Illustration: Lisa Kollien

“God is dead.” What is often miscon­strued about this most unfortunate quotation is the assumption that its originator basked in his finding. A fierce critic of religion, Nietzsche how­ever never meant for this statement to have any comforting qualities. What he described was a world left in shambles, with people yearning for meaning in the void. This is not meant to be a pamphlet for the values of religiosity, either. Yet, religious vigor rears its head. In a public announcement released in November 2018, the MLU proudly announced satisfaction with its efforts concerning equality and diversity goals.

What is more, the university announced with childlike glee that it would use enormous amounts of money to promote these efforts in the years to come. On the surface this seems noble in intent and hopeful in concept. The skeptic reader will however notice one tendency rather quickly: While the university claims that all its energy is aimed at improving equality, equity is what they really describe.

Talking about equal opportunities in one sentence only to state that you are pushing to increase the number of female professors in the next
betrays the intent. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission of Great Britain has put it: “Equality is about ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents. It is also the belief that no one should have poorer life chances because of the way they were born, where they come from, what they believe, or whether they have a disability.” In other words, your chance of getting hired should be based exclusively on individual skills, education and qualification. The university’s policy however seems to be to hire people due to their biology as a primary reason, thus discriminating against other potential candidates.

Equal representation is not the same as equality. And the concept is dangerous as well. Radical actions are taken before those involved even fully understand the scope. Arrogance guides those that want to manually redesign institutions and society at large to be something entirely artificial, which is about as anti-democratic as it gets. The way to get there is mostly by regulating and banning opposite opinions. Later this November, the MLU announced that Dr. Bretschneider had been awarded for developing software that can help identify hate speech online. Can an algorithm determine the difference between genuine hate and sarcasm? Have you ever insulted a friend or loved one as a joke? Well, now you can potentially be identified and branded as a criminal. Facebook and Twitter are already being compelled to do just that. And most importantly:

Who defines what hate is?

The dogma is simple. Furthermore, it is really compelling. First, you dehumanize the individual and have it become a token of its respective group. Then you say: Group X, the Other, is responsible for your misfortune or shortcomings. Sounds familiar?

Virtue Signaling

Illustration: Lisa Kollien

An apparent lack of vision and guidance seems to lead people to become so desperate with yearning for di­rections that in the process they accept risking the complete exposure of their principles. What is more, it makes them susceptible to dogmatic orthodoxy. The humanities’ tradition is that of free inquiry. And the role of the humanities as the backbone of the university and a major influence on social developments must never be underestimated. Yet, in a field that boasts its enthusiasm for diversity, the latter is rarely found. Be it sociology, ethnic studies or literary studies – approaching academic work through the gender lens is copy and paste everywhere. All we see is people yelling at one another. It is a crucial issue of our time that we all seem to know what not to do. What to avoid. What to prevent. What to be against. However, not one of those virtue-signaling intellectuals actually ever tells us what we should do. Where are we going and what do we stand for? Diversity? Inclusivity? Having another anti-fascist BBQ party? Proclaiming your position to be anti-fascist is the same as yelling you are opposed to poverty, famine and high child mortality rates. It has no value, does not require any action or effort on your part and is, at the very bottom of its shiny armor, hollow.

Illustration: Lisa Kollien

The whole extent of these develop­ments has recently received wide­spread media attention when the trio of James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose revealed that they had been fabricating completely bogus papers, including how dogs humping in the street exemplified rape culture and its acceptance in Western countries. They had also taken a section of Mein Kampf, rewritten to resemble plans for a more egalitarian society, submitted them to major gender studies, ethnic studies, queer studies, feminist studies, cultural studies, fat studies and sociology journals and got quite a few of those papers published. This is why they chose to coin the term “grievance studies” for those fields that sniff out oppression. Peer review has clearly worked to the definition of the very term here: Not what stands strong even under scrutiny was admitted, but what the editors and academics in these fields considered to be right.

Famously, Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, has sparked a worldwide controversy about the topic at hand, merely by suggesting that academic diligence and not ideology should be put first at universities. Young Wilfrid Laurier tutor Lindsay Shepherd was dragged in front of a committee bullying her to tears for using some of Peterson’s material in class, with the allegations of offending students brought forth against her having been entirely fabricated.

Admittedly, it is indeed quite difficult to understand how this could even be controversial in the first place. If your car broke down, what would you do? The answer is: You’d pay a visit to a mechanic. Why? Because mechanics tend to be well-versed in the handling of motorized vehicles. They study them, they have experience and know what to do. Would you bring your broken car to your lecturer for literary studies? No? Because this is exactly what happens with Gender Studies and the like. How does one become an expert in a field that nobody really knows what to do with? Just declare yourself one. Yet, being a disciple of Judith Butler and burying your mind in Foucault and Derrida still leaves one thing to be missed: Expertise.

Now that the MLU is hosting seminars on feminism and queer studies and even pondering introducing corresponding fields of study in its very halls, one must take this point into account. When thinking about human nature, sexuality and identity, there is probably no topic vaster and more complex. Why not ask experts on the human mind, biologists, chemists and others that spend their lives dedicated to the unraveling of our inner workings? Instead, these issues are blindly handed over to lecturers that have no idea about these issues and claim that biological reality does not exist but is instead a social construct. It is the mission statement of the MLU’s equity office to deconstruct the reality we live in and to declare its own. It does not investigate the nature of things but has simply postulated what they are.

The steps taken show that the MLU seems to have learned nothing from the developments on U. S. campuses and instead reduces people to what group they belong to. Identity politics is a dangerous enterprise, for it holds within itself the potential to go astray from one’s perceived good intentions. Its peril lies in dissolving the individual and engaging in tribalism instead. The past must serve as a reminder, a source of inspiration and guidance to avoid mistakes once made, yet ultimately pass into the future. Dwelling on it does not produce anything fruitful in any scenario, as the atrocities of the 20th century clearly show. Virtue is not inherent in neither institutions nor people, it needs to be earned. We are however risking losing ourselves in mere virtue-signaling and witch hunting.

The Taming of the Shrewd

A lecturer’s task is not grooming students into activists and shoving ideology down their throats but encouraging dialogue and confrontation with all manner of ideas. It is disheartening to see the academic world and its disintegration into packs of ideologues and zealots that can’t stop constantly bickering about who is most oppressed and who is most privileged. They only see people in terms of sexuality, race, age, disability and other surface factors. Nobility, discipline, dedication, passion, charity — all those traits are firmly ignored as part of the human spectrum. They have failed to be what they need to be: A true voice for the voiceless and downtrodden. For it is exactly the latter that they incessantly spit on and mistreat, smear and denounce. Slander is not the answer to desperate people in search for a better outlook — culture is. Setting out to manually construct society around ideological rules is simply the fostering of an atmosphere of accusation, the caressing of the face­less masses behind their keyboards that feel entirely at ease with the utter destruction of the lives of those whose opinions they do not share. Evidence and due process are amongst the most valuable achievements of our society and we are seeing them gradually being supplanted by the Inquisition. Feeling morally superior is indeed easy and so is pointing the finger. But engaging in real and honest dialogue is far from that. Much like self-reflection, it is painful and hard.

  • Cedric Kollien is a literary scholar specializing in British and American literature, japanologist, Fulbright awardee and currently works as a translator and editor.

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