In a new book a gay writer pens a powerful indictment of identity studies as dogmatic cults.
The ideologues have transformed the academy—and, to a remarkable extent, driven out the enemy. They’ve taken over the shop and remade it in their image. And there’s no easy route back. After all, there’s nothing more entrenched than a tenured professor. ~ Ch 7: Is There Hope?
As the value of university education in the Western world continues to rise—as enrolment rates have grown and tuition fees have climbed— institutions of higher learning have changed. They have, of course, changed physically and financially—gotten bigger, grown richer—but they have also changed in fundamental ways, ways involving methodology, curricula, and most especially epistemology, that field of knowledge concerned with the very nature of knowledge, including how it is divided by discipline. Such changes are, for the most part, however, insider secrets. Like democratic governments, the images and reputations of universities continue to foster raw, even romantic idealism, emphasizing broad, philosophical generalities rather than administrative or pedagogical specifics. Universities, many still believe, are places of free thought and unreserved intellectual excitement. They are the ivy-filigreed sanctuaries where the greatest works and ideas of humankind are traded like sports cards, where, at any moment, a roaming professor—like a tweedy Socrates—will deliver an impromptu lecture alfresco, where minds are laid open to the stars.
Whether higher learning was ever quite like this is, of course, up for debate. Universities are noble institutions, at least they’re supposed to be, and like any noble institution—be it a church, police force, or nonprofit organization—their flaws are held as evidence of something much more insidious than human imperfection. Where there are people, there are politics, and, as Henry Kissinger (or Wallace Sayre, or Woodrow Wilson) is reputed to have once said, “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” The venerable Yale English professor Harold Bloom, who began teaching in the mid-fifties, is on the record as saying that “[t]he ‘good old days,’ in fact, were not so good: universities, in my youth, were staffed mostly by an assemblage of know-nothing bigots, academic impostors, inchoate rhapsodes, and time-serving trimmers […].” It goes back further than this, of course; the English poet Thomas De Quincey and Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard offer similar indictments of academic quality in the nineteenth century, for example.
Whatever the case may have been in the past, there is growing alarm in the present day—from both sides of the traditional political spectrum, though most often from the right—over the state of the arts and sciences (but especially the arts) on university campuses. The warning: individual thought and the journey-centred orienteering central to the humanities have been predisposed by ideological chauvinism. Aesthetic and intellectual merit has been subordinated to radical activist agendas, whereby students become disciples rather than thinkers, and grades become the flails of a sectarian winnowing. Jonah Goldberg’s Tyranny of Clichés looks, for example, at how conservatism is approached by some researchers as evidence of inferior cognition. Susan Cain’s Quiet considers how introversion—in many respects the yardstick for sensitivity and deep thought—is treated in Harvard Business School as a social maladjustment. Emphasis on and cultivation of an extroverted alpha-complex, she argues, may even be partly responsible for the thinking and practices that led to the 2008 financial meltdown.
Criticism has also come from within, though Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Stanley Fish have been sounding different alarms for decades. Quite often, these tocsins are issued from the relative safety of retirement; in an editorial for the Canadian National Post in 2008, Ian Hunter, emeritus professor of the University of Western Ontario, referred to universities as “intellectual daycares,” places where minds are coddled and not challenged, groomed to seek constant validation rather than constructive evaluation.
According to Bruce Bawer and the American experience, it all went wrong sometime in the nineteen-sixties. It was then that the civil rights movement—the goal of which, he says, “could not have been more consistent with America’s founding ideals”—became a kind of reverse Pandora’s Box, radiating spirits of hope, equality, and goodwill, but carrying among them a single, destructive value. Multiculturalism, he argues, emerged to subordinate the identities and liberties of individuals to those of groups, and to balkanize the sense of unity upon which nationalism, liberalism, and academic freedom are all premised. Like a toxin, multiculturalism went on to poison the ideals of the civil rights movement, entrenching the grievances of minority groups and validating them as legitimate cultural values. When being oppressed became a matter of identity— essentially something to be celebrated rather than overcome—the victims’ revolution had begun. As Bawer writes,
[t]he ideas that have increasingly dominated American universities since the sixties have followed the graduates of those institutions out into the larger society. The results are all around us, from workplaces where an innocuous statement can brand one as a bigot and destroy one’s career to election campaigns in which legitimate criticism of a black or female candidate can be discounted as “racist” or “sexist” on its merits. Yet those ideas themselves, and the form in which they are presented in thousands of classrooms around the United States, remain an almost complete mystery to a great many otherwise well-informed and responsible citizens.
From Women’s Studies through Black Studies, Queer Studies through Chicano (or Latino) Studies to Cultural Studies in general, The Victims’ Revolution follows each from the earliest ripples of activism to the overwhelming victimological vogues they have in many places become.
Bawer, an English PhD who is openly gay and argued for cooperative coexistence in his book A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society, has a unique and patient perspective on the issues he raises. He does not, for example, reject the legitimacy of identity-based studies in general, recognizing a place in History, Anthropology, Literature, and other, established disciplines for studies of various group, subcultures, and populations. What he denounces in The Victims’ Revolution is the grotesque state of affairs in which identity studies truly exist in various Arts departments and as their own disciplines—as dogmatic cults of Marxist and progressivist extremism, jargon-parroting and victim-breeding, for whom even the faculty of reason is often dismissed as a tool of heterosexual white patriarchy.
In some cases, as with Women’s Studies and Black Studies, pre-existing academic inroads were commandeered by radical activists; in the case of Queer Studies, they were completely appropriated (“Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant”). Whatever the name of the program, however, each seems eerily compatible with the other, defined mutually by the intersectionality that allows constituents to pluralize and at times prioritize different aspects of their victimhood. It is something we have all heard parodied, but which remains central and earnest to identity-studies castes—the gay white man has nothing on the fat disabled black transgendered woman. In many of the academic conferences Bawer describes, participants who do not fully fit the victimological mold apologize or express guilt for their more conventional traits—being white or straight, for example. One does not begin to understand how perverse it all is, however, until, at a Disability Studies conference, a speaker suggests that abortion is genocide, but only because abortion can be used to kill unborn disabled people.
The author’s patience is the stuff of legend; no matter how egregious the evidence he uncovers, he stolidly continues to attend the conferences, cite the canonical texts, and report the activities of those under his surveillance. He does not, in other words, descend into the indignant screed for which conservative social critics are often caricatured, no matter how justifiable it might become. Instead, he continues to serve as a messenger of the damned, from reporting that Queer Studies pioneer Judith Butler declined a reward in 2010 from a German gay organization which she accused of ‘Islamophobia,’ to relaying the victimological inventories proclaimed by participants at a Fat Studies conference the same year (including one who described herself as a “‘self-identified queer, fat, vegan, feminist professor’ and whose topic is ‘inclusionism’—meaning the rejection of all isms from looksism to ableism”).
The formality and professionalism of The Victims’ Revolution makes it one of the most powerful indictments yet published on its subject. Bawer is no TV talking head or right-wing radio firebrand. He is a poet, an essayist, a literary critic, and a translator who cherishes the arts and humanities, and who understands what is happening—indeed, what has already happened—to their institutional study. His message is nevertheless hopeful and as respectful as possible given his position; for the most part, he pities the people he observes, particularly the students, who come to university seeking an education, and who emerge worse than if they had never attended at all. Bawer can be debated, but not refuted. While it can be argued that ‘Theory’ (as Bawer and many others have narrowly defined it) has also provided arts scholarship with some extremely stimulating avenues—particularly as regards subjectivity—there is simply no defending the particular personalities, ‘scholarship,’ and other excesses Bawer identifies. In this sense, the book works like a dog whistle—those who can’t hear its message are part of the problem.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com. He originally reviewed The Victims’ Revolution in the Good Reading Guide.