Article for the Independent 10/06/2016
English literature students at Yale University recently launched a petition demanding the faculty abolish a core course requirementthat sees them study a host of canonical white male writers, urging them to replace it to “deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.”
The ‘major English poets’ course is a two-semester requirement for a literature major, and features virtually no female, gay, race, or gender-oriented writers at all. It instead features canonical writers like Shakespeare and Milton. The petition states the concern that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of colour, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity”.
This is a fantastic development: it is incredibly encouraging to know fellow students across the world are making an active effort to ensure historically marginalised voices are heard today. More than that, it is wonderful they see it as harmful not to be confronted with them. But, in attempting to privilege the underprivileged, they run the risk of dismissing canonical literature altogether. That’s something they must not do.
The danger is that they will see privileged writers on the one hand, and unprivileged writers on the other, and they’ll boil it down to a case of black and white: either you’re for privilege – or against it.
The petition, fortunately, seems to suggest all they want is a new sequence that values non-canonical works as much as canonical. That’s exactly what they should be aiming for. But there has been a suggestion in some quarters that certain canonical writers should be sidelined due to both their identity and their opinions.
In April, Adriana Miele, a current Yale English student,wrote in the college newspaper: “We read Chaucer, but we are told to view his misogyny with an ‘objective’ lens, a daunting task for the one in three female students who have experienced sexual violence.”
Her criticism is that a consumer of literature cannot separate personal experience from the views of the writer – which is, of course, often true. But what seems to follow is the suggestion that Chaucer should, therefore, not be read by some people at all.
Needless to say a person has every right in the world not to read something if it will give them a trauma-related panic attack; but the vast majority of people will experience no such thing, and never mind how much they dislike a writer’s views, they must still endeavour to read them. The suggestion Miele puts forward here is that Chaucer – a 14th century poet – should be dismissed because of negative views of women. This is obviously absurd. And the question begs to be asked: would she be saying this if Chaucer were a woman?
There’s a double standard occurring here, and it tells us the literature course at Yale is under threat of being pilloried by a political agenda that is profoundly illiberal. There is a risk that some writers will be deemed ‘no-go’ because their identity is ‘too white’ or ‘too rich’, or their views are ‘too unorthodox’ to be contemplated. This would be a very bad thing.
There are three things I want to point out to anyone who might be tempted to act this in way.
The first is that, if you are a serious student of humanity, you must consider all works of art that all human beings have ever made. You cannot ignore certain works because the identity of their authors doesn’t match your politics and honestly still think you are acting appropriately.
The second is that there is an enormous amount to be gained from reading authors with whom one disagrees. If, for example, you are a feminist and you read a misogynistic novel, then you will be given an insight into the history and logic of sexism. How do you expect to defeat something without knowing what that something is?
The third is that, if you really want to understand oppressed people, then you must also understand the people who do the oppressing. In order to understand non-canonical writers, you must make the effort to understand canonical writers. They are two parts of the same whole: they go together.
All writers have something valuable to offer, regardless of where they come from or what they say. John Milton can just as easily move the heart of a gay black woman as Langston Hughes can move mine.
Yale students are doing a great thing in potentially diversifying their course, but they should be aware there is a risk of identity politics setting an undemocratic agenda that silences writers based on who they are. What they need is a gentle balance of all kinds of literature. Hopefully, that’s what they’ll get.