Washington Post, January 20, 2023,, Accessed January 20, 2023. 

2 Will, “Where colleges take political positions, they show who isn’t wanted.”

3 Popli, Nik. “How M&M’s became the Latest Flash Point in the Culture Wars,” Time, January 24, 2023,, Accessed January 24, 2023. 

4 Popli, “How M&M’s became the Latest Flash Point in the Culture Wars.”

Publication Date

January 30, 2023