The word "tyranny" is perhaps just a bit extravagant as a description of tendencies at work in the contemporary academy, and yet, when we speak of the attempt to create a total culture, dedicated to promoting a perfect consensus, we may well feel that we are confronting a real and present danger. The danger that context and complexity will count for nothing when texts or speech acts become triggers for witch hunts, and that wit and irony will be regarded as deplorable deviations from standard protocol. "Tyrants always want language and literature that is easily understood," Theodor Haecker observes.
At my own college, when a senior colleague at a public meeting last fall uttered an expression ("in their native habitat") felt by some to be "offensive" — though clearly not intended to be so, and followed by a clear apology when a complaint was voiced — there were calls for her to resign from the faculty. And though she is, and will remain, with us, the incident prompted a volley of abusive and self-righteous rhetoric, drove more than one faculty member to advise students away from courses taught by "that woman," and stirred a renewed emphasis on "re-education" and "rehabilitation."
Astonishing, of course, that those very terms — "re-education" and "rehabilitation" — do not scare the hell out of academics who use them and hear them. That they do not call to mind the not so distant history of authoritarian regimes in Europe, or lead on to the thought that "diversity," for many of us in the academy, has now come to mean a plurality of sameness. More important: The words, apparently, do not suggest how vulnerable we are — all of us — to error, slippage, and hurt, and how the protocols, tribunals, and shamings currently favored by many in the academy have distracted us from our primary obligation, which is to foster an atmosphere of candor, good will, kindness, and basic decency without which we can be of no use to one another or to our students.