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Intolerable intolerance

David Herman reviews The Tyranny of Virtue by Robert Boyers

A leading American Liberal arts college recently set out to hire a full-time fiction writer. Four candidates made the shortlist out of 200 applicants. Each candidate had to give a demonstration class to some students and field questions from faculty members sitting at the back. One candidate called some of the questioners by their first names. Unfortunately, he confused the names of the only two Asian-American faculty in the department. This was obviously not deliberate, just unfortunate. At a department meeting a week later, the department chair made it clear that as far as she was concerned the writer would no longer be considered for the job.

Why not? He had made a mistake, at the end of a gruelling and pressurising day. Did anyone think that mistaking the names of two Asian-Americans, who he had never met before, made him a racist? Maybe yes, maybe no. In a liberal arts college in America today, it was sufficient that there might be a suspicion that he might not be able to tell two Asian-Americans apart for him to be considered totally unacceptable.

The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, The Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies by Robert Boyers Scribner, £21.55

This is what has happened to universities in America and this is what has led Robert Boyers to write The Tyranny of Virtue. Boyers, the founding editor of the cultural magazine Salmagundi and professor of English at Skidmore College, where this incident happened, has set out to explore this new culture of intolerance.

How could it be that in universities, of all places, free speech and the open debate of ideas, could have become intolerable, not just to students but to faculty and administrators? Why are academics running for cover, refusing to stand up for tolerance? Worse still, why have they become the “new commissars”, “fluent with anxiety about art that offends”?

Boyers is not some right-wing reactionary. He may be considered privileged because he’s a white man, but he was from a Jewish working-class family in Queens. His father worked in a dry-goods store for 13 hours a day, six days a week. He has been on the left for more than half a century, on what his academic colleagues would consider the right side of political debates from civil rights and Vietnam to Iraq and Trump. He has been, he writes, “a partisan in the ongoing culture wars for about 30 years”.

This isn’t some cranky polemic, raging against Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. From beginning to end, this is a moderate, thoughtful book, constantly questioning the rage for “purity”, the obsession with “safe spaces”, the longing to “drink at this well of misinformation and grievance”. It is as if he suddenly found that people who are with him on most things are increasingly suspicious of dissent. How have American universities become so illiberal?

The Tyranny of Virtue is superbly written and full of interesting anecdotes. At his college Boyers saw a sign that said, “KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE”. Of course. Who doesn’t want to be in a college which is safe and protected from potentially violent intruders? Women, gay and minority students have too often been victims of attacks on American college campuses.

But this isn’t what the sign meant at all. It was about “ableist language”, expressions like “stand up for”, “turn a blind eye to” and “take a walk in someone’s shoes”. These are apparently demeaning and offensive. A professor who talks about turning a blind eye to something is offending someone who is visually impaired. If you speak of having to “run” to catch a train, imagine how insensitive this must be to someone who has problems walking.

This is typical of an academic culture obsessed with harms, protections and all manner of offences. Nothing is innocent. Intention is irrelevant. As Boyers writes, “Just about every conversation had become a minefield.” Not just conversations, every lecture, every comment in a seminar or to a student in a casual conversation.

Someone protests against “the screening of a ‘disturbing’ 1960s Italian comedy that may trigger, in a person with her background, traumatic memories”. Boyers thinks that he was “courteous and sympathetic”, but then she tells him “that as a man you’ll never understand the problem”. Game, set and match.

A student complains to Boyers about a set text by the white South African writer Nadine Gordimer. It was “a bad idea” for a “privileged” white woman to be dealing with people about whose lives “she was bound to be clueless”. And were there particular instances in the novel, Boyers asks her, where Gordimer seemed to her “clueless” and had got things wrong? She couldn’t say. “I felt very uncomfortable about the direction we were heading in,” she says later in the conversation. She didn’t like “the usual Western prejudices”. This is, of course, not open for discussion. How she felt trumped everything.

If someone is a sexist, a homophobe, a racist, there is nothing else that we need to know about them. We are the saved, they are the damned

For that student it was Gordimer. For many others it will be Saul Bellow. “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read them.” With those few words Bellow destroyed his reputation in American literature departments for a generation. Does anyone teach Bellow any more in America? Perhaps Philip Roth can hang on for another decade, then he will make students feel uncomfortable. All those angry accounts of what happened to black Newark. All those men, all those jars of liver.

Boyers moves carefully through these issues, from identity politics and diversity to cultural appropriation and “policing disability”. The key word here is “policing”. The thought police have taken over. Boyers is quick to point to what gets ruled out. There is no room for diversity, complexity and ambiguity, what Robert Pinsky called “the virtues of ‘creole’”. There is one right way of viewing everything: a right way and a wrong way.

Boyers is not alone, of course. He quotes others who championed tolerance and diversity. Susan Sontag, who wrote, “Party lines make for intellectual monotony and bad prose.” Edward Said, who called on us all to “abandon[s] fixed positions, all the time”. But Said died in 2003, Sontag in 2004. That already feels a long time ago. Boyers, decent, embattled, at times sounds like the Last of the
Mohicans. Even his son asks him if he puts too high a value on doubt and contradiction.

There is a crisis in American universities and in Britain too. Intolerance reigns supreme. Boyers quotes Jonathan Freedland: “What so infuriates opponents on left and right is the insistence that two things, usually held to be in opposition, can both be true.” No, say the commissars. If someone is a sexist, a homophobe, a racist, there is nothing else that we need to know about them. We are the saved, they are the damned.

And what if they innocently muddle up two Asian-Americans or talk of “turning a blind eye” to something? Also damned. Or if they insist on discussing a Shakespeare play or an Italian comedy that makes a student feel uncomfortable? Double damned. Reasonable, sane, decent, this is the right book at the right time.

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