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The Tyranny of Virtue

Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies

From public intellectual and professor Robert Boyers, “a powerfully persuasive, insightful, and provocative prose that mixes erudition and first-hand reportage” (Joyce Carol Oates) addressing recent developments in American culture and arguing for the tolerance of difference that is at the heart of the liberal tradition.

Written from the perspective of a liberal intellectual who has spent a lifetime as a writer, editor, and college professor, The Tyranny of Virtue is a “courageous, unsparing, and nuanced to a rare degree” (Mary Gaitskill) insider’s look at shifts in American culture—most especially in the American academy—that so many people find alarming.

Part memoir and part polemic, Boyers’s collection of essays laments the erosion of standard liberal values, and covers such subjects as tolerance, identity, privilege, appropriation, diversity, and ableism that have turned academic life into a minefield. Why, Robert Boyers asks, are a great many liberals, people who should know better, invested in the drawing up of enemies lists and driven by the conviction that on critical issues no dispute may be tolerated? In stories, anecdotes, and character profiles, a public intellectual and longtime professor takes on those in his own progressive cohort who labor in the grip of a poisonous and illiberal fundamentalism. The end result is a finely tuned work of cultural intervention from the front lines.

The Tyranny of Virtue A PREFACE
Bitter struggles deform their participants in subtle, complicated ways. The idea that one should speak one’s cultural allegiance first and the truth second (and that this is a sign of authenticity) is precisely such a deformation.

—Zadie Smith

A student at a graduation party tells you she thinks you’re “woke,” and you say thank you and you’re not sure you know what that means. “It’s no small thing,” she continues, “for an old white guy like you.” And so you think further about it the next day. Try to process the idea. Obvious that you can talk the talk. Invoke the system and the market, inequality and abuse, neoliberalism and privilege. That you don’t offend. After three classes with you the student probably means mainly that. You don’t offend. Willing to talk politics when teaching your courses. Not averse to assigning books sure to provoke unrest. Michel Houellebecq and Claudia Rankine. Susan Sontag and Slavoj Žižek. Zadie Smith and Philip Roth. And yet no prospect, you think, that you’ll spontaneously utter something that will lead decent people to walk out or turn their backs. Decent people. The kinds who sign up for your classes, attend your lectures, read your articles, and occasionally send you email letters to express their encouragement or disappointment. Even your kids, who are given to noting your deficiencies, assure you that you’ve written nothing to embarrass them—not yet, though they are wary of your insistence on coming out with things uncomfortable or contrarian. Your habit of criticism. Your tendency to quarrel with people in your own left-liberal cohort. The pleasure you take in saying no to things many of your friends embrace. Maybe too reluctant to let people know you’re with them. Pissed off about always needing to show your papers and confirm you’re on board. Wanting to have it both ways. Wanting to be “woke” and yet disdainful of the rituals and empty posturing that signify your determination never to offend. In truth, if truth be told, not always on board even with what passes for the higher wisdom in your own herd of independent minds. Your friendly demeanor no longer sufficient to cover over the fact that you’re unwilling to sit quietly, hands nicely folded, in the total cultural environment many of your friends and colleagues want to inhabit. Total, in that all are expected to speak with one voice about the right and the true. No misgivings permitted. An environment in which naysayers and dissidents are routinely asked to leave the room. Not always “asked,” you say, wondering, not for the first time, how you can have avoided that fate yourself.

The resolve not to be swept off your feet, to avoid fanaticism and ideology, often ends in ambivalence. Nothing new in that. The standard caricature of liberals has it that they are unable to make judgments at all, that they are weak and irresolute. Boring.I That the best they can aim for is coexistence. Getting along with opponents. Keeping open the channels of communication. Don’t you ever feel sick and tired of pushing tolerance? A question put to you late one night by venerable provocateur Stanley Fish at a New Year’s Eve party in Miami Beach. Fish notorious for promoting the caricature of liberals as people who want the mind to be empty of commitments, who are paralyzed by principles. You tell him you’re amazed he still promotes this nonsense, that he’s been peddling this caricature for so many years that he actually believes it. He says, amiably, that if you’re willing to stand and fight, you should just stop calling yourself a liberal. Admit there are things you won’t negotiate. You laugh. Tell him you’re always willing to talk. And fight. In the university, you tell him, to refuse to talk is to give up the game. A liberal who’s willing to fight is a contradiction in terms, he says.

In fact, you’ve been a partisan in the ongoing culture wars for about thirty years. Troubled by the turn in liberal culture toward what Fish calls “structures of exclusion.” 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. Bizarre, of course, that of all places the liberal university should now be the one where strenuous efforts are most emphatically made to ensure consensus. Your own efforts in recent years having mainly to do with attempting to understand how people who are as adept as you are at arguing ideas and reading books can have managed to sign on to protocols that are often intolerant and illiberal. Always you wonder that these people—many of them amiable and well-read—no longer incline to think about the fact, noted by political theorist Stephen Holmes and many others, that “public disagreement [as] a creative force may have been the most novel and radical principle of liberal politics.” Little question, is there, that there is not much appetite for serious debate when the opposition is unintimidated. You see it on their faces when someone comes out with something even mildly provocative. The rare, playful, contradictory utterance like a bad smell the mildest among them prefer not to acknowledge, while others, a bit more honest, are increasingly adept at wielding the familiar arsenal of dismissive epithets, invoking the not yet exhausted vocabulary of surefire conversation stoppers. Privilege, power, hostile environment. The really fierce apparatchiks poised to promote and finish the essential ideological cleansing.

Like others you’ve by now had it with the so-called free-speech controversies, which have been talked to death—especially by partisans of the right, who pretend that the well-publicized eruptions of violence at Yale and Middlebury and other such places confirm their own reactionary prejudices and proclivities. But occasional efforts to disinvite controversial lecturers or disrupt classes are but a small token of more important problems, which include not only the demands for “safe spaces” but the widespread insistence on rituals designed to affirm that teachers are okay with the formulas favored by the most vocal cadres on campus, not to mention the prescriptions sent down by university officials and human resources professionals. Especially galling are the mandated sessions with lawyers and bureaucrats designed to generate an atmosphere of unanimity, the sense that everyone, from the newly arrived freshman student to the department chair and provost, will be eager, when asked, to provide the correct answers to every question and thereby to avoid dispute, controversy, or legal challenge.

Of course now and then, in spite of the strenuous efforts to create a total culture, some incident will upend the order of things for a day or a month, and you think that maybe this time the dueling factions will actually attempt to engage in serious talk and renounce the slogans. Will they perhaps become disgusted with their inclination to call out others who’ve failed to “check their privilege” and instead think about privilege as something other than a lethal put-down? Will there be, at least temporarily, a halt to the protocols designed to shame or bully susceptible students or colleagues? Any chance, you wonder, that those given to condemning and harassing people who’ve said “the wrong thing” or dared to teach an offensive book or film will stop performing their vulnerability and abandon the studied censoriousness now so pervasive in precincts of the contemporary liberal university?II

You remember that you’re by no means alone in lamenting what makes the criticism of your own cohort so painful and difficult. In part, you suppose, the situation in the academy has something to do with larger problems in liberal culture. 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.” You take that in and you think that you would like to tell the story Walzer wants. And yet the trouble is that the values you embrace are not always compatible with one another. That the instinct to be charitable and forgiving is contradicted by the instinct to be critical and to call things by their rightful names. That the respect you accord to opponents can seem irresponsible when those opponents are themselves intolerant and are bent on shutting up people like you.

More troubling still, many of those in your cohort refuse to acknowledge that contradiction is an elementary fact of our common life, and are in denial about all the things their own avowals fail to take into account. Hard not to feel disappointed when brilliant law students at Harvard mobilize to forbid the use of the word “violate,” or when students and teachers at Brandeis deploy the term “microaggression” to attack an installation designed to expose racial stereotypes. Are there in fact microaggressions? No doubt. Are some people uncomfortable when we use ordinary terms like “violate” and thereby trigger in them unwanted thoughts? To be sure. But it is—it must be—legitimate to ask what is lost and what is gained when we capitulate to demands that have as their objective the cleansing of the common language and the creation of a surveillance culture.

When a lawyer at your own New York State Summer Writers Institute, working on a memoir about her own personal tribulations, mounts a public campaign against the screening of a “disturbing” 1960s Italian comedy that may trigger, in a person with her background, traumatic memories, you are courteous and sympathetic, and yet find that what counts for her is the opportunity to invoke a principle and to put others—yourself very much included—on the defensive. When you tell her that the principle she invokes—it’s never a good idea to screen films that portray desire, abuse, or subordination—is not a principle you share, and that other students in the program clearly have an entirely different view of such matters, she tells you that as a man you’ll never understand the problem. You wonder what such encounters reveal about the culture and about your own resistance to the kinds of complaint articulated by a person who is deeply invested in her convictions. A friend tells you that you must learn to relax. Avoid unnecessary agitation. Let small things be small things and move on. And if they’re not small things? They’re always smaller than you make them out to be, he says. That lawyer is symptomatic of nothing.

The attempt to create a total cultural environment and to silence or intimidate opponents is part of a campaign that had once seemed promising, even to those—yourself included—alarmed at the irrationality and anti-intellectuality unleashed by many of the most vocal proponents of the new fundamentalism. But concepts with some genuine merit—like “privilege,” “appropriation,” and even “microaggression”—were very rapidly weaponized, and well-intentioned 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. Concepts useful in careful and nuanced discussions proved strikingly “amenable to over-extension,” as the cultural historian Rochelle Gurstein put it, and ideas suitable for addressing “psychological distress” were forced into the service of efforts to “[redress] the subordination of one people by another,” yielding not significant redress but a new wave of puritanism and a culture of suspicion.

It’s tempting to fall back on the notion that cultural battles are predictable and recurrent and that those who wage them are always apt to lose sight of what is truly important. Your middle son, a CEO and social justice activist in St. Louis, reminds you that speech codes and academic protocols distract you from what you know to be the major issues out there in the real world, and you argue, not always successfully, that “privilege,” “toleration,” “identity,” and “appropriation” are in fact real-world issues. Different, to be sure, from equality or sexual violence or racism, but important. Even good ideas, you say, when they are misused and misunderstood, can create a toxic environment. And the university is, in many ways, an increasingly toxic environment. Toxic in what sense? your son asks. You’ll read my book, you tell him, and you’ll hear my stories, and follow out the arc of my thinking, for what it’s worth. And you’ll see that, as always, I’m mainly trying to identify and wrestle with my own uncertainties, while demanding that others do no less. And if they’re not as doubt-filled as you are? Well, they should be, shouldn’t they? you reply. Does it ever occur to you, he asks, that you put too high a value on doubt and contradiction? Let me get back to you about that, you say.

I. Susan Sontag: “Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political, written in 1932 (the following year he joined the Nazi party).”

II. In Winning the Race the linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter speaks of “the self-indulgent joy of being indignant” and of “therapeutic alienation.”

Robert Boyers is editor of Salmagundi, professor of English at Skidmore College, and director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute. He is the author of ten previous books and the editor of a dozen others. He writes often for such magazines as Harper’s, The New Republic, The Nation, Yale Review, and Granta.

“An intellectually stimulating series of essays about the decline of civility and academic freedom.” —Albany Times Union

“Boyers has given us a crucial lesson in the sweeping anti-liberalism of present-day leftists.” Tablet

“A rousing call for speech on college campuses that is truly free, addressing uncomfortable issues while allowing room for dissent…Coming from a clearly liberal point of view, Boyers nonetheless courts controversy—and is bound to get it—with some of his tenets, such as the thought that identity politics as such evinces ‘a fear of the uncertainties and hard choices that come with modernity and the need to think.’ A nuanced argument of interest to those who worry that nuanced arguments are no longer possible in quad or classroom.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Robert Boyers writes in the great tradition of Saul Bellow, Irving Howe and Susan Sontag: a powerfully persuasive, insightful and provocative prose that mixes erudition and first-hand reportage, combativeness and sympathy, moral vehemence and humor. From his vantage point as longtime editor of the preeminent journal Salmagundi, Boyers has been in close contact with every seismic shift in literary, intellectual, artistic and academic quarters in recent decades, and for those of us who may require guidance, here is our guide.” —Joyce Carol Oates

“Robert Boyers’s voice is a bracing one: courageous, unsparing, and nuanced to a rare degree. In this book, he patiently and wittily speaks sanity to the towering forces of cultural craziness, and he actually respects everyone—well, nearly everyone—whom he subjects to his rigorous critique. For anyone wondering how a person should be, The Tyranny of Virtue is an excellent example.” —Mary Gaitskill

“This is a moment in which many robust voices claim attention for groups and causes that have been undervalued historically—a splendid moment for a culture that, at its best, places great value on reform that tends toward justice. In our universities, the debates it encourages have sometimes become vitriolic and judgmental. Robert Boyers has given us a reminder of the complexity of the issues at stake and the urgency of preventing a humane impulse from being overwhelmed by passions unworthy of it.” —Marilynne Robinson

“Robert Boyers has written a probing meditation on his experiences within the left-liberal cultural bubble, including his own college, where he has been a formidable presence for decades. He trenchantly challenges assumptions, slogans and nostrums of those excessively certain and proud of their ‘wokeness.’ I found The Tyranny of Virtue to be instructive and inspiring.” —Randall Kennedy, Michael Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University
 

“This book offers a sustained argument against the virtue-signaling and apologetics that have become a major force in the arts and academic life. Boyers's assessment is all the more persuasive for the way it draws on his own long experience as a teacher, critic, and commentator on American culture.” —David Bromwich, Yale University

The Tyranny of Virtue: think of virtue as an ideal, and yet also as a tyranny, and all that does not belong to that realm must cower and disappear. We live in a time when true virtue seems to have disappeared, and everything that is not virtuous has taken to wearing virtue as a cloak. Of course I might have begun by saying that I know of almost no one but Robert Boyers who can succinctly penetrate and dispose of this masquerade of a period we are living in. So much that is wrong and dark he reveals in extraordinarily limpid prose, showing us that what is out there will not be made right and clear without the courage to name the human mess we have made. The life of the academy should remain sacred, and this book makes a splendid case for it, for the proposition that virtue is permanently hinged to the ideal of truth—that many-hued and illusive reality. The admirable and triumphant accomplishment of this work is that it adds to the ongoingness of our common enterprise. The Tyranny of Virtue is a wonderful book, and I shall always have it nearby.” —Jamaica Kincaid

“For decades Robert Boyers has been a bracing voice of sanity amid the ideological fashions of left and right. The Tyranny of Virtue is vintage Boyers—a brave and timely challenge to the suffocating moral orthodoxy that has come to envelop academic life and much of our broader public discourse as well. No one who cares about the future of independent thought can afford to ignore this book.” —Jackson Lears, Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History, Rutgers University