Since my post the other day on so-called ‘microaggressions’ at Rowan University, I’ve been unable to get Alexis de Tocqueville‘s Democracy in America out of my head; volume 2, section 4, chapter 6–‘What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear’—in particular.
Yes, I know that it’s a hoary old chestnut that has been cited here, there and everywhere by all sorts of people, some of whom I might not want to be counted among; nonetheless, de Tocqueville’s thinking offers a useful lens for viewing what speech-and-offence codes on university campuses are doing to both their students and their freedom.
Here’s the snippet I’ve been pondering the most:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Beautiful writing, isn’t it? That’s even in translation.
De Tocqueville is, of course, talking about the state, and Rowan University is just a university. Indeed. But what connects them for me is the process whereby individuals are infantilized and their freedom eroded by an institution that has authority over them. Rowan’s policies on ‘microaggressions’ boil down to an institutional interference in how grown people talk to each other; and, as de Tocqueville notes, the process of infantilization is carried out through a benign, mild authority that is composed of ‘a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.’ Indeed, such an authoritative network of ‘microrules’ seems designed to ensnare, rather than free, individuals through the active micromanagement of small, everyday interactions. De Tocqueville also reminds us that ‘[s]ubjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.’ It’s hard not see the same grinding mechanism at work in Rowan’s policies, which amount to imposing a one-sided model of language wherein everyday conversations must take place in accordance with rules that both presume the guilt of the one accused of causing offence and prevent the same from refuting the charges. Such a model of communication clearly has nothing to do with dialogue, no matter what is claimed; it rather resembles the controlling one-way flow of information used by the Senders in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. It is designed to shut people up.
De Tocqueville makes it clear that the old words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism’ don’t quite capture what he wants to isolate for scrutiny: this network does not ‘tyrannize’ per se; nor should we expect it to resemble a ‘despotic’ regime, complete with a dear leader wearing a vaguely militaristic uniform surrounded by laughing-but-terrified minions. On the contrary, this ‘despotism’ doesn’t look much like despotism at all. As de Tocqueville notes earlier in the same chapter, this ‘despotism’ even looks mild at first glance: ‘it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.’ Therein lies the network’s insidiousness: it reaches into every corner of your existence, making you dependent upon it, unable to function without it, as it quietly degrades you, reducing you to the state of being a helpless, perpetual, child, utterly in grip of its mild power.
Can such a form of authority, which disregards personal freedoms as it ‘compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies’ people, reducing them ‘to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals,’ actually be considered a good thing? How can such a form of authority do much besides stunt its charges? It certainly can’t do much to equip them with the skills required to stand on their own two feet like reasoning and free individuals.
And what if both the university and the state want the same thing?