The Authoritarian Turn of Academia

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A liberal-minded reader worries about it:

My fiancee is a Mizzou alumna, and we got into a brief squabble about this the other night. It’s frustrating because she kept insisting that I wasn’t there and couldn’t know what the protesters had endured during their time on campus. She wouldn’t hear my argument that preserving free speech is important no matter what the situation, even though I agree with the cause of the protesters just as much as she does. I couldn’t seem to make her understand that their situation doesn’t excuse their attempted suppression of the free speech of others.

Once that line has been crossed, all the opposition has to do is say “but they did the exact same thing.” And they can hit back with the same approach but with much more cultural and institutional power behind it.

In other words, inroads to authoritarian behavior, even in the service of a noble cause, always lead to the use of authoritarian behavior against the people who first look to it as a line of defense. By preserving First Amendment rights, the protesters might make a slightly longer road for themselves in the short term, but they will also ensure that road doesn’t lead them into a box canyon of their own making.

Here’s a more historical view from a “graduate student in the humanities at a major Midwestern research university”:

There’s an aspect of the recent campus “political correctness” debates that seems to be missing in all of the discussions of millennial fragility, standards of civility, and so on. There is, after all, a reason that the college campus has been the epicenter of this current wave of “P.C.,” and it isn’t simply attributable to youthful demographics or politically liberal professors. It’s the product of a larger trend in academic scholarship within the social sciences and humanities over the last three decades or so, usually called the “cultural turn.”

Many fields have moved away from a materialist view of the world and toward a seemingly obsessive focus on discourse as the most important explanation for social problems like income inequality, racism, sexism, etc. The idea, to put it simply, is that the way we represent people, places, and things is as important—if not more important—than reality itself.

In fact, reality is actually itself shaped by the way it is represented.  Thus, making use of clichés and stereotypes, using a word that contains certain connotations, or even simply speaking at all without the proper qualifications (primarily based on gender/race/class identity) may not just be questions of taste but, instead, potentially grave acts of violence.

Some may remember that in the 1990s, this formed the basis for a broad debate in academia over the merits of what was generally referred to as “postmodernism.”  This debate is pretty much over, partially due to the turnover of older professors trained in materialist methodologies retiring and being replaced by younger scholars who enthusiastically embrace the priorities of the “cultural turn.”

Also, I suspect, the debate is over because of the frustrating inefficacy of a conversation in which disagreement is construed as oppression or violence. It’s simply easier for the many professors who do not share the research priorities of the cultural turn—for example, a sociologist studying the reasons for poor health conditions in Indian slums instead of the language surrounding poor health in an Indian slum—to simply defer to their discourse-focused colleagues on most issues rather than risk career-damaging accusations of “silencing” or “marginalizing” or “epistemological violence.”

Perfectly apt and inoffensive words like “native” are considered too retrograde for public use owing to their perceived, oppressive connotations. That word is replaced by longer, Latinate synonyms like “indigenous,” which are in turn rotated out for even longer, clumsier alternatives (“autochthonous”).  It is in this triviality-addicted academic environment that intellectually-engaged students begin to discover the world around them and to grapple with its many injustices.

A student concerned about the plight of Central American immigrants living illegally in the U.S., for example, learns that the first and most important steps to alleviating this problem are to change the language he or she uses to talk about the issue.  They are not “illegal immigrants”; they are “undocumented,” or preferably just “immigrants.” One should be wary about referring to them as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” as this may reify harmful, generalized stereotypes.  Referring to them as “refugees” rather than “immigrants” may call much-needed attention to the role of the U.S.’s drug policies in fomenting societal unrest in their countries of origin, but on the other hand it may reinforce negative perceptions of Central American nations as violent, backwards “banana republics.”  

Perhaps the student should avoid using any labels at all and allow individuals from the marginalized community identify themselves?  The stakes here are very high. While none of this, of course, has any effect on the living conditions of undocumented immigrants, change must begin somewhere.

Is it any wonder then, that within this academic zeitgeist, where terminology is considered the foundation of social change and language itself contains the capacity to inflict violence and heap misery upon millions of people, that politically-active students have begun to demand administrative action to control speech and other forms of expression on campus?  A blonde-haired, Anglo-American student dressed in a Villa-esque costume with bandoliers and a large sombrero is not just having fun with a pop-culture archetype on Halloween. She is mocking and degrading Mexican-American students on campus by appealing to clichés of Mexican lawlessness, and in so doing she makes campus an oppressive, potentially violent and unsafe space for other students of Mexican ancestry.

We know this because scholarship has been telling us this for decades. Decades of research on the role of language and representation in processes of oppression and marginalization has led to an academia where the free expression of ideas is tightly-controlled and the proponents of language-policing believe, with the kind of certainty that comes only from religion or theory, that they are engaged in a war against the forces of injustice.  

In order to move beyond the kind of campus environment where students feel threatened by their peers’ poor taste in costumes—or by an email written by a professor suggesting that their fellow students may be entitled to their poor taste—there must also be a change in the priorities and attitudes of professors themselves. It is up to the next generation of scholars entering the academy to find a way forward, out of this unpleasant and deeply trivial intellectual quagmire.  Based on the worldviews expressed by the current generation of students leading the “P.C.” charge, I am not optimistic.

Disagree with that assessment or simply have a different view to share? Email and I’ll air the strongest dissenting views. Update from a reader:

I am a graduate student in the humanities at UC Berkeley, and though my name/position are clear from my signature and email address, I would ask that I remain anonymous if my words should ever see the light of day. The second email you posted, from the graduate student at the midwestern research university, is illuminating in its anonymity. The position that the student takes, which I believe to be well-founded and fair, cannot really be taken with one’s name attached to it, especially if the speaker is a graduate student.

The reader’s fear is that the next generation of faculty—that is, the current graduate students—are training and learning in an intellectual environment detached from reality, all gripped by the fear that reckless talk about “reality” will make it real. Further, we are to fear that, if we describe reality as it is, we will be complicit in its ills. And thus we add successive layers of insulating language until we are engaging in nothing but semantics, a realm that people of our skill set can comfortably dominate.

As your first reader suggested, the tendency is inherently authoritarian, and like any authoritarian system, it is prone to internecine conflict. Sealed from the outside world behind this growing intellectual barrier, the near enemy is the only one near enough to throttle—thus the reason for the reader’s anonymity, and mine. The whole worldview leads inexorably to purges, and graduate students (and, increasingly, non-tenured faculty) are the most vulnerable targets.

In a roundabout way, though, I think the graduate student’s email is reason for hope, if indeed we hope for a revival of free speech and room for dissenting views. A fractious ideology like this one makes more enemies than friends, and although its proponents are quite loud, they are not necessarily preponderant in numbers.  Those who are skeptical of the entire edifice, and wise enough to keep their mouths shut, might very well comprise a silent majority—the term’s historical and cultural connotations be damned.