Academia’s Culture of Fear
“I thought of all that as I read this piece on the absurd, infuriating, ongoing situation with Rebecca Tuvel and her not-at-all transphobic article. That controversy lays bare all of contemporary academia’s entrenched pathology, the pervasive culture of fear that has settled into the humanities and social sciences, especially in elite environs. For every one of these controversies that goes public, there are vastly more situations where someone self-censors, or is quietly bullied into acquiescing. For every odd example that goes viral, there is no doubt dozens more that occur behind closed doors.
I read the following from the Kelly Oliver piece linked above and couldn’t help laughing. Welcome to my world.
The split between what people wrote to both Rebecca Tuvel and to me in private, and what they felt compelled to say in public is one indication that the explosion of personal insults and vicious attacks on social media is symptomatic of something much bigger than the actual issues discussed in Tuvel’s article.
My life, as a academic who also writes about politics and culture, and as someone who is willing to publicly critique the absurdities and excesses of social justice politics, functions as proof of what Oliver is saying. For years now I’ve been the recipient of just that kind of private expression of fear and unhappiness from those who are similarly unwilling to speak out publicly. Since the beginning of my graduate education, I have been someone who other academics feel that they can come to in order to voice their shock and dismay at just how toxic the culture within academia has become. They tell stories about petty witch hunts and show trials within their departments. They share their fear about objecting to arguments they find unfair or unsupported. They say they feel compelled to follow current academic fads for fear of being labeled. They are convinced that stepping out of line with the constant search for offense will render them permanently unemployable, even though they are themselves progressive people. You’ve heard the litany before. They share it with me.
Because they know that they can trust that I won’t ever betray their confidence, and because of my (self-aggrandizing, I admit) indifference to my professional reputation, they email me. They find me at conferences. And they always say the same thing: I could never say this publicly, but…. The Tuvel situation is just one example of a pervasive culture of fear, a feeling that even when one has the strong sense that an injustice is being done, academia is not a place where such reservations can be freely voiced.
Some will insist that this is just the secretly conservative saying what they truly believe, that this is all white men decrying a changing academic world. I suppose on balance the backchannel to me is paler and maler than the academy writ large. But the truth is that all kinds of people discuss this stuff with me: white and black, male and female, trans and cis. And the people who approach me aren’t mostly those rare academic conservatives, who barely exist these days, but rather liberals and leftists who believe in the movement for equality but find that the way that movement operates in the contemporary university has become toxic and unjust.
And that all comes down to a broader reality: on campus and off, even many or most of those who are deeply committed to the cause of social justice and its expression in feminism, anti-racism, and the fight for LGBTQ rights recognize that the culture of social justice is deeply unhealthy. You’ve heard all that from me before. I have been attempting to address that simple fact for years: that there is a difference between a commitment to fighting bigotry and accepting uncritically every argument that is made in the name of that fight. Many people join me in feeling that something has gone deeply wrong in how we prosecute the movement for social justice, but precisely because of the unhealthy conditions of that movement, they feel they can’t say so publicly.
This seems like another one of those moments where what I’m saying is completely obvious, and would be barely worth mentioning if people didn’t react so negatively to actually spelling it out. (All it takes to be a media critic is a willingness to state the obvious.) I mean, it’s not exactly breaking news, right: people say different things privately than they are willing to say publicly. But the very nature of the backchannel makes it impossible to draw out these threads. Some will respond to this post by saying I’m making it all up, and they will be right to object to talking about a phenomenon for which I can’t present specific examples and proof. That’s a constraint I operate under because my very position as a locus of the backchannel requires me to honor the commitment to privacy. (And I always will, don’t worry.) But if you’re in my position, how do you help convince a bunch of disparate, disconnected voices to speak out, when the consequences seem so dire?
The fact remains that I am not making this up. And it remains even if you think I am personally an asshole. What good, progressive, feminist, antiracist people need to be willing to do, if they want to grow this movement so that we can stop losing elections and start acquiring the power to actually make tangible change, is to be willing to say when you think that movement has gone wrong. You must be willing to say, publicly, I am with the cause, but I am not with this. You have to be willing to say, yes, the world is full of offensive things, and yes, I stand with you when someone does something offensive, but this particular claim to offense is not credible. You have to be willing to fight for social justice loudly and passionately and then, when someone takes the language of social justice applies it to ridiculous and illegitimate ends, be one of the people willing to say “enough.” You have to be willing to say, “I am absolutely dedicated to protecting trans people and their rights, and also this campaign against Rebecca Tuvel is wrong.” That’s not hard to do. Easiest thing in the world.
We are not going to build a better world with these tactics. The naming-and-shaming tendency, the witch hunts, the show trials, and in particular, the refusal to ever admit that there are times when it is fair and appropriate to disagree with those invoking the language of social justice… these are not how we win. We will not build a mass movement by turning our groups into a never-ending production of The Crucible. That tendency is almost uniquely destructive to our efforts to spread our beliefs through persuasion, which, you know, is the whole fucking point of all this — to convince those who are amenable to being convinced, so as to build a majority party that can win. Remember that idea? Persuading people who aren’t already on your side to join your cause?
I’ve said it for years: there’s a backlash brewing, against these tactics. People are fed up. Those who live and operate in left discursive spaces are numb and exhausted from living in the constant fear of saying the wrong thing and stepping on a landmine. Over-the-top wokeness is now obligatory in media and academia, which means that much of it is performed in bad faith, with the cynical and the opportunistic now adopting that language and those tactics for their own selfish ends. Meanwhile, decent people who are sincerely committed to the actual ideals that underlie that language are forced to self-censor or else to drop out entirely. This is no way to advance the cause.
We’ve already seen the political backlash; look at the conditions of this country. Soon, I think, there will be a social and cultural backlash as well. You might imagine that I’d welcome such a thing, but I lived through the 90s and the Gingrich revolution and the anti-PC movement and I assure you, I’m not eager to go through that again. Backlashes have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Despite what some will tell you, I think the growing understanding of the pervasiveness of racism, sexism, and injustice is a good thing, and that our deepening communal commitment to fighting them is a healthy development. What I want is a movement for social justice that has the honesty and the confidence to continuing that fight without constantly grinding up innocent victims in its wake, to maintain both a commitment to fighting for equality AND a commitment to treating people with basic fairness. I want a movement that matches its passion with understanding and a willingness to forgive.
If you’re one of the many people who agrees with me but is afraid to come forward publicly, I urge you to speak out. You just have to be willing to risk being perceived as arguing against people who are in some sense “on your side.” Is that so bad? I do it all the time, and my commitment to the causes that I identify with remains as strong as ever. The basic requirement of being a critical, useful political voice lies in a willingness to say when you think your own side has gone wrong. The left does not need more loyal soldiers. Quite the contrary: what the left needs is people who are committed to acknowledging complexity and nuance. You can help to change the culture of these movements, to make them healthier and fairer and, in doing so, strengthen them. All you have to do is have the guts to say how you feel.” (https://firstname.lastname@example.org/of-course-theres-the-backchannel-762790f9fce2)