The Campus Tendency to Extremism

January 2020

Robert Boyers, The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, Scribner, 2019, 192 pages.

There is a common cultural dynamic in which competition among members of a social or political movement for the prestige of ideological purity and group leadership leads to more and more extreme substantive positions. Examples are countless: Christianity, based on a Jewish Messiah and his Jewish Apostles, soon enough came to disparage Jews who did not follow Jesus, claimed that “the Jews” had murdered Jesus, and that they would burn in hell. Centuries of Christian attacks on Jews followed, from the Crusades to pogroms, ending in a half-successful attempt at genocide. Islam, which drew heavily upon Judaism and Christianity, declared Jews and Christians stubborn holders of corrupt faiths who would burn in hell, and that the end days would not come until all Jews on earth were murdered, an objective proudly declared by Hamas.

Attempts to ameliorate poverty and economic exploitation led to movements of reform, then socialism, then communism, which, when implemented in the Soviet Union, Peoples Republic of China, and Khmer Rouge Cambodia led to the murder of a hundred million people from incorrect social categories. Recent attempts in the West to remove prejudice and discrimination against females and people of color led rapidly to the vilification of males and whites, and the implementation of systematic institutional discrimination against males and whites. Attempts to come to the aid of females in distress led to the institutionalization of abortion, which was going to “safe, legal, and rare,” but in fact led the millions of “terminations,” on-demand abortion, “a woman’s choice,” and the demand to murder babies at all stages of pregnancy and also newborns, this demand the highest priority of feminists.

This tendency to extremism is quite familiar to anyone observing the domination of “higher education” institutions by “social justice” ideology. “Social justice” warriors on campuses make more and more extreme and outrageous demands daily. These demands do not sit well even with confirmed “progressives” such as Robert Boyers, a long-time Professor of English at Skidmore College, author of The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies. Boyers criticizes “the new fundamentalism” that requires that “all are expected to speak with one voice about the right and the true,” a demand that he characterizes as “intolerant and illiberal.” He regards it as “bizarre that of all places the liberal university should now be the one where strenuous efforts are most emphatically made to insure consensus,” reflecting “a new wave of puritanism and a culture of suspicion.” As a result, he says, “the university is, in many ways, an increasingly toxic environment.”

In the main chapters, Boyers interrogates, with grace and literary depth, a number of prominent concepts. The first is “privilege,” heavily used in discourses about “sexism” and “racism,” which Boyers says “is at present promiscuously (and often punitively) deployed to imply a wide range of advantages or deficits against which no one can be adequately defended.” Boyer rejects this usage on the grounds that “to consider either of us primarily as white people, deliberately consigning to irrelevance everything that made us different from one another—and different from the kinds of white people who regard their whiteness as an endowment to be proud of—was to deny what was clearly most important about each of us.” He points out that “privilege is increasingly hauled in as a weapon” by people who “are mainly interested in drawing hard lines separating the guilty from the saved, the serenely oblivious from the righteous, fiercely aggrieved, and censorious.”

Boyers then addresses what he refers to as “the academy as total cultural environment,” as in—it appears to this reviewer—“total” meaning totalitarian. He addresses the hiring of political commissars, particularly: diversity officers. “Diversity officers are often appointed chiefly to ensure that a party-line be promulgated and enforced.” In other words, diversity officers were charged with ensuring that incorrect ideas would be suppressed, and to guarantee what was deemed by many professors and administrators to be “an indisputably correct consensus.” Diversity officers were hired to ensure “subordination—of students and faculty alike—to an entrenched dogma.” Many self-identified “liberal” professors, in fact, are supporters of a “deep and pervasive … regime of intolerance. For many academics, the desire to cleanse the campus of dissident voices has become something of a mission.”

Boyers criticizes “willing what cannot be willed,” the attempt to impose ideological principles on an uncooperative reality. He argues that both conservatives and progressives “have been seduced by ill-digested ideas that have led them to deny the obvious, or to refuse to so much as consider what may be entailed in their principles or avowals.” In other words, ideology has been substituted for the reality principle, with satisfying ideas never tested by experience and evidence. One example is “the will required to uphold the proscription against blaming the victim.” This will requires “a strictly managed effort not to acknowledge things that may threaten our principled benevolence.” Thus, “the characterization of entire groups as victims has underwritten the conviction that such groups may never be subjected to criticism of any kind.” By treating groups as beyond criticism, we will that they will be beyond criticism by acting as we would like, which they do not. Once again, we will what cannot be willed.

Reducing people to characteristics based on gross census categories is, according to Boyers, “‘unwarranted by or echoed in the actual moral-psychological economies of ordinary citizens,’” quoting Akeel Bilgrami. “We…grow too comfortable with categories that make of identity a baldly obvious and undifferentiated fact.” But this is not an innocent oversimplification, but a politically motivated one. “There are countless … voices sowing pointless triumphalist rage and flattening our common view of identity.” But this “suits those who want to make of identity a weapon in a war that pits oppressors against victims.”

Boyers criticizes the “diversity” culture because its advocates do not like or tolerate real differences, especially differences of perspective and opinion. It does appear that what diversity advocates, seen in “the lockstep march of the new commissars setting up to take control of our cultural institutions, from the universities to mainstream media,” really mean by “diversity” is many people looking different all saying the same thing. This undermines intellectual inquiry, substituting for it enforced conformity and unthinking uniformity.

Two further issues taken up by Boyers are, one, the campaign on behalf of the disabled (or otherwise abled) to forbid any reference to physical capability, such as seeing, hearing, walking, running, etc., and, two, the ban on “cultural appropriation,” which is any cultural borrowing from anyone other than oneself. Boyers sees these as an illegitimate suppression of imagination, and a violation of freedom, especially of artists. These discussions, as all of the previous ones mentioned, are interrogated for their complexities with considerable subtleness and literary enhancement. Boyers presents many relevant anecdotes from his academic milieu and refers to many significant authors, such as Mill, Marcuse, and Said. The summary of Boyers’ views presented here do not, of course, do justice to his complex explorations.

Boyers is worried about “the revolution of moral concern, driven by people in the grip of delusions.” In his conclusion, he largely abstains from telling us what should be done. Rather, he focuses on what is “not to be done”:

  • The promulgation of ideas entertained without seriousness, that is, without any corresponding consideration what would be entailed were they actually to be effected.
  • The use of ideas such as privilege, appropriation, ableism, and mircroaggression to sow hostility, persecute other members of a community, and make meaningful conversation impossible.
  • The use of the classroom and the seminar to indoctrinate students and thus to send them off parroting views that they have not adequately thought through or mastered.
  • The creation of an “us versus them” orientation, underwritten by enemies lists and fueled by a sense that on matters for which a consensus has been reached no dispute may be tolerated.
  • The weaponization of “virtue” for … “class advantage,” with zealots adept mainly at trumpeting their own superior status and making a “fetish of indignation.”

Boyers is primarily worried about “a liberalism increasingly drawn to denial and overt repression.” But, at the same time, Boyers is not shy about providing his progressive bona fides. He rails against President Trump and conservatives. “The political Right has Fox News to purvey lies, misinformation, and sheer ignorance.” Another progressive shibboleth is condemning “the fanaticism and cruelty of Jewish settlers” in Judea and Samaria. More basic, Boyers brags that he has “bought into the logic of diversity, and fully supports the imperative of restitution,” and enthusiastically supports “affirmative action” discrimination.

Boyers’ progressivism is why he never questions the foundation of “social justice” ideology; in fact, he accepts its validity. He never discusses or criticizes the theoretical bases of “social justice” ideology, its genealogy of Marxist class conflict theory, feminist neo-Marxist gender class conflict theory, race, sexuality, and ethnicity class conflict theory, postmodernism and its rejection of truth, evidence, and reality, Leninist postcolonial theory which ahistorically blames all of the world’s problems on Western imperialism and colonialism, and intersectionism, which demands unity among the world’s victims.

Boyers buys into social justice ideology but does not like the results when it is taken to its logical extreme, as it is in contemporary “higher education,” the media, large corporations, and progressive governments such as those of Obama and Trudeau. He wants to “will what cannot be willed”: moderate and tolerant progressivism.