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[Essay]

Nonconforming

Against the erosion of academic freedom by identity politics

Buttons from Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It with Buttons, by Christen Carter and Ted Hake, which will be published in October by Princeton Architectural Press. Courtesy the Busy Beaver Button Museum, Chicago, and Hake’s Auctions, York, Pennsylvania

[Essay]

Nonconforming

Against the erosion of academic freedom by identity politics
Adjust

In August 2017, a few weeks before the fall semester began at Cornell University, I received an email inviting me to participate in a campaign called “I’m First!” The idea was to encourage “faculty and staff on campus to identify themselves, via T-shirt or button, as the first in their family to graduate from a four-year institution.” The rationale for this themed costume party was the following: “This visual campaign will allow first-generation students to clearly identify (and connect with) faculty and professional staff that have had similar experiences as them!” Though I have been a tenured professor at Cornell for eleven years, neither of my parents, who are French, pursued post-secondary education. My father finished high school; my mother learned stenography at a vocational school and got her first job at sixteen. I guess this made me an ideal candidate to wear the nice T-shirt provided by the administration. But I declined. I’m not ashamed of my background, and I don’t underestimate the challenges students face when they are the first in their family to attend college. But the two occurrences of the verb “to identify” in one eight-line paragraph were clear hints that the I’m First! initiative—part of a national campaign—was pushing a new social identity: “first-gen.”

The next fall, a long article in the Cornell magazine Ezra featured administrators attesting to the remarkable progress of this new identity. Judging by their comments, first-gen persons would no longer need a button: their nature was now self-evident. One administrator spoke of the difficulty for first-generation students of “walking onto a college campus and maybe not seeing someone who looks like you.” Another suggested that the same students “benefit from having spaces in which to be themselves; to see leadership staff, other students and even artworks that look like them.” I wondered: Do I look first-gen enough? Is it okay if I wear a bow tie or a skirt? Should I speak loudly or be shy? More seriously, what if art or education are, in my view, valuable precisely as a way of becoming other? If I defy expectations, am I untrue to myself, or to the manufactured self that others think I should reclaim? The collection of presumed tastes, behaviors, desires, aspirations, and appearances that come with an externally defined identity rejects in advance anyone who doesn’t conform. “Intersectionality”—or bearing several identities simultaneously—does not change this conundrum; it simply adds additional prescriptions.

It goes without saying that what happens on my campus* is in no way unique and that being a first-gen is only one relatively novel option in a continuously growing list of what every one of us is supposed to be. American academia is a hotbed of proliferating identities supported and largely shaped by the higher ranks of administrators, faculty, student groups, alumni, and trustees. Not all identities are equal in dignity, history, or weight. Race, gender, and sexual orientation were the three main dimensions of what in the 1970s began to be called identity politics. These traits continue to be key today. But affirmed identities are mushrooming. The slightest shared characteristic, once anchored in a narrative of pain, can give rise to a new group. There is now a rural identity, a peanut-allergic identity, a fat identity, an ADHD identity, and so on. Each comes with stories of humiliation or of life-threatening experiences, with demands for official recognition, with products specifically targeted to the group, and with the sort of people the writer Touré called, in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, “the self-appointed identity cops.” Whereas identity politics, as theorized four decades ago, aimed to liberate the oppressed and to oppose American capitalism, its main form today is more invested in changing the direction of domination and in multiplying restrictions. It is the social order of the day, its rhetoric ubiquitous in the neurotic centers of the American economy (universities, the media, the tech sector).

Under this regime, identities, once affirmed, are indisputable. If I say, “As an x, I think. . . ,” I am no longer voicing an opinion that can be evaluated or critiqued within a shared space of discourse; I am merely saying what I am. If you disagree with me, you may trace everything I say back to my identity before availing yourself of corresponding counterarguments: you say a because you are an x, but I am a y and I therefore believe in b. Such identities, I insist, are not emancipatory, neither at the psychological nor at the political level. We all should have the right to evade identification, individually and collectively. What’s more, identity politics as now practiced does not put an end to racism, sexism, or other sorts of exclusion or exploitation. Ready-made identities imprison us in stereotyped narratives of trauma. In short, identity determinism has become an additional layer of oppression, one that fails to address the problems it clumsily articulates.

Adjust

The driving force behind the new rise of identity determinism is trivial: social media. Our willing accommodation of the flattening logic that makes complex social life tractable to computer algorithms, the constant mental reshaping to which we subject ourselves through instant communication and individualized mass media, and the profitability of selling data generated by internet users have all contributed to the success of identity politics. Rigid, constantly reenacted identities have become a new law of the market, one whose grip extends offline. The most powerful digital platforms are made for monologues or rants that elicit mechanical expressions of approval or disapproval. This type of electronic elocution is fundamentally self-centered, but the I seeking to grab attention must connect to a we in order to survive and thrive. This we is formed of the crudest commonalities, and it is, so to speak, automatic: sustained by knee-jerk reactions, memes, and viral behaviors driven by the basest stimuli. These responses are personal in the way one “personalizes” a phone or a computer, by selecting one of the few options that engineers have allowed you. The most powerful instrument of social prescription is in the hands of every soliloquist who posts on Facebook or Twitter a demand for silencing some other we. The ability for each mechanized soul to exert a miniature tyranny is daunting enough online. Offline, it has undermined institutions and given us President Donald Trump. More and more, the political realm transcribes social media’s logic of identity. This goes for the white supremacy at the core of Trumpism as well as for the identity-based clientelism of mainstream Democrats.

With their official emphasis on open-ended scholarly discussion, universities should offer a counterpoint. But American academia tends to align itself with the business world, and corporations cater to the perceived needs of their customers. In colleges, such accommodations may begin with the exclusion of dissenting voices under the pretext of protecting certain identity groups—such as by passing over works that run counter to their supposed interests. The next step is to prevent dialogue in the classroom by forbidding students to talk (this is the traditional, magisterial approach) or avoiding all conflicts and contradictions among participants, thereby confusing a college seminar with an AA meeting. (The move toward online instruction during the pandemic has encouraged professorial monologues, since the technology isn’t conducive to spontaneous discussion.) The last stage involves censoring the name of censorship. When an NYU graduate launched a petition in 2017 titled “Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus’ Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming,” she insisted she was not demanding censorship (as if the latter were only a synonym for physical destruction). During the Q&A after a talk I gave last November, a university lecturer told me that “there is no cancel culture,” thereby attempting to cancel “cancel.”

It is hard to determine whether most professors, students, and administrators sincerely subscribe to current identity politics. It varies by campus, discipline, and professional role (administrators certainly tend to express their support for the new order of things). But I do know that, at Cornell and elsewhere, only a negligible minority dares to dissent publicly. This stands in sharp contrast with the initial wave of political correctness, in the mid to late 1990s, when dozens of books written by academics critiqued identity politics from Marxist, conservative, liberal, and queer perspectives. When four Columbia undergraduates wrote an op-ed in 2015 titled our identities matter in core classrooms, they were simply spelling out the majority opinion on campus. Identities matter in the classroom, and to many they are what should matter most. The students made the case for trigger warnings by pointing out that “transgressions concerning student identities are common” in the core curriculum. The Metamorphoses, they explained,

like so many texts in the Western canon . . . contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

There are three interlinked ideas here. The first is that, depending on one’s own identity, one should be coddled when encountering texts (or more generally, artworks or experiences) that could be harmful. (I particularly appreciate the absolutely condescending suggestion that a low-income student is going to be hurt by classical literature.) The logical culmination of trigger warnings is a right to opt out before having any contact with the work, which undermines the whole project of education. Second, the students seem to suppose that they are asked to “read and discuss as” members of a group. This might unfortunately be the case in more and more classes, but it is incompatible with the task of interpretation in the humanities, where we should always remain capable of being touched, challenged, and above all changed by the object of study. A cardinal error when dealing with works of art or thought is to suppose that they are monolithic and in one (ideological) piece. Some are, but they’re usually the uninteresting ones, relics often of a tradition force-fed to students in the name of some correctness. For a long time, the goal was the fostering of national identities; our era is more attuned to social engineering and moral piety, with a touch of old-fashioned puritanism. Third, the students assert that “so many texts in the Western canon” are “offensive.” This is a baffling claim. In all the textual traditions I know, violence is expressed and emotions are triggered, one way or the other. A little more intellectual humility might be useful for a small group of Ivy League students in the twenty-first century presuming to determine what is acceptable in an ancient Greek tragedy, a Tang poem, or a traditional izibongo. It’s striking also that, of all the “Western” authors studied in Columbia’s core curriculum, Ovid was the center of such attacks. The Metamorphoses unfolds a theoretical argument alongside its mythological content: it insists on the crucial role of transformation. This was not exactly a majority opinion in an empire obsessed with fostering stability and what would later be named Romanitas (or “Roman identity,” if you like). Appearing as a character in Ovid’s poem, the philosopher Pythagoras asserts that “all things change.” Ovid’s point is precisely that this principle of metamorphosis shatters any rule of identity, which makes his writings incompatible with the current reverence for reified quiddities.

In 2016, English majors at Yale asked that a course on “major poets” such as Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, and Louise Glück no longer be mandatory. Their petition stated that

a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color and queer folks are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity, [but is] especially hostile to students of color.

Beyond the dubious equation of bodies of texts with the bodies of their authors and what they did with them, Shakespeare’s sonnets are anything but a promotion of male heteronormativity, T. S. Eliot’s abstinence looks quite close to the asexual label included in the acronym LGBTQIA+, and Louise Glück is a woman. This January, a revamping of survey classes in art history was presented by the Yale Daily News as

the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western ‘canon’—a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.

(The department’s faculty later disputed this characterization.)

In a comic mode, you may remember the 2015 banh mi affair, when there was a brief controversy over whether a version of the Vietnamese sandwich served at Oberlin College was a symptom of cultural appropriation and a dire blow to the integrity of Asian identities on campus. (Like virtually every other national food staple, such as “Japanese” sushi, “American” hamburgers, or “Italian” pasta in tomato sauce, the banh mi, whose name derives from the French pain de mie, is itself the result of culinary and cultural mixing.) A less laughable incident was the formal complaint filed against Laurie Sheck in 2019 by some of her students at the New School, after she focused in class on the discrepancy between the title I Am Not Your Negro, used by Raoul Peck for his documentary about James Baldwin, and Baldwin’s original wording of the sentence. That Sheck would herself read the so-called N-word aloud—that she would justify it as pedagogically useful—was enough to prompt an inquiry that could have led to her dismissal. (The New School cleared her of wrongdoing.)

Less prominent cases abound. In a literature class at Stanford, a colleague who wished to devote a session to Toni Morrison was challenged by several undergraduates who argued that a white faculty member should refrain from teaching work by an African-American writer. Having noticed a few years ago that most students in my classes stopped participating when we covered the history of slavery in eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue and the origins of the Haitian Revolution, I was told in private by white students that they felt they shouldn’t speak on such issues in front of black students. I pointed out to them that it was no more moral to remain silent and let the black students bear the burden of discussion. A Cornell colleague used the word “blow job” in a guest lecture he gave for a seminar on the subject of pleasure last spring; he learned in January that a now-dismissed complaint had been lodged against him by a student who considered the term derogatory to women (who, by the way, are not the only people who perform fellatio).

Formal complaints of this sort rarely have spectacular consequences, though the anxiety of being called out, the stress of public shaming, even over frivolous grievances, at best wastes one’s time and at worst leaves a permanent stain on one’s reputation. But I don’t believe that the goal is actually the removal of professors. The objective is to reach a system of self-censorship that would bind everyone in the room, eroding academic freedom. If the choice of our words, ideas, positions, and texts is conditioned by volatile mobs, if entire sets of questions are now off-limits in our classrooms, books, or labs, then we will no longer have the capacity to create or contest.

In many of these cases, naturally, the villain is a dead or old white, straight, cisgender male. Yet, a few months after the Ovid affair, a freshman at Duke University explained that he would not read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, which had been assigned to all first-year students, because he considered its depictions of same-sex relations “pornography” and contradictory to his Christian “beliefs and identity.” He quoted a thank-you note from a Muslim sophomore who told him, “I’ve seen a lot of people who just throw away their identity in college in the name of secularism, open-mindedness, or liberalism.” Modern partisans of subaltern identities might be upset to see their favorite maneuver deployed by a white male Christian student in the South. Such turnabout should not come as a surprise. Stormfront, the largest English-language online forum for neo-Nazis and white supremacists, promotes “true diversity” and the interests of the “new, embattled, White minority.” White straight males are already a minority in the United States (though one that enjoys disproportionate representation in power). For many voters, Trump’s affirmation of a wounded white identity is central to his appeal, and, unfortunately, to that of his likely successors.

It should be obvious that identity determinism is by no means a prerogative of the left, for two main reasons. First, a truly leftist position cannot subordinate the goal of collective and individual emancipation to the unconditional affirmation of a set commonality. The identities on offer often resemble varieties of what Marxists used to call “alienation,” in which individuals internalize premade representations of themselves that limit their freedom. Second, many pleas for the protection and promotion of harmed identities now emanate from the right. The two camps may be opposed on policy, but, more and more, they agree that identities should anchor politics. In her book Uncivil Agreement, the political scientist Lilliana Mason argues that Democrat and Republican are no longer ideological positions but rather identities. This is hardly democratic progress. Coupled with ubiquitous surveillance, heightened censorship, digital conformism, and educational failure, the monomania of political identity leaves the people powerless by making cooperation impossible. In such a regime, the shredding of the social fabric is inevitable.

It is worth noting that the manifesto signed in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective—the text that launched the initial theory and practice of identity politics—warned against both “separatism” and “fractionalization.” This year, Barbara Smith, one of the members of the collective, reflected on her early years of activism, saying: “We absolutely did not mean that we would work with people who were only identical to ourselves. We did not mean that.” She added that, in this respect, the way identity politics has “been used in the last couple of decades is very different than what we intended.” Back in 1989, Shane Phelan wrote the first book with the phrase “identity politics” in its title. The book ended with the following:

Identity politics must be based not only on identity, but on the appreciation of politics as the art of living together. Politics that ignores our identities, that makes them “private,” is useless, but non-negotiable identities will enslave us whether they are imposed from within or without.

Are such warnings still audible? Or do we prefer the compartmentalized world of identity mongers preaching to their own crowds and censoring their “natural” adversaries?

There is a tired objection to what I’ve written so far: that only people enjoying a dominant position could imagine escaping identity—that only they have that luxury, not the powerless people who endure daily suffering and microaggressions, especially at the hands of heteronormative, cisgender, structurally racist, and ableist men. Not quite. Let us remember, for instance, how Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man (1952), Percival Everett, in Erasure (2001), or Reginald Shepherd, in a 2003 essay satirizing “identity poetics,” are critical, in different ways, of identity determinism without ever trying to efface their social, racial, political, or sexual inscriptions. At the end of Ellison’s novel, the narrator comes to understand “the beautiful absurdity of . . . American identity,” which leaves few other options to members of this society beyond being “blind” (as virtually all characters are portrayed, whatever their race or sex might be) or being “invisible” (like the protagonist). Erasure centers on a writer who, throughout his life, has been considered “not black enough” and rejects the very expressions “my people” and “your people.” Shepherd writes that “the impulse to explain poetry as a symptom of its author” is “a form of self-imprisonment.”

We are now so used to the association of identity claims with descriptions of harm that any questioning of the reigning ideology is assumed to come from a place of immense privilege. Yet if I wished to portray myself as disadvantaged by current standards, I could do so on at least five counts. But don’t expect me to play the scripted role of the victim. Those of us who have suffered socially for conditions we had no control over—that is, the majority of us—should not be entrapped a second time and forced to think of ourselves as defined by harm. I have been ridiculed, derided, insulted, injured, and beaten, and all that forms part of my life history. But I also have, much as any of us has, the choice of being neither defined nor contained by idiotic brutality. Have I, since childhood, been insulted with epithets such as faggot, cocksucker, and girl? Yes—though French vocabulary is even more colorful. Have I been ridiculed for being too white, owing to the paleness caused by my chronic asthma? Yes, and incidentally this abuse always came from white people, including far-right extremists. Was I bullied in elementary and middle school by other kids for being fat? Yes, I gained weight after recovering from a near-fatal case of hepatitis at age eight, and the hassle lasted for five years. Have I been bullied for other reasons? Oh yes, many: because I sucked at sports, because my parents were poor, because I did well in school, and so on. In my fifteen years in the United States, I have never gone a week without someone frowning when reading my name or asking me to repeat what I just said, as if I were unable to order a single-shot espresso in English. I have lost track of the number of times colleagues have complained that I am a weirdo, decidedly not American, not visible enough as an LGBT person. I am fine with all these statements (I am weird, I don’t hold U.S. citizenship, I don’t want to look a certain way), but they weren’t intended as words of praise. Such aggressions were real, and they were tied to a whole array of political oppressions based on gender, class, sexual orientation, skin color, mental and physical ability. None of them were fortuitous or unrelated to social circumstances. But even in elementary school, I understood that I did not have to swallow the venom or waste my life spitting it back in the face of others. My reactions have varied, but my line is simple: I am not looking for external validation. I simply refuse to identify. I am not going to dispute wrongful characterizations, and I will not apologize either. This method protects more against microaggressions than separatism or celebrations of identity ever could.

Nothing programmed me to become who I am. In fact, nothing is programming any of us. True, many things constrain us. All systems of political inequality narrow the choices of those who lie at the bottom. We should work tirelessly to overcome such limitations. But as soon as we believe that social circumstances are absolute determinations—or, worse, “what we are”—we condemn ourselves to the endless repetition of the past and to the methodical destruction of new possibilities. While emancipation cannot be achieved only through education, the latter is, quite clearly, indispensable. The free pursuit of knowledge cannot be an afterthought: neither teaching nor research should be defined a priori by the twenty-first-century catechism of political identities. Freeing oneself from the given is an unending process that lies at the core of higher education. This task concerns students and professors alike, who should constantly allow themselves to be altered by different concepts, poems, people, and events. In contrast, today’s identity politics is a false promise that is imposed on us, often in spaces of relative intellectual freedom. No university worthy of that name, and indeed no democracy worthy of that name, should urge people to retreat within the brackets of their identities. Living, thinking, dreaming, and creating are not about what we are, but who we might become.

 is a professor of comparative literature, Romance studies, and cognitive science at Cornell University.


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September 2020