The Wacky World of Victim Studies

Peter Wood

Bruce Bawer's new book, The Victims' Revolution:  the Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, arrived on the front page of the "Back to School" issue of the New York Times Book Review.  Any author of a book on higher education would have to be delighted to be awarded such prominence.  The review itself, however, sliced in the opposite direction, declaring The Victims' Revolution to be quaintly out of touch with the realities of American higher education; behind the times; mistaken in its basic points; "lacking in balance;" full of "dubious assertions;" guilty of preciosity in its criticisms; and oblivious to the real issues of the day.  

The reviewer, Andrew Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia University, earlier this year offered up his own diagnosis of what ails American higher education now.  In College:  What it Was, Is, and Should Be, Delbanco argued that "the vast majority of college students are capable of engaging the kinds of big questions—questions of truth, responsibility, justice, beauty, among others—that were once assumed to be at the center of college education."  His is the voice of a moderate reformer who is at peace with most of the changes in higher education that have arisen in the last half century, including its massive expansion, but who sees some room for improvement.

Delbanco's biggest concern is "keeping the college idea alive for more than the privileged few."  And he extols the idea that college should engage students in "civic life beyond campus," by involving them in social advocacy and "debate over current issues such as gay marriage, gun control, or civil liberties in wartime."  The word "debate," of course, suggests reasoned argument on opposing sides of an issue, and the college campus these days is not a place where that happens very often on the topics Delbanco mentions.  In the last chapter of College, he pauses to disparage the "genres" that books about higher education "usually" belong to: jeremiad, elegy, "call to arms," and "funeral dirge."  His own book, by contrast, is a tempered celebration of the idea of "college as a community of learning."

Emphasis on 'The Gaze'

I don't want to take more space to review the reviewer, but knowing a little of the background helps to put the The Victims' Revolutioninto context. It is a book the New York Times judged too important to ignore but one that argues something that is anathema to progressive sensibilities.  Having it reviewed by someone who holds that racial preferences in college admissions help to build community by ensuring—Delbanco quotes Justice Powell's decision in the 1978 Bakke case—"the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views" pretty much guarantees the verdict Delbanco delivers.

It was the wrong verdict.  Bawer's book is an indispensable guide to the "identity studies" side of contemporary scholarship and academic programs.  But let's note quickly what The Victims' Revolution is not.  It isn't a critique of American higher education as a whole.  Bawer has nothing to say on the natural sciences, the sustainability movement, the crisis in student loans, the rise of online college programs, or dozens of other topics.   He has leveled his gaze instead at what happens in women's studies, black studies, queer studies, and Chicano studies, and has glanced also at the penumbra of victims' studies:  disability studies, fat studies, men's studies, and white studies.  To be sure, he draws larger lessons.  The victim studies departments—all of them—confuse scholarship with advocacy, almost always to the disadvantage of the former.  And in doing so, they betray the basic promise of liberal education to free the student from the particular and the local to enter into the larger world of ideas.

When I say Bawer has "leveled his gaze" at these topics I used the word "gaze" in the old sense of looking at something with care and inquisitiveness.  In the world of victims' studies, "gaze" has acquired another meaning.  It is an act of aggression by someone who, by taking notice of you, robs "you of your right to define yourself."  The gazer is the capital-O Other who exercises a despotic and dispossessing will over you.  Bawer has an excellent ear for this sort of jargon and has taken the trouble to track down many of the key terms.  The trope of the oppressive gaze comes from Jean-Paul Sartre.  He hears it at a November 2010 meeting of the National Women's Studies Association in Denver, where a speaker reflects on her first day teaching a Women's Studies class and is defined by the students' "gaze" as "white and middle-class."   This could, of course, been because she is white and middle-class.  It is doubtful that the students' collective gaze could have performed the same trick if she were poor and black. 

Reason Itself Is 'A Hoax'

But the students' penetrating gaze is nothing compared to the threat of the heteropatriarchal "male gaze," to escape which each year thousands of womyn retreat to the clothing-optional Michigan Womyn's Music Festival in a remote corner of the state.  Bawer hears an account of this "completely female-worshipping event" from a speaker at a Cultural Studies conference in Berkeley.  He also notices black studies impresario Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writing about the artistic flowering that happens when "free of the white person's gaze, black people created their own unique vernacular structures and relished in the double play that these forms bore to white forms." 

Those are small examples of Bawer's metier.  His book is a closely observed account of victim studies conferences, his personal meetings with leaders in these fields, his readings of key works, and his conversations with critics of victim studies such as Shelby Steele, Alan Kors, and Steve Balch. 

At a certain level this is material that is painfully familiar to anyone in higher education who isn't sound asleep.  That is Delbanco's point of departure: we've heard it all before.   As Delbanco summarizes:  the "jargon-spewing careerists posing as radicals, semi-literate professors of literature, and widespread condemnation of reason itself as a hoax perpetrated by the powerful on the powerless."  This indeed is the burden of Bawer's book, but Delbanco sees in it only "a modicum of truth" and "mostly caricature."

No, it is the opposite:  a modicum of caricature, and mostly truth.  The modicum of caricature stems from the victim studies fields themselves which work hard to look important.  Women's Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and so on are to a large degree about showmanship.  They trade in outrageous assertions and practitioners often engage in a form of one-upmanship in search of a more-radical-than-thou denunciation of traditional ideas and mores.  When Bawer immerses himself in the world of academic victims' studies conferences, he inevitably carries away some sense that the fields in question carry some clout in higher education.  Do they?

He can point to instances in which the clout is undeniably real.  Chicano Studies is a force to be reckoned with throughout the California State University system.  Cal State Northridge alone has "25 full-time and 35 part-time professors" in Chicano Studies and "160-170 class sessions per semester," in support of a major, a double-major, a minor, and a master's degree program.  This contrasts (though Bawer doesn't say so) to the 12 full-time professors in the Physics and Astronomy Department, the 17 full-time professors in Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the 20 in History.  

A Need to Foreclose Criticism and Debate

I have been of late immersed in a study of Bowdoin College, in Maine.  Bowdoin is a small (1,778 students) liberal arts college that has programs in "Gender and Women's Studies," "Africana Studies," and "Gay and Lesbian Studies," among other things.  They are undeniably a prominent part of Bowdoin's academic landscape and they have grown substantially over the years.  But trying to figure out how much influence they have over the college as a whole is a matter for subtle analysis.  Students at Bowdoin can, without much effort, avoid taking courses in all of them.  Their influence is most visible in three areas:  the eagerness of Bowdoin to draw attention to them; the frequency with which the courses they originate are cross-listed in other departments; and their seeming success in foreclosing serious criticism.  The last is surely the most important and the least calculable. 

For example, "Gender and Women's Studies" proceeds on the premises that so-called "gender" (as opposed to sex) is "socially constructed" and that "patriarchy" is a key analytic category.  In principle these are points that ought to be open to serious debate, but there are no courses at Bowdoin, nor, as far as I can tell, visiting lecturers or figures of any sort who undertake such debate.  The official college program grounded in advocacy seems somehow to exclude serious institutional space for alternative views.

What is true at Bowdoin is more or less true everywhere.  The power of the victims' studies departments lies not in what they say but in their ability to prevent inquiry that runs against their preferred narratives.  They need not go to a lot of trouble to make this happen. They are more often like rocks in the stream.  The regular flow of academic life simply goes around them.  Few faculty members or administrators want the hassle of getting in their way. 

Bawer's book is as vivid an account of the history, the shifting rationalizations, and the rhetoric of victims' studies as we are ever likely to have.  This owes something to his insider status.  An openly gay man whose 1993 book, A Place at the Table, advanced the cause for integration of gays into mainstream society, Bawer is deeply sympathetic to academic work that emphasizes the history of groups who have struggled against prejudice. Moreover, he has been a participant in some of the key debates that shaped these fields.  His chapter on how "gay studies" ("a serious academic discipline") was displaced by "queer studies" (a celebration of "oppositional relation to the norm") is the centerpiece of the book.  He recounts his own disputes with queer theorists such as David Halperin, who attack him for criticizing the late Michel Foucault, whose view that sex is "socially constructed" is the founding principle of queer theory.

Everyone's Villain: The White Hetero Male

The richness of The Victims' Revolution lies in Bawer's crystalline details and lucid exposition.  He takes the woozy idea of "intersectionality" for example—the idea that various forms of oppression intersect and amplify one another—and follows it through one conference paper after another.  Black Lesbians know an oppression that white Lesbians know not of, etc.  The reward of this is that we see how closely interwoven the studies fields are with one another.  They have pretty much perfected their end run around academic standards by declaring that their ideological premises are "categories of analysis."  This gives to victims' studies scholarship a quality of plug-and-play.  The subjects vary (dance, clothes-making, stories by Henry James, memoir writing, honor killings in Pakistan) but the analysis has a dreary sameness.  Someone somewhere is being oppressed; someone is resisting.  Look hard enough and you find the Where's Waldo of all victims' studies, the oppressor par excellence:  the heterosexual white male. 

Bawer ends his book with a chapter titled "Is There Hope?" in which he speaks eloquently of the humanities—those "irreplaceable" points of access to great books and great ideas that the "victims' studies revolution" has indeed tried to replace.  The humanities offer the freedom "to think for oneself" and thus to preserve and advance human civilization.  Bawer is aware that by speaking like this he risks sounding like a vintage graduation speech, but it's a risk he braves because he thinks the danger of losing the humanities is real: "a perverse betrayal of a rich and beautiful legacy." 

But he does see some hope, first in those college students who rebel against the new "orthodoxies;" second in the waning power of words such as "bigot" and "racist" to intimidate academic administrators; third, in the Internet giving students access to ideas beyond the control of their doctrinaire teachers; and lastly in the handful of humanists such as Alan Kors, Steve Balch, David Rothman, and David Clemens who continue the fight for genuine intellectual freedom and high academic standards.  If any of those are unfamiliar names, read the book.

Peter Wood, author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, is president of the National Association of Scholars.

This article originally appeared in Minding the Campus.

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