I recently came across a social media post made by a small liberal arts college in which a perfectly fresh-looking undergraduate student was featured along with her name and the quote:
“Yes, I’m first generation and low-income, but I’m also a scientist, I’m a musician, I’m a Muslim.”
And that’s all it said.
Nothing about anything she’d discovered, nothing about any music she’d performed or awards she’d won or even whether she was a good student.
The assumption of the young woman was that pithily summing up five of her identities was remarkable.
And she was right.
Because the social media manager who posted the article with her quote decided that even though the article was being presented in an academic context, the academic fitness of the woman wasn’t worth highlighting, nor were her musical or scientific achievements; what was remarkable about the woman was her ability to proclaim ownership over an interesting combination of identities.
I’m not offering this critique because I’m a misogynist who can’t stand to see a woman being featured prominently by an academic institution, nor do I feel this kind of identity-based advertising will doom American society.
Rather, I was struck by the unconscious superficiality of the headline, the thinness, the implication that newsworthiness is simply a matter of owning a series of identities that challenge the perceived dominant ones.
The topic of identity politics gets a lot of negative attention from the American right. But if the right has a name for the kind of specific phenomenon I’m writing about here, I’m not aware of it.
To me, the young woman’s statement and the marketing strategy chosen to promote her provides yet another scrap of evidence for what I call — in my own mind, anyway, and now on paper — the Great Flattening: a form of intellectual repression supported by the American university system, a sort of academic groupthink that relies on the core assumption that personal identity equals authority and that only those individuals who claim a particular identity have the authority to define and discuss it.
This explains why, at a large American University, as a graduate student in English between 2010 and 2013, I met — among other similarly intellectually flat individuals — Hispanic graduate students studying Hispanic literature; an Indian woman studying Indian literature; a queer student trying to find references to queerness in Hemingway’s work; a polyamorous woman who studied the polyamorous relationships of famous writers; and a white man who studied “hyper-masculinity” and who one night, apropos of nothing, told me in graphic terms how much he’d like to have sex with his female office-mate.
If the graduate students in my English Department had been characters in a sitcom, all of this and more would have seemed to a viewer so totally unrealistic as to be offensive.
“There are no surprises here!” I can hear the show-runner complaining. “Everything’s too on-the-nose!”
But this is really what you find today in academia generally and the humanities in particular: intellectual flatness, lack of curiosity, and a search for personal validation that often masquerades as research.
I have no doubt this begins with the application process — with the personal statement, the name of the applicant, the resume. This is a packaging issue, the presentation of a consistent message that allows an application to wiggle through the tiny holes of intellectual laziness established by faculty reviewers.
Someone with a man’s name who studies the women of Shakespeare? That’s sort of weird — put that in the “maybe” pile.
A woman with a Hispanic name who studies magical realism and wrote a paper on Borges? Better.
The intellectual repression continues when one is admitted to the exclusive club of graduate students and discovers that everybody has gamed the system this way, the natural conclusion being that in the university one cannot serve as an authority in an area where one does not have an identity.
On the surface, the rationale for the Great Flattening seems to make a lot of sense — in a time when we are well aware that everybody seems to have an agenda, we desire authenticity and realness. We want someone to be an authority, and it seems best for such a figure to make no bones about their stake in the debate.
The problem with the Great Flattening is not this core assumption, but the cluster of other illogical and unproductive assumptions that often seem to follow from it, negatively impacting academia as a professional field and weakening our collective ability to prioritize true national and global challenges.
The logic of the Great Flattening, when extended, suggests that those who can claim as many identities as possible — those who can “identify as” a woman, as queer, as Black, etc. — have at their disposal more intellectual firepower in academia and therefore deserve (or can expect) more upward mobility, more assistance and interest from faculty, and more excitement about their work regardless of their writing, research, presentation, and other skills and abilities.
The logic of the Great Flattening, when extended, makes it difficult for students to create a boundary between themselves and their work, meaning that the perceived value of their work becomes a proxy for their own value. It’s consequently quite impossible for others to provide, and for students to accept, useful criticism about the work itself without worrying that some form of oppression or personal negation is taking place.
The logic of the Great Flattening, when extended, discourages students from developing professional expertise in areas where they lack an identity or where a perceived identity is considered overly representative of dominant (e.g., straight, white, Christian, capitalist, male) culture, leaving students ignorant about the functional mechanics of vast swaths of our current reality.
In its well-meaning attempt to recognize and elevate marginalized voices and identities in America, the Great Flattening has created a vast intellectual monoculture, an intensely incurious and derivative space that is easily subject to political manipulation because it is divided along obvious cool/uncool and left/right fault lines.
Those who transcend the Great Flattening are sources of constant turmoil and distraction. It’s part of the strategy of right-wing provocateurs, and they play with the intellectually flat academics of the left like a cat toying with a frightened mouse.
British writer and activist Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, who identifies himself as conservative and gay, is a source of great hair-pulling on the left. The idea that a gay person absolutely must be progressive is part of the repression engendered by the Great Flattening, and those who experience this repression become so angry that they try to shut down Yiannopoulos whenever he wants to speak. This, of course, turns the debate into a free speech issue and gets Yiannopoulos even more attention than he deserves.
Meanwhile, before she became the much reviled face of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Dana Loesch apparently pitched a reality TV show to producer Paul Guyot in which she wanted to portray a “hot young mom who does a far right radio show.” Loesch believed she would become famous on both sides of the political spectrum because “her age and looks” would ensure that the right would worship her while the left would revile her. The attention Loesch believed she would get for being a “hot young mom” on the “far right” shows that she understood the absurdity of the Great Flattening, which holds the assumption that one cannot possibly be an attractive young woman in Hollywood without also being liberated (i.e., politically liberal).
And who can forget the controversy about whether Kanye West is really Black? This was the debate that raged when West showed his support for President Trump by wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. That a man cannot be Black and support President Trump, and that therefore Kanye West wasn’t really Black, was the absurd conclusion of several academic commentators on the left.
The Great Flattening began as a hugely important movement to elevate minority perspectives, combat racism, and introduce the diversity of America into the academy. There’s no doubt in my mind about this.
But as I hope to make clear, the movement has become a victim of its own success to the extent that it’s now become a weakness, an effort with diminishing returns that pressures otherwise intelligent people to take absurd mental shortcuts, often to the detriment of themselves and the progressive causes they support.
Enter the TERFs
Today the discussions and debates encouraged by the identity politics of the Great Flattening have been amplified and manipulated by powerful forces (e.g., media, political) to meet our ravenous demand for content and conflict, opening up new, ever more radical fronts in the culture war that is tearing America apart and forcing people to choose sides even though they don’t have time to fully understand the issues or evaluate their importance to the overall social/political context.
As a result, the potential for compromise has been hijacked by superficial discourse focused on symbolic or semantic debates that need only exist at the cultural bleeding edge, turning allies into enemies and preventing the left from prioritizing the items on its agenda.
This is visible nowhere more powerfully than in the debate over trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), which is a derogatory term referring to feminists who exclude trans women (i.e., men who identify as women) from their communities. The TERF debate had simmered for years until recently breaking out into the open in a Twitter spat between world-famous authors Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. It saddens me, as it should others, to see adherents of the radical left having to fight a rear-guard action against other left-wingers who are accusing them of not being progressive enough because they have refused to give up on the reasonable notion that there is some biological root to identity.
The anti-TERF forces are asserting, at bottom, that if you identify as a woman then you are a woman. In other words, being a woman doesn’t have anything to do with how you were born, your DNA, or even your current biology. Sex doesn’t exist, only gender. It’s all in your mind. J.K. Rowling and the TERFs reject this assertion. Stephen King is fine with it.
I have to admit that I side mainly with Rowling and the radical feminists.
If you’re going to make the argument that identity has no objective criteria other than what you have affirmed yourself, how does society even make sense anymore?
How can identity-bearing words like “woman” or “man,” “gay” or “straight,” “Black” or “White,” “Irish” or “Native American,” mean anything at all when they’re subject to individual interpretation?
Do trans women really think that winning their argument against the TERFs will make them women?
In seeking to become fully fledged women in the eyes of the TERFs, don’t trans women negate the very concept that they are aspiring to embody?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe that the TERF debate represents the absurd ouroboros-like space where the Great Flattening has taken us — a space so obsessed with the meaning and validation of personal identity that trans women and their allies are seeking to dispense with one of the few objective, scientific, factual things that you can say about most human beings (or about most animals, really), i.e., that biological sex is a real thing, so that a small minority of individuals can flatten themselves out and become whole in the eyes of the academy, thereby gaining the identity-based authority that eludes them.
Unfortunately, this very minor cultural skirmish has now been leveraged and exploited by political actors; J.K. Rowling, who until recently was considered a strong progressive voice on the other side of the pond, seems to have been exiled from the left’s pantheon, and those who otherwise would have plenty in common are at each other’s throats. (Indeed, the spat between Rowling and King began with the two authors praising each other before King tweeted “Trans women are women,” at which point Rowling was apparently so angry that she blocked him.)
On full display here is the real-world impact of the Great Flattening and the extremist intellectual siloing it engenders on the left: J.K. Rowling, a single mother who has gone from poverty to wealth thanks to the strength of her imagination and her writing talents, who has embraced her role as a powerful generational voice, suddenly doesn’t know what she’s talking about once she tries to extend her intellect beyond the production of children’s books about wizardry.
The Manning Gambit
At the beginning I said that catering to identity politics is low on my list of things that could doom America.
But I think I need to backtrack somewhat.
From the broadest possible perspective, the stakes have never been higher.
And the weakness and near-sightedness of the academy and the political left has contributed to one the greatest threats free speech and democracy has yet known.
In 2016, America was attacked. Voter registration data was compromised. Information warfare was waged against us. A fake president was installed in the White House and a gang of immoral cowards calling itself “Republican leadership” took control of Congress.
And yet only then, only after the Democrats had been expelled from the White House and Congress, after their Supreme Court nominee was stolen from them, only then did millions of liberals, progressives, and left-wingers who until that point in time had shown zero interest in national security, and likely even the opposite — advocating for the dismantling of the Department of Homeland Security, the defunding of the Pentagon, etc.— suddenly find themselves incredibly concerned with cybersecurity and the integrity of the U.S. election system.
It’s almost as if the left suddenly realized, after decades of denial and disinterest, that Russian espionage was real and not just a plot device on the West Wing.
The Democrat’s resounding defeat in 2016 might not have been avoidable, but neither was it the freak accident many wanted to believe.
In fact, this defeat was many years in the making thanks to the intellectual hollowing-out of the left and its myopic obsession with deconstruction, postmodernism, and minority identity.
Over the decades, countless bright, promising liberal arts and humanities students entered the academy hoping to have their perspective expanded and their intellects freed. They were expecting, if only in a primal and inchoate way, that their expensive and hard-earned college educations would hand them the keys to succeed. Instead they were brainwashed, either subtly or overtly, discouraged through peer and systemic pressure not to pursue anything other than a superficial and negative critique of the structural powers that shape society.
Issues of national security and national defense? Negative cool factor.
Understanding finance and the stock market? Does not advance your career.
Interested in acquiring the power to shape public policy? We’re dismantling power, not trying to acquire it.
Because of this flattening, this single-minded focus on inhabiting a minority identity and a disinterest in the practical applications of research, the left has excluded some very important topics and perspectives from its research agenda and knowledge base. As a result, the inheritors of America’s magnificent history of progressive politics now find themselves off-guard and scrambling to understand the gears of power that can turn the country back in a more responsible direction.
Unfortunately, as part of the intellectual decadence engendered by the Great Flattening, the left is constantly threatened by blowback from its own diversity agenda, as those who have little place in positions of power attempt to project authority simply by invoking their minority identities.
Consider, for example, the 2018 announcement by Chelsea Manning that she was challenging Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Manning, a transgender U.S. Army intelligence officer, is considered by some to be a whistleblower and activist due to her role in leaking tens of thousands of secret and sensitive U.S. military documents and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, which posted them online in 2010.
True to form, the prospect of an openly trans Senator and anti-military activist immediately struck some on the left as someone they “needed,” someone who would “represent them,” and social media came alive with praise and excitement for the “bold” and “courageous” woman whose leaks had caused enormous damage to national security and the reputation of the United States.
But did Manning know anything about governing? Could she manage a staff? Could she establish enough trust with her colleagues to be effective given her history of leaking? If elected, would she fairly represent the state of Maryland and the Democratic Party?
Registered Democrats in Maryland must have asked many of these same questions during the primary and decided, overwhelmingly, that they did not like the answers; Cardin captured over 85 percent of the vote while Manning got just under 6 percent.
This is not to say Manning’s message isn’t important. I believe it is.
Nor does criticizing her political ambitions make me “anti-trans” or “trans-phobic,” although that will be the accusation leveled at me by bottom-dwellers in the land of intellectual flatness.
Instead, by linking the Chelsea Manning example to the discussion of national security above, I hope I’ve shown how the logic of the Great Flattening threatens to short-circuit the decision-making faculties of left-wing voters and influencers, causing them to mistake minority identity for authority regardless of the context and neglect the real structural tools and knowledge necessary to effectively pursue their agenda.
You may be tempted to dismiss my ideas as the ranting of a straight white man who feels excluded from a club of sorts.
Maybe I even feel like I’m under attack personally.
I admit that I entered academia as a graduate student because I was curious about the career opportunities, and yet perhaps because of my straight white-maleness and my interest in the practical realities of government and power politics, the Ivory Tower was not a good fit for me and the feeling was pretty much mutual.
What I came away from academia with— from its classes, its lecturers, and from observing its favored students — was the sense that I had nothing to offer unless I was, in the parlance of the academy, “queer” in some way, and that my queerness needed to be the root of my professional work, my intellectual output, my research.
What this does not consider, and the blind spot it creates, is that great biological drives exist for fitting in, and that the vast majority of people do not want to feel queer no matter how much the academy would like this to be the case. Even those who are queer may not want to identify as such, and part of the intellectual repression of the Great Flattening is the notion that anyone who is queer needs to make that queerness their primary identity or else their oppression must of necessity become unbearable and life-threatening.
I’m not saying there does not exist nuance in the academy, and yet a great intellectual risk has been taken, both among individuals and institutionally, that is now having profound implications on the growth and endurance of our society in a way that permits continued progress on important problems related to the environment, racism, women’s rights, public health, and the distribution of wealth. Tackling these problems requires the heart and courage you can indeed find on college campuses, but it also requires lock-step discipline, a mastery of structural power and strategy, and an ability to craft messages that resonate with average people as well as the elite.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” said President Barack Obama, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. who had in turn paraphrased abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker.
Many on the left are impatient and prefer to force the arc to bend in an outrageous direction, and while this is understandable, so is the backlash and the fall-out, which we are now experiencing.