The academy is entering a dangerous time. Academics now find themselves entering a time when a more comprehensive politics that deals with the rise of authoritarianism through a variety of related fundamentalisms–economic, religious, political, and educational–is being overlooked as a result of an emerging limited and depoliticizing politics of civility and trauma. This is not meant to suggest that dehumanizing behavior and injurious forms of trauma do not matter and should not be addressed. What is disturbing is when such incidents lose their sense of specificity and connections to wider political and economic forces and become universalized and all-encompassing.
Frozen in time and space, this narrow view of politics functions largely to inflict injury against a broader politics and its myraid victims rather than respond to such injuries within a context in which they can be truly addressed. If a politics of civility substitutes conformity and the personal for the political, the politics of trauma collapses the political into the therapeutic. In both cases, the personal universalizes its own narrow privatizing interests and smothers dissent, elevates conformity and the therapeutic as the most viable political practice and in doing so fuels a form of political purity that undercuts any type of broad-based pedagogy of disruption.
As John and Jean Comaroff argue, under a neoliberal regime of affective management, “the personal is the only politics there is, the only politics with a tangible referent or emotional valence.” Under such circumstances, the political value of marginalized groups to narrate themselves is often shut down by critics on the faux left and militant right who refuse to connect the injuries of racism, sexism, and homophobia, among others, to larger political, economic, and cultural structures.
Knowledge and pedagogical practices that were once condemned as uncivil now is criticized as causing mass trauma- hence legitimating the move from a reactionary cultural capital that celebrates conformity to one that trades in fear while claiming to be part a fight against injustice. In the end such discourses are not only anti-intellectual, depoliticizing, and essentialist, but also fuel the ability of the right wing to use their massive cultural apparatuses to point to progressives as authoritarians who are against any viable notion of free speech. Conservatives such as David Brooks trade in this kind of discourse only too willing to portray leftists as the real extremists in American society. It gets worse. What gets lost in the discourses of civility and privatized trauma are those larger injuries of poverty, homelessness, racism, ecological devastation, and mass incarceration. That latter get erased in discourses wrapped in a kind of comforting quietism and universalizing of personal trauma that demands not just the suppression of dissent or the erasure of disturbing images and discourses, but any attempt to explore systemic structural reforms. This is a particularly dangerous position to take given the full-fledged attack now being waged by right wing politicians against the all vestiges of dissent, tenure, and the notion of the university as a democratic public sphere. Academics and their progressive allies need to flip the script and embrace a notion of the political that addresses those authoritarian forces ushering in truly dark times.