By Daphne Patai
While American education goes further down the tubes, lame-brained notions are raised to levels of respectability in academe that should shock any halfway reasonable person. What has happened is the normalization of bad ideas, thanks mostly to identity politics. We constantly hear that we live in a hopelessly racist and sexist society, but the truth is that we live in such a liberal atmosphere that identity-based complaints are always taken seriously. And rarely does a student shouting obscenities at a professor or administrator get told to just “shut up and study.”
It’s worth considering how we got from there to here. Below are a few highlights from my own decades in academe, during which identity politics have spread like a contagious disease.
Remaking the World of Sex
In response to the increasing publicity over date rape, Antioch College in 1993 adopted an oddball policy requiring verbal consent at every stage of sexual activities. After a slow start, such policies, perhaps owing to absurd claims about the high rate of sexual assault on campus, are now gaining traction throughout the country.
Underlying this demand are some disturbing implications that have trickled down from radical feminists decades ago: that women don’t really want (hetero)sex, that “consent” itself is manufactured by heteronormativity, that intercourse and rape are often indistinguishable, and that sexual harassment and assault (both having undergone ever expanding definitions) are what men routinely do to women.
Let’s call these ideas the MacKinnon-Dworkinite axis. When I wrote about this problem in a 1998 book called Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, the notion that heterosexual relations required verbal consent was still a marginal idea. Now a negative view of heterosex seems to be everywhere, resuscitating traditional views of women as needing constant protection from predatory males.
But that protection, these days, is to be provided by the state and its eager institutions, not by individual men. It’s as if women have totally cornered the sexual market: they’re the providers (mostly reluctant), men the consumers (avidly hungry), and the entire interaction has to be orchestrated by administrators, following the guidelines of feminists. See Cathy Young’s column, in The Washington Post.
While feminists have used the term “rape culture” for years to characterize the United States, they rarely criticize or even comment on the high incidence of rape of black women by black men. The same silence surrounds the growing incidence of rape and sexual assault in European cities with large numbers of Muslim immigrants.
Race: Concentrating on Grievance
The grievance industries have taken control of the popular discourse on race, to the point that merely to call attention to this phenomenon is to expose oneself to nasty labels. It was in the early 1990s, at a meeting of the Women’s Studies faculty (which I had joined voluntarily a couple of years after receiving tenure in the Spanish and Portuguese Department), that I first heard a colleague bluntly state: When Blacks say they have experienced racism, they are not to be challenged.
I objected that this made actual discussion of a problem or a charge impossible. Colleagues who agreed with me behind the scenes were nonetheless unwilling to say so publicly. At the same time, racial politics were so thoroughly gripping the program that when two graduate students presented a proposal for a new course they wished to teach on indigenous women, my colleagues accepted it despite the fact that the proposal was nothing but a list of indigenous identities of North and South America. I argued that the proposal needed to be a real proposal, not merely a list. My colleagues responded, “We can’t afford not to accept it,” by which they meant that with charges of racism flying thick and fast, they dared not insist on normal academic procedures. These were among the episodes that led to my leaving Women’s Studies not long thereafter.
The Cult of Identity
Clearly, identity politics had become a hydra, so out of control that Women’s Studies itself was in danger of seeming parochial for concentrating on “women.” The first thing it did to bolster its position was, as described above, embrace a stance of mea culpa in relation to white identity.
So widespread is this today that we have such innovations as whiteness studies (i.e., studies of “white privilege” and its inherent racism), which have some up-to-the-minute incarnations, as in Whiteness History Month at Portland Community College, scheduled for April 2016. And identity programs devoted to every conceivable variation of sexual and gender identity now abound. Acronyms are de rigueur.
And Let’s Not Forget ‘Class’
Early in the days of Women’s Studies, claims about “classism” were added to charges of racism and sexism, and “white middle-class women” were denounced as the illegitimate dominatrices of academic feminism. The imperative was clear: adapt or die. As identities multiplied, the accompanying demand for appropriate “theorizing” took the form of what academic feminists claimed was a new “integrated analysis,” by which various supposedly oppressed identities had to be incorporated into one package.
More recently, this has been renamed “intersectional analysis” (borrowing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use in a 1989 essay of the term “intersectionality”). This is now an obligatory approach in Women’s Studies and other identity fields, designed to address the special marginalization suffered by people with multiple oppressed identities. Such an approach has the great advantage that new categories can always be added as they are discovered.
The Compulsion to Reinvent Oneself
Along with this came a change in the very name of Women’s Studies programs. All over the country in the past decade these programs and departments retitled themselves as some variation of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. And indeed, sexuality – that is, the critique of heterosexuality and promotion of alternatives – became, along with racism and anti-capitalism, the predominant focus of academic feminism, as is evident today in course offerings and programmatic statements.
Befitting a postmodernist age, redefinitions of all categories prevailed: Where originally gender identity was seen as socially constructed, and sexual identity was viewed as biological, biology itself came increasingly, if inconsistently, under attack. Noretta Koertge and I called this development “biodenial” (see Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies), and noted how opportunistically the technique was used.
In a fascinating more recent development, it has become clear that while minority racial identity is so treasured that fraudulent claims (on grounds of biology, i.e., racial heritage!) are denounced, sexual identity has moved in an opposite direction, toward ever greater fluidity. Thus, for example, Smith College announced in May 2015 that, though reaffirming its “unwavering mission and identity as a women’s college,” its commitment to access and diversity required recognition that “concepts of female identity have evolved.”
Henceforth, Smith will consider applicants who “self-identify” as female, even if they “were assigned male at birth” — but not the reverse. Thoughtfully, this policy “does not affect students who transition during their time at Smith.” Is this an abandonment or an intensification of identititis?
Firmly Stamping out Unwanted Speech
Of course, none of the above shifts could occur successfully without policing of everyday language. And as the very notion of discrimination (which was initially the legal basis for criminalizing “sexual harassment”) underwent extensive concept-stretching, demands for verbal conformity have intensified, proscribing certain terms and prescribing others.
Schools have sometimes tried to create lists of offensive and impermissible terms, and though these have no legal standing, such details don’t seem to have dissuaded many colleges. But even where certain terms are not officially prohibited, conformity has been expected for decades now.
I remember a speaker in the early 1990s, at a Women’s Studies brown-bag lunch, in passing using the expression “to see” in the sense of “to understand.” A student in the audience interrupted her to say this was “ablest.” The speaker apologized. As categories of oppression have multiplied, so, obviously, are the terms that must be avoided. For several decades now, students and faculty have gotten into serious trouble for saying something perceived as offensive.
This creeping censorship was highlighted in the indispensable book by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1998). Initially inspired by the famous “water buffalo” case at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, the book tracked the rapid multiplication of such instances throughout the 1990s.
The avalanche of cases Kors and Silverglate heard about in response to their book led them in 1999 to found FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (on whose Board I have served ever since). FIRE has been instrumental in combatting speech codes on American campuses by insisting on reason and actual adherence to the First Amendment, and by holding universities to account.
The cases on the website, thefire.org, read like a parody of academic inanities – but the consequences to those charged with speech infractions have been all too real – thanks to the Departments of Education’s and Justice’s 2013 “blueprint” invoking unconstitutionally broad definitions of sexual harassment. For students and faculty, this usually means absence of due process.
FIRE has had to pursue free speech on a case-by-case basis, preferring suasion to lawsuits wherever possible. But despite their numerous successes, the general atmosphere on campus has not improved. On the contrary, university administrators, as we have seen again in recent months, have become ever more craven conformists.
Recently, I received a mailing from FIRE about the case of a Colorado College student who was suspended and banned from campus for two years for having posted a six-word comment on Yik Yak. FIRE’s intervention got the ban reduced to six months, and they are still fighting on his behalf.
And the struggle continues: On Jan 20, 2016, supported by FIRE, Professor Teresa Buchanan filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Louisiana State University for infringement of her rights by firing her for profanity she used in class.
Over the past few decades, then, we have seen a massive normalization of bad ideas that were first promoted by identity programs such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies. This could not have been accomplished without academic institutions willingly, and by now enthusiastically, embracing what Lawrence Summers (and he should know) recently called academe’s “creeping totalitarianism.” Far from embracing free debate of challenging ideas and the free speech necessary to pursue them, university life today is characterized by policies governing every aspect of college life, in the classroom and out, and offices to enforce them.
At the macro level, universities have adopted “social justice” as a supposed core mission, in the name of which policing of speech and behavior has become ever more intense. Education itself may be more debased and less demanding, yet universities focus not on this extremely serious problem but on the level of comfort of those supersensitive souls who are empowered by identity politics.
With intrusive training and orientation sessions, often obligatory, along with endless expansion of administrative fiefdoms devoted to supposed justice, inclusivity, and equality, schools augment the problem by embracing and imposing rules and regulations, however blatantly unconstitutional and in defiance of their own stated commitments to free speech and academic freedom.
Instead, in the new world in which “oppression studies” (to use Alan Kors’ prescient phrase) rule, we find ever more hysterical searches for grievances, to the point that students now need to be protected from offenses or mere upset feelings yet to come, and thus demand “trigger warnings” about class material. They learn how to apply the concept of “bullying,” the latest catch-all offense to watch for in the new kindergarten that the university has become.
It’s as if universities have been transformed from institutions dedicated to learning into holding tanks for fragile and shattered selves – not so fragile, however, that they’re unable to mobilize and scream until they get their way, all the while claiming to be silenced and abused.
We have reached the point today where the erosion of civil rights, along with the evaporation of common sense, is not only taken for granted but actively encouraged by many college administrators eager to demonstrate their commitment to a better (that is, more minutely controlled) society. Or perhaps they are just eager to keep their jobs — a futile endeavor since, as they are learning the hard way, no one has an unassailable identity once identitarians get busy.
Meanwhile, universities recklessly follow the spread of inventive concepts such as “micro-aggression.” This term was coined in 1970 by professor and psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, but was not widely used until the last few years. Why might that be? Perhaps because there were more important battles to be fought then. But, let’s face it, micro-aggression is becoming hackneyed, for it is only the more overt form of those ubiquitous and diabolical — because ever less visible — offenses that so plague our society. No one should be content to stop there.
Can nano-aggression be far behind?
Daphne Patai is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.