Academics at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney have put their monikers on petitions hostile to a proposed degree on Western civilisation. There are said to be over a hundred signatures. All has been played out much as in Malcolm Bradbury’s 1975 novel of university life The History Man, where a sociology lecturer plants a false rumour about his university’s annual guest lecture. He then engineers a crisis by manipulating the gullible and the incautious among scholars, students and administrators. Likewise hot-headed academics in Canberra and Sydney have performed with comic vigour in a striking instance of life imitating fiction.
But about those signatures on the two petitions. Were any coerced?
Several times in my own academic career I and my co-tutors were placed in the invidious position of being compelled to sign petitions. Anyone who has been casually employed as a sessional tutor or lecturer knows that unsettling sense of vulnerability experienced when a senior academic says you must support something. You are told to sign this, or in a meeting vote against that. How do you refuse? Will you be re-employed next semester if you don’t comply? Might your job be on the line? After all, they have power over you.
This essay appears in the November Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
On this occasion it’s not as if you can go to the union for advice, because the National Tertiary Education Union instigated both petitions against the Ramsay Centre. There it was, for the entire nation to see. NTEU organisers had academics fall in line and do what they wanted—just like the works shop steward Mr Kite in the feature film I’m All Right Jack.
The annoying thing is that the NTEU, of which I am a member, is forever carping about a loss of academic jobs and the casualisation of university teaching. Here was the chance of solid positions for academics like me. The proposed programs were to provide employment for scholars. Real jobs. Besides, the Ramsay Centre would have served as the base for solid research work. At the least it could have hosted conferences that attracted scholars from around the world. The networking opportunities for Australian academics would have been a godsend. I would have probably been among those delivering conference papers.
But union branch presidents, who themselves probably enjoy tenure and generous university salaries along with the 17.5 per cent academic superannuation, have spoiled a chance of jobs for others. One is put in mind of George Orwell’s observations in The Road to Wigan Pier about tweedy, pipe-smoking, cushion-class lefties. It’s invariably other people’s lives that are harmed by these bossy, self-righteous busybodies.
Workplace harassment of lower-level academics is endemic in the modern university. I have witnessed this—and myself been on the receiving end—several times. However, education unions are loath to act if it’s lefty lecturers who boss junior staff about. This appears the same around the Western world. Take the instance in Ontario, Canada, last year when Lindsay Shepherd, a young sessional lecturer at Wilfrid Laurier University, introduced Jordan Peterson’s work in her seminars.
In early November 2017, Ms Shepherd’s supervisor asked her to see him. He did not foreshadow what he wished to discuss, just advising that other members of the faculty hierarchy would be present. It looked innocent enough, although Ms Shepherd’s mother suggested her daughter carry a small tape recorder. This was astute advice. The audio recording (edited highlights embedded below)of that meeting became evidence in a successful bullying complaint made against the university by the young academic. It has since been posted on YouTube, having triggered a commotion throughout higher education in Canada, America and Europe.
Not knowing he was being recorded, we hear on the tape Ms Shepherd’s supervisor accuse her of running classes that are “threatening” and create a “toxic climate for some of the students”. The scholar is told how complaints by “one or more” students have been made against her (which was untrue), although due to confidentiality she cannot be told who they were. Her supervisor likens Jordan Peterson to Adolf Hitler, and says the material discussed in Ms Shepherd’s seminars was “counter to the Canadian Human Rights Code” (likewise untrue).
Ms Shepherd explains what she did, and her purpose in introducing students to these matters. Her explanation is lucid, convincing and sound. She appears a diligent, efficient, conscientious tutor. But the gentle harrying does not stop. The course supervisor keeps pressing, accusing her of gender-oriented harassment of students.
After some minutes of this Ms Shepherd, who is sounding strained and anxious, starts weeping. The meeting does not halt. Instead, the supervisor keeps on, with the humiliated girl now apologising to the senior academics for her tears.
Listening to the tape is heart-rending. The three men in positions of power say little while this distressed scholar defends her teaching, repeatedly saying sorry as she sobs. The faculty members never raise their voices, never abuse; yet in a civil, bureaucratic way, they harass her relentlessly. Many listeners will squirm as the recording runs, feeling upset at the ordeal they are overhearing. And it doesn’t seem to stop. This inquisition continues for forty minutes.
When I first heard Lindsay Shepherd’s recording, the hairs at the back of my neck were prickling. It brought up memories of experiences during my time as a sessional tutor. The tone used by your academic superiors is always calm, the language administrative, and they can spring on you accusations of you nursing appalling prejudices. No matter how you defend yourself, you get nowhere because they hold the power.
Jordan Peterson’s ideas directly bear on the Ramsay Centre rumpus. This distinguished Harvard alumnus has become academia’s bête noire due to his analysis of political correctness. Now a psychology lecturer in Canada, Professor Peterson has probed the motivations of individuals who support this broad trend in Western societies.
He has found that, as in many social movements, we must discriminate between compassion and aggression. For instance, when discussing socialism we can loosely distinguish those driven by a desire to help the underprivileged, from others who have a strong hatred of the rich. These motives affect actions. Altruists will take a co-operative, non-confrontational way, trying to get agreement and understanding from all parties. But aggressors cause disruption, adopting a combative and overtly hostile manner. They “weaponise” compassion, using a worthy goal to justify deplorable behaviour: noble ends are said to excuse bad means.
Similarly, Peterson sees the problems caused by political correctness as arising from its use in an aggressive manner by individuals who purposely seek to distress, even oppress. He observes that PC has been embraced by public administration as a means of harassment.
HERE In Australia we see this each Christmas when certain officials will try to spoil the season of good will. Nativity settings will be banned, carol singing forbidden, staff reprimanded for using the word Christmas in greetings. None of this is in response to complaints, Christmas having been embraced as a joyous family festival by the broad community. Instead bureaucrats pounce on Christmas as an opportunity to adopt a bossy, intrusive manner. What they do is harassment, a clear instance of abusive administration.
As a psychologist, Peterson sees political correctness as state-licensed bullying. He is disturbed by emerging patterns of behaviour where individuals and issues will be attacked without restraint. Situations are polarised due to PC advocates insisting there can be no middle ground. They will be most forceful in trying to shut down debate and silence opposition: you must agree or you are demonised. And despite much cant about promoting “respect”, those who champion political correctness behave disrespectfully towards those they target. Toxic name-calling is common, with the phrases “neo-fascist” and “hard right” being bandied about.
Members of the public are cowed by this behaviour, especially if the harasser is an official. People grasp that this represents an abuse of authority, but they do not know how to respond.
At the hub of Peterson’s argument has been Canadian legislation over courtesy. Terms of address—like Miss, Mrs, Ms, Ma’am—are a matter of courtesy. They arise from politeness and social etiquette. One does not prosecute individuals for using a socially inappropriate form of address. But within Western bureaucracies moves are afoot to do just this over how we address non-heterosexuals; and in Canada, courtesy has become a flashpoint legal issue.
Peterson has objected to this, arguing it is inconsistent with the Westminster system of government. You cannot make it an actionable offence to use a wrong title. Echoing Voltaire’s remark on free speech—“I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it”—he insists one cannot legally forbid words, especially terms of address. To do so is preposterous. What would have ensued if, say, in the 1960s, that beatnik putdown fink had been outlawed?
Professor Peterson has come under sustained attack for this position. Many in the media and academia vilify him as “alt-right” and “neo-fascist”. These critics do not grasp that their knee-jerk hostility against him proves his points. They are adopting the narrow-minded harassing manner he highlights.
Towards the end of the only work he published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein set down a proposition of probable genius: “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Even as the reader is digesting the implications of this profundity, the author moves logically to a sub-proposition: “We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either.”
It is usual to tie Wittgenstein’s breakthroughs to early shifts in twentieth-century philosophy, particularly to the Viennese linguistic circle, to A.J. Ayer’s work, and through him the formation of Logical Positivism. But parts of the Tractatus were surely connected with modern literature. Published in 1922, that same transformative year as James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this difficult, sometimes fascinating book at moments grappled with questions of expression and language which intersected with the aspirations of stream-of-consciousness writers wanting to represent characters as they think. So if Wittgenstein’s ideas are rarely cited in studies of progressive fiction by figures like Woolf, Mansfield and Bowen, they did know of him. Besides, no less than Bertrand Russell penned the introduction to the English edition of the watershed book.
The most telling use of Wittgenstein’s ideas in fiction does not occur in a modernist novel. When he penned his bleak last novel, George Orwell had for nearly a decade chewed over how bureaucracies employ language to manipulate thought, delivering sage asides throughout his wartime writings, as well as his pithy essay “Politics and the English Language”. Exactly how and when Orwell came upon those decisive sections in the Tractatus may never be sorted out, although their influence upon Nineteen Eighty-Four is unmistakable.
This dystopian story sees Wittgenstein’s sub-proposition “what we cannot think we cannot say either” inverted by Orwell into “what we cannot say we cannot think either” and an entire political theory of authoritarian language. Coining terms like double-think and Newspeak, Orwell shows how by limiting language authoritarian regimes aspire to constrain thought and control society.
It was the aim of Russian behavioural scientists to shape a new Soviet man whose individual drives would be channelled to the needs of society, and dissent in any form would cease to ruffle the state. How to achieve it? Moving from a Wittgensteinian first principle, the limits of my language means the limits of my world, Orwell’s discussion of Newspeak explains how a Soviet-style regime represses by limiting expression and reducing vocabulary. In this formulation, if your language options are curtailed, thinking is constrained and your world becomes pretty small. So dissent is near impossible.
George Orwell figures highly in Jordan Peterson’s analyses of new bureaucratic behaviour, especially on political correctness. Peterson points to how proponents of PC are chiefly trying to change language along lines discussed in Orwell’s writings. In the process they endeavour to limit or close down thought, imposing narrowing options for thinking. Under the guise of “inclusiveness”, many levels of government in Western democracies have introduced internal policies regulating the language staff may and may not use. Some, like Victoria’s state government, have enforcement officers whose task it is to police what staff write or say when dealing with the public or each other. In Canada, as Peterson highlights, moves have commenced to make the use of certain words an offence under civil law.
This ought to be anathema to higher education, which relies upon freedom of expression and broad unrestricted vocabularies. But far from rejecting this shift, self-styled academic progressives have weaponised language and are imposing an initial form of Newspeak in universities. One must talk inside the prescribed language box.
The signatories of the academic petitions in Canberra and Sydney demand that a sweeping field of traditional scholarship be forbidden from future study. They assert that students need to be protected from the great texts of Western civilisation, as if the works of Ovid, Dante and others are dangerous!
THIS is hardly a new argument. It used to be pushed by militant Marxists during the Cold War. Those who attended university in those decades will remember a continual rant against liberal democracies and their histories articulated by campus activists who claimed life would be better under Leonid Brezhnev or Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, even Pol Pot. The stirrers would conduct tirades against various strands of the humanities, dismissing coursework as “Western imperialist propaganda” and “bourgeois brain washing”.
Matters became frenetic during the lead-up to the collapse of the USSR and its satellite states. Even as Mikhail Gorbachev was shaping a Russian policy of liberal “glasnost”, it was de rigueur for campus radicals to slander major books passed down through history as written by repressive “dead white men”. Nearly everything from Plato’s Timaeus to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist was derided as the vehicle for constrictive ideologies. Still, academic revolutionists were selective in their condemnation. Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin were dead white men, for instance, but their inherently Western theories of gravity and evolution were not to be consigned to the pyre with the same zealous fury.
This was the intellectual context in which the contentious book The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) was published by an American academic, Allan Bloom. It was an instant best-seller, prompting a hot debate in institutions on lingering Marxist agendas and the value of the humanities. Radicals were incensed when several scholars associated with the progressive “deconstruction” movement weighed in on the side of great texts.
The word deconstruction nowadays sets me shuddering. The word is used so recklessly in Australia it seems shorn of meaning. Customs officers on television programs about border security claim to be doing it when they dismantle boxes looking for concealed narcotics. The term will be used by cooking-show contestants to excuse a mess on a plate. Last year I even watched a football coach breezily tell a television reporter he was going to “deconstruct” his team to improve their performance on the field.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s you only heard of deconstruction if you were reading for a degree in philosophy or literature. Developed by a circle based at Yale University—Jacques Derrida, Harold Bloom, J. Hillis Miller, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman—it then referred to what is best described as a poetics of metaphysics. Deconstruction focused on phrases in key historic texts where literature and metaphysics seemingly intersected. For example, Derrida scrutinised a roll-call of philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. His watershed book Margins of Philosophy (1972) jarred the discipline by showing how leading thinkers kept resorting to figural language and allegory. However, the work which launched the movement across literary studies was the Yale circle’s Deconstruction & Criticism (1979), a set of influential essays on Shelley, Wordsworth and transcendentally inclined poetry.
Far from wanting to eject esteemed works by dead white men from university syllabuses, the deconstruction group offered fresh insights into texts so maligned by radicals. Indeed, the Yale “deconstructors” were forceful advocates for studying historic works, continuing to teach such material in their own courses. At a conference in the 1990s I heard Derrida press this point, referring to what he called the “intrinsic value” of major poems; while in 1994 Harold Bloom published a polemic, The Western Canon, in which he argued for the centrality to intellectual endeavour of twenty-four great writers. His book scathingly dismissed detractors of the classics as small-minded “forces of resentment”.
This all occurred nearly a generation ago. The dust ought to have settled, but the rise of identity politics—and the eagerness of public bureaux to embrace political correctness—is seeing old battles re-fought. The bossy new ubergangsters exhibit a cloying ignorance of scholarly debates thirty years back. They advocate a Soviet-style textual censorship, pushing hackneyed arguments that were then soundly discredited, some claiming to be adherents of deconstruction. Clearly they have not read the texts that launched the movement. Worse still, this time timid vice-chancellors in Canberra and Sydney have caved in.
Surveying the present muddle, one is put in mind of the opening remark made by another dead white male in his mocking political commentary The Eighteenth Brumaire of Luis Napoleon: “All the great events of history occur, so to speak, twice,” Karl Marx sneered. “The first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
Christopher Heathcote, a regular contributor, lives in Melbourne.