The New Rules

February 18, 2021 Updated: February 18, 2021


Impartiality, neutrality, objectivity—is there anyone who still believes that those virtues hold steady among judges, reviewers, academics, administrators, and other arbitrators and policy-makers presumed to decide cases, determine hirings and firings, hear appeals and complaints, and otherwise direct policies and practices?

Liberalism used to insist upon them, upholding level playing fields and Lady Justice with scales in hand and eyes blindfolded. But not anymore. There’s no getting away from identity politics.

It’s everywhere in the public sphere and inside businesses, conservatives shut out from social media platforms, diversity requirements in boardrooms and achievement awards, affirmative action ramped up, the LGBT crusade back in force with the cheerleading Joe Biden in office, human resources putting employees through Critical Race Theory sessions … People wonder how ideals of fairness and consistency lost out so crushingly to the selective application of standards.

Just look at how liberals adjust their judgments according to the situation.

  • They opposed all gatherings during lockdown, voicing grave warnings of COVID-19 spread, of overrun hospitals and corpses piling up in morgues—until Black Lives Matter protests began and all injunctions were off.
  • They’re against preferential treatment by race, citing the bare existence of disproportionate rates of women and minorities in elite positions as prima facie evidence of discrimination that must stop—except, that is, when they approve preferential treatment by race (school admissions, state contracts, etc.).
  • They accuse a president of authoritarian impulses when he signs executive orders—except when they applaud a president for signing executive orders.
  • They hail free speech as the basis of a free society—but not when it’s Tucker Carlson or Milo Yiannapoulos speaking.
  • They praise a free press as the guarantee that democracy shall not die in darkness—unless it happens to be journalists at Newsmax and The Epoch Times.
  • They said nothing as riots and looting and intimidation hit cities across America all summer—then cast an afternoon mob of wackos and provocateurs in the Capitol as the worst insurrection of modern times.
  • Mail-in voting is great—except when it’s not.

Conservatives call them out for hypocrisy and double-standards, but if they think they’ve scored a hit, they’re still living in 1988. A column in the conservative press quotes a politician a year ago saying one thing and in 2021 saying the exact opposite, and what happens? Nobody cares. Liberals shrug and carry on. They’re blatant; they’re brazen about it. To be accused of playing politics doesn’t faze them one bit. Of course, they’re playing politics! What else is there? A hiring committee that favors minority applicants breaks the law, but so what? They’ve got to improve the numbers. I’ve served on many education projects that shelved questions of quality so that more non-white-male stuff could be inserted into the curriculum, and the participants were quite frank about their goals.

There’s no shame here, no embarrassment. Tell them they’re not objective and they smile. Insist that they be neutral and stick to impersonal standards of competence and quality, truth and facts, and they look at you with an expression of “What-EV-er.” You can’t debate them over this matter; there’s no debate. The whole objectivity thing was settled long ago. The yardstick of equal treatment and neutral procedure that conservatives still carry as precious cargo in their intellectual toolkit liberals set aside well before the upheavals of 2020, before the 2016 election, too, even before President Barack Obama came along.

It happened in the last three decades of the 20th century, the very years in which liberals and leftists made their conquest of the campus complete. It began as a theoretical assault in the most advanced humanities departments at Yale and Johns Hopkins, Berkeley and SUNY-Buffalo, and others (Michel Foucault, for instance, was a visiting professor at Buffalo in the early ’70s). It transpired in super-sophisticated scholarly journals founded circa 1970, boundary2, diacritics, New Literary History, and Critical Inquiry, which published powerful critiques of truth, objectivity, neutrality, and disinterest, and they had the cachet to establish those critiques as dogma.

These first-generation theorists drew on older masters, of course—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, mostly—to demonstrate that objectivity rested upon Enlightenment notions that didn’t hold up. Each one discredited the idea of impartial judgment: Marx by tainting the judge with class bias, Freud by tainting him with unconscious bias, and Nietzsche with the will to power. Seventies and Eighties academics attached those skepticisms to the hot topics of race/class/gender/sexuality, and they added a moral element of victimhood that made resistance among professors impossible.

I recall a prestigious conference at Dartmouth some time in the mid-90s when a scholar devoted a talk to criticizing one of the aging giants of literary studies, and the first question he got in the discussion noted that the target was one of the first openly gay professors, which made the talk come awfully close to “gaybashing.” The speaker faltered and mumbled a denial, but the point was made. When it came to academic work, be very careful not to take on a member of a historically disadvantaged group.

By 2000, I would say, the discreditation was done. To uphold objectivity and neutrality in the treatment of people was an illegitimate approach. To consider the identities of people involved, on the other hand, was to show a rigorous acquaintance with cutting-edge thinking. Go against it and you revealed that you didn’t belong in the club. Academia, remember, is a little universe of conformity. You must learn and accept the sacred cows and watchwords and truisms of the time or lose face. More than that, you must affirm them, teach them to the young, proselytize. What started at the heights of the Tier One research university is now basic instruction in high school classes.

Some of you may be thinking, “But Marx and Nietzsche were wrong—we must battle them, show the errors, hold up James Madison and Friedrich Hayek and T.S. Eliot instead.” Sorry—won’t happen. This debate is over; identity beat out objectivity, and liberals don’t want to reopen it. And, because they control the institutions with an iron grip, they don’t have to.

The burden is on conservatives. They have to figure out what to do in a society of double-standards that always seem to work against them. This is the challenge for conservative intellectuals in 2021, not to beat liberals in the marketplace of opinion, but to show conservatives how to live in Woke America.

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.