William Deresiewicz Essays
ARTICLES: HOUSE OF SOLITUDE
William Deresiewicz: "The End of Solitude"
William Deresiewicz is a contemporary writer, reviewer, and literary critic. He taught at Yale University from 1998 to 2008. This essay, "The End of Solitude," was published in "The Chronicle Review" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2009. Available online at http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-Solitude/3708. The essay is reprinted here with kind permission of the author.
What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge -- broadband tipping the Web from text to image, social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider -- the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves -- by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.
So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn't say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That's 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she's never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she's never alone.
I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she'll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?
To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity. The prophet and the hermit, the sadhu and the yogi, pursue their vision quests, invite their trances, in desert or forest or cave. For the still, small voice speaks only in silence. Social life is a bustle of petty concerns, a jostle of quotidian interests, and religious institutions are no exception. You cannot hear God when people are chattering at you, and the divine word, their pretensions notwithstanding, demurs at descending on the monarch and the priest. Communal experience is the human norm, but the solitary encounter with God is the egregious act that refreshes that norm. (Egregious, for no man is a prophet in his own land. Tiresias was reviled before he was vindicated, Teresa interrogated before she was canonized.) Religious solitude is a kind of self-correcting social mechanism, a way of burning out the underbrush of moral habit and spiritual custom. The seer returns with new tablets or new dances, his face bright with the old truth.
Like other religious values, solitude was democratized by the Reformation and secularized by Romanticism. In Marilynne Robinson's interpretation, Calvinism created the modern self by focusing the soul inward, leaving it to encounter God, like a prophet of old, in "profound isolation." To her enumeration of Calvin, Marguerite de Navarre, and Milton as pioneering early-modern selves we can add Montaigne, Hamlet, and even Don Quixote. The last figure alerts us to reading's essential role in this transformation, the printing press serving an analogous function in the 16th and subsequent centuries to that of television and the Internet in our own. Reading, as Robinson puts it, "is an act of great inwardness and subjectivity." "The soul encountered itself in response to a text, first Genesis or Matthew and then Paradise Lost or Leaves of Grass." With Protestantism and printing, the quest for the divine voice became available to, even incumbent upon, everyone.
But it is with Romanticism that solitude achieved its greatest cultural salience, becoming both literal and literary. Protestant solitude is still only figurative. Rousseau and Wordsworth made it physical. The self was now encountered not in God but in Nature, and to encounter Nature one had to go to it. And go to it with a special sensibility: The poet displaced the saint as social seer and cultural model. But because Romanticism also inherited the 18th-century idea of social sympathy, Romantic solitude existed in a dialectical relationship with sociability -- if less for Rousseau and still less for Thoreau, the most famous solitary of all, then certainly for Wordsworth, Melville, Whitman, and many others. For Emerson, "the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society." The Romantic practice of solitude is neatly captured by Trilling's "sincerity": the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others. Especially, as Emerson suggests, one beloved other. Hence the famous Romantic friendship pairs: Goethe and Schiller, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hawthorne and Melville.
Modernism decoupled this dialectic. Its notion of solitude was harsher, more adversarial, more isolating. As a model of the self and its interactions, Hume's social sympathy gave way to Pater's thick wall of personality and Freud's narcissism -- the sense that the soul, self-enclosed and inaccessible to others, can't choose but be alone. With exceptions, like Woolf, the modernists fought shy of friendship. Joyce and Proust disparaged it; D.H. Lawrence was wary of it; the modernist friendship pairs -- Conrad and Ford, Eliot and Pound, Hemingway and Fitzgerald -- were altogether cooler than their Romantic counterparts. The world was now understood as an assault on the self, and with good reason.
The Romantic ideal of solitude developed in part as a reaction to the emergence of the modern city. In modernism, the city is not only more menacing than ever, it has become inescapable, a labyrinth: Eliot's London, Joyce's Dublin. The mob, the human mass, presses in. Hell is other people. The soul is forced back into itself -- hence the development of a more austere, more embattled form of self-validation, Trilling's "authenticity," where the essential relationship is only with oneself. (Just as there are few good friendships in modernism, so are there few good marriages.) Solitude becomes, more than ever, the arena of heroic self-discovery, a voyage through interior realms made vast and terrifying by Nietzschean and Freudian insights. To achieve authenticity is to look upon these visions without flinching; Trilling's exemplar here is Kurtz. Protestant self-examination becomes Freudian analysis, and the culture hero, once a prophet of God and then a poet of Nature, is now a novelist of self -- a Dostoyevsky, a Joyce, a Proust.
But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated -- we could live farther and farther apart -- technologies of communication redressed -- we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or at least, so we have imagined. The first of these technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone. "Reach out and touch someone." But through the 70s and 80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs, sprawling ever farther, became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart, mothers left the home to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were each trapped inside our own cocoon. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, has now become unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.
Under those circumstances, the Internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay teenager no longer has to feel like a freak. But as the Internet's dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing. Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive -- though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.
As a result, we are losing both sides of the Romantic dialectic. What does friendship mean when you have 532 "friends"? How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven't seen since high school, and wasn't all that friendly with even then) "is making coffee and staring off into space"? My students told me they have little time for intimacy. And of course, they have no time at all for solitude.
But at least friendship, if not intimacy, is still something they want. As jarring as the new dispensation may be for people in their 30s and 40s, the real problem is that it has become completely natural for people in their teens and 20s. Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it, can't imagine why it would be worth having. In fact, their use of technology -- or to be fair, our use of technology -- seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others. As long ago as 1952, Trilling wrote about "the modern fear of being cut off from the social group even for a moment." Now we have equipped ourselves with the means to prevent that fear from ever being realized. Which does not mean that we have put it to rest. Quite the contrary. Remember my student, who couldn't even write a paper by herself. The more we keep aloneness at bay, the less are we able to deal with it and the more terrifying it gets.
There is an analogy, it seems to me, with the previous generation's experience of boredom. The two emotions, loneliness and boredom, are closely allied. They are also both characteristically modern. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citations of either word, at least in the contemporary sense, date from the 19th century. Suburbanization, by eliminating the stimulation as well as the sociability of urban or traditional village life, exacerbated the tendency to both. But the great age of boredom, I believe, came in with television, precisely because television was designed to palliate that feeling. Boredom is not a necessary consequence of having nothing to do, it is only the negative experience of that state. Television, by obviating the need to learn how to make use of one's lack of occupation, precludes one from ever discovering how to enjoy it. In fact, it renders that condition fearsome, its prospect intolerable. You are terrified of being bored -- so you turn on the television.
I speak from experience. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the age of television. I was trained to be bored; boredom was cultivated within me like a precious crop. (It has been said that consumer society wants to condition us to feel bored, since boredom creates a market for stimulation.) It took me years to discover -- and my nervous system will never fully adjust to this idea; I still have to fight against boredom, am permanently damaged in this respect -- that having nothing to do doesn't have to be a bad thing. The alternative to boredom is what Whitman called idleness: a passive receptivity to the world.
So it is with the current generation's experience of being alone. That is precisely the recognition implicit in the idea of solitude, which is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom. Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn't call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn't always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn't always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.
And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life -- of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness." Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world -- that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude.
But we no longer believe in the solitary mind. If the Romantics had Hume and the modernists had Freud, the current psychological model -- and this should come as no surprise -- is that of the networked or social mind. Evolutionary psychology tells us that our brains developed to interpret complex social signals. According to David Brooks, that reliable index of the social-scientific zeitgeist, cognitive scientists tell us that "our decision-making is powerfully influenced by social context"; neuroscientists, that we have "permeable minds" that function in part through a process of "deep imitation"; psychologists, that "we are organized by our attachments"; sociologists, that our behavior is affected by "the power of social networks." The ultimate implication is that there is no mental space that is not social (contemporary social science dovetailing here with postmodern critical theory). One of the most striking things about the way young people relate to one another today is that they no longer seem to believe in the existence of Thoreau's "darkness."
The MySpace page, with its shrieking typography and clamorous imagery, has replaced the journal and the letter as a way of creating and communicating one's sense of self. The suggestion is not only that such communication is to be made to the world at large rather than to oneself or one's intimates, or graphically rather than verbally, or performatively rather than narratively or analytically, but also that it can be made completely. Today's young people seem to feel that they can make themselves fully known to one another. They seem to lack a sense of their own depths, and of the value of keeping them hidden.
If they didn't, they would understand that solitude enables us to secure the integrity of the self as well as to explore it. Few have shown this more beautifully than Woolf. In the middle of Mrs. Dalloway, between her navigation of the streets and her orchestration of the party, between the urban jostle and the social bustle, Clarissa goes up, "like a nun withdrawing," to her attic room. Like a nun: She returns to a state that she herself thinks of as a kind of virginity. This does not mean she's a prude. Virginity is classically the outward sign of spiritual inviolability, of a self untouched by the world, a soul that has preserved its integrity by refusing to descend into the chaos and self-division of sexual and social relations. It is the mark of the saint and the monk, of Hippolytus and Antigone and Joan of Arc. Solitude is both the social image of that state and the means by which we can approximate it. And the supreme image in Mrs. Dalloway of the dignity of solitude itself is the old woman whom Clarissa catches sight of through her window. "Here was one room," she thinks, "there another." We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood.
To remember this, to hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one's way beyond it. Solitude, Emerson said, "is to genius the stern friend." "He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions." One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus -- especially, Emerson added, during youth. "God is alone," Thoreau said, "but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion." The university was to be praised, Emerson believed, if only because it provided its charges with "a separate chamber and fire" -- the physical space of solitude. Today, of course, universities do everything they can to keep their students from being alone, lest they perpetrate self-destructive acts, and also, perhaps, unfashionable thoughts. But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. "The saint and poet seek privacy," Emerson said, "to ends the most public and universal." We are back to the seer, seeking signposts for the future in splendid isolation.
Solitude isn't easy, and isn't for everyone. It has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few. "I believe," Thoreau said, "that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark." Teresa and Tiresias will always be the exceptions, or to speak in more relevant terms, the young people -- and they still exist -- who prefer to loaf and invite their soul, who step to the beat of a different drummer. But if solitude disappears as a social value and social idea, will even the exceptions remain possible? Still, one is powerless to reverse the drift of the culture. One can only save oneself -- and whatever else happens, one can still always do that. But it takes a willingness to be unpopular.
The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn't very polite. Thoreau knew that the "doubleness" that solitude cultivates, the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately, is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offense implicit in avoiding their company. But then, he didn't worry overmuch about being genial. He didn't even like having to talk to people three times a day, at meals; one can only imagine what he would have made of text-messaging. We, however, have made of geniality -- the weak smile, the polite interest, the fake invitation -- a cardinal virtue. Friendship may be slipping from our grasp, but our friendliness is universal. Not for nothing does "gregarious" mean "part of the herd." But Thoreau understood that securing one's self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.
Essays - Spring 2017
On Political CorrectnessPrint
Power, class, and the new campus religion
By William Deresiewicz
March 6, 2017
Let us eschew the familiar examples: the disinvited speakers, the Title IX tribunals, the safe zones stocked with Play-Doh, the crusades against banh mi. The flesh-eating bacterium of political correctness, which feeds preferentially on brain tissue, and which has become endemic on elite college campuses, reveals its true virulence not in the sorts of high-profile outbreaks that reach the national consciousness, but in the myriad of ordinary cases—the everyday business-as-usual at institutions around the country—that are rarely even talked about.
A clarification, before I continue (since deliberate misconstrual is itself a tactic of the phenomenon in question). By political correctness, I do not mean the term as it has come to be employed on the right—that is, the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets. I mean its older, intramural denotation: the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.
I recently spent a semester at Scripps, a selective women’s college in Southern California. I had one student, from a Chinese-American family, who informed me that the first thing she learned when she got to college was to keep quiet about her Christian faith and her non-feminist views about marriage. I had another student, a self-described “strong feminist,” who told me that she tends to keep quiet about everything, because she never knows when she might say something that you’re not supposed to. I had a third student, a junior, who wrote about a friend whom she had known since the beginning of college and who, she’d just discovered, went to church every Sunday. My student hadn’t even been aware that her friend was religious. When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, “Because I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here.”
I also heard that the director of the writing center, a specialist in disability studies, was informing people that they couldn’t use expressions like “that’s a crazy idea” because they stigmatize the mentally ill. I heard a young woman tell me that she had been criticized by a fellow student for wearing moccasins—an act, she was informed, of cultural appropriation. I heard an adjunct instructor describe how a routine pedagogical conflict over something he had said in class had turned, when the student in question claimed to have felt “triggered,” into, in his words, a bureaucratic “dumpster fire.” He was careful now, he added, to avoid saying anything, or teaching anything, that might conceivably lead to trouble.
I listened to students—young women, again, who considered themselves strong feminists—talk about how they were afraid to speak freely among their peers, and how despite its notoriety as a platform for cyberbullying, they were grateful for YikYak, the social media app, because it allowed them to say anonymously what they couldn’t say in their own name. Above all, I heard my students tell me that while they generally identified with the sentiments and norms that travel under the name of political correctness, they thought that it had simply gone too far—way too far. Everybody felt oppressed, as they put it, by the “PC police”—everybody, that is, except for those whom everybody else regarded as members of the PC police.
I heard all this, and a good bit more, while teaching one class, for 12 students, during one semester, at one college. And I have no reason to believe that circumstances are substantially different at other elite private institutions, and plenty of reasons not to believe it: from conversations with individuals at many schools, from my broader experience in higher education, from what I’ve read not only in the mainstream media but also in the higher education press. The situation is undoubtedly better at some places than others, undoubtedly worse at the liberal arts colleges as a whole than at the universities as a whole, but broadly similar across the board.
So this is how I’ve come to understand the situation. Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
Dogma, and the enforcement of dogma, makes for ideological consensus. Students seldom disagree with one another anymore in class, I’ve been told about school after school. The reason, at least at Whitman, said one of the students I talked to there, is mainly that they really don’t have any disagreements. Another added that when they take up an issue in class, it isn’t, let’s talk about issue X, but rather, let’s talk about why such-and-such position is the correct one to have on issue X. When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps. But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.
That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer. But the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong. In fact, you are wrong: about some things and probably about a lot of things. There is zero percent chance that any one of us is 100 percent correct. That, in turn, is why freedom of expression includes the right to hear as well as speak, and why disinviting campus speakers abridges the speech rights of students as well as of the speakers themselves.
Elite private colleges are ideologically homogenous because they are socially homogeneous, or close to it. Their student populations largely come from the liberal upper and upper-middle classes, multiracial but predominantly white, with an admixture of students from poor communities of color—two demographics with broadly similar political beliefs, as evidenced by the fact that they together constitute a large proportion of the Democratic Party base. As for faculty and managerial staff, they are even more homogenous than their students, both in their social origins and in their present milieu, which tends to be composed exclusively of other liberal professionals—if not, indeed, of other liberal academics. Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.
Which brings us to another thing that comes with dogma: heresy. Heresy means those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation—if necessary, by censorship. It makes a perfect, dreary sense that there are speech codes, or the desire for speech codes, at selective private colleges. The irony is that conservatives don’t actually care if progressives disapprove of them, with the result that political correctness generally amounts to internecine warfare on the left: radical feminists excoriating other radical feminists for saying “vagina” instead of “front hole,” students denouncing the director of Boys Don’t Cry as a transphobic “cis white bitch” (as recently happened at Reed College), and so forth.
But the most effective form of censorship, of course, is self-censorship—which, in the intimate environment of a residential college, young adults are very quick to learn. One of the students at Whitman mentioned that he’s careful, when questioning consensus beliefs, to phrase his opinion in terms of “Explain to me why I’m wrong.” Other students— at Bard College, at the Claremont Colleges—have explained that any challenge to the hegemony of identity politics will get you branded as a racist (as in, “Don’t talk to that guy, he’s a racist”). Campus protesters, their frequent rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, are not the ones being silenced: they are, after all, not being silent. They are in the middle of the quad, speaking their minds. The ones being silenced are the ones like my students at Scripps, like the students at Whitman, like many students, no doubt, at many places, who are keeping their mouths shut. “The religion of humanity,” as David Bromwich recently wrote, “may turn out to be as dangerous as all the other religions.”
The assumption on selective campuses is not only that we are in full possession of the truth, but that we are in full possession of virtue. We don’t just know the good with perfect wisdom, we embody it with perfect innocence. But regimes of virtue tend to eat their children. Think of Salem. They tend to turn upon themselves, since everybody wants to be the holiest. Think of the French Revolution. The ante is forever being upped. The PC commissariat reminds me of the NRA. Everyone is terrified of challenging the NRA (everyone in a position to stop it, at least), so it gets whatever it demands. But then, because it can, it thinks up new demands. Guns in playgrounds, guns in bars.
So it is with political correctness. There is always something new, as my students understood, that you aren’t supposed to say. And worst of all, you often don’t find out about it until after you have said it. The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism—and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty, and therefore were always controllable.
You were also always under surveillance by a cadre of what Jane Austen called, in a very different context, “voluntary spies,” and what my students called the PC police. Regimes of virtue produce informants (which really does wonders for social cohesion). They also produce authorities, often self-appointed authorities, like the writing director at Scripps who decreed that you aren’t supposed to use the word crazy. Whenever I hear that you aren’t supposed to say something, I want to know, where did this supposed descend from? Who decided, and who gave them the right to decide? And whenever I hear that a given group of students demands this or says that, I want to ask, whom exactly are we talking about: all of them, or just a few of them? Did the group choose its leaders, or did the leaders choose themselves?
Let me be clear. I recognize that both the culture of political correctness and the recent forms of campus agitation are responding to enormous, intractable national problems. There is systemic racism and individual bigotry in the United States, and colleges are not immune from either. There is systemic sexism and sexual assault in society at large, and campuses are no exception. The call for safe spaces and trigger warnings, the desire to eliminate micro-aggressions, the demand for the removal of offensive symbols and the suppression of offensive language: however foolish some of these might be as policy prescriptions (especially the first two), however absurd as they work themselves out on the ground, all originate in deeply legitimate concerns.
But so much of political correctness is not about justice or creating a safe environment; it is about power. And so much of what is taking place at colleges today reflects the way that relations of power have been reconfigured in contemporary higher education. Campus activists are taking advantage of the fact (and I suspect that a lot of them understand this intuitively, if not explicitly) that students have a lot more power than they used to. The change is the result not only of the rise of the customer-service mentality in academia, but also of the proletarianization of the faculty. Students have risen; instructors have fallen. Where once administrations worked in alliance with the faculty, were indeed largely composed of faculty, now they work against the faculty in alliance with students, a separate managerial stratum more interested in the satisfaction of its customers than the well-being of its employees.
In the inevitable power struggle between students and teachers, the former have gained the whip hand. The large majority of instructors today are adjuncts working term to term for a few thousand dollars a course, or contract employees with no long-term job security, or untenured professors whose careers can still be derailed. With the expansion of Title IX in 2011—the law is now being used, among other things, to police classroom content—even tenured faculty are sitting with a sword above their heads. Thanks not only to the shift to contingent employment but also to the chronic oversupply of PhDs (the academic reserve army, to adapt a phrase from Marx), academic labor is cheap and academic workers are vulnerable and frightened. In a conflict between a student and a faculty member, almost nothing is at stake for the student beyond the possibility of receiving a low grade (which, in the current environment, means something like a B+). But the teacher could be fired. That is why so many faculty members, like that adjunct instructor at Scripps, are teaching with their tails between their legs. They, too, are being silenced. Whether they know it or not, student activists (and students in general) are exploiting the insecurity of an increasingly immiserated workforce. So much for social justice.
The power of political correctness is wielded not only against the faculty, however, but also against other groups within the student body, ones who don’t belong to the ideologically privileged demographics or espouse the approved points of view: conservative students; religious students, particularly Christians; students who identify as Zionists, a category that includes a lot of Jewish students; “athletes,” meaning white male athletes; white students from red states; heterosexual cisgendered white men from anywhere at all, who represent, depending on the school, between a fifth and a third of all students. (I say this, by the way, as an atheist, a democratic socialist, a native northeasterner, a person who believes that colleges should not have sports teams in the first place—and in case it isn’t obvious by now, a card-carrying member of the liberal elite.) I haven’t heard too many people talk about creating safe spaces for Christians, or preventing micro-aggressions against conservatives, or banning hate speech against athletes, or disinviting socialists.
What I have heard, frequently, for as long as I have been involved in academia, are open expressions of contempt or prejudice or hostility against those suspect groups or members of those groups. If you are a white man, you are routinely regarded as guilty until proven innocent, the worst possible construction is put upon your words, and anything you say on a sensitive issue is received with suspicion at best. I attended a workshop on micro-aggressions at the University of Missouri last year. The problem with micro-aggressions, the leader said, is that they “create a space of hostility,” that they say, “you don’t belong; you are different in a way that’s not okay.” Those formulations precisely describe the environment that the groups I just enumerated often encounter at elite private colleges, except that unlike the typical micro-aggression, the offense is not inadvertent. It is quite deliberate. Racism may indeed be a system, but bigotry and prejudice are personal attitudes, and they are freely distributed (“cis white bitch”) across the political spectrum.
I am perfectly aware that men, whites, heterosexuals, and cisgendered people remain the dominant groups in society as a whole. But equality is not revenge. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are incomparably more powerful, and more entrenched, than their “reverse” counterparts, but that doesn’t make the latter anything less than reprehensible, especially when practiced against college students: individuals, in other words, who are scarcely more than adolescents, and who deserve the benefit of the doubt.
I was talking about trigger warnings with the writing director at Scripps. I told her that the only student I’d taught who was so uncomfortable with course material that he had to leave the room was a young Christian man (another Asian American, as it turns out), who excused himself before a class discussion of the sexually explicit lesbian novelist Jeanette Winterson. I was naïve enough to think that the director would be sympathetic to the student’s situation. Instead, she snorted with contempt. (For the record, I myself was none too happy with his move. But then, I don’t believe in trigger warnings in the first place.) Progressive faculty and students at selective private colleges will often say that they want to dismantle the hierarchies of power that persist in society at large. Their actions often suggest that in fact they would like to invert them. All groups are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Political correctness creates a mindset of us versus them. “Them” is white men, or straight cisgendered white men—a.k.a. “the patriarchy.” (The phrase “dead white men,” so beloved on the left, would have little force if its last two words were not already felt to constitute a pejorative.) “Us” is everybody else, the coalition of virtue (virtuous, of course, by virtue of an accident of birth). Which means that political correctness not only treats “them” as a monolith—erasing the differences among white people, like those between Jews and Mormons or English and Irish, thus effacing the specificity of their historical and sometimes also their present experiences—it effaces the specificity of everyone’s experience.
Political correctness expects us to plot our experience on the grid of identity, to interpret it in terms of our location at the intersection of a limited number of recognized categories. You are a lesbian Latina, therefore you must feel X. You are a white trans man, therefore you must think Y. But identity should not precede experience; it should proceed from it. And experience is much more granular, and composed of a vastly larger number of variables, than is dreamt of in the PC philosophy. I myself am a youngest child; I was raised in the suburbs; I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family—but more to the point, my consciousness and way of being in the world have been shaped by an infinite series of experiential particulars, a large proportion of which are not reducible to any category.
That, by the way, is one of the reasons to read literature, and to place it at the center of a college education: because it captures the complexity of lived experience, and of enacted identity, in a way that the categories of a politicized social science can never hope to match.
There is one category that the religion of the liberal elite does not recognize—that its purpose, one might almost conclude, is to conceal: class. Class at fancy colleges, as throughout American society, has been the unspeakable word, the great forbidden truth. And the exclusion of class on selective college campuses enables the exclusion of a class. It has long struck me in leftist or PC rhetoric how often “white” is conflated with “wealthy,” as if all white people were wealthy and all wealthy people were white. In fact, more than 40 percent of poor Americans are white. Roughly 60 percent of working-class Americans are white. Almost two-thirds of white Americans are poor or working-class. Altogether, lower-income whites make up about 40 percent of the country, yet they are almost entirely absent on elite college campuses, where they amount, at most, to a few percent and constitute, by a wide margin, the single most underrepresented group.
We don’t acknowledge class, so there are few affirmative-action programs based on class. Not coincidentally, lower-income whites belong disproportionately to precisely those groups whom it is acceptable and even desirable, in the religion of the colleges, to demonize: conservatives, Christians, people from red states. Selective private colleges are produced by the liberal elite and reproduce it in turn. If it took an electoral catastrophe to remind this elite of the existence (and ultimately, one hopes, the humanity) of the white working class, the fact should come as no surprise. They’ve never met them, so they neither know nor care about them. In the psychic economy of the liberal elite, the white working class plays the role of the repressed. The recent presidential campaign may be understood as the return of that repressed—and the repressed, when it returns, is always monstrous.
The exclusion of class also enables the concealment of the role that elite colleges play in perpetuating class, which they do through a system that pretends to accomplish the opposite, our so-called meritocracy. Students have as much merit, in general, as their parents can purchase (which, for example, is the reason SAT scores correlate closely with family income). The college admissions process is, as Mitchell L. Stevens writes in Creating a Class, a way of “laundering privilege.”
But it isn’t simply the admissions process. The culture of political correctness, the religion of the fancy private colleges, provides the affluent white and Asian students who make up the preponderant majority of their student bodies, and the affluent white and Asian professionals who make up the preponderant majority of their tenured faculty and managerial staffs, with the ideological resources to alibi or erase their privilege. It enables them to tell themselves that they are children of the light—part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem. It may speak about dismantling the elite, but its real purpose is to flatter it.
And here we come to the connection between the religion of success and the religion of political correctness. Political correctness is a fig leaf for the competitive individualism of meritocratic neoliberalism, with its worship of success above all. It provides a moral cover beneath which undergraduates can prosecute their careerist projects undisturbed. Student existence may be understood as largely separated into two non-communicating realms: campus social life (including the classroom understood as a collective space), where the enforcement of political correctness is designed to create an emotionally unthreatening environment; and the individual pursuit of personal advancement, the real business going forward. The moral commitments of the first (which are often transient in any case) are safely isolated from the second.
What falls between the two is nothing less than the core purpose of a liberal education: inquiry into the fundamental human questions, undertaken through rational discourse. Rational discourse, meaning rational argument: not the us-talk of PC consensus, which isn’t argument, or the them-talk of vituperation (as practiced ubiquitously on social media), which isn’t rational. But inquiry into the fundamental human questions—in the words of Tolstoy, “What shall we do and how shall we live?”—threatens both of the current campus creeds: political correctness, by calling its certainties into question; the religion of success, by calling its values into question. Such inquiry raises the possibility that there are different ways to think and different things to live for.
Political correctness and rational discourse are incompatible ideals. Forget “civility,” the quality that college deans and presidents inevitably put forth as that which needs to “balance” free expression. The call for civility is nothing more than a management tool for nervous bureaucrats, a way of splitting every difference and puréeing them into a pablum of deanly mush. Free expression is an absolute; to balance it is to destroy it.
Fortunately, we already have a tried-and-tested rule for free expression, one specifically designed to foster rational discourse. It’s called the First Amendment, and First Amendment jurisprudence doesn’t recognize “offensive” speech or even hate speech as categories subject to legitimate restriction. For one thing, hate is not illegal, and neither is giving offense. For another, what’s hate to me may not be hate to you; what’s offensive to you may be my deeply held belief. The concepts are relative and subjective. When I gave a version of this essay as a talk at Bard, the first comment from the panel of student respondents came from a young Palestinian woman who argued that “conservative narratives” like Zionism should be censored, because “they require the otherization, if not the dehumanization, of another group of people.” It didn’t seem to have occurred to her that many Zionists would say the same about what they regard as the Palestinian position. Once you start to ban offensive speech, there is no logical place to stop—or rather, where you stop will be determined by the relative positions of competing groups within the community.
In other words, again, by power. To take the most conspicuous issue around which questions of free expression are being disputed on campus, the disinvitation of outside speakers always reflects the power of one group over another. When a speaker is invited to campus, it means that some set of people within the institution—some department, center, committee, or student organization—wants to hear what they have to say. When they are disinvited, shouted down, or otherwise prevented from speaking, it means another set has proved to be more powerful.
When the latter are accused of opposing free speech, they invariably respond, “How can we be opposed to free speech? We are exercising it right now!” But everyone is in favor of their own free speech (including, for instance, Vladimir Putin). The test of your commitment to free speech as a general principle is whether you are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom you most disagree. If you are using your speech to try to silence speech, you are not in favor of free speech. You are only in favor of yourself.
I see no reason that the First Amendment shouldn’t be the guiding principle at private colleges and universities (at least the ones that profess to be secular), just as it is, perforce, at public institutions. But public schools are very different places from private ones. Their student bodies, for the most part, are far more diverse, economically and in every other way, which means these institutions do not have to deal with a large bolus of affluent, sheltered white and Asian kids who don’t know how to talk to black and brown people and need to be “educated” into “awareness” by the presence of African-American and Latino students (who are, in turn, expected to “represent” their communities). When different kinds of people grow up together, rather than being introduced to one another under artificial conditions in young adulthood, they learn to talk and play and study together honestly and unselfconsciously—which means, for adolescents, often frankly and roughly—without feeling that they have to tiptoe around sensitivities that are frequently created by the situation itself. (In today’s idiom, they can be real with one another. The one thing students at elite private colleges very rarely are is “real.”) It’s true that neighborhoods and public schools are much more segregated than they were a generation ago, but students at public colleges and universities are still considerably less likely to come from affluent white/Asian bubbles than are those at wealthy private ones.
True diversity means true disagreement. Political correctness exists at public institutions, but it doesn’t dominate them. A friend of mine who went to Columbia and Yale now teaches at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. “When you meet someone at Hunter,” she told me, “you can’t assume they see the world the same way you do.” That’s about as pithy an expression of the problem at selective private colleges as I can imagine. When you meet someone at Columbia or Yale or Scripps or Whitman or any of scores of other institutions, you absolutely can assume they see the world the same way you do. And anyone who threatens to disrupt that cozy situation must be disinvited, reeducated, or silenced. It’s no surprise that the large majority of high-profile PC absurdities take place at elite private schools like Emory or Oberlin or Northwestern.
That same safe assumption, about the points of view of everyone around you, does not pervade selective private campuses alone, of course. It is equally the case among the liberal elite: at the Manhattan dinner party, the Silicon Valley startup, the Seattle coffee shop, the Brookline PTA. (That it is also the case in other realms of society, non-liberal and/or non-elite, is true. It is also no excuse, especially not for people who consider themselves so enlightened.) This is not an accident. Selective private colleges are the training grounds of the liberal elite, and the training in question involves not only formal education for professional success, but also initiation into the folkways of the tribe.
Which means that fancy private colleges have a mission public institutions don’t. People arrive at public schools from a wide range of social locations, and they return to a range that is nearly as wide. The institutional mission is to get them through and into the job market, not to turn them into any particular kind of person. But selective private colleges (which also tend to be a lot smaller than public schools) are in the business of creating a community and, beyond that, a class. “However much diversity Yale’s freshman classes may have,” as one of my students once put it, “its senior classes have far less.”
And this, I believe, is one of the sources of the new revolt among students of color at elite private colleges and universities. The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar.
Selective private colleges need to decide what kind of places they want to be. Do they want to be socialization machines for the upper-middle class, ideological enforcers of progressive dogma? Or do they want to be educational institutions in the only sense that really matters: places of free, frank, and fearless inquiry? When we talk about political correctness and its many florid manifestations, so much in the news of late, we are talking not only about racial injustice and other forms of systemic oppression, or about the coddling of privileged youth, though both are certainly at play. We are also talking, or rather not talking, about the pathologies of the American class system. And those are also what we need to deal with.
Want more Deresiewicz? Try All Points, his blog about American culture, or these classic from the archives: “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.”
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.