Last year, a former student of mine won a job interview at the satellite campus of a state university system. One of the first questions she had to answer was this: “Tell us how you will contribute to diversity on our campus.” My ex-student was Shiite, female, heterosexual, and 50 years old. As far as she could tell, the questioner, too, was white, middle-aged, female, and heterosexual.
In her job search, she also found several diversity statements were required of her. At the same time, during job season, the education press filled the air with complaints written by persons of color about white supremacy in its various forms in higher education, while tales of the plight of LGBT students and faculty circulated, giving job candidates who were non-white and LGBT still more special status in the scramble for attention from hiring committees.
My ex-student is a liberal all the way. She despises Donald Trump. She teaches freshman composition but specializes in environmental topics and writing. She fully supports LGBT rights.
But that doesn’t matter. Ideological conformity doesn’t help here. After all, everybody on the job market these days believes pretty much the same thing when it comes to the social and political basics. Personnel decisions are now a more specific and intractable matter. Identity, not ideology–that’s the crucial thing. The diversity statements that job candidates submit are less important as statements of faith in the diversity dogma than they are ways of identifying diverse identities.
The old conservative critiques aren’t pertinent anymore, not to this kind of agenda. Thirty years ago, Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, et al pinpointed the intellectual corruptions of the academic humanities. Alan Sokal and the Bad Writing Award demonstrated how far disciplinary standards had fallen. They succeeded in convincing the country that scholarly norms had decayed and the resulting decadence had opened the way to political correctness on the syllabus and in the curriculum.
This is different, though. The cries of white supremacy and (let’s add) or rampant male sexism in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere aren’t vulnerable to rebuttal. An interviewer on a hiring committee who is herself white but who quizzes each candidate on his promotion of diversity can’t hear any criticism of her approach. If you handed her Richard Bernstein’s famous 1990 New York Times story on political correctness, she couldn’t get through two paragraphs before tossing it away in a huff. She poses her question as a hand grenade whose pin is about to fall out. It is loaded with psycho-political content ready to be summoned forth as the candidate struggles to give the right answer. She sits in the judge’s seat, and it’s a position she doesn’t want to give up. She has crossed a professional line that conservatives insist must be respected if the discipline is to retain its integrity. But she doesn’t care. Diversity is a higher virtue.
There is no debate any longer, no progressive vision vs. conservative critique. The actions of the diversiphiles have become too blunt and crude to admit to contention. There is barely any pretense that merit matters more than identity. The old arguments conservatives made against liberal bias don’t apply. The term liberal bias gives too much intellectual credence to this kind of social engineering. When you hear it, you think someone is disposed to what Marx said about alienated labor, or to Richard Rorty on the errors of a correspondence theory of truth, or to Edward Said on Western conceptions of the East.
The new kind of judgment, however, doesn’t go much past bean-counting by race and sex. It doesn’t have any intellectual content. You don’t need Michel Foucault to explain why we must, we absolutely must, recruit more people of color to the faculty and talk more about heteronormativity in the classroom. You don’t need to justify anything about it. You just have to do it.
Critics of the new diversity must change their vocabularies when they address such violations of academic ideals. Ideology is the wrong word. So is bias. We should speak, instead, of purity and pollution, in–groups and taboo. When humanities professors mull over the decisions they must make, they make you think like an anthropologist and social psychologist, not a political scientist.
Jonathan Haidt, who founded Heterodox Academ, recognized this a few years ago, and he has nobly led the effort to reform the socio-psychological climate of academia. But one wonders whether he and Greg Lukianoff who writes for FIRE go far enough in their “coddling” thesis in probing the animosity that underlies these diversity mandates. To call for the establishment of a professional population fully proportionate in all the demographics sounds benign and democratic. Who could argue with that?
The problems never come up in the expression of the goal, only in the implementation. How do you achieve the proportions when different groups enter college and graduate school with unequal capacities (on average)? What do you do when many years pass and, despite your best intentions and actions, the rate of African Americans on the faculty still hovers in the low single-digits?
We’ve seen the outcomes. Resentments build, blame must be ascribed, scapegoats must be found. Racial tensions increase, and everyone gets nervous, including the most dedicated liberals. The avid social engineers contrive fuzzy notions of white privilege and institutional racism, which are not descriptive terms at all, but rather tactical ones whose very abstraction and loose reference make them so hard to refute.
The atmosphere is now charged with guilt and chagrin. The number of things that may not be said has increased. That’s the thing about political correctness. It doesn’t have clear and distinct rules like those found in a handbook of etiquette. If it did, people would know how they are supposed to act and speak. They wouldn’t feel so uncertain when the delicate issues of race and sex come up.
But political correctness is less spelled out than that. The rules change over time. Words that were okay once are now not okay. Who could have predicted ten years ago that we must take care of our pronouns? My colleagues have witnessed cases in which a person of sparkling liberal credentials has spoken injudiciously and become the target of wrath. They have taken a lesson: be very conscious of what you say and think.
The situation is ripe for identity politicians to seize the initiative and press for action in ways that never would have been countenanced before. Liberals 30 and 40 years ago would have recoiled at the diversity-statement requirement. Today, they keep quiet. It’s not liberal bias that holds them back. It’s the fear of censure that hushes them. The rules of political correctness are not norms. They are taboos. The faculty is an in-group. They don’t promulgate ideological beliefs; they enforce customs. They haven’t politicized the academy; they have tribalized it.
It is less incumbent on young professors and graduate students, then, to demonstrate that they have read Marx thoroughly and can rehearse the details of his arguments than it is for them to prove that they have absorbed a few Marxist contentions that the tribe has adopted as dogma (example: the political nature of private spaces). You don’t have to ponder evidence for and against biological factors in gender difference. You merely have to state the 100 percent social construction of it. Intersectionality is less significant as a concept than it is as a marker of their “positionality” in professional settings. More and more, the intellectual features of humanities disciplines have been subordinated to personnel features.
In other words, the humanities are about who has the jobs, not which ideas reign. The political correctness conservatives rightly warned about in 1989 has only intensified, but for instrumental reasons. If academics grumble ever more loudly about the lack of diversity in the ranks, they can ever more sharply divide true believers from soft supporters (not to mention dissidents). Raising the tensions makes the line between them and us clearer and brighter. Controversy has a way of clarifying things.
War demands stronger commitments. In the past, a moderate liberal who harbored some doubts about identity politics could go through a full hiring process and not raise any suspicions among the leftist professors in the hiring department. But now, with identity issues at the center of the field itself, he will be forced to show his hand. Questions will be posed to him, and the questioners will have keen radar for any hesitations. The smaller and narrower the mind, the more sensitive it is to challenge.
And the less it is to persuasion. Next year, the number of diversity statements will grow, and diversity questions will have become routine in the interviews. These are rituals, and people of deep faith can’t be told not to worship their idols and exercise their purifications.
Image: Adrian Villegas on You Tube