You Just Can’t Understand



Those of us who entered the humanities as graduate students in the 1980s and strove to climb the institutional ladder in the 1990s know of a particular ritual that became a common feature of academic debate in those years.  It was the era of multicultural and anti-patriarchal revisionism, when the artistic canon was diversified and Western Civilization dethroned.  A policy shift had to occur, people insisted, and to make a policy shift in an old institution they needed some kind of moral mandate.  That’s where the ritual came in.

You might call it the “You-don’t-know-what-it’s-like” moment.  It would transpire in committee meetings when faculty members had to decide on graduate admissions; or in college-wide debates over graduation requirements; or at conference panels on race-gender-sexuality.  Sometimes it unfolds explicitly.  A few years back, while serving on a national commission charged with reviewing a curricular program and making recommendations, I heard one woman snap at another with those very words.  I didn’t catch all of what the first woman said, and I was but one of twenty or so people in the room.  But the gist of it questioned the necessity of putting identity issues at the center of the composition classroom.  That’s when the second woman asserted the first one’s limits.  She was, you see, black, and the first woman was white.  She was a lesbian, too, and the first wasn’t.   In effect, she told her, “You’re not like me, and you never will be like me, so don’t presume to say how unimportant identity is in a classroom that involves a degree of self-expression.”

I wasn’t part of their portion of the project (my area was literature, not writing), and after witnessing the exchange was glad of it.  You could tell there were tensions in that subgroup, which were inevitable once any participant was willing to use her minority identity as a rebuke.  And I have no doubt that the rebuke resounded silently for the rest of their deliberations.  Challenges like this one touch on frightening taboos.  It only takes one incident to let people know what will happen if they forget the distinctions that identity claims draw.  Nobody wants to be the target, to be charged with insensitivity, especially relative to race and sex.  I imagine the second woman didn’t have to remind anyone again of her separate condition, even though the sessions continued off and on for more than two years.

We in the humanities reached the point long ago, in fact, at which such reminders need not be spoken.  They are there, implicitly, all the time.  They may remain unsaid; they function well enough as subtext.  When a person of historically-disadvantaged identity delivers a lecture and recounts episodes of discrimination from 40 years before, the tale divides the audience in two.  Those who share the speaker’s identity know exactly what he or she is talking about.  Those who don’t, don’t.  And when that identity has acquired a strong moral meaning, not to share its experiences puts you in an inferior position.  No matter how liberal and unbiased and open-minded you are, you are somewhat, slightly, more or less guilty.  The identity divide can never be fully crossed.

Another case: when a diversity advocate insists that a college insert a diversity course into the general education requirements or that the syllabus in humanities courses not be so dead-white-male dominated, he might point to a historical rationale.  Many voices of woman and people of color have been distorted and suppressed in the past; hence, more diversity in the curriculum is more historically accurate to the human condition.  A few longstanding exceptions such as (in my field) Frederick Douglass and Edith Wharton aren’t enough.

This argument, however, hasn’t proven very successful.  For all the efforts at recovery of those forgotten and repressed voices, the humanities canon pre-20th century hasn’t changed much.  The latest American literature anthologies that I review when ordering books for my survey courses certainly have increased representation in the Tables of Contents, but none of the recently added works rise to the level of The Scarlet Letter and “Bartleby.”

Multiculturalists, of course, attribute that judgment to my cultural bias, but when you set the new pieces alongside the opening scene of Hawthorne’s masterpiece and the first verse paragraph of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” the difference is clear.

The more effective way to justify diversifying the syllabus is, once again, the identity gap.  Why do we have Ezra Pound give way to Gwendolyn Brooks (a talented poet, but not in the league of the 20th century’s poet’s poet)?  Because she speaks to black female students in a way Ezra Pound never can.  Across the years, she understands them precisely because of a shared identity.  Do we wish to leave those students unheeded and unsatisfied?  If our classrooms are filled with students of multiple races, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and nationalities, then the materials we teach must tally that diversity.  If it doesn’t, we are irresponsible teachers.

It doesn’t take much discernment to realize where this reasoning leads.  Identity sensitivity promotes identity politics.  The humanistic values of beauty and truth defer to the social values of diversity.  When I was in college majoring in English, and then in graduate school trying to earn a doctorate, good criticism meant combining literary-historical knowledge with a keen ear for poetic language, plus acquaintance with theories of art from Plato and Aristotle to Heidegger and Roland Barthes.  It took years of reading and writing to learn the art of interpretation.

The kind of criticism that does with identity sensitivity is much easier.  A neat specimen showed up the other day in a web periodical under the title “Kids’ book authors and publishers are so afraid to offend they’re hiring ‘sensitivity readers.’”  The first paragraph lays out the new critical practice.

In a national culture newly aware of micro-aggressions and offensive speech, what you say can easily strike the wrong tone. One increasingly common solution among US book publishers: Hire someone to be offended for you. “Sensitivity readers,” starting at a small fee of $250 a manuscript, read unpublished works and ask, “Would my community find this disrespectful? Does this sound authentic?”

Sensitivity readers examine storylines and characters for signs of insensitivity.  They check for demeaning stereotypes and misrepresentations of history.  The stakes are high.  The article notes that the publisher Scholastic pulled A Birthday Cake for George Washington two weeks after releasing it.  It told the story of Hercules, Washington’s actual slave, and the author, editor, and illustrator were all persons of color.  But the book showed too many “smiling slaves” and “provoked fierce backlash.”

If there is any group more terrified of the racism charge than professors, it may be publishers.  So why not turn a manuscript over to a sensitivity reader just to be sure it’s okay?  The article proceeds to interview one of them, an African American woman specializing in low-income black characters.  (Sensitivity readers have a narrow expertise that is based upon a narrow demographic—identity is matched to identity.)  In it, she explains the grounds of her judgment, which, unsurprisingly, zeroes in on the presentation of minority characters.  One must be “respectful” and “responsible” in the treatment of other cultures.  That might leave little chance for comedy—what would she say about Blazing Saddles?—but given the indignities of the past, satire and burlesque are inappropriate.  She hates the rosy versions of slavery, too.  If you’re going to be historical, don’t do anything to overlook the victimization.  You must watch your language, too.  She objects to one book on Native Americans because of the sole instance of the word savage.  She’s like a script doctor in Hollywood, but with a social justice goal.

So maybe I’m a cultural reviewer in that regard. It’s not that different from a copyeditor who’s very good with grammar that they would clean up your stuff. We’re cleaning it up for racist, homophobic, transphobic, able-ist, Islamophobic material.

My liberal colleagues would certainly recognize the crudity of this approach.  But, sadly, they would not recognize that their own elevation of identity into a cardinal term of humanistic study, and their eagerness to show how sensitive they are to the insensitivities of others, points directly to our interviewee and her “scrubbing” task.

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