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Hub Dialogue: Robert Boyers on why ‘liberal professors are running scared’

Podcast & Video

In this Hub Dialogue, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks to Robert Boyers, author of The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

Our latest Hub Dialogue is with Robert Boyers, the editor of the literary journal Salmagundi and a long-time professor of English at Skidmore College.

We’re discussing his 2019 book The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy and the Hunt for Political Heresies, which has been described as “important and provocative” and a “rousing call” for free speech and the need to allow more room for dissent and debate.

In particular, the book argues that modern society’s growing intellectual conformity and aversion to meaningful debate comes from “convictions and passions that have the appearance of benevolence, but are increasingly harnessed to create a surveillance culture in which strict adherence to rational codes and principles is demanded.” The net effect, according to Professor Boyers, is “a large proportion of liberal professors are running scared.”

Professor Boyers, thank you so much for joining us for this Hub Dialogue. We’re grateful to have you and your insights today.

Professor Boyers

Thank you, delighted to be here.

Sean Speer

The Tyranny of Virtue describes a series of powerful intellectual and cultural trends that you’ve observed from your perch as a professor at Skidmore College for more than half a century. Why don’t we just begin by having you explain these trends and why you think they represent a threat to free expression, the exchange of ideas, and ultimately a greater understanding of the physical and metaphysical world?

Professor Boyers

Many of the issues that I discuss in my book have been around for a long time. In the United States, as early as the 1980s, for instance, there were very public discussions around provocative books like Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. These books and others from American conservatism and the American Left that came out during this period observed that something new was taking shape in American intellectual life and most especially in the precincts of the academy.

My book, The Tyranny of Virtue, really takes up these issues that had been unfolding for about 30 years. Increasingly, though, I felt that a certain tendency, which was a bit new and different, had become entrenched on campuses.

This tendency is what I call a “total culture environment.” It refers to a culture in which everything is organized along rigid ideological lines, where no real dissent is tolerated. It’s not necessarily that people are immediately fired or are somehow sent away to penal institutions if they voice dissent. But rather they are increasingly shunned, shamed, excluded — no longer taken seriously.

This development is, in my view, appalling. I could feel the impact in the way some of my students spoke in class and in developments that were occurring on other university and college campuses where I’m frequently invited to give talks and meet with students and faculty members.

When I began to identify some of these developments in articles that I published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other national magazines like The American Scholar, I received large volumes of mail which told me that I had identified something real and indeed very serious.

This mail came occasionally from undergraduate students and occasionally from graduate students. But most often, it came from professors and administrators at other universities and colleges. This took some courage, because they were describing things in their letters that were occurring on their own campuses and they were sending the details to a stranger. I could easily have forwarded their emails on or made them public.

But these were people who, like me, felt that we were witnessing something very significant that’s having a dreadful effect upon liberal education. Of course, we can now see it extend beyond the precincts of the academy, into museum culture, in journalistic culture, at the New York Times, at the Whitney Museum, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other major cultural institutions.

That was why I wrote the book: to register this development — the creation of a total culture — which I don’t think any of us really quite felt back in the late 1980s or 1990s when those earlier books began to emerge and tell us what was unfolding.

Sean Speer

We’ll return to your description of a “total cultural environment” in a moment. But let’s pick up your observation that traditional criticisms of these intellectual and cultural trends have mostly come from scholars and thinkers associated with conservatism or the intellectual Right. Yet you’ve come to this assessment of the intellectual environment as someone who may be described as of the Left. How might we think about the difference between traditional liberals or liberalism and the modern progressivism that seems to be behind many of these trends with which you take issue?

Professor Boyers

It’s a difficult question that identifies something very real. There is indeed a division here between liberalism and progressivism that I may be able to explain by focusing on a specific example: Ibram X. Kendi’s very popular and highly influential book How to Be an Antiracist. We know that it’s influential because it’s increasingly required reading in colleges all over the United States.

That includes my own college. Every four years, a faculty member at Skidmore College teaches a freshman seminar where we invent the theme. We get fifteen students and we run with the theme for a semester. And each year, the college administrative faculty committee selects a single book to be read by all incoming freshmen and for it to be covered at some point in that seminar.

This is my year to teach that freshmen seminar and the book chosen for this year is Kendi’s. I was appalled that book was selected because it’s an extremely tendentious book, and yet you can be sure that the committee that chose it had no intention of giving out any material for students and faculty to digest the counterarguments. The book says all sorts of things that are eminently disputable and yet it’s just assumed that it’s a book that we should all be reading and that students should be devouring and absorbing as they enter college life. Its selection is a reflection of the total culture at my own college.

What is the reason why that book immediately attracted such favorable attention when it came out? Well, because in a very interesting way, the author makes the case against himself as someone who had been a racist and learned how to become an antiracist. In particular, Kendi says that he used to be a racist because he hated all white people. That’s a very convincing premise. In this way, you could find all sorts of white people who could say, “I was a racist too because I used to hate all black people.”

But how does he know that he really was a racist? This is what he tells us: He knew he was a racist because used to be interested in books by people who talked about the crisis of the black family and the impact on black children of having either one parent-families or families in which there was no active parents around. This apparently made him a racist because it indicated that he was susceptible to blaming the victim. If you could blame the victim, if you were absorbed with questions like the household structures of black families going all the way back to the 1960s as the Moynihan report urged us to do, then, by definition, you must be racist.

Well, that seems to mark a very clear dividing line between progressivism and liberalism. And by the way, white progressives, I would say that even more than black progressives, would side with Ibram X. Kendi. This is not, in other words, a white-black division. It’s a division between what you’re calling progressives of a certain kind, and what I call left-liberals.

I’m a left-liberal. Left-liberals believe that it’s important to acknowledge everything that might be significant when we’re thinking about a set of issues — that it’s not a mark of racism or ignorance to allow oneself to take into account uncomfortable realities which are covered by leading scholars.

So, according to Mr. Kendi, my friend Dr. Orlando Patterson, who is a black Jamaican sociologist from Harvard University, whom I dedicated my 2015 book The Fate of Ideas, must be a racist because my friend writes about the breakdown of the black family. His work is highly empirical — he draws on all kinds of statistics about how many children coming from certain kinds of families are likely to finish high school or go onto higher education or what the earnings gap may be for children from different household structures. Now, you may regard those statistics as misleading or that the arguments deriving from the data is weak in this way or that way. But the notion that my friend Orlando is a racist because he opens up those and many other related questions belongs to a certain aspect of modern progressive thinking, which is one of the things that I’ve set out in my book to interrogate.

Sean Speer

You’ve mentioned that Mr. Kendi’s book has become symbolic of a particular way of thinking about the world. In particular, it seems to represent a growing tendency to de-emphasize individualism and individual autonomy and instead prioritize group identity and group outcomes.

I’ve always thought this trend is a bit perplexing. That, in our current moment — precisely at a time with the advancement of small “l” liberalism is empowering people who for far too long have been marginalized — there seems to be a push in certain progressive circles to go backwards and prioritize group dynamics.

What do you think explains this weakening commitment to liberalism in our societies? Why is liberal individualism losing to a renewed emphasis on group identity?

Professor Boyers

Group identity is a marker of a certain kind to which all of us are, in one degree or another at least, mildly attracted to. It’s a way of sort of asking ourselves and then answering the questions: “where do we come from? Who are we really? What is our primary affinity group?”

It’s sort of comforting that one has a primary affinity group including the idea that you’ve been shaped by your past in a way. That is, in fact, the case for all of us. I come from a working-class background that is very Jewish, and there was a time when I used to think that that marked me in a very significant way. But as I got older, I began to think that those facts of my background were actually not defining in ways that were as important as many other people take them to be.

The fact that I’m white says a lot about certain aspects of privilege that I enjoyed despite my working-class background. The fact that I’m Jewish did say certain things about my orientation to marginalization and being in a minority. The fact that I was not a boy of any kind of real privilege meant that I understood what it took to sort of aspire to something more than my own family had.

But, like most people of my background and generation, I aspired to escape all of those markers. I aspired to become a person who could think for himself.

For example, I aspired to think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not as a Jew but as someone capable of thinking outside of that marker. I wanted to be a person who could think about this issue just in the terms of the information available to me from newspapers, books, and people I interviewed. I didn’t want anyone to be able ever to predict what I would think about how the Israelis were behaving on the West Bank merely because they knew that I was a Jew. I thought that seemed wrong — even horrible — to me. In the same way, I would hate to think that when someone told me what was going on in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 that they’d assume that I would respond to it in the way that all white people would have to respond to such events. Donald Trump is a white person and I’m a white person, and white persons are different from one another.

So, it became necessary to liberate myself from my group identity, as a white person, as a Jewish person, as a working-class person, and as a person who came from a completely uneducated family. That’s hard and strenuous. I think lots of people are drawn to the notion of remaining within the group identity conferred upon them by fate because it’s comforting. And even those who escape from it, sometimes wants to go back to it. That seems to me an extraordinary thing. We’re seeing a lot of that right now. Lots of people who were very happy to escape their backgrounds, when becoming intellectuals, academics and journalists, are happy to go back to group identity for themselves and for other people according to these easy and available terms.

Let me give you an example. At President Joe Biden’s inauguration this year, a brilliant, young black woman named Amanda Gorman delivered an inaugural poem. People loved it. They loved the whole spectacle including her courage and poise. In the immediate aftermath of the inauguration, Gorman signed contracts for book versions of her poems. The first translator she selected for one foreign edition of her book was a Booker Prize winning author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who was set to translate the book into Dutch. Yet the moment that selection was announced a huge storm erupted, because Rijneveld was white and Amanda Gorman is black. Rijneveld was ultimately fired which was mostly a trivial thing because she’s got a great career and plenty of opportunities.

But what matters is that most people in the American professoriate were not at all annoyed or put off by that decision. A person chosen by the poet herself as the appropriate person to translate her poem was fired on the basis of race and that wasn’t regarded by progressives as an appalling development. The notion that group identity trumps pretty much everything essentially says that when all is said and done, though Amanda Gorman is an extraordinary, gifted young person, the most important thing you can say about her is that she’s a black woman. That does speak to this notion of identity and the way it’s taken hold in the culture.

Sean Speer

Let me test this theory on you and you can tell me if you think there may be something here to explain these trends.

One of liberalism’s inherent weaknesses is that it essentially privatizes questions of so-called “first things.” It presupposes that individuals have the moral framework to confront those types of questions on their own. With that in mind, how much of what you call the “new fundamentalism” in your book is a search for a kind of metaphysics in a secular age when many people feel like they don’t have the tools to answer big, metaphysical questions?

Professor Boyers

When I think about a term like metaphysics, I think about “first things” in the original religious sense of the term. I think what’s going on here in the culture is actually quite far removed from that. I don’t have a sense that the literature I’m reading coming out of the progressive Left is really attuned to that kind of discourse.

In some ways, this identity discourse is far more elementary; the kinds of things that are not susceptible to thinking in serious metaphysical inquiry. When you think about race, not as a metaphysical element but simply as something that is marked by the color of a person’s skin, you’re in a territory that’s really quite elementary.

The other night at the New York State Summer Writers Institute, we had reading by one of our long-time faculty members, who’s a brilliant novelist named Danzy Senna. She writes about the intersection of blackness and whiteness. Her first novel was titled Caucasia, and her recent novel is called New People. She writes in a satirical way about the inclination to think about human beings in these elementary racialistic terms, which she regards as hilarious. In her novels, she shows you the way that white people and black people, of a rather progressive tilt, are inclined to think of themselves and everybody else in exactly those terms. Her characters in general, are hip and yet they still realize tendency, even among themselves, is quite absurd. It’s something to laugh about but it never rises to a metaphysical dimension.

Sean Speer

I mentioned earlier that the book’s title is The Tyranny of Virtue, and I couldn’t help think that it’s oxymoronic. Virtue connotes something that is noble and good. Tyranny, of course, connotes, at least in normative terms, something that is bad and evil. How can these ideas coexist? And perhaps more importantly, how would those who are advancing a conception of virtue not see the potential to fall into something that’s ultimately tyrannical?

Professor Boyers

That’s a great question, and it does go to the heart of the book. As you say, it’s oxymoronic to think of those terms together. If you have a fixed view of what is virtuous, and therefore a fixed view of what threatens our virtue, you’re apt to think that you’re obligated to do everything in your power to see to it that virtue prevails, and that evil — whatever its form including, racism, anti-Semitism or whatever ill that you’re concerned about — does not prevail.

That’s the way you tend to think about these things. We can become prepared to take ideological or political arms against whatever threatens what you take to be indisputably virtuous. So, for instance, if a book evokes ideas or images which seem to you to potentially have an unfortunate effect upon readers, like yourself or readers who are not as sophisticated as you are, you might think, “Well, I am obligated to see to it that people don’t read such books. They shouldn’t be exposed to these kinds of bad examples.” Your obligation in the name of virtue may then cause you to try to press bookstores to remove those books from shelves or to pressure publishers to withdraw those books from circulation.

It’s quite extraordinary because the people who are on board for this kind of tyranny of censorship really believe that they are doing what we used to call “God’s work.” They have no liberal instinct for basic rights such as due process.

Take one example. There were moves to cancel the recent biography of Philip Roth, on the basis of various charges brought in the media and online against the biographer, Blake Bailey. Now, I am not saying that I support Bailey. I don’t care about the biographer and I, like many others, read the biography before all the allegations came out. But the point is people were ready to condemn him in the court of public opinion before was given his actual day in court. We’re happy to press for that book to be withdrawn. The book’s publisher was impacted by the emerging total culture and ultimately withdrew the book even though it had paid a $600,000 advance and the book had already been distributed to hundreds of thousands of buyers. It’s really quite extraordinary that we’ve reached this point.

I can give you dozens and dozens of examples of the same kind of thing that’s going on every week. Four major museum institutions have been cancelled — the phrase that they typically use is “postponed indefinitely” — but the basic idea is the same.

Think, for instance, of the recent exhibition of paintings by the great Canadian and American artist Philip Guston who himself was quite progressive on the grounds that his paintings contain images which although they clearly aim to make fun of them of Ku Klux Klansmen, was ultimately canceled. Museum officials, when questioned, acknowledged that, of course, Guston was in no racist. His record is clear, including various biographies, which confirm his commitment to racial progress and inclusion. Yet in the era of a total culture, these types of instances are the new normal.

Sean Speer

You describe what amounts to a kind of “means justifies ends” mentality in which new and different ideas are dismissed in favour of an “atmosphere of uniformity.”

You’ve previously outlined the pitfalls and consequences of these developments. So how do we change course? How do we recommit ourselves as individuals and institutions to the idea of pluralism?

Professor Boyers

I’ve always been a glass half-full kind of guy, and it’s hard to be the editor of a little magazine for 56 years without being in touch with a lot of smart people who think for themselves. And so, I know very well that there are all sorts of good people out there, who are, in fact, thinking for themselves, and who are trying to turn things around.

I’m rather an old guy at this point; I can’t spearhead a movement. But I know that the younger people at my own college and other colleges, who are fighting back and who are resisting. It’s not an easy thing when an institution becomes an entrenched total culture. It’s very difficult to push back against what’s occurring, because everyone is on board from the president of the college, to the dean of a particular faculty or department, and down to most of the senior and junior professors in the departments.

If you have people at major institutions out there, like the New York Times, where employees are issuing tweets saying that they feel unsafe when the newspaper publishes an op-ed by conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton, and that the editor in charge of publishing that article ought to be dismissed, it’s going to be very hard to push back. The numbers themselves become significant, and online numbers can multiply at an astonishing rate. So, it’s very quick and easy for people who push back to feel isolated; that they’re alone when this enormous volume of protest is coming at them.

I found Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed in the New York Times on the possibility of deploying troops to address urban unrest completely objectionable, but it’s just an opinion article by a sitting senator. There was no reason for anybody to feel unsafe by virtue of the paper having published it. If I had been editor, I wouldn’t have published that article, not because it was unsafe, but because it was stupid.

But you work in a newsroom, and it was unsafe because they published this thing that you’re disapproved of? That’s a bad sign on the health of our mainstream institutions.

Now, if you take the term total culture to just be an exaggeration, it should be easy to turn it around. But if you really do think that increasingly we are in a true total culture, it’s going to be difficult. But it happens. Look at the way that in six months, all sorts of things that had become commonplace in the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, are slowly being undermined, reversed, and challenged. Despite considerable pushback from the political right, things are beginning to loosen and change. If things can turn in that way, in such a short period of time, at the national level, it should be possible to see changes occurring on campuses, in newsrooms and so on. But, again, it won’t be easy to do it.

Sean Speer

As you say, it’s going require both collective action on the part of institutions and individual actions in our own work and lives. That’s certainly something that we’re trying to contribute to at The Hub.

Thank you so much for joining us for this Hub Dialogue, and for sharing your insights, experiences and perspective.

Professor Boyers

Thanks so much for having me. Good luck with everything.