Before anyone says anything else about Amy Chua, it’s worth noting that we still have no idea exactly why people are talking about her. This is a peculiar state of affairs for a person whose offenses and subsequent downfall have been the recent subject of reporting in multiple major media outlets.
There’s an allegation: that Chua, a Yale Law School professor, violated both protocol and decency during the 2020 school year by hosting dinner parties at her home for students and elite members of the legal profession. There’s a punishment: the alleged infraction cost her a position as the head of one of the Yale Law School’s intimate classes for first-year students known as a ‘small group’. But there is also a mess of competing storylines, contradictions and the lightly wafting scent of bullshit: according to the New York Times’s reporting, these allegations were not just entirely untrue, but also possibly motivated by either jealousy on the part of a disgruntled student, or dismay at the alleged presence of Chua’s husband at the parties, or lingering resentment over Chua’s unpopular associations or opinions on other, unrelated topics.
All of which is to say, the details are unknowable but also, perhaps, not very interesting. Chua mainly appears to have been the victim of an overzealous dean who took a ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’ approach to the claims of a few overheated young folx (or just one young folk) — not a great idea anywhere, but an especially bad idea at a law school. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s probably aimed at future administrators who might be inclined to do the same. (Dear administrators: don’t do this.)
What’s interesting is the question of what Chua made such a ripe target in the first place. Someone set out to destroy her. Why? The answer can be found not in the news, but the Discourse, where internet commentators all but lost their minds over the idea that a Yale law professor might be hosting students at her home, like adults, and serving alcohol, as one does at adult dinner parties. A representative maelstrom ensued when writer Ben Dreyfuss tweeted about being friendly and drinking with his professors — an experience he remembered fondly — and was excoriated by thousands for promoting creepy behavior, abuse of power, even sexual assault.
This was ludicrous, of course, but it’s the natural result of the contemporary push to view every relationship, personal or professional, through the reductive lens of privilege and power. Every interaction boils down to a question of who had the greater authority, of who could have harmed whom. Within this framework, the only logical conclusion is that student is to teacher as child is to adult. That the students in question are 23-year-old future lawyers, not toddlers, is all but irrelevant.
It’s worth mentioning here that Chua is probably best known outside of legal circles not as a law professor, but as the creator of the concept of ‘tiger-parenting’, which describes a strict, generally East Asian-influenced set of principles whereby parents push their kids to overachieving extremes. Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was equal parts authoritarian parenting manual, self-deprecating memoir, and indictment of overly permissive Westerners who try to be their children’s friends. While Battle Hymn has mostly faded into the background in the 10 years since it was published, you can see why its author’s attitude might have irked a certain subset of privileged college graduates in 2021 the year of our Lord. A person who believes in ruthlessly preparing children to succeed in the adult world is also likely to believe, once those children aren’t children anymore, that they can handle being treated as equals.
The trouble is that some students would rather maintain a childlike approach to the world well into adulthood — and rather than being treated as peers, they’d like their professors to act more like parents.
The writer Meghan Daum has noted the existence of a generalized values rift between Gen X women, who believe in toughness, and younger millennials, for whom fairness is of utmost importance (of course, if things are really fair, there’d be nothing to be resilient about.) Obviously, this isn’t true of everyone in either cohort; many of Chua’s students clearly sought her out because they liked her brand of mentorship, which included the kind of grownup schmoozing and connection-making that has always opened doors for ambitious, personable young folks who want to get ahead — say, by getting a clerkship with a Supreme Court Justice like Brett Kavanaugh, as Chua’s daughter did a year after Chua defended Kavanaugh in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal.
But there’s also nothing more plainly unfair — even if it’s a type of unfairness that is perpetual, unavoidable and woven into the very fabric of all human existence — than the fact that those people, the schmoozers, the partygoers, are rewarded for their natural charms, while the nervous and introverted are not.
In the face of such unfairness, you can see why certain students would gravitate toward the protections afforded by powerlessness, to infantilize themselves. What they get is not as much fairness as the enforced equity of a child’s birthday party, where everyone gets an invitation and exactly the same amount of cake, but it’s still less terrifying than the sense of being on your own. Given the option, it turns out that some people would prefer to be nurtured than respected.
When someone like Amy Chua insists on the opposite, things are bound to get ugly.