From Political Correctness to Constitutional Law
James Boyle © 2000
The Universal and the Particular: I will start
with an admission. The debate on PC is an unlikely source of intellectual
material -- on both sides of the issue. The defenders of multiculturalism,
sensitivity training and hate speech policies seem to have gone out of
their way to lose the anecdote wars, a tendency encouraged and rewarded
by the news coverage of the issues.(1) On
the other side, the attack on PC -- I will call it the PC Indictment --
is marred by sloppy argument, fallacies of privilege and the use of anecdotes
where facts would be inconvenient. Neverthless, it would be a mistake to
write off the PC Indictment altogether. Alongside its reflexive hostility
to suggestions of patterned failure and injustice in American institutions,
the PC Indictment carries a deeper and worthier motif -- an issue that
appears in everything from the argument over speech codes to that over
reading lists, from the critique of affirmative action to the laments over
the soul of the humanities. Thus, although the debate as it currently exists
is singularly free of intellectual nourishment, it has at its heart a profound
philosophical and political issue. This issue could be described in its
most abstract form as the conflict between universalism and particularism.
Admittedly, it is hard to imagine that anything in the skeptical,
ironic world of the sound-bite, MTV or Beavis and Butthead could merit
such an exalted label. It is even harder to imagine that we would find
such issues in a debate that has been so firmly situated between the mediocre
and the fallacious, between poor reporting and worse argument. The conflict
is there nevertheless.
More specifically, I would claim that the debate over political correctness could have one important, though probably unintended, beneficial effect. It might force us to focus on the existence of a challenge to a paradigm, a challenge to a system of thought that goes far beyond the curriculum of the humanities or even the structure of liberal education. In this article, I will call this paradigm "universalism." By universalism, I mean the assumption that knowledge, justice and personal development are to be found in the universal rather than the particular; that the progression should be away from particular facts towards universal laws, away from particular judgements towards general principles, away from one's "parochial" origins towards a cosmopolitan sensibility or the universal fellowship of the human spirit. In each area, the universal is given priority.
Of course, any system of thought must have a place for both particular
and universal. Abstractions are necessary for thought, particulars are
necessary for meaning -- and vice versa. On the other hand it is not necessary
that all systems of thought should give priority to the same aspect
that we do. Nor is there any necessary connection between the allocation
of priority in one area of thought or life (say, morality) and that given
in another area of thought or life (science, or literature.) One could
imagine a society, for example, in which the highest summit of humanistic
knowledge was thought to be the particular epiphany presented by some mundane
experience -- the sudden thought that the beauty of a soap bubble is directly
related to its fragility, the feeling that a heaven which lacked physical
texture and tactile impression could not sensibly be desired by a being
with fingertips, or what have you. In fact, some mystical traditions and
modern literary movements seem to gesture towards exactly such a vision.
The same society might believe that both science and morals were characterised,
indeed essentially defined, by the relentless movement towards ever more
general formulations. In other words, one can mix and match one's metaphysical
On the other hand, one might imagine a world inhabited by moralists
whose notion of morality was preëminently contextual and relational;
a world of Amy's rather than Jake's, to use Carol Gilligan's example.(2)
One could also imagine this tendency being applied to all areas
of human knowledge, so that histories of science would exalt the attempt
to find the particular anomaly that destroys the brittle generalisation,
rather than exalting the generalisation itself. Thus, the philosophers
of this society might stress the extent to which relativity and quantum
physics conformed to the implicit methodological orientation of
science, while an earlier Newtonian period would have seen like a bizarre
aberration. (One imagines a particularist Einstein triumphantly announcing
"God does not make rules for the universe.") Chaos theory and coherence
on the other hand, might be seen as deeply iconoclastic and troubling,
because of their claim to find patterns in random phenomena. In such a
world, particularism might have the same positive connotations that universalism
does in our own. Instead of our sceptical lexicon of the particular --
"subjective", "parochial", "narrow" and "ad hoc" -- one would find particularist
judgements being described as "humane," "culturally rooted," "sensitive
to local conditions" and so on. The univeralist tendency, on the other
hand, would not be described as "objective" and "principled." Nor would
it be connected to the ideas of Science and Truth. Instead it would be
described as "formalism," or "formulaic rigidity," as a tendency towards
inhumane and arid formulations that "cannot do justice to the shadings
of human experience." If members of these two cultures encountered each
other one side would be accused of "Khadi justice" and "intuitionistic
physics," while the other side would be accused of "mindless formalism"
and of a compulsive and intellectually questionable need to cram unruly
phenomena into algorithms and formulae. "The will to system is the will
to dishonesty" as Nietzsche said.
Well, this would be all very well in an introduction to Hegel, but what does it have to do with political correctness? One way of understanding the furore over PC is to see it as an example of a struggle over these kinds of paradigms for knowing and rhetorics of knowledge, albeit a struggle that is frequently obscured and sometimes unconscious. In this article I revisit the PC debate, looking at it in the light of its deepest assumptions about what it is to know, to live a life and to make moral judgments. My conclusion is that there are genuine challenges to the vision of knowledge, morality and life that is implicitly central to much of higher education. I associate these challenges with the political tendency known as identity politics, although, as I will show, that association is more potential than actual. My argument is that these challenges should be discussed as such; not attacked (and defended) by attempting to measure them against or translate them into the more familiar paradigm. The story begins with Allan Bloom.
The Flight from the Parochial: There is a poignant
and affecting moment in Allan Bloom's Closing of The American Mind.(3)
It comes as he contemplates the impact that his own university education
had on him. He portrays himself as a somewhat parochial young man, bright
but aimless, whose horizons have never stretched beyond the suburban life-cycle
of job, mortgage, kids and cars. Suddenly, at the age of eighteen, Bloom
discovers the "fake Gothic buildings" of the University of Chicago, and
the great books and teachers which those buildings contain.(4)
It is an epiphany for Bloom. Not only has he discovered a set of concerns
completely different than the rather mundane ones his life has offered
him up to now, he has discovered the possibility of transcending his background,
of being more than a middle class kid from the suburbs. The tradition he
discovers is presented to him as timeless. It claims to speak to the universal
questions; those issues, values and questions of existence that are relevant
at all times, in all places and for all people. For Bloom, this universalist
tendency is the greatest virtue of the humanities. It offers us a way of
surmounting our particular backgrounds, our races and religions, our moment
in history and our place in society, of joining in a tradition of thought
that recognises only the universal features of our existence. (For Bloom,
and thus for the tradition of the humanities that he exalts, those features
seem to be rationality and mortality. Other writers have picked different
At the simplest level, the notion that one gains knowledge by fleeing
from the particular and parochial runs deep even in popular culture. In
the Walt Disney animated film "Beauty and the Beast," Belle, the female
lead, opens the movie by walking through her little town (on the way to
the bookshop, of course) singing "There must be more than this provincial
life!"(7) The other cartoon villagers come
in two basic varieties; those who are blindly pursuing their humdrum tasks
and those who gaze at Belle in mystified admiration, humming "she's different
from us somehow" in tuneful acceptance of their marginalised status. In
the end, the Beast wins her love by showing her he has a bigger library
than any man she has ever met. In the mainstream idealised vision of university
education, the beast/handsome prince with the big library is replaced by
the liberal arts college with the big library, but the basic idea remains
the same. One gains sophistication and knowledge by escaping from one's
humdrum background, not revelling in it. If one accepts the picture of
identity politics painted by Bloom or by the National Association of Scholars,
a politically correct Belle would have wanted university courses on the
life of milkmaids in country villages, when she should have been reading
Montaigne. (The fact that Montaigne himself wrote about the humdrum and
about his own dialect and ethnicity is always forgotten in these invocations
of his name.)
Already one can see the roots of the conflict. As far as the critics
of PC are concerned, far too many contemporary academic movements take
as their agenda the exaltation of some particular knowledge or culture
-- feminism and women's studies, black history, the creation of dormitories
that will have a majority of African-American residents and so on. As I
have pointed out before, conservative criticism of these movements has
been sympathetically received, even by the "liberal" mainstream media.
One reason is that the popular image of college is the flight from the
particular and parochial. This image is represented in countless books
by the account of the country boy and girl, picking straw out of their
hair and going on to debate ivory tower metaphysics with the best of the
townies. But beyond this image, the tendency to "universalise" -- to flee
the particular and parochial in search of the general, the transcendent
-- is, as the word itself suggests, the philosophical scaffolding for the
idea of the university itself.
The point cannot be stressed enough. Within a particular vision of education,
universalism and the university define each other. Universalism
is not merely a philosophical tendency. It is a way of knowing,
an idea of morality and above all, a mode of life -- a plan for
living. The Great Books contain the universal truths (or at least,
the timeless questions), the liberal conception of justice demands that
we universalise our moral beliefs, and liberal education strips away our
superficial differences to reveal that we are all confronting the same
dilemmas of existence, encouraging us as we go out into the world to flee
the particular and parochial and to seek the universal and timeless. "Political
Correctness" was understood to challenge this vision on each of those
levels, and also to challenge the overarching assumption on which each
depended; the assumption that progress -- whether scientific, personal
or moral -- was the move from the particular to the universal. Hence the
virulence of the response; it is not just a response to a philosophical
critique but to a heresy against the mode of life itself.
Again, Allan Bloom is a good example. Bloom wrote his book as a protest,
a personal protest as well as an intellectual and political one. He saw
contemporary academia destroying the traditions that gave him his epiphany,
his freedom from the tyrannical accidents of birth and circumstance. In
today's scholarship and teaching he found challenges to both rationality
and universalism. Contemporary academics claim that knowledge is a social
product, that some of the timeless questions are not so timeless, that
the canon is controversial and the history mainly winners'. Worse still,
women, gays and members of minority groups are challenging the universality
of knowledge, claiming that their perspectives have been systematically
excluded or undervalued. Sometimes members of these groups claim a special
insight into the history, culture or values of their own group. Bloom hears
them saying "you wouldn't understand" and he is enraged -- both
by the presumption of this answer and by the Balkanisation that it implies
for the humanities. Thus, with Benda, Bloom can complain that "the clerks
praise attachment to the particular and denounce the feeling of the universal."(8)
Is a future parochial kid from the suburbs to be told that he can never
transcend his religious, racial or ethnic background, that the rules that
apply to him depend on his race and his gender and that he can only speak
for his own community but not for any other? Allan Bloom has discovered
identity politics and he does not like it. In this, he is not alone.
Identity Politics and Justice: Bloom's critiques
are mainly directed towards the effects of particularism and identity politics
on the curriculum of the school, the goal of the university and the personality
of the student. But the challenge of identity politics extends to the universalist
ideas of justice as well as those of knowledge.
What do I mean by "universalist ideas of justice"? In part, I mean to
refer to a broad understanding of the Kantian tradition in morality; our
acts are moral if we could will that the rules underlying those actions
become universal norms. Yet it is not the most abstract version of this
theory of morality that I will be dealing with here, but rather the specific
version of it that dominates discussions of "public morality" in the grand
tradition of liberal politics.(9) To put
an impossibly difficult connection very crudely, there is a historical,
though not a necessary connection between the political discourse of classical
liberalism and the Kantian vision of moral philosophy. The Kantian tradition
asks us to test an action's rightness by asking whether we would want the
principle underlying the action to become a universal norm. In everyday
speech, the Kantian tradition merges imperceptibly with the ideas of classical
liberal state theory, where universalism is a prerequisite of just law.
In fact, this leads to one of the typical confusions of the PC Indictment.
I say that it was wrong of you to hang your confederate flag out of the
window of your dormitory -- relying either on some norm of "do-as-you-would-be-done-by"
sensitivity or on the reasonable idea that approvingly displaying the symbol
of a slave-owning society is a morally reprehensible action. Yet I am understood
to say that your flag should have been banned. The moral claim made
to you, "could you personally endorse the principle that slave-owning societies
should be glorified?" is immediately converted into the universalist argument
made to the State, or its academic counterpart, the administration. This
slide from the Kantian argument directed against the individual to the
universalist argument directed against the state may be one of the reasons
behind the tendency identified by Patricia Williams: the tendency of the
discourse of free speech to pre-empt any possibility of the discussion
of the rightness and wrongness of an action, as though the norm of free
speech was a kind of gag rule on moral evaluation.
So far I have been talking about Liberalism with a large "L", classical
liberalism rather than the liberalism of the democratic party. And precisely
because classical liberalism is the (much renovated) home for so much of
political discourse in this country, the universalist tendency is not confined
to supporters of the ACLU. At different times and in different contexts,
universalist ideas are embraced by both the left and the right. The requirement
that a legislative scheme be of general application, that it should treat
all citizens as formally equal, can be found both in the laissez faire
rhetoric of the Lochner period,(10)
and in Martin Luther King's early speeches against segregation and the
Jim Crow laws. In the former case it is used to criticise social and labour
legislation because such legislation treated workers as though they had
a different amount of power than bosses. "Bakers are not wards of the state"
the Lochner court declared, striking down the New York State statute that
would have set maximum hours that bakery-owners could ask their labourers
to work. In the latter case, the principle of formal equality is used to
claim that the laws can make no distinction between blacks and whites;
burdens imposed on one group must be imposed on all. Many of the political
struggles of the twentieth century were fought on this terrain; does the
ideal of formal equality apply to race, gender, diasability, sexuality?
Does it apply to "economic liberties" as well as civil rights? The struggle
for the definition of the universalist ideal has been the struggle for
the soul of liberalism. Thus, a challenge to the ideal -- rather
than a redefinition of it -- is perceived as a threat to liberalism, itself.
In the hearts of those who actually call themselves "liberals" and vote
Democrat, the universalist tradition is most powerful with respect to speech.
Take the Kantian premise that the rule underlying my actions should be
capable of universalisation. This premise is implicit in almost every "liberal's"
discussion of free speech. I cannot argue that the state should censor
your speech in order to promote some social goal, without willing that
speech, by all citizens could potentially be censored in this way.
Identity politics implicitly challenges the moral universalism behind this
claim. Thus, scholars from groups that have been particularly subject to
hate speech have attacked the notion that "all citizens" are actually in
an equal position with respect to "all speech."(11)
Some African-Americans say that there is no epithet that a white citizen
could be subject to that would be the equal of "nigger." They argue that
liberals who say "it is just speech" simply do not understand. "Sticks
and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me" is a nursery
rhyme -- not empirical truth.
One standard defense of free speech is that we all benefit from the
freedom to speak just as we are all occasionally subject to harm from the
license that freedom implies. But the critics of the universalist idea
of free speech say that neither harms nor benefits are distributed equally.
They believe that the powerless groups in society tend to pay most of the
price for the freedom that all are supposed to enjoy, while being least
able to make themselves heard. Like the right to own property, the right
to free speech benefits some more than others and -- as with the right
to own property -- these critics say, we should be leery lest the language
of universal formal equality be merely a complacent endorsement of the
rights of the powerful. For example, some feminists have argued that in
a society where women are socially and sexually subordinated, pornography
is not just "more speech," it is a profit-making restatement of the worst
tendencies of the society -- objectification, victimisation, and the legitimation
of violent, degrading images of a whole gender.
The claim is not just that different groups are affected differently
by "speech," but that the universal category of "speech" may itself be
incoherent. Consider Martin Luther King's addresses, racist abuse from
a drunken fraternity student and a film that portrays the rape and mutilation
of women. The critics simply deny that these three phenomena are all examples
of a concrete universal called "speech," about which our different resources
of wealth, status or culture could ever allow us to be equally "free."
Thus, they are unmoved by the claim that we must protect the porno movie
and the racist in order to assure that the freedom of another Eugene Debs,
Emma Goldman or Malcolm X, in just the same way that a civil libertarian
might be unmoved by the claim that we must not regulate privately owned
power plants if we are to protect private property in our own homes. We
recognize that there are lots of different kinds of private property, and
regulate accordingly. Why can't we do the same thing for speech? These
are the kinds of comments that worry not only Allan Bloom or George Will,(12)
but Nat Hentoff(13) the civil libertarian
columnist and Nadine Strossen, the president of the ACLU.
I want to stress that there is here a real philosophical challenge
to the consistency of liberal notions of free speech, a challenge that
can be brought into sharp relief by comparing liberal attitudes to the
category "speech" and the category "property."(14)
In the former, liberals hew to the idea of formally equal treatment of
all examples of the universal category; each example of speech must be
treated the same if all speech is to be free. In the latter case, they
tend to see "property" as a socially constructed category, a verbal suitcase
holding a disparate collection of legal and personal relations, held together
by no universal qualities. Thus they see no insurmountable issues of "principle"
if different items from the suitcase are treated differently for different
reasons of "public policy." To use the example, I mentioned before, the
regulation of the nuclear power plant does not make most liberals fear
that they have undermined their own rights of property, while the regulation
of the KKK's placards is seen as threatening the speech rights of all.
So far, the identity politicians have largely failed to point out this
internal inconsistency in liberals' own doctrine. That failure, however,
is no reason for liberals to be complacent about the challenge that identity
politics poses. Ultimately, liberals may wish to reject this challenge,
but they should not do so merely by branding their critics as "PC censors."
There seems to be a similar, unacknowledged tension between liberal
attitudes to free speech and to affirmative action. Most of those who would
identify themselves as political liberals claim that one can attempt to
remedy past discrimination against historically disfavored groups -- through
preferences or diversity goals -- without committing oneself to accept
discrimination against African-Americans. The universal statement
is challenged because, it is claimed, some groups of citizens are in such
a different position that to "treat all equally" would be to perpetuate
real, particular inequality.(15) In issues
of free speech, liberals are more committed to formal equality, both on
the normative and on the practical levels. Deviations from the universal
principle are not merely seen as wrong in themselves, they are viewed as
empirically threatening; as the first step towards widespread censorship.
The liberal who believes that the African-American candidate can fairly
safely be treated differently than the white candidate with identical paper
credentials, probably does not believe that the Ku Klux Klan's chants
of "nigger" can legitimately and safely be treated differently than the
reading of Ginsberg's Howl. Looking at these two positions through
the lens of identity politics leads one to ask "why?" -- both as to the
judgement of legitimacy and that of safety. The question seems to be a
This focus on the universalism of liberal conceptions of free speech
also helps to explain the success of the PC Indictment beyond its initial
conservative audience. One of the striking things about the PC Indictment,
was that conservatives focused on campus censorship and then used the emotional
power of this totemic invocation of free speech to attack affirmative action,
multiculturalism in the curriculum, afrocentric scholarship, "feminazis"
and so on through the dreary litany. But what, apart from the accidents
of time, circumstance and campus politics, links the issue of speech codes
to these other issues? The answer is that each of these issues presents
in some form the tension between universalism and particularism -- between
formal equality and substantive equality, Western culture and multiculturalism,
universal truths and the knowledge of subordinated groups.
This dissonance between campus liberals attitudes to free speech and
private property or affirmative action, leads me to my first major conclusion.
The brilliance of the PC Indictment as a political strategy is that it
took the liberal commitment to universalism at its strongest point; the
first amendment refusal to treat different types of speech directed at
different groups in different ways. It then linked that issue to other
conflicts between universalism and particularism; conflicts like affirmative
action where the liberal commitment to univeralism or formal equality was
much weaker. As I will show in the next section, conservatives have tried
this kind of conceptual linkage before. Recent years have seen the emergence
of the argument that anyone who believes in Martin Luther King's early
speeches is logically committed to defend laissez faire economic policies
-- bosses and workers must be treated equally. Prominent conservative libertarians
have always argued that a committment to universal ideas of human rights
entails a defense of a libertarian ideal of property. This time however,
the ground was more favourable, and the targets did a poorer job of defending
Conservatives Discover Equality:
Thirty years later, the tables had been turned. The Bush adminstration's
department of education was attempting to prohibit colleges in receipt
of federal funds -- that is to say, nearly all colleges -- from distributing
scholarships based on race, even when those scholarships were targeted
towards historically disadvantaged minorities. This would have the effect
of prohibiting set-aside scholarships for African-American or Hispanic
students. Fascinatingly, the Education department defended the action in
the language of formal equality. Republicans even made references to Martin
Luther King -- albeit only to his earlier speeches -- taking the language
of his pleas for colorblindness out the context of the impassioned attack
on segregation and Jim Crow laws in which that language was used and using
it to attack scholarships for African Americans.
In constitutional law, the Rehnquist court has turned away from the
more expansive Burger court rulings, returning to an earlier vision of
anti-discrimination law in which colorblindness is the ultimate touchstone.
Affirmative action programs were threatened and in some cases overturned.
When tougher economic times led to lay offs, African Americans who had
been hired to rectify past discrimination were now fired on the basis of
insufficient seniority -- a race-neutral criterion according to the court.
A few political pundits have commented on the irony of the discovery
of formal equality by conservatives, just when it seemed mainly of use
to defend the interests of white middle class. What they seem to have missed
is its relevance to the PC Indictment.(18)
Like a stockbroker revelling in an uncharistically wild necktie, conservative
pundits seem to relish the chance to don the unfamiliar mantle of formal
equality and civil rights. With George Bush, they condemn discrimination
(against whites) with a fervour that only thirty years ago they had reserved
for defending discrimination (against blacks). Yet it is important
not to reject conservative's attacks out of hand just because their Pauline
conversion to formal equality happened to occur at that point in the road
where white men promised to be the main beneficiaries. The messenger's
motives may be suspect, but that does not mean that the message is wrong
-- though it certainly prompts a little extra skepticism.
Accept for a moment the premise that the PC Indictment has established a potent conceptual linkage between universalist ideas about free speech and universalist ideas about the curriculum, hiring and scholarship (or scholarships for that matter). What are we to think about this move? Does antipathy to speech codes commit one, on some level, to hostility to affirmative action? If the Ku Klux Klan cross and the swastika must be treated in the same way as the peace symbol, must the black applicant be treated no differently than the white? I believe that one of the few positive contributions of the PC Indictment is that it has the potential to open for discussion the tensions between liberal positions, to expose some of the weaknesses of liberalism both as an abstract political philosophy, and as a collection of political positions held by those who call themselves "liberal." One of the saddest things about the current debate is that it has not made anything of this potential. The failure has two sides. On the one hand, most of the attack so far has been shallow, alternately vicious and whining, curiously situated so that it dealt neither with the accurate reporting of concrete situations, nor with basic disputes about first principles. On the other, the "villains" of the PC Indictment have, with some important exceptions, responded slowly or not at all and have failed to make clear the way in which their ideas or strategies were any different from the version of liberalism that was being so effectively deployed against them.
So What is Identity Politics Anyway? Conservative
attacks notwithstanding, identity politics is more than interest group
politics. In part this is because it is carried out on behalf of those
whose "interest group" is unchangeable -- or at least a fundamental part
of their identity. Women, African-Americans, Hispanics and gays mobilise
to force a larger society to pay some attention to their plight and to
argue that the conventional models of the political process are part of
the problem rather than the solution. Whereas the pluralist vision of American
politics imagines interest groups shifting, coalescing and reforming --
thus avoiding the domination of any particular group -- these groups argue
that their race, or gender are considerably more fundamental to both their
identities than an interest in handguns, historical preservation or milk
When these comments come from African-Americans or women, mainstream
liberalism hears a lament for the fact that someone is being marginalised
and stereotyped because of an immutable characterstic. Instead of looking
to the surface, to the skin colour or the gender, says the liberal, we
should look to the universal qualities possessed by every human
being. When such comments come from gays, liberalism hears a demand that
"sexual preference" should be respected because it is a "private" moral
matter, not reviewable by the outside community without violating the principles
that keep everyone's preferences -- sexual and otherwise -- free of community
Yet increasingly, some African-Americans, Hispanics and women have argued
that such a response is wrong for two reasons. First, its vision of "good"
politics is one in which these differences are rendered invisible -- a
world in which the overwhleming "identification" that the majority culture
imposes on the minority culture disappears. To black nationalists and some
radical feminists, this is a solution that seeks to resolve the oppressions
visited on their group by making their "group-ness" disappear -- and this
is the last thing that they want. Second, they claim that mainstream liberalism
is an identity politics -- a non-universal, particular identity -- that
does not have to confront its own partiality and its own contentious parochialisms
of language, style and culture because of its majority position. The norm
always imagines itself to have universal status, and sees particularism
only outside itself. Identity politicians have a million examples of this.
Look at the way the word "ethnic" is used, as though Anglo-WASP-ishness
was not an ethnicity. Look at the way in which a woman or a non-white
is generally identified as such in telling a story, while all other characters
are presumed to be white men. Look at the definitions of the "universal"
rights of liberalism and see how they track the assumptions of a particular
class, a particular community or a particular gender. Look at the effects
of the universalist rhetoric of the first Amendment on those communities
that are not strong enough to define the way in which they are represented
in popular culture.
Identity politics also challenges the liberal vision of homosexuality.
Inside the gay community, the "queer liberation" movement turns away from
the language of "sexual preference" with its overtones of consumer choice
-- vanilla over chocolate, Volkswagen over Honda, gay over straight. What's
your preference? Borrowing language from the black nationalist movement,
Queer Nation offers instead a picture in which being gay is who they
are -- not privately but publicly, not as an unimportant personal consumer
foible, but as a fundamental consitutive part of their identity as human
beings.(19) The strategy of liberalism
-- to make group-ness either something that should be ignored, or something
that is to be turned into a consumer choice -- is not just the wrong strategy,
it is just plain wrong -- or so says identity politics.
Whether or not one agrees with this tendency, it hardly seems an outlandish
one in American politics. Surprisingly, however, many of the reactions
to identity politcs have described it as being a distinctly foreign intellectual
production. A review by Roger Draper of Paul Berman's Debating P.C.
in The New Leader(20) argues that
French deconstructionism is the driving force behind identity politics.
In Draper's version deconstructionism and sophomoric relativism seem to
be synonymous. "Some deconstructionists have argued that no one national
culture or system for interpreting the external world-- science, let us
say, or magic-- is superior to another." He defines identity politics by
the belief that,
Even where identity politics is not being dismissed as a foreign invention,
the reaction from traditional liberals has been strongly negative. The
more intellectual attacks denounce identity politics as a new form of tribalism,
a more "primitive" stage of politics, rooted in a pre-Kantian conception
of ethics. The simpler attacks just describe identity politics as both
dangerous and selfish. Many criticisms combine the two themes, and do so
with a sincerity and power that demands attention. The quote from Ruth
Rosen which heads this section is one example.
The universalist critique of selfishness has been repeated in the world of mainstream politics. President Clinton argued that we need "a politics of meaning" beyond the narrow interests of particular groups. Michael Lerner and Peter Gabel, two of the founders of Tikkun Magazine, were the originators of the catch phrase. They originally used it to denote the larger, spiritual, transcendental and universal goals that give normative significance to particular struggles over resources and respect. Gabel and Lerner argued that one reason for the success of the religious right during the nineteen eighties was that they appealed to exactly this need for transcendental or universal significance, and were met only by Democratic rhetoric about bigger shares for particular groups. From this point of view, identity politics is a vision of justice grounded in understandable outrage over concrete evils, but perverted by the overweening selfishness of the Reagan years and the particularist tendencies of post-modern culture and philosophy. As Lerner put it, "[e]ven the various oppressed groups of the Democratic Party coalition -- women, blacks, gays, other minorities, the poor, the unemployed, industrial workers -- had begun to articulate their demands in narrow, self-interested terms, abandoning any vision of the larger communal good and talking about 'identity politics' and using 'multiculturalism' as a cover for advancing ethnic or sexual particularism."
Like Draper, Lerner finds the cause in "post-modernists" glorifying
the "disintegration of community and discourse, claiming to see liberation
in the fragmentation of selves and heralding 'respect for difference' as
the only principle worthy of respect." This critique is relatively typical
of a growing number of attacks from the left and from liberals.
In a much quoted article in Time magazine, "The Fraying of America", and in a recent book, Robert Hughes chides us for being a society obsessed with victimization, which has rejected formal politics and disregarded duty and obligation. "The cult of the abused Inner Child has a very important use in modern America: it tells you that nothing is your fault, that personal grievance transcends political utterance." Hughes, on the other hand, thinks that the last thing that Americans need to do is find the inner child; they need to spend a lot more time discovering the Inner Adult. In his appeal to Americans to rediscover formal politics, universal standards and to recapture the public realm of liberal society, Hughes has much in common with writers such as Jean Bethke Elshtain who have directed the same criticisms at the identity politics tendency in feminism. Both argue that, rather than abandoning the politics of universalist moral thought and formal equality, the left should retake it from the conservatives.
In fact, there are actually important moral messages to be learned from the international transformations of the last five years. Both identity politics and the politics of Hayek's Road to Serfdom should be chastened by the historical experiences of eighties and nineties. In reality however, this kind of sophisticated discussion has hardly ever taken place. Instead, academics have retreated into the safety of obscurity -- if they had ever left it in the first place. Hughes is characteristically eloquent in his condemnation. "The world changes more deeply, widely, thrillingly than at any moment since 1917, perhaps since 1848, and the American academic left keeps fretting about how phallocentricity is inscribed in Dicken's portrayal of Little Nell." (He has a point, though one wishes that, just for once, the example picked to show academic irrelevance would not be a feminist one.)
The Twist: Where does all of this leave us? My
argument so far has tacked back and forth over the shallow seas of the
PC debate. First, I have argued that many of the debates subsumed under
the PC rubric are actually quite basic disputes of epistemology. The ideas
stigmatised as PC represent a challenge to the idea that in life, knowledge
and morality, one seeks always to move from the particular to the universal.
Next, I pointed out that the particularist side of the story, and specifically
some of the movements generally referred to as "identity politics" could
be the source of important criticisms of, and insights about the liberal
ideas of justice, epistemology and life. One of the more annoying things
about the triviality of so much of the PC Indictment is that it has made
those insights harder to discuss -- has withered them on the vine, cloaked
them in sloppy and romanticised victimology or buried them under layers
of disclaimers and defensive jargon. And, to be fair, the venomous triviality
of the attack is not the only reason that we do not have a vibrant, popularly
accessible progressive critique of mainstream assumptions. There is
left wing, identity politics stuff that is every bit as sloppy and self-indulgent
as the conservative jeremaiads described here. Oppression does not guarantee
insight, any more than privilege does.
In general then, the identity politics challenge to liberalism developed
here is a sketch of a structure yet to be built, rather than an description
of an existing, "user-friendly" edifice. There are exceptions, of course.
Patricia Williams' narratives and Catharine MacKinnon's alternation between
withering polemic and meticulous analysis both produce strong challenges
to the "subject position" of liberalism.7 Critical race theory, feminist
history, queer theory -- have all generated powerful criticisms of quite
basic liberal ideas, and corresponding suggestions for change. As yet,
though, most of these critiques are separate and largely academic skirmishes,
with little effect on mainstream politics. If one seeks to cast blame for
this, there is plenty to go around. The tendency of conventional liberals
has been to reject wholesale and by definition, any of the challenges described
here -- a procedure hardly in accordance with their professed values.
How should one resolve this clash between the universal and particular?
Should we eschew the search for universal norms, believing that they are
epistemologically impossible and biased in practice? Should we reject the
idea that the university is the place where one seeks to transcend one's
particular background, to join the conversation of the Great Minds debating
the univeral questions? Should reading lists be tested for inclusivity
according to the "subject position," the racial and sexual identity, of
the author? My answer to these questions fits neither the taxidermist's
vision of liberal education offered by the PC Indictment, nor the thoroughgoing
particularism of the cruder versions of identity politics. While the division
between universalist and particularist world views is a good descriptive
line to draw in understanding the PC debate, it has considerably less prescriptive
appeal. The rhetoric of the liberal guardians of the humanities notwithstanding,
it is conceptually impossible to create a coherent universalist theory
of life, justice and education -- at least without constantly making the
kind of particularised, contextual historical and political judgements
above which liberalism seeks to rise. And -- despite the protestations
of identity politics to the contrary -- any doctrine that seeks to burst
through the false universality of liberal categories will find itself reinventing
the universalist categories it seeks to banish.
To put it briefly, universalism and particularism both deny and depend
on each other. You may think if this as a relation of dangerous supplementarity
if you wish, as a case of paradoxical, reciprocal contradiction and entailment,
or just as a good old fashioned antinomy.
Take the traditional opposition between identity politics on the one
hand and liberalism on the other. How does it play out when we look at
the operation of either set of ideas in practice? Let us start with liberalism.
The civil rights movement remains as one of the jewels in the crown of
liberalism; it shows the liberatory potential of liberal ideals of moral
universalism and formal equality. Yet, the translation of liberal ideals
into civil rights law - turns out, more often than not, to necessitate
the definition a particular group identity. All laws discriminate,
after all. The attempt to describe those forms of discrimination that are
bad necessarily involves one in the definition of "suspect classes" --
the groups against whom one cannot discriminate. Laws requiring a written
exam for the pilot's license may discriminate against the talented flier
who bungles written tests, but the courts are unlikely to step in and rule
such law's unconstitutional -- even on the occasions when the regulation
does not seem particularly necessary. If on the other hand, the law required
some characteristic that was strongly linked to race or gender -- blond
hair say, or a height greater than 6 foot 2 -- the result would be different.
To give any content to our idea of anti-discrimination in civil rights,
we have to have some kind of notion of those groups against whom one cannot
discriminate, those classifications that are inherently suspect.
The newfound conservative love of formal equality culminates in the
position that we should focus on suspect classifications (race)
rather than on suspect classes (black). My claim was that, in order
to give effect to the moral ideals of classical liberalism, we have to
desert featureless universal purity and engage in a particular, historically
located process of classification in which some groups are singled out
because of their historical experience. Does the conservative focus on
classification rather than class, rebut this claim? Not at all. Why make
a suspect classification and not on left-handedness, height, or IQ? Only
someone from Mars could ask the question. We focus on race because of the
very specific history of racial oppression in the United States and world
wide. Nothing in the Kantian or universal ideal of equality tells us to
look at race; we do so because of a particular judgement about the
relative pervasiveness, severity and danger of one form of "discrimination"
rather than another. And what is that judgement, than a slightly
more attenuated and abstract version of the particularism that gives liberals
their idea of particular suspect classes? Both sides are engaged in particularist,
identity politics. One side merely chooses to abstract the identity chosen
further than the other, from "black," "Native American and so on, to "race."
From "women" to "gender." This may be a good thing or a bad thing; it is
not a qualitatively different kind of activity.
It is ironic that the the state's attempt to make good on these universalist norms requires it to get into the business of identity politics; ironic but true. For gays, this problem is of even more salience, because gay activists have two basic strategies open to them. The first -- the privacy strategy -- is to characterise homosexuality as a cluster of private actions, harming no-one and therefore unreviewable by a state that is supposed to be neutral as to conceptions of private morality. The second -- the equal protection strategy -- is to argue that gays -- as a class -- have been subject to explicit state sponsored discrimination, that rules against homosexual conduct or rules denying the possibility of same-sex marriage are the moral equivalent of Jim Crow laws and rules against miscegenation.
For supporters of the equal protection strategy, the privacy argument
seems morally weak. Imagine the civil rights movement restricting itself
to the argument that blacks actually could be decent citizens and so the
restriction of the franchise to whites was "unnecessary" or "irrational."
Such an argument lacks the condemnation of racial discrimination as evil
in its own right. Yet for gays to invoke the equal protection argument,
requires them to postulate, describe and delimit the gay community as
a class, (perhaps even a class based on immutable characteristics,
such as race) rather than as a group unified only by their shared preference
for a particular kind of conduct and set of ideas (like Communists or stamp-collectors.)
And what one part of the community sees as the scaffolding for an equality
or discrimination argument, the other part sees as a cage, a socially constructed
identity defined by the very social forces they are trying to overcome.
Nan Hunter, ex-head of the ACLU's Task force on Gay and Lesbian Legal Issues,
puts the point eloquently.
So liberalism, for all of its universalist language, is either empty
or meaningless without the kinds of identity politics it purports to disparage.
And the reverse is also true. Let us say for a moment that, naysayers notwithstanding,
we believe in post-modern identity politics. We may believe that we are
all cross-cutting assemblages of race and gender and class. Some of us
may even believe, as Gary Peller argues, that we should move towards more
rather than less race-consciousness, towards black nationalism rather than
towards the integrationist goals of nineteen sixties liberalism.(25)
Others may think the vision of black nationalism and race consciousness
to be as romanticised as the Central European nationalism of the nineteen
twenties. Regardless of the place we draw the line, there is some belief
in the importance of focusing on the oppression of groups. But why
do we believe that? We believe it in part because we think that one of
the things wrong with this society is that one can predict, all too accurately,
the trajectory of an individual life merely by knowing a few things about
the person's race and gender and class. Part of our politics comes from
resistance to the tyranny of poverty, the tyranny of sex roles, the tyranny
of race stereotypes and of the political economy of racial subordination.
And what is that politics but an iconoclastic expression of the moral ideal
that we should never be the helpless puppets of our demographic labels?
Identity politics, too, is constructed in a precarious latticework between
the particular and the universal.
From my perspective, the answer is neither to embrace the empty morality
of formal equality, nor to rush towards a Balkanised politics of individual
groups, each clinging to a romanticised essential identity. But in the
tensions between these two views, in the legal realist criticism of liberalism,
the identity politics challenge to the consistency of first amendment ideals
with liberal critiques of formal equality, there seems to be a great deal
of intellectual nourishment and practical inspiration. If the PC Indictment
was the spur to rethink our own politics, then it might have accomplished
one useful thing -- for all of its contradictory, disingenuous, politically
Where does all of this leave us? When George Will tells us that he knows which books are the Great Books, we should doubt him. When Dinesh D'Souza tells us that equality is the enemy of quality, we should challenge his complacent assumptions about merit. When Allan Bloom chooses to draw a veil over his own far-fetched elitist methods of interpretation, while hurling those same epithets at others, we should point out the inconsistency. (Goodness knows, the mainstream press isn't going to.) But when Bloom tells us that the function of an education is in part to offer us the possibility to transcend the false objectivity of our demographic signifiers, to be more than "a white man" or "a black woman," we should agree. For Bloom, that idea points to a continuation of a system in which the white middle class teaches the white middle class the same books it has always taught, in a university disconnected from society and in a political landscape that is merely taken for granted. The conclusions I draw from that statement are a little more sweeping. University education should help us see through the things our society takes for granted -- and not just by reading good books. We can challenge our preconceptions by reading Montaigne, but also by being taught by a faculty with a variety of beliefs and life experiences, or by integrating community service into the curriculum. For Bloom, the goal of liberal education points to a remade reading list. For progressives, it points to a remade society.
1. (c) James Boyle 2000. This article is made available for individual reading. It may not be reprinted or included in any collection of material without the permission of the author. This essay is drawn in part from a larger manuscript on P.C. "The P.C. Indictment" by James Boyle, Mark Hager and Jamin Raskin,
9. Terms such as the "grand tradition of liberal politics" are rightly viewed with suspicion. There is no single accepted theory of politics or of liberalism in contemporary American society. Even if one uses more qualified terms such as "liberal ideal of justice" many questions remain. Does this refer to the Democratic party platform, the ideas of Hayek, some grand synthetic construct, or the ideological cliches invoked in a late night discussion in a downtown bar? My best answer is probably "some of each." There are obvious difficulties in using such broad terms, but in this article I will argue that there is a strong connection between a universalist idea of justice and liberal political theory as it is practiced by professional intellectuals, ranging from political theorists to upmarket political hacks. I will also suggest, and hope by my examples to convince you, that the tenets of the political theory bear more than a glancing resemblance to the assumptions of everyday debate bus stops, bars and op ed pieces. Thus there is a connection -- though not a simple one -- between an attack on something as abstract as the universalist tradition in liberal political theory, and the mundane argument over set-aside scholarships for African-Americans.
10. In the infamous Lochner case, the Supreme Court held that legislation that laid down maximum hours for bakers was unconstitutional, an illegitimate interference in a contract between two formally equal parties -- the bakers and their employers. From the court's point of view, to allow the regulation of baker's hours on the grounds of unhealthiness, would have allowed the regulation of any trade, even lawyers, as the court darkly observed. Since there was no universal principle that could justify this legislative scheme, the court would be put in the position of endorsing a use of legislative power to help one group at the expense of another. would justify the interference in contracts between bakers and their employers.
14. Many conservative libertarians would welcome this criticsm, saying instead that liberals ought to be consistent and thus that their first amendment ideals should commit them by analogy to a robust defense of private property. To the libertarian, our comments would be a little different -- focusing instead on the shifting baselines on which their analysis is carried out, the circular arguments required to give determinate and neutral meaning to the harm principle, the incoherence of the distinctions on which the doctrine is based, (public/private, act/no act etc.) the reification of a particular set of market arrangements as THE free market, and so on. Those arguments, as this cryptic summary may suggest, are a little too technical for the subject at hand.
15. Although here, as in most of the examples I discuss, there is another possible way of conceiving the issue in which one attempts to keep one's universal beliefs but to allow for substantive differences in the positions of those affected by them. Much of the identity politics debate consists of an unacknowldged oscillation between a rejection of the universalist ideal (there are no universal standards of goodness, or academic quality, groups are differently situated with regard to speech and this should be explicitly recognised by regulations of that speech, groups have their own identities and there is no American identity in which they are or should be subsumed) and an acceptance of it qualified where the ideal pinches. (there are universal standards but we must open the canon to those who were previously excluded, the goal is still formal equality but concrete social inequalities demand that we take past injustice into account, there is an American identity but it is more like a quilt than a melting pot.) Interestingly, those who take the latter cluster of positions tend to exempt the first Amendment from their willingness to "particularise."
18. Not everyone has missed it, however. See, for example the quotation from Ruth Rosen featured elsewhere in these pages. Splintered Politics East and West Los Angeles Times Sept 2, 1991 at B5. Professor Rosen teaches history at the University of California, Davi
19. And, to complete the picture, there are gay groups who adopt the language of sexual preference as a reaction against the essentialism they see in the queer liberation movement, itself a reaction to the liberal language of "privacy" and consumer choice.
22. In fact, identity politics was by no means the only vision offered by radical academics and it generally wasn't offered as "a program" in the classic sense of that word -- but rather as a corrective to a uncritical assumption of universal values and classes. Nevertheless, the dissonance was there.
24. As we said before, the "suspect classification" argument seems to do the same thing, at a slightly greater level of generality. To put it another say, why should legislators have taken away from them easy recourse to racial classifications and stereotypes, except as a result of the kind of particularised historical judgement and investigation of the actual power relations in the world from which classical liberalism claims to be free?