The recent storm of partisan bickering among various factions of academics has often seemed to uninitiated laymen to be a tempest in a teapot. But the issues at the heart of the controversy are important ones: What is multiculturalism? Should we modify the very structure of the university in order to bring it in line with changes occurring in society at large?
In a fascinating new anthology, “Debating P.C.,” Paul Berman has captured some of the pandemonium of this intellectual feud in a series of self-righteous manifestoes, anguished bulletins, hysterical declarations of states of emergency, and deafening calls to arms by people as diametrically opposed to each other as Stanley Fish, the duplicitous champion of campus speech codes, and Nat Hentoff, one of the nation’s staunchest defenders of the First Amendment. Berman himself somewhat disingenuously straddles the fence, perhaps leaning in the direction of the more moderate multiculturalists. This bias fortunately hasn’t interfered with the scrupulous fairness with which he has represented both ends of the spectrum, from the hatchet men of the Right to the ethnic cheerleaders of the Left. Alongside the liberal pieties of Catharine Stimpson, the former president of the Modern Language Assn., he gives us the windy admonitions of neoconservative Eurocentrists like Roger Kimball, in whose arguments the snowball effect of the debate can clearly be seen: Kimball unwittingly flatters politically correct academics by accusing them of destroying Western culture, an allegation that only strengthens their conviction that they are subversive militants grappling with intellectual chauvinists who foist upon impressionable young students the racist values of Dead White Males.
Berman has successfully met the challenge of making sense out of this multitude of spluttering voices by organizing the book into chapters that deal with topics like the politics of the literary canon (the “Great Books”) or recent efforts to emend the curriculum to reflect demographic realities that are changing the complexion of American culture.
One of the livelier and, indeed, more appalling sections of the anthology presents the pros and cons of the well-intentioned if ill-advised campaign to legislate tolerance. Many universities have adopted ordinances requiring the expulsion or reprimand of students who use sexist, racist or homophobic epithets, but these Draconian measures have ensured the introversion, rather than the control and eventual elimination, of ethnic tension. In one of the most shocking incidents of officially sanctioned censorship to emerge from the implementation of these rules, a religious student at the University of Michigan was hauled before a disciplinary committee for confessing in class that he believed that homosexuality was immoral, a statement that, however deplorable, certainly didn’t justify the public recantation he was required to publish. His apology appeared in the student newspaper under the chilling title “Learned My Lesson"--a punishment eerily reminiscent of the doctrinal “self-corrections” extorted from dissidents in totalitarian regimes.
In “Freedom of Hate Speech,” Richard Perry and Patricia Williams rationalize such punishments by contemptuously dismissing what they call “free-speech opportunism” and by excoriating the Right Wing for their own First Amendment abuses, as if these acts absolved them of responsibility for the outrageous travesties of individual rights they themselves have made in the name of sexual and ethnic sensitivity. Similarly, in “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” Stanley Fish brings to bear on the issue all of the sophistries of contemporary theory, using the addled abstractions and Pinteresque circularity of deconstruction to fabricate a fraudulent intellectual rationale for censorship.
“Debating P.C.” also presents a number of contrasting views on a controversy that continues to rage over attempts to make the canon more responsive to the cultural needs of an increasingly fragmented and pluralistic society--reforms that seldom go further than including on the syllabus a few token minorities, perennial favorites like Zora Neale Hurston, Kate Chopin, James Baldwin, Amy Tan and Toni Morrison. What is most disturbing about these recent changes are not the cries of vandalism and sacrilege with which such reforms are greeted by shrill reactionaries like Hilton Kramer or Dinesh D’Souza (who bewail the inclusion of minorities on the syllabus as nothing short of the end of Western civilization as we know it), but the superficial nature of the multiculturalists’ efforts to squeeze into an already tight curriculum a handful of new titles. Far from challenging the whole notion of the canon, politically correct educators have simply propped up next to it the rickety frame of a counter-canon, another limited body of texts that stands in a subordinate relationship to the books of the much-reviled Dead White Males.
As Katha Pollitt makes clear in her definitive statement on the subject (“Why Do We Read?”), both of the major factions in this debate premise their arguments on the assumption that people begin their literary lives at 18 and end them at 21, and that the books on the meager reading lists that the university provides are the only books they are ever likely to read. Those who advocate reform share with those who throw themselves melodramatically in front of the canon, shielding it maternally from assault, the same demoralizing conviction that reading in our culture is pursued only under duress during four years of a person’s life. This is a fatalistic attitude, to say the least, and, given the extraordinary conception of the insignificance of reading that it implies, necessarily renders moot many of the questions raised in “Debating P.C.” Why are these issues so hotly contested if it is accepted that books play such a negligible role in the lives of the public at large?
Canons of any sort, whether they follow European literary traditions or African-American ones, are anti-intellectual constructs that minimize culture by reducing it to its masterpieces. They cater to the indifference of a society whose interest in literature is so limited that it venerates and fetishizes what it cannot enjoy, directing all of its attention to a piddling number of highly symbolic books. In an ideal world of enterprising and committed readers, culture would not be a set of masterpieces but a whole lot of books by a whole lot of writers, some good, most bad, many wretched--very similar, in fact, to the uneven and ill-matched group anthologized in Berman’s lively new collection.