My grad school writing professor wanted me to prepare a manifesto to read aloud to the class. Here's what I wrote.
I’ll tell you why the prospect of writing a manifesto for a class at a university is so dreadful. It’s because a manifesto is meant to convey the truth of its author. Yet academia does not welcome truth. In fact, in recent years it has evolved to discourage it. “There is no truth,” your professors will insist. “Only ways of knowing.” They will not explicitly state which ways of knowing are the right ones and which ways of knowing are the wrong ones, but the implication will be difficult to miss. And if it’s unclear, your classmates—or, rather, the social media feeds of your classmates—will fill in the rest. The most important thing for you to know—the thing you must never, ever forget—is that thinking for yourself is a liability. It puts you in danger—danger of condemnation, of incrimination, of ruin.
I remember at Columbia—where I finally earned my undergraduate degree in my thirties—I took a class on film criticism. We were discussing Citizenfour, the documentary about the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden. I told the class that, as I was watching the film, I had wondered about the impact Snowden’s story might have on people with schizophrenia. Schizophrenics often experience delusions of paranoia; they might worry that they’re being followed, that someone has tapped their phone line, or that voices are speaking to them through the radio. “Maybe what Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s surveillance of Americans proved is that schizophrenics are right to be paranoid,” I said. A student cut me off. “I am a psychology minor, and I just want to say that there are many other symptoms of schizophrenia besides paranoia,” she said. Her words were searing. The class was silent. I nodded politely, said I know there are. I didn’t tell her that, when I was nineteen, I suffered a psychotic break, during which I experienced the very type of paranoia that I had mentioned. Nor did I say that I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but after years of observation and treatment, it was determined that my episode was an isolated incident caused by PTSD.
This is the type of thing that happens when you speak your mind in a university. I guess you could say the student was guilty of arguing in bad faith. After all, I am well-groomed and articulate, so what the hell would I know about acute mental illness?
It was a similar situation in my Lesbian and Gay History class. On the first day of class, I must’ve misspoken, the way the students all furrowed their brows and began refuting me at once. Things got better as the semester went on, once I had properly clarified that I myself was gay (sorry, “queer”) and that, forgive me, but I think have a right to speak about the topics we are discussing. Although the fact that I’m married didn’t help me. (“You assimilationist, fascist bootlicker.”) Nobody seemed to want to sit next to me.
I must say—and this might seem off topic, but I assure you, it’s not—it’s quite humorous when people accuse me of being cisgender. I say “accuse me of being” rather than “call me” because the descriptor is always delivered in an accusatory tone. People call me “cis” in the same cadence my classmates called me “fag” in seventh grade, when I was gender-nonconforming. The way I dealt with the torment at that time was to defeminize myself—cut my hair short, deepen my voice, wear baggy clothes. When I came out as gay in my late teens, I flirted with gender-nonconformity for a few years, mostly to honor the gay kid whose evolution had been derailed by the torment of bullies. My internal experience of gender has been a profound journey, one that I have never taken lightly—not because I think identity is something that needs to be taken seriously (I try to heed the words of Saint Francis: “Through self-forgetting, one finds”), but because for some reason people have always demanded I take it seriously. Being labeled by others as “cis” (uttered with a hiss) makes me nostalgic for my middle school years, when I frequently had trouble getting out of bed. I guess I’ll never be able to get it right.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. The fear of writing a manifesto. I guess I’m just wondering, what’s the point in writing a manifesto for an audience that discourages critical thinking? Why—to borrow the words of Eileen Myles—attempt to “throw down” words “to create space” in a place that is inhospitable to anything resembling heterodoxy? Manifesto schmanifesto. Sorry, but it’d be wiser for me to keep my head down and maintain the space I’m in, where the Party guarantees I’ll have a future, so long as I remain “on the right side of history.”
I know there are many of you who know precisely what I’m talking about. Every human of every race, color, and creed is born with the ability to reason. The shame is how zealously we’re taught to discard it here; the tragedy how quickly we learn to obey. When it’s time to discuss my schmanifesto in class, you’ll feign exasperation. “Well, I never!” Meanwhile your thoughts will drift off to the night before, when you lay in bed, arguing with yourself.
Am I crazy?
No, you’re not crazy.
Then why does everyone act like this shit is making sense?
How do you mean? Please elaborate.
I’m afraid to.
I’m afraid you’ll think I’m a bad person.
You want to know where everyone is always afraid of being called “a bad person”?
In religious cults, that’s where.
But I’m not in a cult.
How often are you afraid of saying the wrong thing?
All the time.
How strongly do you believe that if you said the wrong thing, it would mean your ruin?
So strongly I can’t breathe.
I grew up in a religious cult—did I already mention that? It was a charismatic renewal community, similar to the one of which our newest Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, is a member. Yes, the female leaders in our community were also called “handmaids.”
In the community, purity policing was central to the operation. Questioning the narrative of the leadership was prohibited, even when what they were proselytizing didn’t hold up to the most basic of scrutiny, scientific or otherwise. Nobody wanted to be accused of wrongthink. The punishment was much more than a guilt trip. It was a public shaming.
After my family left the community, when I was a teenager, I had a difficult time adjusting. I developed a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder called scrupulosity. Every mistake I made, every impure thought I had, I’d recite a litany of prayers in my head, over and over again, begging God for forgiveness. Years passed before I was able to overcome the disorder; before I was able to accept the fact that I was imperfect—that I was human.
God, I hate the word “triggered.” But there’s no better way to describe what I experienced during my first two years at Columbia. The cruelty and the judgment—I hadn’t witnessed anything like it since I was a kid. And the groupthink. My god. How willing people were to go along with the nonsensical proclamations of whichever group was screaming the loudest. I started at Columbia a few months after Trump was elected. I couldn’t wait to exist in the comfort of a progressive bubble for four years; to commune with likeminded individuals who I was sure would be as motivated to #RESIST as I was. But what I discovered in academia wasn’t activism. It wasn’t scholarship. It wasn’t scientific inquiry. It was a new Red Guard.
Over the years this culture has been seeping into the public sphere, as students indoctrinated by a poststructuralist education have entered the workforce and, in the name of social justice, brought progress to a halt with the most regressive measures—measures through which every individual is reduced to his/her/their identity, regardless of whether that identity was cultivated by the individual or involuntarily thrust upon them by narrow-minded zealots. Since the dawn of social media, this process has been supercharged into a fundamentalist religious movement. On Twitter, cultural influencers disseminate ideological propaganda more widely and rapidly than any megachurch in history. The religion of identity politics. Patron saints of the virtue signal.
I know you know what I’m talking about.
I guess I’ll just leave it there.
A manifesto is supposed to end with a charge, right? A vision for the future?
The most precious freedom is the freedom to think for yourself.
Commit to skepticism.
Follow every thread of thought in your brain, even the most perverse ones. In the words of C.G. Jung: “Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse, and a small evil becomes a big one through being disregarded and repressed. The shadow is very much a part of human nature, and it is only at night that no shadows exist.”
And get the fuck off Twitter.