The American culture war continues apace, with increasingly high stakes, between the right and left. But over the past several years, especially online and in academia, a parallel conflict has been taking place between liberals and progressives. Robert Boyers, the editor of the literary journal Salmagundi and a professor of English at Skidmore College, fits neatly, although not reflexively, within the liberal camp. In his new book, “The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt For Political Heresies,” he reflects on “trying to square your liberal principles with your sense that people who are with you on most things—on the obligation to move the world as it is closer to the world as it should be—are increasingly suspicious of dissent.” Boyers comes to the conclusion that an unwillingness to hear non-progressive points of view, an obsessive focus on “privilege” (a term he thinks is being used indiscriminately), and an unwarranted concern about the idea of cultural appropriation are occurring across the country and posing a danger to the ideals of the academy.

I recently spoke by phone with Boyers. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the difference between political correctness and virtue signalling, why he thinks that we are too focussed on the idea of “privilege,” and whether we are becoming more or less mature in judging works of art.

Your book begins by connecting the increasing focus on the concept of privilege with the idea of virtue. Can you explain how you think the two are connected?

Privilege is a term that has come more and more to be sounded in the culture, and there is no question that it has a meaning we all know—that there is such a thing as privilege, which has to do with advantage. The advantage can be earned or unearned, but certainly there is such a thing as earned or unearned advantage. What’s happened is that the term “privilege” has come to be used promiscuously, so that it has become something of a noise word which is invoked to prevent conversations from heading in directions that people would rather they not go in. So that when a person is making a comment that you don’t like, you raise your hand and you say something like, “Oh, do you realize that you’re exercising a privilege in speaking this way?”

And, of course, when certain epithets are attached to the word “privilege,” like “white privilege” for example, or “male privilege,” they exacerbate or intensify the charge, so that, in many cases, “white privilege” is a term that now is used to signify something that all white people enjoy in the same way, simply because it can’t be enjoyed by anyone who is not white. The problem with that, and I think it’s fairly obvious, is that not all white people are the same. Not all white people enjoy the same privileges. Not all white people have the same backgrounds and experiences, and to think of white people in this sort of indiscriminate way and to invoke the term “privilege” to talk about what they enjoy is to be completely misleading about the lives of white people.

What’s the connection between that and virtue?

Well, if you constantly speak about people in that way, you are signalling your own virtue by indicating that you are alert to the privilege that people enjoy, with the implication, of course, that all of the privilege they enjoy is unearned—even if these privileges that you’re speaking about are, in fact, earned, or earned by people who have worked hard, people who have spent many years in educational institutions to get where they are. And so you’re signalling your virtue by accusing people of privilege in that way. And there are many other ways of signalling your virtue by pointing out to people things that they should not have said, things that they should not have thought, and, in that sense, virtue signalling has become a common feature of life and the culture, most especially in academic culture.

I think we are all aware of seeing someone tweet something because they want to signal that they have some point of view. But it does seem, in a way, that the term “virtue signalling” is a backhanded compliment, because it’s essentially saying there is some virtue to it, or that it acknowledges an awareness of racism or misogyny or a history of discrimination. So when you say “virtue signalling,” are you saying that bringing up these issues in a discussion is frustrating or annoying, even if somehow true? Or are you saying that you think that these things are not actually accurate in some way? Or both? If that distinction makes sense.

The distinction makes sense. I think that there’s a difference between [virtue signalling] and pointing something out when, in fact, there is reason to do so. If I’m in a room in which someone calls another person a horrific name, and I say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t sit quietly by when you use a word like that to speak to this person,” or if I say to a student, “I’m sorry, but in our workshop we don’t speak to one another that way”—when we’re talking about someone’s story that she’s written for this week, we don’t say, “I’m sorry, I think that story’s stupid”—I don’t regard that as virtue signalling. It might be virtuous for me to call the person on the thing that’s been said, but I don’t do it to signal my virtue.

But there’s a whole realm of discourse in which people call people out in order to signal their own virtue, and that’s a very different sort of thing. Let me give you an example. If someone confuses the names of two people who are black or Asian-American, calling one by the name of the other, and you want to make a very big deal of that instead of regarding it simply as a mistake, well, then, it seems to me you are signalling your virtue. You’re making a great deal of something which may simply be no more than a mistake.

I have a whole chapter in my book about ableist language. If you make a big deal about the use of expressions like, “We ought to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes,” and you make a big deal about that because you’re afraid that people who can’t walk will be offended or that their feelings will be hurt, it seems to me you’re engaging in virtue signalling. That’s very different from calling people out when there is actually a legitimate reason to do so.

It often seems to me that there is too little awareness of historical injustices and present-day injustices, and of how those injustices shape the world we live in. It is the paradigm under which a lot of us operate, or all of us operate. But, still, individual people should be able to talk about what they want and should be judged on the content of what they say, not their specific experiences of race or gender or so on.

I think you’re taking us in the direction of what I would call the distinction between identity and identity politics, which seems to be a very important distinction. We all know that there’s been a great deal of talk in the culture in recent years about identity, which is an important and legitimate idea to talk about. And it’s something that each one of us is concerned with, in our own peculiar ways. I think about where I come from, who I am, how I got to be the person I am, why I think the way I do, and so on. That’s entirely understandable.

But when we enter the realm of identity politics we’re talking about a tendency for people of a particular race or religion or ethnicity or gender or social orientation to form more or less exclusive political alliances and to think of themselves as beholden in some way to that particular background experience, set of experiences, or identity. And that’s a change to me, and legitimately understandable for people who have been discriminated against and who have had to live under certain burdens of oppression. Those people want to mobilize and gather with people of a similar background and orientation and to achieve a certain kind of power, on the basis of which they can hope to change the state of things.

But there are very unfortunate aspects of identity politics, which we’ve seen all too much and which seem to me to have something to do with the question you just put to me. There are insidious features of, or extrapolations from, this tendency toward identity politics—most especially the notion that people of a particular kind tend to be like-minded or to see and feel things more or less in the same way. The worst part of this is the demand, not only the notion that people of a particular background or experience or ethnicity tend to see and feel things in this same way, but the demand that they continue to see and feel things in the same way. That’s the direction we’ve been headed in, and I think it’s both dangerous and deeply misleading.

I come from a Jewish background. My grandfather was a rabbi, my father was a cantor. Am I expected to think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Jew? Is it expected of me that I will adopt a perspective that’s, shall we say, suitable for a person of a Jewish background? Is that reasonable? In fact, I think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a person who is also a left liberal, an intellectual, a college professor, a person who’s had a whole range of experiences, who reads many books about the Middle East. Why would I be expected to relate to this particular kind of conflict solely by virtue of the fact that I went to Hebrew school and that my grandfather was a rabbi? Obviously, all identities are plural. I am many different things. I am not just someone who went to Hebrew school, but the demand increasingly is that I should think about things that way.

When you talk about the “demand,” are you talking about in the academy or across society?

We see aspects of this in the general society and the culture, but it’s particularly important and prominent in colleges and universities, where students are encouraged to think of themselves in narrowly identitarian ways, or basically as avatars of particular racial backgrounds. We have in colleges and universities ethnic-studies programs, along with black-studies programs. Nothing wrong with studying such subjects, by any means. But I would say that encouraging students in those programs to think of themselves primarily in terms of their race or ethnicity is terribly misleading.

To what degree do you feel that people are being encouraged to think that way by other people in the academy, and to what degree do you think that people feel that society views them primarily in that way, and so that ends up being the identity that they’re most likely to express or to want to use to push back against what they see is the way society looks at them?

I think there’s no question that people who have a personal experience of oppression, who have felt that, will tend clearly to self-identify along the lines suggested by that experience. So that, for example, if you’re an Islamic person who lives in a city where there’s a great deal of anti-Islamic sentiment, and you find yourself being looked at in ways that are distinctly uncomfortable, you will tend to think about yourself as a Muslim principally, and, of course, if you’re a religious Muslim, and your religion is the most important thing in your life, then again you will tend to think of yourself in that way. But the demand that the rest of us, who don’t live in those conditions, think of ourselves in that way seems to me not only unreasonable but misleading.

In the book, you write, “Intolerance among young people and their academic sponsors in the university is more entrenched than it was before, and both administrators and a large proportion of the liberal professoriate are running scared, fearful that they will be accused of thought crimes if they speak out against even the most obvious abuses and absurdities.” Young people are generally toward the left, but even on the left of the Democratic Party, candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem to have no interest in this sort of intolerance. There’s no left-wing Trump, obviously. Do you feel this has any political manifestations yet?

I don’t know if it will change, and I don’t know if these aspects of the culture will go all the way up to the Presidential race. I doubt it. Certainly, I doubt that we’ll see anything like that in the near future. But the thing I’m describing is definitely intolerance on the left, intolerance in my own cohort, intolerance among young people and their academic sponsors in the university who think of themselves as leftists and liberals, as I do. I give many such examples of intolerance, and these are serious. Look at the people who, in a workshop of the New York State Summer Writers Institute the year before last, attacked a white student who had spent a year on leave working at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, in Alabama. They attacked him for using material that he had come by in the course of that year, because he had illegitimately appropriated it as a white person from the experience of black people that he encountered in his year. [Boyers, the director of the summer institute, at Skidmore, describes the incident in his book.] That seems to me a mark of intolerance—that young man was shamed and chastised in his workshop by students who regard themselves as liberals, leftists, progressives, and passionate about racial matters.

My general takeaway from polling on young people is that you get more support for not allowing speech that people perceive as bigoted. And then, if you ask people questions about whether mosques should be able to be built or athletes should be able to kneel before a football game without getting fired, they’re actually more tolerant than previous generations. So I don’t disagree with you that something has changed in certain ways, but it also seems like it’s a mixed picture. Is that not your sense?

Of course, I think in my cohort there is considerable support for Colin Kaepernick, as there should be. He should’ve been able to kneel, and he should be able to use his hands in the way that he wanted to, to signal his allegiance to certain ideas. Without any question. But, meanwhile, not only in the university but in the larger culture, you see reflections of the thing I’m describing. I’m sure you read about the pulling of the poem at The Nation in the summer of 2018, on the grounds, again, that the white poet had used the language of black speech—and this was found to be illegitimate after the poem had been accepted and published in The Nation. And I know you’re aware that, in the publishing world, there is a considerable momentum behind the notion that authors ought not to be publishing books or stories about or in the voices of persons who belong to groups different from their own. There are agents, powerful agents in New York, who will no longer send out a story by an author dealing with characters who don’t belong to that author’s own racial or ethnic group. That’s real. That’s happening.

You wrote a great essay years ago about V. S. Naipaul and whether to separate the artist from the art, and I’m curious what you think of the conversations that have arisen in the last few years, especially around #MeToo and different works of art and how we should be judging them now. Do you feel that that conversation has become, in some ways, less mature or more mature?

The #MeToo movement has been an important, and, in most cases, highly beneficial movement, and it’s done very important things for all of us and the culture. I have misgivings about certain things that have happened under the auspices of #MeToo. But, on the whole, it seems to me #MeToo has been extraordinarily beneficial.

But has the conversation about ideas, ideology, and works of art become more mature? Decidedly not. There are large numbers of people who regard themselves as liberals and progressives and so on who were involved in demanding that Dana Schutz’s painting based upon the Emmett Till event be taken down from the walls of the Whitney. There are people who mobilized last year to ask the Metropolitan Museum to take down Balthus’s painting of “Thérèse Dreaming” from the walls because, presumably, certain viewers of these works found them offensive or disturbing.

That doesn’t seem to be mature. Again, people are allowed to demand what they want to demand and allowed to protest what they want to protest. I don’t regard those kinds of things as mature at all. The argument against appropriation has not, for the most part, been a mature conversation. A mature conversation would ask the question that Zadie Smith asked about the Dana Schutz painting: namely, does it give justice to the event—that is, the murder of Emmett Till—which it purports to represent? That’s a mature, adult question to ask of a painting. An immature question to ask of a painting is, “Is the person who made it white?”

It seems like the question of who’s doing the representation is an interesting question, but it’s not the mature question about the quality of a specific painting.

The term that Zadie Smith uses in her Harper’s essay on the question, or for the concern with the race of the person who purports to represent an event, is “philistine.” I agree with her entirely. She argued the Schutz painting is a failure that doesn’t do justice to the event that it purports to represent. That seems to me entirely legitimate. It’s a concern that we all have when we read novels, when we look at paintings, and we ask, “Do these do justice to the material that they handle?”

Right. It’s a mature or interesting question to ask what groups of people are doing different types of artistic representation. If it were only white people who were asked to cover foreign countries or to write book reviews about the African-American experience, that would be an important thing to understand. But I agree with you that to look at a specific review, or to look at a specific person, and to judge their work by the color of their skin rather than the content of the art or the journalism that they’re creating is much less mature.

I’m entirely in accord with what you just said.

I grew up in Oakland and Berkeley in the eighties and nineties, and there were things as a teen-ager that I found really frustrating about political correctness. I felt people were kind of moralistic in the way they talked about the environment. I thought the way that they talked about inclusiveness was really good, but also could be kind of silly, and you’d roll your eyes and say, “Oh, it’s Berkeley, whatever.” Twenty-five years later, so much of that stuff is conventional wisdom across the whole country. People pay much more attention to the food they eat and to the environment, and most Americans have an opinion on gay rights and trans issues. And that makes me think that, if there are things that I find silly now, thirty years from now I’m going to look back on them and say, No, those actually were good things. Do you ever think this, despite your frustrations?

Well, yeah, of course. One of the reasons that I really don’t want to talk about political correctness in my book is because there’s a sense in which, along the lines that you were just describing it, political correctness is obviously a very beneficial thing. It is wonderful that most people in a society like ours can no longer feel comfortable using epithets, disgraceful and disgusting epithets, to describe other human beings. We can no longer say the kinds of things that people used to say about Jews, black people, Italians, Poles, and so on. That’s an aspect of political correctness that I think most of us who are decent human beings applaud and you live by, and we’re glad that political correctness has, in that sense, had its way with us. But, on the other hand, political correctness comes in many different guises, and political correctness may also have to do with the demand that we not say things that, in fact, are not offensive, that some people take to be uncomfortable.

So you are drawing a distinction between political correctness and virtue signalling, which I agree are not the same thing, but it seems like they have some overlap, no? What is the distinction?

Virtue signalling would focus on what are sometimes called microaggressions, which are things, first of all, that are unintentional in many cases, accidental, and which in many cases really don’t hurt anybody’s feelings, but which people who are virtue signalling have taken hold of in order to emphasize their own alertness and their own virtue. That’s very different from the kinds of political correctness you were talking about.

I think, in a way, we acknowledge this point about political correctness when we say we don’t want to judge people from twenty or thirty years ago too harshly by the standards of today. If we are going to acknowledge that, then it also seems like we should acknowledge that there were people thirty years ago who had more forward-thinking opinions, and even if they sometimes annoyed us, they were right, and so maybe the people who seem to have opinions today we find frustrating are onto something.

They were right in some respects. In other respects they were not. Look, we have all paid considerable attention in recent months to controversies involving the use of the n-word. A professor at the New School for Social Research, a woman named Laurie Sheck, got into trouble for reading out the word in a graduate class, in a [statement] by James Baldwin. There was an article in the New York Times Op-Ed page by the black writer Walter Mosley about the way he received complaints and is brought up on charges for using the word. So those kinds of circumstances in which writers and professors and intellectuals are being called out for doing their jobs in the classroom seem to me to be aspects of what I’m calling virtue signalling. And, yes, they are related to political correctness, but they are decidedly different.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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