Have We Weaponized Virtue?
By Stephen RohdeMay 22, 2020
The Tyranny of Virtue by Robert Boyers
When it comes to the volatile issues of race, sex, identity, privilege, rights, and freedom, well-intentioned actions to redress genuine injuries can conflict with equally important societal values, such as freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas. Are there unintended and adverse consequences that flow from the energetic vindication of cherished rights in our society? Consequences that have been ignored and deserve serious examination? Is there still any legitimate place for dissent and disagreement on these fundamental issues?
In The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, Robert Boyers, professor of English at Skidmore College, author of 10 books, and editor of the literary journal Salmagundi, is alarmed by the “irrationality and anti-intellectuality” on college campuses and in the wider cultural environment that was “unleashed by many of the most vocal proponents of the new fundamentalism” to “silence or intimidate opponents.” He is deeply concerned that
concepts with some genuine merit — like “privilege,” “appropriation,” and even “microaggression” — were very rapidly weaponized, and well-intentional discussions of “identity,” “inequality,” and “disability” became the leading edge of new efforts to label and separate the saved and the damned, the “woke” and the benighted, the victim and the oppressor.
He regrets 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 is asking whether in our zeal to address the consequences of racism, misogyny, sexual violence, bigotry, and intolerance in America, are we spreading a new intolerance, undermining cherished values of free and open discussion? The Tyranny of Virtue prompts serious readers to take a second look at their own assumptions as we try to navigate the troubled waters on which we so often feel adrift.
The force of Boyers’s book comes from the proximity of his own university experiences to the issues he is confronting, the grounding he provides with relevant examples to illustrate his arguments, and his bracing writing style which consistently expresses difficult ideas in crisp and succinct language.
As Boyers sees it, tendencies that alarmed him and others on the liberal left 25 or 30 years ago have grown more disturbing.
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.
Boyers offers a startling example.
An Ivy League college senior in Boyers’s July 2018 New York State Summer Writers Institute — a young white man — told Boyers he was denounced in a seminar by several other students for writing poems based on his experience as a volunteer in Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. “How dare he write poems about lynching and the travails of oppressed people when it was obvious that he has no legitimate claim to that material?” Boyers sarcastically asks, echoing the all-too-sincere accusations leveled at the student. “Was it not obvious,” Boyers continues, “that a ‘privileged’ white male, who could afford to take off a year of college to work as a volunteer, really had no access to the suffering of the people he hoped to study and evoke?”
Boyers expands this example beyond the college setting by recounting another controversy that unfolded in July 2018, when objections (which Boyers calls “predictably nasty and belligerent”) were lodged against The Nation magazine for publishing a short poem by a young white poet in which he used black vernacular language. Within a few days the poetry editors who had reviewed and approved the poem issued what Nation columnist Katha Pollitt called a “craven apology” that read “like a letter from a re-education camp.” In The Atlantic, the scholar of black English John McWhorter called the language in the poem “true and ordinary black speech” and a “spot-on depiction of the dialect in use.” He also noted the irony that, at a time when whites are encouraged “to understand […] the black experience,” white artists who seek “to empathize […] as artists” are told to cease and desist.
Boyers is angry about what he sees going on in the institutions of higher learning to which he has devoted his life’s work as well as in the society at large about which he cares deeply.
The revolution of moral concern, driven by people in the grip of delusions I have attempted to anatomize throughout this book, is clearly a bizarre phenomenon, fueled by convictions and passions that have the appearance of benevolence but are increasingly harnessed to create a surveillance culture in which strict adherence to irrational codes and “principles” is demanded.
He sees a “toxic environment that now permeates the liberal academy” that is “increasingly drawn to denial and overt repression” including “speech codes and draconian punishments for verbal indecorum or ‘presumption.’”
Unfortunately, Boyers’s anger can get the best of him as he ascribes ugly motivations to the targets of his denunciation. “It is decidedly not true that academics mobilizing to punish dissident or ‘incorrect’ voices on their own campuses are nevertheless operating with benevolent motives,” he defiantly declares. And it is “not true than an ostensibly well-intentioned effort to prevent a young white poet from imagining the lives of black people is an expression of genuine concern for black people.” Why does Boyers assume the motives of those concerned about cultural appropriation are not “benevolent” or “genuine”? For someone so dedicated to freedom of speech and open debate, why not address the merits of the arguments in these controversies without making groundless assumptions and attacking the motivations of those with whom he disagrees? Isn’t giving others the benefit of the doubt one of the liberal values Boyers is seeking to encourage on our campuses and in society at large?
Boyers is eager for his readers to get to know him so they don’t take him as just another conservative critic like Dinesh D’Souza or Tucker Carlson, who do not share his lifelong commitment to equality and justice. To that end he describes an encounter with an English professor during his freshman year at Queens College in the late 1950s. Having given Boyers an A+ on a paper examining George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Professor Stone suggests that Boyers schedule an appointment to see him in his office.
When Boyers arrives, unexpectedly a second professor is present. Professor Stone asks Boyers to summarize his paper on Orwell. After Boyers offers only a few sentences, Professor Stone asks him to stop and turns to his colleague. “See what I mean?” “Totally,” the other professor responds. Turning back to Boyers, Professor Stone guesses, “[Y]ou may be the first person in your family to go to college.” “It’s true,” replies Boyers. “You write very well,” Professor Stone says,
But you know, I didn’t call you here to congratulate you, but to tell you something you need to hear[.] […] [T]hough you are a bright and gifted young fellow, your speech, I mean the sounds you make when you speak, are such that no one will ever take you seriously — I repeat, no one will ever take you seriously — if you don’t at once do something about this. Do you understand me?
Boyers agrees to enroll in a “remedial” speech course to “cure” what Professor Stone calls his “Brooklynese.” Within hours of his “escape” he realizes this was “a never-to-be-forgotten gift.” It was an insult to be sure, “but delivered not with an intention to hurt but to save and uplift.”
Boyers uses this formative incident in his life to introduce his discussion of white privilege. He clearly understands that white privilege exists. It is legitimate, he writes, to assert that “whiteness has long been an advantage, however little some white people believe that their own whiteness has given them what others lack.” He provides numerous examples:
[T]hat housing laws designed to help returning GIs discriminated against black veterans; that college admissions boards, even where inclined to diversify their student bodies, continue to rely on protocols that would ensure acceptance mainly for the wealthy or the otherwise privileged; that apparently trivial slights or insults might conceivably affect people in disastrous ways, while allowing those responsible for the insults to proceed as if nothing consequential had transpired.
And he quotes poet Claudia Rankine who argues that “whiteness has veiled from them their own power to wound.”
But Boyers goes deeper, in order to challenge what he sees as an absolutist assumption that white privilege is enjoyed by everyone who is white. Is it “reasonable to suppose,” he asks, “that whiteness confers, on all who claim it, comparable experiences and privileges?” Alluding to his embarrassing confrontation with Professor Stone, Boyers asks, “Was my own background as a working-class Jewish boy, growing up in a predominantly black community, remotely similar to the background or disposition of a white colleague who had never know privation, or in fact had no contact at all with other black children?”
Boyers offers some eye-opening examples. Two years ago, at a panel discussion at a writers institute, a graduate student complained that the entire topic of “political fiction” was dominated by male writers. When Boyers responded by referring to prominent women who write political fiction, such as Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Joyce Carol Oates, Ingeborg Bachmann, Pat Barker, Antia Desai, and others, another graduate student asked him if he was aware of the “privilege” he had just exercised in addressing the question. “Privilege?” he asked. “Your authority, she said, your presumption, the sense of entitlement that permits you to feel that you can pronounce on any question put to you.” As Boyers sees it, “privilege had been invoked as a noise word intended to distract all of us from the substance of our discussion and from the somehow unpleasant spectacle of a male writer intoning the names of great women writers, as if this were, in itself, a flagrant violation of a protocol.”
Then Boyers reports on an incident at Evergreen State in which a professor of biology (who subsequently resigned from the faculty) criticized the university’s “Day of Absence,” a day on which all white students were asked to leave campus. And the Northwestern professor who was subjected to a formal Title IX investigation by university authorities after an essay she wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education was said by a number of students to create “a hostile environment” on campus. Boyers comments that in
the last year or two, those wishing to restrain real talk or, God forbid, actual debate more and more deploy terms like “entitlement” and “subordination” to suggest that people who stir the waters inevitably create a “hostile environment” and intimidate their colleagues, some of whom — so it is said — are thereby made to feel powerless.
Boyers enlists prominent New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who in a recent article argued that many liberals “want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us — so long as they think like us.” Boyers writes that “[o]n campuses across the country, according to Kristof, academics casually admit that ‘they would discriminate in hiring decisions’ based on ‘the ideological views of a job applicant.’”
Boyers sees the accusation of “privilege” as being “increasingly hauled in as a weapon, though wielded, in the main, by persons attached still to the conviction that, whatever their own bristling incivility and the punishing quietus they clearly intend to deliver, they remain in full possession of their virtue.” He argues that the “privilege craze is part of a new fundamentalism built on a willful refusal to accept that the most obvious features of so-called identity are the least reliable indicators of what may reasonably be expected of us.”
But here again Boyers overreacts. “So-called” identity? Are not those who have been subjected to discrimination and been the brunt of bigotry on the basis of their race or gender or sexual orientation entitled to organize and speak up on the basis of those real, not “so-called,” identities? Although Boyers is sounding a much-needed warning over self-righteous accusations of “privilege” which can smother honest discussions of race, gender, and class, he again betrays his own blind spots. He belittles unnamed “partisans” of the “privilege critique” of “garden-variety envy.” That’s a particularly cruel epithet to hurl at individuals and groups who are seeking to reverse the impact of centuries of enslavement and present-day discrimination. Accusing them of “envy” for simply seeking equality smacks of the argument during the battle for marriage equality that the LGBTQ community was seeking “special rights.”
Boyers accuses these “partisans” — without evidence or example — of having “little interest in real-world politics, that is, in coalition building and respect for difference.” Really? The movements for equality in society today are all about “real-world politics,” including voting rights, racial justice, immigration, equal pay for equal work, mass incarceration, and the entire panoply of rights which have been denied to marginalized people for so long.
But let me practice what I preach and give Boyers the benefit of the doubt, for elsewhere in his book he exhibits a far more subtle and nuanced approach to his subject. The following passage, listing the purposes of his book, is worth quoting in full:
To argue that the idea of “privilege” has its important uses and is, at the same time, susceptible to misunderstanding and abuse. To demonstrate that the idea of “appropriation” was an understandable expression of legitimate and deep-seated fears held by people with a history of oppression and subordination, but that the idea soon came to be wielded by people ignorant of the ways of the imagination and the benefits of the very practices they resisted. To argue that “identity” is an important aspect of our ongoing efforts to understand ourselves, but that identity politics is based on a deep misunderstanding of the nature of race and ethnicity. To insist that policies like affirmative action are essential if we are ever to achieve the kind of social justice we aspire to but that there are costs and consequences we ought to acknowledge without pretending that those costs are negligible or incidental.
Boyers fears that the excesses of these movements for social change will prove counterproductive, descending into a self-righteous close-minded orthodoxy that will alienate potential supporters and feed the criticism spread by reactionary forces which take every opportunity to ridicule and parody the movements for equality and justice. “To challenge officially accredited views, particularly when those views have anything to do with sensitive issues, is now regarded as out of bounds, illegitimate, an expression of arrogance or entitlement, and thereby hostile.”
In addition to privilege, identity, and appropriation, Boyers devotes a chapter to ableism and how our society deals with disabilities. He begins by describing how recently he became agitated seeing posters saying KEEP SKIDMORE SAFE hung all over Skidmore College, where he has been teaching for 50 years. According to Boyers, the posters called out examples of ableist language considered offensive to persons with disabilities and their supporters, language such as “stand up for,” “turn a blind eye to,” and “take a walk in someone’s shoes.” The posters encouraged students to ask their teachers to stop using such ableist language and, failing that, to contact advisers and file an online “bias report” naming the professor.
Boyers doesn’t tell us what became of this call to action or whether any “bias reports” were ever filed and, if so, what happened, but he nevertheless is quick to attack the posters, arguing that “expressions like those cited in the poster have nothing at all to do with any reasonable person’s notion of keeping the campus safe.” He calls the “recommendation” that people “take offense at the language all of us use is sufficiently bizarre.” Boyers notes that of course it goes without saying that everyone should “speak respectfully to persons who are disabled.” But according to him “the notion that students will feel unsafe when I tell them I have to ‘run’ to catch a train or that I’ve long been ‘deaf’ to certain kinds of music is a lie.” He claims that students can be “trained” to “take offense where no offense is intended.” “But there will be a price to pay,” he writes, “for creating a generation of young people who are unwilling and unable to differentiate between actual offenses and casual utterances that clearly do not rise even to the level of so-called microaggressions.”
Is Boyers right? Was it “bizarre” and a “lie” for persons with disabilities to be offended by such expressions? I must admit that it came as news to me that the examples cited in the poster were offensive, so I asked Alan Toy, a longtime friend who has been a disability rights advocate for decades and is a fellow member of the board of the ACLU of Southern California, if these phrases are offensive.
“Yes, and I am not alone in this,” Alan replied. Those phrases
do kind of sound very much like dog whistles or worse to many of us in the disability cohort. There are a few more that could come to mind, but you’ve hit upon some of the more common ones. I always find those things jarring personally, though I do give a little bit of credit to the cultural habituation of these phrases in our common dialogue.
However, Alan added, “once informed or ‘(a)woke(n),’ I have little sympathy for their continued use. If we can learn how to not say things like the N-word, or the K-word, etc., etc., then we can also undo the ableist language in our lexicon.” As for reporting these things to the “proper authorities,” Alan said he’s
not big on that kind of approach, but if a person egregiously continued to use these phrases once warned, then perhaps further actions do need to be taken. But sometimes there are old dogs who just cannot learn new tricks, and it is not as if those folks are using these terms to purposefully slur or demean people with disabilities, even though that may be the outcome for some folks.
I’m glad I checked with Alan. I learned a lot. I wish Boyers had checked with persons with disabilities too, instead of making assumptions and casting aspersions. Here and elsewhere in his book he shows few signs of having conducted probing interviews with the people involved in these controversies, such as the students on his own campus who created the poster, to get their side of the story. For someone who believes in open debate and discussion, such readily available research would have enriched and clarified his project.
Yet, despite its flaws, Boyers has written an important and provocative book that acts as an alarm calling attention to the excesses of dogmatism found in some quarters of the movements for equality. In the end, what is missing from this discussion on both sides — or all sides, since it is multifaceted — is a greater sense of humility, compassion, and generosity toward those, on the one hand, who are struggling to overcome the historical legacies and present-day realities of oppression and discrimination and those, on the other hand, like Boyers, who share the goals of those movements but are trying simultaneously to uphold the values of free and open debate unhindered by overreaction and censorship.
In his sympathetic New York Times review of Brandon Taylor’s debut novel Real Life, playwright and author Jeremy O. Harris describes how the protagonist, Wallace, a black gay grad student (with whom Taylor and Harris share similar experiences), walks the “haunted halls of a white academic space” feeling an “overwhelming dread.” Harris is struck by “the whiteness of Wallace’s surroundings, a fact of many spaces of American higher learning, and one rarely articulated in literature by writers of any race.” Harris writes that the “simple truth of ‘Real Life’ is that Wallace, like myself and many others who’ve wandered dark, white halls in search of a future, has made himself invisible by shedding the skin of his past, and adopting a new skin unadorned with the blemishes of history.”
In the year 2020, the suffocation of whiteness, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, running the gamut from insensitivity and marginalization to outright discrimination, still plagues our campuses and beyond. We ignore it at our peril. No one who has not experienced “shedding their skin to make themselves invisible” can sit in supercilious judgment over those who have.
Boyers ends his book by offering several sensible suggestions of what should not be done. Ideas should not be promulgated “without seriousness, that is, without any corresponding consideration of what would be entailed were they actually to be effected.” Ideas such as privilege, appropriation, ableism, and microaggressions should not be used “to sow hostility, persecute other members of a community, and make meaningful conversation impossible.” The classroom and the seminar should not be used “to indoctrinate students and thus to send them off parroting views that they have not adequately thought through or mastered.” An “us versus them” orientation should not be created which is “underwritten by enemies lists, and fueled by a sense that on matters for which a consensus has been reached no dispute may be tolerated.” And “virtue” should not be weaponized “for what Marilynne Robinson calls ‘class advantage,’ with zealots adept mainly at trumpeting their own superior status and making ‘a fetish … of indignation.’”
There is much to be learned from these suggestions. Yet even in his closing words Boyers can’t resist using loaded terms like “indoctrinate,” “zealots,” and “fetish” to describe those with whom he disagrees. How would he react if teachers who promote his ideas in the classroom were labeled “zealots” who “indoctrinate” their students and make a “fetish” of their “indignation”?
The political thinker Michael Walzer contends that “no one on the left has succeeded in telling a story that brings together the different values to which we are committed and connects them to some general picture of what the modern world is like and what our country should be like.” The Tyranny of Virtue is not that book, but it is a thought-provoking effort in that direction which is worthy reading for anyone who cares about the struggle of creating a more perfect union.
In her highly original and incisive book Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (2017), Teresa M. Bejan, associate professor of Political Theory and a Fellow of Oriel College at the University of Oxford, makes a persuasive case that liberal democracies need not abandon one set of their values to preserve another. Drawing on the teachings of Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, Bejan argues that so long as we exhibit mere civility — “a minimal conformity to norms of respectful behavior and decorum expected of all members of a tolerant society as such” — without legislating civility through speech codes and other government-imposed restraints, we can achieve the highest ideals of an egalitarian, free, and just society. For her, democracy assumes “ideological division, insulting invective, and sectarian splintering.” Democracy is undermined by “conformity that delegitimizes dissent while reinforcing the status quo,” which hardly sets the stage for groups which have suffered oppression and discrimination to protest, speak out, and seek change. Equality and justice are not achieved by “civilizing discourse aimed at silencing dissent and marginalizing already marginal groups.”
Seen in this light, open and robust debate are the friends, not the enemies, of creating a diverse, multiracial nation dedicated to liberty and justice for all. Despite its flaws, The Tyranny of Virtue contributes significantly to a better understanding of the challenges we face.
Stephen Rohde is a retired constitutional lawyer, lecturer, writer, and political activist.
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