(My book review being published in Skeptic magazine* (slightly revised))
A regime-imposed ideology, tolerating no dissent, enforced by a surveillance state and thought police, with transgressors punished. Welcome to Nineteen Eighty-Four. China? Yes. But increasingly, America’s “liberal” universities too. If nothing else, surely liberalism means promoting human liberty, with freedom of thought and expression essential. Yet U.S. campuses have seen the rise of speech codes, speakers disinvited or shouted down, professors offending against the approved catechism forced to apologize, submit to re-education, or even to resign. And an obsession with “diversity” while suppressing the kind that should matter most — diversity of viewpoint.
Robert Boyers has taught in academia for half a century, currently at Skidmore. He’s the longtime editor of Salmagundi, a magazine of politics, culture, literature and the arts, and is very much a man of the left. His 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, The Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, calls out the perversion of liberal ideals he sees in American universities — political correctness becoming a rigid party line that brooks no dissent, while plunging down rabbit holes of absurdism. The book is full of horror stories from the author’s own experience. Contradictions and ironies abound. The reader enters a hall of mirrors.
The book’s main theme is the suppression of argument, with no discussion allowed. How to justify this? Postmodernism promoted the idea that argument itself is suspect because nothing is really true. And a fetish for nonjudgmentalism strangely transmogrified into a judgmentalism of the harshest sort — against any deviation from the canonical ideology.
Boyers relates how his own younger self once swallowed an apologia by Herbert Marcuse that freedom of speech must yield to an enlightened minority whose virtue entitles it to censor. Fortunately, Boyers himself ultimately gagged on this bilge. Unfortunately, such intellectual arrogance is at the heart of today’s academic culture.
If the PC catechism is really as manifestly correct as its woke minions seem to think, then how is it threatened by debate? Maybe they fear they’ve built a house of cards that cannot withstand scrutiny.
Some European nations ban “hate speech,” which includes anything deemed offensive. Holocaust denier David Irving, for example, was jailed in Austria. In America’s First Amendment culture, freedom of speech trumps any sensitivities of hearers. After all, almost anything can offend someone. Jefferson said the answer to bad ideas is not suppression, but better ideas. But our universities today elevate protection against being offended, or even just being made “uncomfortable,” above freedom of expression.
Thus speech codes, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Like the helicopter parenting aiming to shield children from all life’s vicissitudes — leaving them unable to cope with a real world lacking safe zones. It’s also antithetical to actually educating students. Boyers wonders: how could you teach any novel, for example? A university’s mission used to be moving students out of their comfort zones, opening their horizons, cultivating inquiring minds. Now they’re re-education camps enforcing the narrow bounds of a prevailing orthodoxy.
Looming large in today’s PC catechism is the concept of “privilege,” not just “white privilege,” but any sort of power or status. An egalitarian idea: no one’s above anyone else. Fair enough, utopian though it may be; but privilege warriors go further and actually turn the tables.
Anyone deemed speaking from a standpoint of “privilege” is delegitimized and to be silenced. Yet aren’t the attackers invoking a privilege of their own — polemical, ideological privilege? The privilege of feeling virtuous as against an evil “privileged” status?
Another key concept is “inclusiveness.” Applicable to previously marginalized identities and people who’ve sometimes been seen as “the other.” Yet aren’t those tarred with the “privilege” label being marginalized, themselves “the other” now? Further, anything possibly construed as condescending toward some now-coddled group is an unpardonable sin. But isn’t the shielding of such groups, in a way that implies their inability to endure even the subtlest affront, not itself highly condescending?
And the notion of identity is fundamentally a concept of us vis-a-vis them, if not indeed us versus them. Rather than being liberated to live out self-actualized identities, people are put in identity boxes defined by the prevailing ideology. A trans person not allowed to be anyone beyond trans. No Whitmanesque containing of multitudes!
Boyers grapples with what racial identity entails, quoting James Baldwin about his fraught relationship with European cultural icons like Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Bach, in the context of his African heritage. I couldn’t help thinking that my own Jewish ancestry feels relatively immaterial to who I am as a human being. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Bach are part of our common human heritage, as is the experience of Africans who were enslaved. My race is the human race. That statement itself might be labeled “racist” in woke culture.
There’s a lot of polemics lately about “whiteness” that seems incoherent, like white people should somehow get over or move beyond their whiteness, whatever that means. “Whiteness studies” has now become an academic subject domain, with those harping on “white privilege” stereotyping all whites as a monolithic block. There’s a word aptly describing this: racism.
“Micro-aggressions” refers to anything that makes anyone uncomfortable. But no such transgression is ever treated as “micro;” anybody accused of one subject to aggression that isn’t “micro” at all. They’re said to create a “toxic environment.” Yet what’s truly toxic in today’s academic environment is a climate of fear lest one blurt out anything crossing the innumerable PC red lines, becoming subject to sanction.
Boyers is really faulting a basic lack of human decency. Seen in the unforgiving condemnations of things that are often, on any sane view, trivial. He cites examples of people denounced for merely confusing a name. Sometimes, he says, a mistake is just a mistake. Which should simply be forgiven — by decent human beings.
Disability is another minefield. Boyers describes a poster incongruously headed KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE, with a catalog of “ableist” language to be avoided (on pain of disciplinary action), including such everyday idioms like “turn a blind eye,” or “run to catch a train.” So plainly ridiculous that this might have been satirizing the whole offense-taking culture. But no, it was in earnest. Boyers deems it “hard to imagine a better example of a hostile work environment,” putting everyone in fear of the thought police.
Then there is the absurd notion of “cultural appropriation,” barring white artists and writers from touching upon minority cultures. A white painter’s take on the famous Emmett Till funeral photo met with demands that it be removed from the Whitney Museum — indeed, that it be destroyed.
“Stay in your lane,” voiced one critic. The artist’s intent was of no account. Boyers says a “stay in your lane” norm would limit every writer to memoir only. But it’s no two-way street. Black writers can freely depict whites. Indeed, theater is opening up for blacks to portray white characters. Don’t dare the reverse, of course.
Throughout, the book deploys metaphors from religion, such as the saved versus the damned, a church united by a zeal to persecute heretics. So deranged with self-righteousness, the woke congregation cannot see the contradictions between its preachings and practices. Boyers notes that over 200 U.S. universities now have “bias response teams” that, together with campus police, investigate the speech of professors and students. The University of California system circulated a list of prohibited locutions, including “America is a land of opportunity” or “you speak English very well.”
Yet, Boyers writes, “self-described liberal academics continue to believe that they remain committed to difference and debate, even as they countenance a full-scale assault on diversity of outlook and opinion, enwombed as they are in the certainties enjoined on them by the posture they have adopted, which alone confers on them the sense that they are always in the right.”
Curiously absent from the book is the word “McCarthyism.” Still denounced by the left. People blacklisted and otherwise punished for their politics. Apparently it’s a crime when done by the right, but not by the left.
Is there no hope? In an author talk, Boyers avowed guarded optimism that we may have reached peak PC, with sanity starting to push back. And the craziness in academia has not, to any great extent, yet infected the broader American culture. But as universities continue pumping out more ideological Savonarolas, freedom still needs defending as much as in Jefferson’s time.
(Note, this review was refused by several publications because it was too politically incorrect.)