Robert Boyers

Bias, Bigotry, and Tyrannical Discourse

Air Date: January 20, 2020

Salmagundi magazine editor Robert Boyers discusses his new book “The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt For Political Heresies.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today, Robert Boyers, is author of the new Scribner’s volume “The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy and the Hunt for Political Heresies.” Boyers is the editor of Salmagundi, a magazine based at Skidmore College where he’s a professor of English and the director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Welcome Professor. Congratulations on this book.

BOYERS: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: It’s one in a trend that we’ve hosted on The Open Mind. Bill Egginton, “The Splintering of the American Mind,” our viewers and readers of our transcripts on The Open Mind are familiar, no doubt with Jonathan Height’s work in the same arena. But I just wanted to challenge from the outset, the title, the premise, and, or at least ask you to flush it out a little bit more because, can there be such a thing as a tyranny if tyranny is an omnipotent but dangerous force and an omnipotent and malignant force, in virtue, at least as we aspire to understand, it, is the opposite of malignant. It’s idealistic, it’s aspirational, but it’s noble. There’s nobility. How can there be a tyranny of nobility, of tyranny is inherently normatively wrong and bad?

BOYERS: Hmm. Well, so it’s a good, good question. And of course, you know that the word virtue itself has been promoted in the worst kinds of authoritarian societies, all of which had their own ideas of virtue: official virtue and persons who in one degree or another did not perform in ways that were thought to be virtuous were punished, in some cases sent away to concentration camps, in some cases, killed, in some cases brought up on charges and brought to public trial as in the 1930s when all sorts of people fell afoul of the official Soviet view of virtue. So there really is I think long history that we can invoke when we think about all of the misuses of virtue and all of the ways in which official virtue can be used as a kind of a club to punish dissidents and to disallow anything that looks like a deviation from the official line. And that’s the sort of thing that I’m talking about in my book. When I talk about “The Tyranny of Virtue,” I’m talking about what has seemed to me the development of a current, what I call a total culture on campus in which all things are subject to surveillance and in which people who seem in some way or another to deviate from the official line can be called out, that’s one of the terms that’s favored nowadays. It can be called out by people who want to signal their own virtue by calling out people who deviate. And then those people who are called out can be shamed. And if shaming doesn’t seem quite enough, they can be brought up on official charges, accused for example, of having created a hostile environment on the campus by virtue of having spoken certain words or introduced certain forbidden topics and that’s become more and more the norm on a great many college campuses.

HEFFNER: When you talk about virtue, what is virtuous to the American creed as it’s been modernized over time has been a set of golden rules. And part of that comes through constitutional law and order. Part of that comes through the mindset of a liberal democracy. Part of that comes through religious teaching and practice. But I’m wondering if you think of virtue in the same way that there has been a revival of this kind of criticism of the civility police.

BOYERS: There is a tradition within liberalism and within the liberal university which has it that division, disagreement and dispute, right, are cardinal virtues within the system. And that’s what we seek to promote and to preserve. If you, for example, moved to the context of a religious institution or for example, college or university built upon our religious tenants, right? It’s quite clear that there is a creed and there’s a set of principles, which everyone is expected to observe and to pay respect to. But the liberal university is not a religious institution. It’s essentially so far as I’m concerned, a secular institution and we don’t expect that there will be hard and fast tenants and creeds apart from what you refer to as civility and the promotion of an open discourse where people feel free to express themselves in diverse ways. So I think in that sense it’s very difficult to suppose that you can actually continue to have a liberal university when everything is subject to surveillance and when in fact the vision and dispute when it comes to certain things are regarded as over the line. When people talk about, you know, the one of the common expressions are used nowadays is safe spaces.

Well, you know, I think safe spaces, if you mean a safe space is a space in a discussion or an auditorium, in a classroom or a workshop where people don’t call one another disgusting names, well sure we want that kind of safe space because we can’t really have conversation and we can’t have learning or education without that. But if you mean by safe space, a space in which no one will feel uncomfortable, in which no one will feel challenged, in which no students will hear anything that might make her feel that somehow she’s being pressed, well, I don’t think we can have that. And that’s the sort of thing I’m trying to get at in my book, the distinction between ordinary civility and the demand for safe spaces, which really would make any kind of educational mission impossible.

HEFFNER: As I said recently on this air, I’m an adherent to John Palfrey’s idea of safe and brave spaces; I think those two things can coexist. But you said something interesting, Professor, you talked about the diverse manner of expression, but we have to be intellectually honest about what that diversity has devolved into, right? What we might consider, and you write here, “People of my sixties generation suppose that the most likely to censor and despise genuine argument were conservatives who knew better than to fight about what to them seem self evident.” We have to be forthcoming about what this next generation of conservatives means to the discourse, whether it is emulating President Trump’s Tweets or other bigoted kinds of discourse. And that doesn’t mean you have to censor it, but you have to classify it under the guise of bigotry.

BOYERS: Oh, absolutely. Right. Oh, certainly.

HEFFNER: And that’s where this kind of conversation about woke culture is just unnecessary and dysfunctional because, you know, I don’t think it does a service to the country when President Obama says that the cancel woke culture is wrong when he doesn’t describe what specifically is wrong, right, because if, if woke culture means boycotting hate speech then that’s something that has a historic tradition in the American experience, to boycott causes that are either anti-democratic or unconstitutional or bigoted. When you just layer out the idea that woke is wrong or woke is right, you’re missing; you’re missing the big picture.

BOYERS: Well I quite agree. And, and of course you know that in the liberal university there is relatively little hate speech that one confronts. We’ve had in my own little bucolic liberal arts campus instances of hate speech now and then. Not too long ago we had some awful words scrolled on the dormitory door. Every now and then, you know, an incident, a bias incident is reported and it’s sent out to the community on an email from the human resources office. So we’re aware of it. It exists. And we all feel that we want to do something about that and we hope that our enterprise in general helps students to think about what hate speech entails and what might be done about it. But in fact, that doesn’t seem to me to be the primary problem that we’re dealing with here when we talk about the university as a surveillance culture you know, there are more than 235 institutions of higher learning right now, which have what are called bias response teams, which are officially assigned to root out what they call microaggressions. Now, microaggressions are not hate speech, right? Microaggressions are much smaller things usually actually unintentionally spoken by persons, which you can either call out, address, discuss, deplore or ignore, but which when they are made into a major issue and lead to again, the bringing up of people on charges or threats to people along those lines, then it seems to me you’ve got a kind of a disproportionate emphasis on very small, unusually trivial things, right, I mean, really microaggressions, so called, you think of the term, do not entail hate speech. Hate speech is not a microaggression, right? Hate speech is a real, is the real deal. And when you hear it and when you experience it you want to do something about it.

HEFFNER: I don’t know how the advocates of microaggressions as problematic define microaggressions. I don’t know how they define it specifically. I don’t know how opponents of that advocacy define it, but I’m sure they define it differently and it is somewhat subjective to say, here are events transpiring that amassed are going to de-humanize or incite violence against a person, or community, or institution. So the idea of an aggressive act having a micro level, well that’s a normal idea that there can be micro and macro degrees of violence. It’s how we’re defining it, right?

BOYERS: Exactly, it’s how you’re defining it.

HEFFNER: So if you’re defining it as bias and maybe unintended bias, then I don’t think that’s a fair definition of aggression. But that bias could be expressed in an aggressive way and we have to be cognizant of that. To my mind, if woke is cool, what’s woke is differentiating between bias and bigotry. Bias can become bigotry, but it doesn’t necessarily mean bigotry. So how do you envision correcting this lack of coherence and misunderstanding within the college commons?

BOYERS: Well, what I, what I recommend and I recommend it to my own students and I recommend it to colleagues, and I’ve gone around the country recommending it in lectures and speeches and so on, is learning to differentiate between things that are genuinely important and things that are less important or not important at all. And that’s not so easy. It requires the exercise of judgment and discrimination and obviously it’s the kind of thing that people can disagree about. I mean, why not? We disagree about almost everything. Why shouldn’t we disagree about that: what constitutes a microagression, what’s serious, what’s significant, what’s not? I mean, sure. Let me give you an example because I think examples, sometimes help, an example isn’t an argument, but it can help an argument. I devote a chapter of my book to something, which has come to be known as disability studies. It’s a significant area of scholarship and discourse, certainly in the academy. I have a couple of colleagues in my own department that’s good, more college who do excellent work in disability studies. They’ve published books in the field and so on. But recently at my college again, I was moved by this to write a small chapter of my book on the subject. We found posters affixed to the door of every department office, which means that every department chair in the college agreed to have this poster affixed to the door. And the title of the poster was “Keep Skidmore Safe.” And when you read the poster, there are examples of that which we were supposed to keep Skidmore safe from. We were to keep Skidmore safe from so-called ableist language. Examples were given on the poster: “Learn to walk in someone else’s shoes,” “stand on your own two feet.” Those are examples on the poster. Students are admonished on the poster, this is put out by a division of the college involved with disability studies, students are admonished to call out their professors if they hear their professors use such language, demand of their professors that they cease to use such language, if they continue to use such language, students are given instructions on the poster as to how to bring them up on formal Title Nine charges for creating a hostile environment. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. All right, that’s the new kind of virtue signaling and that’s the new kind of microaggression, which is now taken to be a big deal. And I give other instances or examples in my book of exactly this sort of thing, some of which I’ve experienced, some of which I hear about from professors all over the country who write me emails about what’s lately been going on in their own institutions. So it’s not a, it’s not strange to say, it’s not a small or marginal phenomenon that I’m describing.

HEFFNER: So where do you draw the line, Professor?

BOYERS: Often, again, you can say you know it when you see it, but of course not everybody will see it in the same way. And again, examples of this, you know, I think, I think answer your question. Sometimes we’re talking about very small things and sometimes bigger things that can really, really disturb people and create a hostile environment. In my wife’s poetry workshop, my wife’s a poet, in teachers’ workshops in poetry at Skidmore, and when a manuscript is turned in and a student reads it and says, I’m sorry, but I think that’s stupid, this, this poem is stupid, or I think you’re stupid for writing the poem. My wife says, Oh, I’m sorry we don’t, we don’t use that kind of language. We don’t say that kind of thing to one another. Otherwise we won’t be able to have the kinds of civil conversations we want to have. At a public event this past summer, a famous novelist, giving a reading, reading out a passage of a novel, read out the N word several times. It was coming from the mouth of a character in that part of his novel. Now that created a lot of trouble. It’s my program, my summer program, created a lot of trouble for us because a lot of people were deeply offended. Most people stayed, only a few people walked out of the auditorium, it was a big crowd. And you know, this has been an issue, a numbers of different places. The reading out of the N word, the black novelist Walter Mosley published an Op-ed in the New York Times about six weeks ago about the way he got brought up on charges for using the N word, reading it out from a passage in a class of his,

HEFFNER: Well, let’s just clarify: Brought up on charges institutionally. Not criminally,

BOYERS: Institutionally, Not criminal,

HEFFNER: But here’s, here’s the rub Professor. You write, “I know there is a danger in thinking about the present situation as if there had been in the past a golden age when politics did not occupy our thoughts quite so insistently and students were more than willing at present to cut their professors some slack, and not be waiting for them to misstep and, thereby demonstrate their cluelessness about power and the creation of hostile environments.” But your point about the N word is important. I was recently at Iowa State giving a talk myself and there was a gentleman who came after the talk and asked me, a similar question, where do you draw the line? And it was pointed out in our discussion that in the reunification after the civil war, we didn’t take the steps that that Germany did after the Holocaust. When it comes to the symbols or the language that invoke Nazi-ism that is criminal right? Here it isn’t criminal. And it’s also not criminal for Twitter and Facebook to proliferate these monstrous storms of hateful bigotry and disinformation. So the American system, even though slavery was an analogous moral atrocity, the American people never adopted the same guardrails as the post-Holocaust Germany did. Right? Isn’t that important?

BOYERS: That’s very important. Then I would say just in completing what I started to say about the use of the N word, again, people differ about this.


BOYERS: I would never use the N word in my class, not because I’m a great guy. No. I mean I’m a left liberal and I know I have other friends who are left liberals who, including the guy who read out that passage that night, who thinks if they’re reading out a passage and it comes from the mouth of a character, it’s perfectly legitimate. In my classes when I’m teaching Richard Wright and his characters say that word, I tell my class; we don’t say that word in the class. Why not? Because there will be people in the room who will find it extraordinarily offensive and it will affect the way they relate to our conversation, to the learning we’re trying to accomplish.

I didn’t want to fight that fight. It’s not worth fighting that fight. I feel that very strongly.


BOYERS: But, but at the same time, I think one has to recognize that there’s a difference between the use of a word like that, right, which is a trigger for all, all sorts of very deep feelings, which have, as we both know, right, a long, long history and the use of casual expressions like “learn to stand in your own two feet.” I mean, that’s the sort of thing or we’ve found ourselves somehow unable to make distinctions about.

HEFFNER: And I do understand Professor, how the contemporary campus can feel like an inversion of the McCarthyism on the part of professors in particular, but students too. I mean, I, I would impart that to, they are just as much surveilled in their every behavior to analyze something that may be unintended or that may be completely innocuous and can be a source of disciplinary action. I get it. I’ve been there, literally.


HEFFNER: But my final question that I want you to grapple with is this idea of the cluelessness about power and the creation of hostile environments. So these microaggressions are considered in a climate that has been marginalizing women, not in so far as their representation on the campus, but politically their representation, because more women vote, more women are gainfully employed, more women contribute to civic life and society, and yet they’re not the ones elected to higher office to represent themselves. So there are these global, you know, systemic inequalities that are thrust upon academics like yourself.

BOYERS: I think it’s impossible to function in the world and certainly impossible to function in the university while pretending that there isn’t a real world out there and that people don’t bring to the table all sorts of feelings and concerns and issues that they’re picking up in the environment that we all share. So there is no question for myself, for example, that the usual things, first of all, obviously one wants to be sensitive to inequities. In a given context, in a room in a group of students one wants to deal with those as best one can. One also wants to create an environment in which the widest possible range of perspectives are invited to interact so that when I create a curriculum, for my recent fiction class, a course I invented about 50 years ago in our institution and so on, I want to make sure that my students are reading novels by a great Islamic author like Kamel Daoud, by numbers of women like Zadie Smith and Claire Massoud, by black writers. I, my curriculum is diverse, not because I want to have all the boxes checked off, but because why not? Why shouldn’t I do that? Why shouldn’t I have my students doing those things? So I want my students to be alert to those issues and those concerns. And by the way, some of them are not so happy to be made alert to those things. They have to be pressed. Some of them wonder, why are we reading a novel by an Islamic author? Who’s interested in the perspective of an Islamic author? I mean, what’s does that have to do with, with our life here in this campus, in upstate New York? And you know, and you have to say, no, no, it’s actually critically important.

HEFFNER: We just have seconds left. But sure. You said it’s important for diverse perspectives to interact and I think you would stipulate, as would I, that bigoted perspectives can’t interact. They don’t have the capacity to do that.

BOYERS: Yeah. Yeah. And of course then again, you get the, the question of how you define bigotry. If you define bigotry as simply the introduction in a novel of a perspective.

HEFFNER: Oh, sure, sure.

BOYERS: Which is articulated by the character in a book.

HEFFNER: Well, and we’re also talking about two worlds where bigotry in the way characters devise their behavior or authors devise their characters in fiction is a different situation than the bigotry of perspectives, not in the book. I’m not talking about diverse perspectives interacting in a book or a collection of books. I’m talking about students in the classroom or community members in an academic setting because you can’t have that fundamental interaction if there is bigoted and closed mindedness. You just have it. It’s just the chemistry is not, is not possible. I’m afraid to say after this very lively exchange, we’re out of time, but I hope we’ll have an opportunity to continue this discussion.

BOYERS: I would love it. Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: Thank you Professor, and thank you for writing this great book, “The Tyranny of Virtue.” And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.