Have We Weaponized Virtue?

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

FOR EVERY ACTION, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law deals with physical objects, but does it also have something to teach us about human behavior and the clash of forces in our fraught and turbulent society?

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?

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

For PG, freedom of expression qualifies as the premier virtue of a free and civilized society.

With it, the polity has the possibility of fixing things that are broken, righting the wrongs that are, unfortunately, inevitable in any collection of diverse human beings.

Without it, not so much.

Close behind freedom of expression is tolerance for the opinions others with whom we disagree.

PG is reminded of how his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, illustrated Voltaire’s beliefs:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

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