Little known to folks outside the ivory towers that used to house higher education are the machinations of those who struggle for power within, elbowing one another aside to claim the title of commissar of culture, kings or queens of political correctness. In fact, the struggle is about over as the dominant thought in colleges and universities today is to convert institutions of higher education where young people once came to achieve some degree of intellectual freedom into Therapeutic Centers where they are made to feel good about themselves in a climate that increasingly resembles a Country Club. In any event, this was foreseen a couple of decades ago by the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in previous blogs. In her insightful book about the demise of virtue and its replacement by “values” that oh-so-closely resemble feelings, she tells us this about the movement just then aborning, recalling the character of Mrs. Grundy the embodiment of the “narrow-minded, self-righteous, and self-appointed censor.”
“The Mrs. Grundys of our day, vigilantly supervising the proprieties of conduct and speech, command the respect of many of those who profess to be in the vanguard of enlightened thought. Some of them, appointed to direct ‘sensitivity,’ and ‘consciousness’ sessions — ‘facilitators,’ they are sometimes called — enjoy the status and perquisites of well-paid administrators in corporations and universities.”
Himmelfarb refers here to the fact that many of our larger corporations are caught up in the political correctness game and watch every word for transgressions that are deserving of, at the very least, a note in the perpetrator’s personnel file and an official reprimand. They also watch, like collective hawks, for the slightest sign of variation from company policy or, worse yet, words or actions that might result in lawsuits brought against the company. In many ways this mirrors the universities where faculty and students are warned not to say or do anything that might ruffle the feathers of anyone who might insist that his or her feathers have, indeed, been ruffled. This is the Age of the Victim where real suffering has been replaced by papier-mache replicas made by the victims that look surprisingly like self-portraits. But Himmelfarb would have us begin to talk once again about serious moral issues rather than the pseudo-issues that closely resemble a tempest in a teapot and tend to stand in the way of serious discussion and an honest exchange of ideas.
She reminds us of the character in Dickens’ Bleak House, a Mrs. Jellyby, whose children are hungry, dirty and out of control at her feet while she writes a check to help out a tribe on the banks of the Tiber. Dickens called hers a “telescopic philanthropy,” her eyes “having the curious habit of seeming to look a long way off as if . . . they could see nothing nearer than Africa.” Himmelfarb accordingly coins the term “telescopic morality” to describe the latest shenanigans in the universities where mountains are made of mole hills and real issues are ignored because of the latest faux pas in the faculty lounge or the student newspaper. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard, these “New Victorians” who pride themselves on bringing attention to the latest outrage have invented the “Telescopic Morality” that focuses on the trivial and ignores the serious.
“The code of behavior they zealously monitor is at once more permissive and more repressive than the old; casual sexual intercourse is condoned, while a flirtatious remark may be grounds for legal action. It is a curious combination of prudery and promiscuity that is enshrined in the new moral code. . . They. . . do not condemn promiscuity; they only condemn those men who fail to obtain the requisite consent for every phase of sexual intercourse. . . . They are not concerned about the kinds of crime that agitate most citizens — violent, irrational, repeated, and repeatedly unpunished crimes; they only propose to pass new legislation to punish speech or conduct normally deemed uncivil rather than illegal. . . . Telescopic morality . . . also distances moral responsibility from the moral agent.”
And there’s the key: the loss of a concern for virtue out of a confused and confusing concern about hurt feelings has eliminated any discussion whatever of the responsibility of those who commit atrocities and cause real pain and suffering. Our attention, rather, is directed toward the young man about to use the “N” word in a term paper to the faculty member who is ridiculed by his colleagues for suggesting in a faculty meeting that perhaps intellectual diversity is more important than cultural diversity.
Himmelfarb does not call for a return to the Victorian age. She knows as well as the rest of us that it was in many ways a miserable time for a great many people. But, she insists, at least they discussed moral issues and weren’t afraid to address them in the public arena. They didn’t have to apologize for bringing up moral questions in public while insisting that, of course, “it’s only my opinion.” They weren’t so concerned about the manner in which they spoke as they were the matter about which they spoke. And in this transition, this movement toward form and away from content, away from virtue and toward values, we have lost sight of those things which matter most, such things as character, duty, and taking responsibility for our own actions instead of finding someone else to blame. In casting out Victorian values we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.