This spring, the writer Laurie Scheck, who teaches at the New School, asked her class why filmmakers had titled their documentary on James Baldwin I am Not Your Negro even though Baldwin actually said, in his debate with William F. Buckley Jr., “I am not your nigger.” A (white) student complained that the teacher had used a forbidden word, and Scheck, who does not have tenure, was placed under investigation. She was cleared in August after the usual months-long Kafkaesque inquisition. Scheck didn’t get to see the charges against her and was banned from taking notes during meetings with her tormenters. The New School never apologized to her and did not say what it should have, that citing the words of an author during class is protected free speech.
So can a white professor directly quote an African American writer’s use of the word “nigger”? And will I, for that matter, get in trouble for writing that sentence? Baldwin is perhaps our greatest writer on race. Must he now be bowdlerized?
Scheck’s case happened too late to be included in Robert Boyers’ The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, but Boyers describes a bushel of similar craziness. He teaches literature at Skidmore College, where, one gathers from his book, some of the looniest SJW battles have been fought. Boyers is a child of the ’60s, when political action often meant something substantial, like protesting your government’s mass murder of Vietnamese civilians.
Boyers identifies as a liberal, the ever-embattled species he has valiantly championed for decades in the magazine he edits, Salmagundi. Scandalously, liberals love to debate political questions because they think the other side might have its reasons, too. “The most novel and radical principle of liberal politics,” writes the political theorist Stephen Holmes, is that “disagreement is a creative force” (Boyers cites the passage). While liberals locate disagreement not just between people but also within the self, fanatics—whether putatively on “the left” or “the right”—crush any ambivalence they might feel about their beliefs, and pretend that righteous motives are all that is needed to make the case for a political agenda.
These days fanaticism is winning the battle on the left just as it has on the right. The correct political positions, we are meant to think, are so obviously true that only a bad person could possibly experience doubt. Boyers’ funniest and most acute comments take aim at the fake consensus that has been imposed on our campus culture. One day, he says, you just can’t take it, and find “you’re unwilling to sit quietly, hands nicely folded, in the total cultural environment many of your friends and colleagues want to inhabit.” But whenever you say something mildly critical about the current orthodoxy, the others stiffen as if they’ve noticed a bad smell. “Suspicion is now the required posture toward those who would wish to walk about under no one’s surveillance,” Boyers judges, and he’s right. Too often, today’s colleges and universities are comfortable with difference only when it is skin deep.
Boyers, gadfly that he is, has bailed out of the left’s neo-Stalinist uniformity of opinion, which sees dissent as a source of infection that might injure vulnerable victim groups, for whom the enforcers of correct opinion speak like the Lorax, in the Dr. Seuss book, who unironically proclaimed “My name is the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Boyers points out that current politically correct culture clings to two contradictory beliefs, determinism (you are your skin color, your class origin, your gender) and free choice (you should identify as whoever you feel compelled to be). Determinism usually has the upper hand, but not always. If you’re trans, and especially if you’re nonbinary, you can redefine yourself freely; if you’re white or black, you can’t.
Woke determinism, Boyers argues, enforces racial categories that we once recognized as oppressive but now seem to welcome, since they relieve us of the task of evaluating individuals. In the case of “white people,” the type is a cartoonish myth. Poor people in eastern Kentucky cannot use their whiteness as a gilded path to the Ivy League and Wall Street. But in some mystical way their sheer “whiteness” means, to the righteous left, that they are not truly oppressed. Intersectionality allows for the bewildering suggestion that sexism and patriarchy are examples of “white male privilege” and therefore not to be found in the African American neighborhoods of Chicago, or among Mexicans, Japanese, or Africans.
For the campus left, most of them white, “white privilege” has become a shibboleth. If you say it, you instantly gain the upper hand. For the woketivists, “being political” means condemning others as ignorant or malicious. What’s missing, Boyers urgently says, is “the agitation we want to feel in confronting the other—or in confronting what is opaque or impenetrable in ourselves.” The left can only do its part in making society better if it recognizes that being anti-racist, or pro-woman, or pro-immigrant doesn’t mean that you’ll do the right thing. Boyers pleads that “we want, or ought to want, not to love ourselves as if our ostensible motives—to be right, to be good, to be correct—guaranteed defensible outcomes.”
American Stalinist professors of the 1930s and ’40s had these same motives, and they supported a foreign tyrant. Rather than crushing capitalism, though, today’s campus activists have a much weirder goal, preventing vulnerable people, including themselves, from “having unwanted or disturbing thoughts.” Boyers describes a two-fold coercion: Campus activists both enforce silence and unleash torrential verbal abuse, often in the form of career-wrecking Twitter blitzkriegs. Students now mainly learn two things, “what not to ask,” and who they’re supposed to blame. Cowardly administrators, afraid for their own jobs, knuckle under to mob rule or even set the fires themselves, most disastrously at Oberlin.
The campus left’s “intolerance of ideas and persons felt to be divisive,” Boyers argues, is an effort to purge the self of anything that might spoil the unanimity and unquestioning adherence that is apparently now the goal of liberal education at some institutions. It’s a real question whether parents will continue to pay outrageous prices so that their children can be taught to censor themselves and others.
Censorship is both the goal and the means of the woke thought police. Boyers recounts his talk with a creative writing student who started a campaign to prevent the screening of a ’60s Italian comedy on the grounds that it might prove traumatic for her. Any film that shows abusive sexual relationships ought, in fact, to be banned from the classroom, the student implied, since it could trigger bad memories. So goodbye Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Kubrick. As for books, how will Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Dickens survive?
Such bargain-basement puritanism fails for several reasons. Sometimes an artist’s exploitation feeds insight. Boyers gives the example of Lucian Freud’s portraits of women: He strips them bare but also gives them vast penetrating power. And then, too, artists cannot tailor their aims to an audience’s political sensitivities. Last year one of my best students told me he was offended by Flannery O’Connor’s portrayal of a mentally disabled boy. But O’Connor, who was disabled herself, knew what she was doing; sometimes a wickedly one-dimensional character serves the writer’s purpose.
Trying to sanitize books, movies, and paintings by making them cloyingly life affirming or emotionally supportive is a hopeless task. Literature and culture are, by definition, a risk to your health, dangerous and disturbing. That’s why they’re good.
A large majority of Americans, including African Americans and other minority groups, think that political correctness is a problem. Those who disagree, a mere 8% of those surveyed, are disproportionately white and wealthy. The statistics I’ve quoted come from an article by George Packer, who reports on the new bias training required of all New York City school employees. The training program declares that “Perfectionism,” “Individualism,” and “Objectivity” are forms of “White Supremacy Culture,” and urges teachers to disrupt these insidious values. Any thinking person will see instantly that New York City’s bias training flatly contradicts what we require public schools to do: empower individual schoolchildren while also persuading them that wish-fulfillment differs from reality.
Boyers has given us a crucial lesson in the sweeping anti-liberalism of present-day leftists. Their will to enforce agreement with whatever one is supposed to think has spread far beyond the academy, and their loyalty tests get more absurd every day, as the laundry list of progressive positions becomes ever longer and more incoherent. Progressives have eagerly provided the muscle for conformism: Either you’re totally onboard, or else you’re the enemy, an unforgivable doubting soul.
David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.