As someone who wishes to dedicate her career to writing about First Amendment issues, I cannot shy away from controversial topics. I manifest my own principles by entering important conversations many are afraid to have. If I am silenced by fear of others’ reactions, what hope is there for those not so enamored of free speech ideals? And so, it’s time to share my views about some of the corrosive, and some of the beneficial, ways that identity politics and a focus on privilege have affected our academic discourse.
First, let me define my terms. I am using “academic discourse” in a broad sense, to mean the exploration of ideas – in a classroom, through academic scholarship, or even over dinner, where no members discussing the ideas are directly, imminently responsible for making policy. Thus, the immediate purpose of academic discourse is to share ideas. These ideas may convince others or shape policy, but are at least one level removed from doing do. Academic discourse is how we refine, shape, and change our views about the world. By “identity politics,” I mean an appeal to the common interests of, or the justification of certain stances by reference to, a particular identity group. This identity group often shares somewhat immutable characteristics. By the “privilege” lens, I mean a lens for viewing social issues and social problems, and for judging people’s perspectives, based on how much they belong to traditionally dominant or advantaged groups.
Our current academic and political climate is shaped heavily by both identity politics and the privilege lens. There are many benefits to these modes of thinking, although I believe their prevalence, and the way they have been accepted as fact instead of viewpoint or approach, is partially due to the absence of ideological diversity in many areas of academia. One’s views are shaped in large part by the facts they encounter, and the privilege lens has benefitted from a narrative that includes many important facts but, like all narratives, excludes other, complicating facts.
That said, the effects of privilege, and institutional discrimination, are real. Identity politics and the privilege lens are ways to counteract hundreds of years of racism, sexism, and many other forms of bigotry evident in law, politics, academia, and basically everywhere in this country. What many describe as political correctness is, in significant part, simply respecting individuals, avoiding the use of derogatory terms to describe them, and ensuring that generalizations are not applied that limit them. (Of course, sometimes political correctness is used to describe inane positions- like that Justin Bieber’s song “Love Yourself” is sexist because it derides women who are narcissistically obsessed with their appearance.)
Identity politics and the privilege lens have many good effects. They have made students more sensitive and attuned to each other, and attuned to structural discrimination and bias issues. Students, teachers, and politicians who use the privilege lens are less likely to trade in generalizations and stereotypes of marginalized groups (although they may trade in stereotypes of dominant groups). Because of these lenses, many do a better job creating atmospheres that are inclusive to individuals of a wide range of identity groups that have been marginalized or excluded from important conversations. These effects have been important for a broadened perspective in our academic discourse.
However, I believe we are using identity politics and the privilege lens in ways that are corrosive to academic discourse. The use of the privilege lens and the widespread pandering to identity groups has become fundamentally anti-intellectual. Privilege is only one lens with which to view the world, and it creates an oversimplified narrative that drowns out all other ways in which two people’s experiences (and hardships) may differ.
The privilege lens has undermined our primary assessment of arguments (or at least our appearing to assess arguments, which provides a constraining force) based on their intellectual merit. In a purely intellectual approach, arguments should primarily be assessed based on the soundness of the premises and the sharpness of the logic that leads to the conclusions. Identity politics and the privilege lens are often used as weapons to de-legitimize views based on, of course, identity and privilege instead of ideas. Some of this is necessary to remind us that views develop in context. Some of it is intended to rob people of a voice if you disagree with their perspective.
Although those directly impacted by an issue have a unique and critical perspective, we must also remember that one’s identity does not legitimize or de-legitimize a particular view. There is also value in a person’s having distance from an issue. Plus, no one is completely detached from an issue. I have had male students tell me they have no business even forming a view on abortion, because they cannot get pregnant. This is absurd and sad. First, abortion is not solely a women’s issue, although many identity politicians would say otherwise. Men impregnate women, and often want to keep fetuses that women choose to abort, or do not want the responsibility of caring, financially or otherwise, for babies that women choose to keep. Additionally, although biologically XX women are the ones who can get pregnant, abortion implicates ideas, about when life begins, what is murder, and the role of choice, on which men can form valid opinions.
I have received emails on academic topics from people aware that their views as “straight, white, men” will presumptively be considered bigoted or less legitimate. They are afraid to add their views to general discourse because of the swift retaliation, often on the Internet, but also professionally, against particular views. Then their emails express perfectly reasonable, moderate positions on issues. They add different facts and arguments to our unfolding narrative, and I think many would benefit from these views. Unfortunately, because of identity politics and the privilege lens, the only people comfortable expressing counter-narratives are often the most obnoxious, least thoughtful proponents of these views. When professors lose their jobs, or have their art or views silenced, for lapses in judgment or even new perspectives, those with better judgment (and often legitimate views) stay silent.
Even I think it wise to use gender examples to express some sentiments that diverge from the dominant academic and political approach to feminism. I consider myself an egalitarian feminist (I deride chivalry as socialized inequity and believe in equal opportunities and responsibilities for all genders), but my free speech and civil libertarian perspective often clash with many feminist views. I feel comfortable expressing contrarian views – on issues such as the due process concerns in dealing with sexual assault – because I am a woman. My identity makes it tougher to accuse me of sexism, although invoking concepts like internalized misogyny or false consciousness has been an effective way of de-legitimizing arguments. I feel less comfortable expressing contrarian views – even if I don’t hold the contrarian views myself but simply wish to explore all sides of an issue – on issues that touch on race, gender expression, sexual orientation, etc.
Professors often signal strongly to students that inserting facts or opinions counter to a privilege lens are unwelcome, for example by incorporating politics right into the curriculum. Assessing this problem gets tricky at professional schools, which sometimes must be based around shared ideals. I want to address this fully in another post.
Finally, identity politics and the privilege lens mean that unfortunate, racially charged incidents on campuses have increasingly led to teachers allowing students a reprieve from their work. Antidiscrimination efforts are prioritized above learning in situations when our students, and our culture, would be better served by students working hard in classrooms to develop critical thinking skills and foundations of knowledge.
I get that much of what’s currently going on in our government is scary and wrong. I know why people are scared. I share the view that our own President’s rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants has been toxic, and has had terrible consequences. I listened to the tape of the President saying disgusting things about women, although I do not believe he was actually advocating sexual violence (and think the way his bragging was perhaps misconstrued given the context is part of the problem). However, creating atmospheres where a diversity of viewpoints cannot flourish fuels this problem – it gives certain politicians more leeway to sow distrust in academia (and propose laws that strip professors of academic freedom), the way politicians have sown distrust in the media.