When I was an undergraduate studying American Literature, I spent 1989-1990, the year of the fatwa, at the University of California Santa Cruz. This was perhaps the high point of identity politics on US campuses and mine was widely regarded as the centre of leftist radicalism and identity politics.
One of the classes I attended, taught by the black activist and radical lesbian writer Gloria T Hull, was a graduate class in “black women writers”. I was one of only two men — both white — who signed up for the course, a number that halved after the first week when the other man got cold feet.
The course was fascinating but increasingly contentious. It became dominated by a vituperative debate about the politics of identity, pivoting around skin tones. Deconstruction of the figure of the “tragic mulatto” was central to the course. The critical aspect of this for our purpose was the terms in which the debate played out in the classroom. This was no dry theoretical discussion but a lively, personalised debate about identity that supercharged the atmosphere of the seminar.
Strangely, very little rancour was directed at me — not only a straight white man but a European to boot — but then not having a personal stake in the issue by virtue of the fact that I was not oppressed left me on the sidelines. Instead, what played out was a kind of microcosm of the “narcissism of minor difference” with the added potency of race, feminism and queer theory. Underlying the fierce debates was a kind of oppression Top Trumps where each student’s personal experiences of oppression were ranked according to a hierarchy within which the “triple jeopardy” of being black, female and homosexual conferred a certain degree of status.
There were very serious issues at stake in these debates and the work of many of the writers we studied, including Gloria Hull’s own edited collection All the Blacks are Men. All the Women are White. But Some of Us are Brave (1982, Feminist Press), were powerful articulations of the consequence of such multiple oppressions and the attempt to escape them. The course and the politics around it were driven by the noblest motivations, a desire to end inequality and give the downtrodden dignity and a voice.
Yet underlying the debates was a very toxic assumption. This being that your right to speak or hold an opinion or to join a particular debate depended on the degree to which you yourself had experienced whatever it was under discussion — which was rarely anything other than oppression. Suffering became not just the reason to listen to someone — a very good reason — but the reason not to disagree with someone.
My seminar was no isolated occurrence. These trends were sweeping the US academy, as a generation of academics and students, disillusioned with formal, usually left-wing politics as a way to change the world, turned to a theoretical model shot through with the idea that the victims of racism, colonialism and multiple oppression could get restitution and psychic healing through alternative epistemologies and by patrolling the borders of acceptable speech.
The urge to reclaim your own damaged history, a perfectly valid and admirable aim though perhaps better pursued in creative writing or film making, led to an individualisation of knowledge and of history, just as the post-modern suspicion of “meta-narratives” put quotation marks around “truth”. You could, students were told, find your own truth or make it. And part of this was to be on eternal guard for any threat to your new, self-made identity — the kind of threat that might for example come through offensive words, images or ideas. Even a look, coded as an oppressive gaze, could be punishable.
Though the reading list of the course featured many who were associated with traditional left politics, even communism or socialism, it was clear that any sense of collective socialist politics, or even a collective black politics had lost its traction. If the personal was political, then wasn’t the political really personal? The way of doing politics became defined by how adept you were at negotiating the terrain of correct speech, behaviour and opinion.
The consequences of a misplaced comment, a speculative disagreement or — God forbid — a joke could be very serious: personal attack, group disapproval and a slow grind through the newly empowered institutional apparatus set up to adjudicate claims of “abuse”, within which showing insufficient respect, attacking the identity that is taken by this new orthodoxy as the chief constituent of the self, is one of the most serious offences.
In the book History Lesson: A Race Odyssey, classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz tells a story that encapsulates some of the consequences of this trend. The book concerns a controversy that arose around the teaching of classical history on the Africana Studies course at her own university, Wesleyan College. Lefkowitz discovered that a course called “Africans in Antiquity” was teaching what has become known as the “Stolen Legacy” perspective, after the book of that title by George CM James. This perspective argues that much of what we celebrate about the culture of ancient Greece had been stolen from ancient Egypt, and that this debt to Africa had gone unacknowledged or suppressed because of the innate bias and institutionalised racism of classical history departments, including Lefkowitz’s.
One core part of this “Afrocentric” argument was that Aristotle, rather than being responsible for his own ideas, had lifted them from Egyptian books he had filched on visits to the library in Alexandria. The whole edifice of apparently superior western-white-civilisation was in fact built on the systematic pillaging of African intellectual culture that had then been dismantled by slavery and denied ever since. The symbolic power of such assertions in the frenzied atmosphere of late-twentieth century US racial politics was obvious; the problem was it wasn’t true. Lefkowitz knew that Aristotle had died decades before the library at Alexandria was built. She wrote, “by letting students believe that [Africans] had a significant cultural influence on Greek civilisation, it seemed to me that we were encouraging our students to believe in a lie.”
Lefkowitz made attempts to raise the issue with her university and wrote several articles about it that brought her some notoriety. She clearly had a stake in the “classical” version of classical history, and the debate she became embroiled in is a complex one. However, two elements of her tale stand out. The first is that when she went public with her complaints she was subjected to a barrage of personal criticism that accused her of racism and being part of a Jewish conspiracy to suppress black history. Her evidence-based case against the “Stolen Legacy” perspective was pushed aside in favour of a personalised identity-based battle in which her attack on historical inaccuracy was perceived as an attack on the individual identity of others.
Second, when she turned to her university for support — she was in dispute with another Wesleyan alumni Tony Martin, a high profile Afrocentric theorist —- the administration responded with a blithe relativism, arguing that there were several possible interpretations of history, each with their own validity, so they felt they should not take sides. The dispute moved into the courts. In 1993, Martin issued a lawsuit for libel against her and two others. The case, and a vicious feud with Martin, dragged on for five years until it was finally dismissed. Lefkowitz, who admits she wandered naïvely into an issue with huge symbolic importance, keeps returning to the simple basis of her disagreement with the Afrocentrists: the evidence does not support their arguments.
In this climate, one of overheated personalised politics and fierce demand for rights, a period defined by what legal philosopher Michael Neumann describes as a new orthodoxy “built on an inflated notion of rights and respect, skewed ideas of injury and punishment, and the reliance on “voices” in establishing truths”, Lefkowitz’s argument, merely a restatement of the basic values of academic evidence, sounds almost radical: “The solution is not to argue that all narratives are political and that there is therefore no such thing as truth.” Instead, she argues, academics have to, “take responsibility for deciding among various narratives and demonstrate that some are supported by better evidence than others, and that some are even demonstrably false.”
But the new orthodoxy allows the perception of offence to trump such trifling considerations.
The consequences of this withdrawal from the commitment on the one hand to social justice and equality, and on the other to evidence-based argument, have been catastrophic. The historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn told one reporter, “this kind of identity politics stands in for a public philosophy. It’s an extraordinary defeat for equality and progress for humanity”. This is the context in which we need to assess what is going on, and how to respond when people take offence and demand respect, because when they do so it is in the language and using the legal precedents pioneered by this new orthodoxy.
This is an edited extract taken from the book Taking Offence: the Humanist Case from the Manifestos for the 21st Century series edited by Ursula Owen and Judith Vidal-Hall and published by Seagull Books