Identity politics is killing college life

Learning becomes impossible when we split students into racial and gender camps.

In Humanism Betrayed: Theory, Ideology, and Culture in the Contemporary University, Graham Good, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, defends a liberal humanist idea of education against its many political and intellectual foes. Here we publish an edited extract in which Good critiques the theory of identity politics – what he calls ‘the New Sectarianism’ – and its deleterious impact on the University.

The New Sectarianism is the divisive categorisation of people by race, gender and sexual preference. Both the individuality of humans and their membership in the universal category of humanity are rejected or downplayed in favour of these specific categories of identity. These are felt to divide human experience so radically that a person from one category should not or cannot speak about the experience of a person from another category. These ‘categories’ are the modern equivalent of the ‘estates’ of pre-revolutionary France, or the ‘classes’ of traditional Marxism. Each individual belongs to three: white or non-white, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual. The first category in each case is perceived as dominant, the second as oppressed.

Thus if you are a heterosexual white male, the New Sectarianism awards you three demerit points (French theorists are given an honorary exemption). The phrase ‘white male’ is reminiscent of a police description or a zoological classification, and in New Sectarian discourse is almost always the prelude to abuse and denigration. The New Sectarianism does not create equality, but merely reverses previous inequalities of respect. It perpetuates an atmosphere where certain kinds of people are preferred to certain others – all that changes are the actual preferences. To see a person primarily as a ‘white male’ or a ‘black female’ is to diminish both their humanity and their individuality. It suggests that their experience is contained within the group category, and is fundamentally (not just partially) distinct from the experience of those in other categories. It also minimises the differences within the category between individuals. Categories are seen as essentially different from each other, even though theorists consider ‘essentialism’ to be a heresy in other contexts.

The New Sectarianism uses the liberal rhetoric of justice and fairness when it is strategically convenient. There is a tendency in contemporary activism to start with equality claims appealing to the liberal conscience, but then move on to an explicit or implicit claim of superiority. This claim can sometimes sound like the original prejudice in reverse. For example, it was once held that women were unsuited to university education because they were less intellectual and more emotional. Feminism first rightly denied this ‘difference’ in a claim for equal access to higher education, only to reassert it in another form: the claim that women are essentially more cooperative, more supportive, more related, less competitive, less hierarchical and so on, and that institutions should be ‘feminised’ to reflect the superiority of feminine values. In fact, what universities need is to be humanised, rather than further divided by gender and other categories.

Although group organisation has played a major role in overcoming official prejudice, the change in public opinion over the past 30 to 40 years has occurred largely through arguments based on liberal ideas of fairness to individuals, regardless (as it used to be said) of ‘class, creed or colour’. People have come to respect the claim for equal treatment, and perhaps for that reason to resist claims for preferential treatment. Past disadvantage should be remedied by present equality, not by special new advantages. The sectarianism should be dissolved rather than preserved in a new form. Treating people as individuals rather than category-members is at least as anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic as the group approach, and in the long run probably the best guarantee of security against discrimination. But unfortunately individualism is out of favour with intellectuals, who are enamoured of new versions of the collectivist ideologies of the 1930s and 1940s.

The New Sectarianism poses a serious threat to humanist principles in teaching. If students are not treated primarily as individuals, but as ‘representatives’ of their demographic category, their dignity and autonomy are diminished. Often, false assumptions are made about individuals on the basis of their group. For example, advocates of the ‘sensitive’ approach to teaching might assert that Asian females are reluctant to participate in class discussion because of cultural conditioning, which has to be overcome by special strategies. This is in effect a prejudice, even if it is intended to be helpful. The group is still stereotyped. In my 25 years of teaching classes with high proportions of Asian students, I have found there is no correlation between race and gender on the one hand, and volubility and taciturnity on the other.

In the ‘categorised’ classroom, students are taken as representatives, speaking for  and from their group. This discourages them from expressing views contrary to what the supposedly ‘sensitive’ teacher expects of them. A ‘progressive’ teacher who believes that ‘we live in a racist society’ can exert a strong control over opinions expressed in class. Members of minorities may be reluctant to say that they are not discriminated against to any significant degree. Ironically, holding this view may actually create discrimination against them in the classroom, because they have said the wrong thing. They may be told directly or indirectly that they are deceiving themselves, are suffering from false consciousness, or are in denial. When views are ascribed, or even prescribed, to students according to their race and gender, they may be shamed as not truly belonging to their category if they hold different opinions. The emphasis on ‘diversity’ of demographic category can end up by repressing a genuine diversity of individual opinion.

The tyranny of feeling on campus

The university is being increasingly seen by ‘equity’ advocates as a community of feeling, not a community of reason. The New Sectarianism is much concerned about how people ‘feel’ in the classroom and elsewhere, and somewhat less concerned about how they think. Indeed, in extreme cases, clarity and logic are disparaged as masculine or patriarchal values. Universities are beginning routinely to ascribe inner feelings to their members, based simply on race-gender categories. White males are assumed to harbour in some degree feelings of racism and sexism. Women are assumed to feel victimised and in constant danger of insult, aggression and assault. Minorities are assumed to suffer regular slights, discrimination and hostility. Groups are assigned their emotional scripts, and if individuals deny having such feelings, they risk being told that they are (in a common sub-Freudian move) ‘in denial’, or that they have been intimidated or co-opted.

A new politics of feeling is emerging on campus, using nebulous metaphors like ‘chilly climate’ and ‘hostile environment’ for any incident that doesn’t ‘feel right’ or ‘feels uncomfortable’. ‘Systemic discrimination’ is another vague concept, where discrimination is constructed not as conscious and individual, but as unconscious and collective. Normal, well-meaning people are held to be unwittingly acting in ways that ‘exclude’ certain demographic groups. To overcome this, they are told they need to be ‘sensitised’, their feelings and behaviour modified to what equity officials see as desirable. The university becomes a school of manners, teaching ‘appropriate’ facial and verbal expression. Or it becomes a theatre of symbolic redress, where penitent white males atone for the past sins of their category.

The university is changing from a place where professors teach students how to think, into a place where ‘equity’ officials teach professors what to feel. These bureaucrats claim special expertise in ‘equity issues’ not possessed by other members of the university. Their ‘skills’ are needed, they claim, because professors are not adept at ‘human management’ and need experts to make judgments for them. When my English department was warned that studying literature does not equip us to give advice or make judgments on matters of discrimination and harassment, the whole traditional justification for studying the humanities was casually discarded. The idea of human relations as a special professional skill is a denial of the very basis of the ‘humanities’: forming a well-rounded personality capable of ethical judgment, as a human, not as an expert.

Gender Studies is perhaps the most prominent example of the New Sectarianism. It is mainly a female preserve in the university, and feminist researchers work to define not only the roles and identities of women, but of men also. Male ‘constructions’ of women are deconstructed, but not women’s of men. Men’s depictions of women are assumed to be false, especially if they have any negative element in them. They need correction, whereas women’s images of men are assumed to be accurate. Why have male academics left feminists a monopoly on university gender studies? There are several possible reasons. Feminists created the subject, and retain a proprietary attitude towards it, so that men would feel like trespassers. Some men might feel that self-consciousness about gender roles is somehow inappropriate for them, and is best left to women. Or it might seem that working on gender would lead either to subservience to feminism or to conflict with it, neither being attractive prospects. The avoidance of conflict may be due to residual ‘chivalry’, the idea that it is ungentlemanly or impolite to contest too emphatically what feminists are writing. Or liberal men may feel ‘gender guilt’, and believe that it’s women’s turn to be ‘heard’ after long male dominance of the university. The usual solution of male academics to the problem of gender studies is to keep silent on the issue, or to make deferential gestures towards feminism and then turn away to focus their research elsewhere, on to general or ‘non-gendered’ issues.

The irony is that gender difference is being asserted more and more strongly as it actually lessens in practice, as men’s and women’s lives become more and more similar, sharing the same responsibilities in the workplace and at home. The contradiction between difference and sameness emerges clearly if we juxtapose ‘difference’ claims with ‘equality’ (or ‘gender balance’) claims: ‘Men and women are very different and should do all the same jobs.’ (This contradiction is usually kept hidden by keeping the two parts of the statement separate.) Why should we strive to have more male nurses and female engineers if the two genders have radically different cultures and ways of knowing and interrelating? This would inevitably lead to separate preferences in employment. The demand for gender balance is in any case selective in practice. The focus is on equal representation in powerful, desirable middle-class jobs, not in dirty, dangerous working-class jobs like mechanical repair and maintenance, construction, mining and logging, which feminists are content to leave as male preserves.

With regard to gender, difference and sameness arguments are often applied selectively, depending on which will produce the best result for women. In positive contexts, sameness is emphasised: women are equally capable of climbing mountains, climbing corporate ladders, or playing sports like boxing, rugby and so on. But if the context is negative, the same activities can be stereotyped as masculine, hierarchical and competitive, and women, with their nurturing, collaborative natures, are seen as morally superior to them. Equality for women is not claimed in negative activities. Many believe in a female divinity, few in a female devil. Often people pause when they use the phrase ‘the white man’ when talking about imperialism, wondering for a moment if they should substitute a gender-neutral alternative, such as ‘the white person’. But no, the context is negative, thus a male, ‘non-inclusive’ term is still appropriate. 

Another false assumption of the New Sectarianism is that white males have been dominant throughout history by virtue of their race and gender. This completely ignores the fact that the vast majority of white males have been subjected to oppression and exploitation as much as any other group. How would it comfort them to know that their oppressors were frequently other white males? The New Sectarianism seems oblivious to the capacity of members of any group to inflict suffering on members of their own group. Exploitation does not require ‘difference’: some of the worst suffering in history has been imposed by people in the same demographic category as their victims.

The New Sectarianism, with its new prejudices and its techniques of feeling control, is already entrenched in the university and other institutions, where it has the status of an official ideology. We need to reassert that all students, regardless of race, gender or sexuality, should learn to respect rationality and objectivity, however contested those concepts may be; that all students should be open to the full range of human cultures and sciences without diminishing large parts of it as ‘patriarchal’; and that liberal education means freeing students from demographic categories and sectarian ideologies rather than reinforcing them. To discourage women or ‘minority’ students from accepting the full legacy of human culture and knowledge as their own is to marginalise them in a new way. Attempting to confine them to a separate ‘way of knowing’ is likely to narrow rather than broaden their outlook, and, perhaps worst of all, to instil a sense of grievance rather than a sense of possibility.

Graham Good is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His book, Humanism Betrayed: Theory, Ideology and Culture in the Contemporary University, was published by McGill-Queens University Press in 2001. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Picture: Ben Margot/AP/Press Association Images

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