Civility and Its Discontents

I have set myself a moral puzzle. What would I do if I were a college president and had to decide the fate of a student who had been caught writing racial and ethnic epithets -- niggers back to Africa, Hitler didn't finish the job -- on the doors of, respectively, a black and Jewish classmate, and was suspected of writing gays suck! in the entryway of an openly bisexual dorm? Hangdog or defiant, the miscreant is brought before me. In real life I expect my reactions would run something like this: righteousness, rage even, before the door opened, along with a fixed determination to expel the criminal from our midst; and a sudden surge of curiosity, zeal for reformation, and a form of fellow feeling, once the flesh and blood chap appeared on the other side of my desk. That's one good reason why the destiny of others should not be placed in my hands.

To expel or not expel? Even in the abstract, on paper, the question leaves me divided. My emotions boil at the prospect of having to share a campus with such bad apples in it. But my mind, which has its instincts too, raises the flag of caution. I've lived in this democracy long enough to know that the First Amendment ought not to be monkeyed with and that the more absolute its protections the better off all of us are (well not all: not those libeled, nor, more to the point, not those threatened on campus). I am a member of the ACLU. I am also a writer, with a writer's concern for minimizing the role of the censor in American life.

Wait a minute: The truth is, my view of censorship is more complicated than that. The worst thing that can happen to any artist is to be shot dead by Stalin. The second worst is to be told that anything goes. I suppose the third worst it to be dragooned, by an NEA grant, into respecting the diversity of one's fellow citizens' beliefs. The point is, if there are no taboos in society, there will be few in the psyche. So much, then, for the disguises, the tricks and sleight of hand, that the public, which shares the magician's repressions, calls art.

How could I favor expulsion, moreover, when I had suffered that fate myself, and more than once, in the fifties? The first occasion was at the Webb School, in California, when one of the preppies asked, "What's this?" as the turnips and gruel were plopped on his plate.

'The week's profit," quipped I. Papa Webb wasn't one to tolerate teenage quipsters. Gone. Rusticated. Dismissed. Expelled.

A few years later the same wise guy was standing on York Street, in New Haven, when the mayor came out of Phil's Barber Shop and stepped into Fenn-Feinstein next door. "What's the mayor doing?" asked my current straight man, as His Honor emerged from the doorway and ducked into the entrance of Barrie Shoes. "Wednesday. 2:30," I replied, just loud enough. "Time to collect." This was, remember, the fifties. The next thing I knew I had been thrust up against the side of a car, had handed over my wallet, and been ordered to be at the dean's office the next morning at ten. By eleven, I was no longer a Son of Eli.

Hard to believe? Even those who lived through those days might find it difficult to recall the atmosphere that lingered on campus well after Senator McCarthy's demise. The master of my residential college was a particularly despotic fellow. During my junior year a number of my pals secretly published a mimeographed newspaper, The Trumbullian, and at three in the morning shoved them under everyone's door: "Ape Rape in Trumbull Lounge" was the leading headline. Doc Nick, as he was known to his subjects, responded by calling in the FBI. For a week afterward we watched as a crack team of pale young men in dark suits went about dusting for fingerprints and testing our typewriters, as they had recently done for the Hiss trial, for telltale keys.

To return to the tale, both my expulsions had been effected in order to remove from two bastions of Civilization, and Christendom, a threat to what is generally called, especially by those who do the expelling these days, civility. How can one learn, so goes the argument, in a boorish atmosphere, especially when one might be subjected to crude, offensive, even inflammatory remarks? The premise deserves examination. My own feeling is that Miss Manners, and anyone else who thinks the university must be governed by a special code of decorum, have, slightly, but crucially, missed the point. Webb might be a finishing school, but Yale is not. At least not any longer. "When Jews and other scum beyond human ken make Yale fraternities..." The line is from the famed Yale Record, 1917 (and not, as you thought, from the Dartmouth Review, 1990), and there was enough of that attitude left forty years later to make our Class of '60, if not quite Judenrein, then at least controlled by a quota so strict we could count the total number of blacks and Asians on the fingers of one hand, and which, of course, allowed for no women at all.

* * *

Many are the sins hidden behind the cloak of gentility; enough of them were revealed in the decade following my graduation to make me forever suspicious of those who invest much of their energy in attempting to make the tattered garment whole. Oddly enough, the worst of those sins was intellectual sloth. I saw this most clearly at Oxford, not long after my adventures in New Haven. Talk about finishing schools! I know of one student, an Englishman, whose tutor advised him to stay on an extra year, "because you haven't quite got the accent yet." My own tutor, a world renowned figure, used to wave away my fears of Armageddon with the repeated mantra: "Epstein! You Americans and your atom bomb! Have another ale!" So frantic were the dons and dullards about their cultivation being violated by a good hard thought that they had institutionalized the sconce as a means of insuring that no one did much more than dally at tea or punt along the Isis. This is how the OED defines the term:

At Oxford, a fine of a tankard of ale or the like, imposed by undergraduates on one of their number for some breach of customary rule when dining in hall.

At Merton, the customary rule forbade any conversation about one's studies, about politics, or anything roughly resembling an idea. This left, as topics, the girls at St. Hilda's and cricket.

I can't resist relating how, one night, an uncouth American, Michael Fried, now a distinguished critic of art, thoughtlessly let slip a remark about Marx or Freud. An awful hush fell upon the hall. At high table, the dons froze, their asparagus savories hanging above their mouths. Down at the benches, the undergraduates let the peas roll off their knives. Behind the malefactor a waiter appeared, with the customary bloodshot cheeks and bushy moustache, holding a foaming chalice of ale. Fried, deep in discussion, paid no mind. The ruddy servant -- in his white apron he looked the kosher butcher -- tapped him on the shoulder and held up the tankard with a grin and a wink. Fried whirled round. "What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked, as if unaware that custom dictated he drink down the contents and order an equal portion for all those at table. "Shove it up your ass?" Thus, on the shores of England, did the sixties arrive.

Universities exist not to inculcate manners or teach propriety but to foster inquiry, pass on the story of what has been best thought and done in the past, and to search for the truth. There is no proof that this teaching and this search can be done only when people are being polite to each other. Indeed, there is much evidence, beginning with Socrates, to suggest that it can be done best when people rub hard, and the wrong way, against each other, ruffling feathers, making sparks.

Does this mean, then, that one student may call another fag or nigger or kike? As a college president I would have no trouble allowing anyone on campus who wished to argue that homosexuality was contrary to nature, that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, or that the Holocaust never happened. Such visitations are far different than hurled epithets. To the awful arguments one may at least offer arguments of one's own, display one's charts and graphs and statistics, confident that the truth will out. But what argument can one make against a slur -- even one that is not anonymous? If anything, an epithet is designed to short-circuit rationality, to inflame feelings, to draw a curtain, the color of boiling blood, across the life of the mind. Further, it is not just the life of the mind that is threatened: behind the word nigger hangs the noose, just as the ovens burn and smoke hovers behind the word kike.

This distinction -- between, if you will, inquiry and invective -- carries almost enough weight with me to force a decision: If anyone seeks to destroy another's ability to join the intellectual life of the university, that is, to reason freely, to search dispassionately, to think, he ought not to have any role in that community himself. Almost. The strongest voice against passing sentence comes not from civil libertarians (to whose arguments I hope to turn soon) but from a Yale Law School student, himself the recipient of an anonymous letter ("Now you know why we call you niggers"), who recently told the Yale Herald, "It infantilizes people of color to say we can't handle people saying mean things about us. ...It's much better for people of color to know what people think of us. I'd feel much, much better if people said exactly what they think." Back, for the moment, on the fence.

* * *

I began the discussion of this moral puzzle by listing a number of reasons why I am, through intellectual makeup and personal experience, drawn toward a merciful resolution of the dilemma. Not the least of these reasons has to do with the allies I would rather not have should I choose to expel. I am thinking, of course, of the movement whose members -- though "movement" and "members" are clearly misnomers -- have become the most censorious figures on college campuses. It is the politically correct who call for strict codes to define what is and is not permissible speech and who have exercised the will to enforce them.

Now I want to make it dear at once that if I have problems with the PC crowd, I am no happier with what seems to be the orchestrated campaign of attack against them, a campaign whose sole purpose is to transform the last institution in American life not already controlled by the right. I'm caught, for friends, between people who call for the hide of others; or others, who have suddenly seen the virtue of the Bill of Rights, like Representative Henry Hyde. (The congressman's bill states that "federally assisted institutions cannot discipline students if their spoken or printed views are found to be repugnant, offensive, or emotionally distressing to others on campus." This from a man who voted to force recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to consider their fellow citizens' beliefs!)

Everyone has a favorite example -- at Michigan, for instance, a male student is officially proscribed from saying "women just aren't as good in this field as men" -- of PC excess. Because I'm trying to keep these remarks as personal as possible, I'll turn to my own town, Brookline, which once had a first-rate school system. Nowadays it has embarked on a "hundred year plan" to do away with what an assistant superintendent of curriculum calls the "traditional" white male perspective. Among the things this plan would eliminate is the "vertical" white male notion of excellence, along with disciplined thinking, logic, and what this same superintendent calls the "incredible abomination" of Black History Month, whose sin is to reinforce privileged ideas of excellence by pointing out "pinnacle people" who are "outstanding exceptions to their group."

* * *

A few weeks ago, a good thirty-two years after my undergraduate days, I took part in a panel on censorship at what is probably Yale's most prestigious, and certainly its most open-minded, senior society. The current delegation was there, class of '91, together with representatives of delegations going back almost to the days when the Record could speak of subhuman scum. The discussion, as you might imagine, was lively. At one point a contemporary of mine, an artist, told the story of how the curators of a Gauguin exhibition had been lobbied to take down half the paintings because they demonstrated "an exploitative colonialist perspective." An appreciative chuckle went round the room. We codgers elbowed each other. Such an absurdity! Suddenly a member of the current delegation rose from his bench. "I'd like to point out," he said, in a voice that was only slightly shaking, "that no people of color are laughing." True enough. Nor was anyone much below the age of thirty-five.

I hope it isn't necessary for me to say how much I like these students. They are bright, sensitive, idealistic, and -- at Yale, anyway -- they work every bit as hard as I did in the fifties. They may be bamboozled, but these bits of zaniness are no more indicative of a totalitarian spirit than the knee-jerk liberalism I still feel a twitch of on rainy days. At the same time, there are elements of a kind of conformity that cannot be laughed away. To stick to my current campus, I've been present when a harassment officer browbeat my colleagues -- who merely grinned and bore it -- about how to notice sexist attitudes among its members and how to turn the offenders in to her office. And I know of a department that voted to offer a talented young assistant professor ("enchanting" was the word his students used to describe his teaching) the normal extension of his contract, then reversed itself twenty-four hours later, largely because of his supposed sexism (he had, as an example, observed a lousy performance by a graduate student and suggested that perhaps her advanced pregnancy had created a strain). Kaput career. There's more than a whiff of Peking in the air when professors are forced, as they have been, to recant, or apologize for their opinions, or sent to special classes for reeducation.

Yet even the thought police are not what worries me most about political correctness, or what tie these worries to the subject at hand. Perhaps I can best get at what I mean by reiterating what I told my daughter, who is struggling with these issues herself as a college junior, when she asked me for a one-sentence definition of PC. "Well," I said, perhaps less clumsily than this, "I guess this is a way of seeing society as a system of oppression, and that the interests of its victims ought to dictate our thinking and behavior, to the exclusion of pretty much any other consideration." What I didn't add was that the "other consideration" I had in mind was the very idea of objective reality, stubborn and recalcitrant as the law of gravity; and that it was this reality, with its laws, its truths, and -- tricky, this -- its values that the university was founded to discover, nurture, and pass on.

Which leads me to note that during that debate at Yale, the most engaged and vociferous students invariably turned out to be English majors. No surprise there. They were well versed in deconstruction and other reader-response theories, which together have provided the ideological underpinnings of political correctness. Here, from Jane Tompkins, a leading feminist scholar, is a nutshell version of how these students have been taught to approach a text

Critics deny that criticism has...an objective basis because they deny the existence of objective texts and indeed the possibility of objectivity altogether... .The net result of this epistemological revolution is to politicize literature and literary criticism. When discourse is responsible for reality and not merely a reflection of it, then whose discourse prevails makes all the difference.

Literary texts, then, have no inherent meaning or even a claim to existence, apart from the baggage of the culture in which they were written and now are read. Free speech? Value? Objective standards? Timeless verities? Reality itself? Truth becomes simply an opinion, whatever has been fer- reted out as the reigning myth; and knowledge is the triumph of one ideology over another. It is this academic version of might makes right, with its inherent nihilism, that has helped me to solve the puzzle I set myself these many paragraphs back.

That is to say, there are two slopes that lead from the heights of academe, one as slippery as the other. The first has, with good reason, preoccupied those concerned with civil liberties: once we begin proscribing some speech, what other restrictions will follow? To what end will we come? We already have the answer: to the harassment code at the University of Connecticut, which forbids "inconsiderate jokes," "misdirected laughter," and "conspicuous exclusion from conversation." Yet even these grotesqueries do not resolve our dilemma. If the City College of New York were to prohibit Leonard Jeffries of its Black Studies Department from saying that blacks are superior to whites because of the melanin in their skins, or silence Michael Levin, a professor of philosophy at the same institution, who believes that blacks are inherently inferior, it would surely be exercising a form of thought control. The trouble is, not censoring the kind of racial epithet whose effect is to undermine the very processes of logic is a form of thought control as well.

* * *

Perhaps the solution, or at least a legal rationale for a solution, to this dilemma lies as near to hand as my daily newspaper. On page 41 of today's Boston Globe, under the headline Black workers at Maine plant win in bias suit, is the story of how three black men from the South were recruited to work at the International Paper Co. in Auburn, Maine. Once there they were harassed by "ugly oral racial epithets and graffiti," and by co-workers "in Ku Klux Klan-like garb 'prancing' around their work stations."

The United States District Court ruled that in creating "a hostile and offensive workplace" and by substantially altering the plaintiffs' working conditions, International Paper had violated Maine's human rights act. The three workers were awarded $55,000 each. Now there is similar harassment legislation in every state of the union. Is there any reason why, of all the institutions in America, only those of higher education should be exempt from these statutes? The only response is a truism: that a university, with its special mission and need for forceful debate, and comprehensive points of view, is not a paper mill. It is precisely the role of the university, its vulnerability, and its fate in modern history, that leads me to look at the second, and steeper, of the slippery slopes.

The grease for this chute is applied by that same belief in the relativity of all values that now prevails on so many campuses. Here are the words of one university president:

Every people in every period must form its life according to its own law and fate, and to this law of its own, scholarship, with all other spheres of life, is also subject....The idea of humanism, with the teaching of pure human reason and absolute spirit founded upon it, is a philosophical principle of the eighteenth century caused by the conditions of that time. It is in no sense binding upon us as we live under different conditions and under a different fate.

The speaker is Ernst Krick, rector of Frankfort University, and the occasion was the 550th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg in 1936.

At the bottom of this slope lies totalitarianism of one kind or another. The movement of nihilism is both centrifugal and centripetal, moving outward from literary texts -- which, since they have no enduring value, are all too easily burned -- through discipline after discipline, in ever widening circles until even the obdurate laws of nature herself are subject to challenge. Hence, in the universities of the Third Reich, biology became "National Socialist biology," psychoanalysis became "mongrel psychology," and the theory of relativity was

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