The Comfort and Discomfort of Critique

From the Series: Teaching about Rape in Troubled Times

Photo by Andre Hunter.

Shortly after my arrival at the University of Virginia (UVA) in 1986, I began developing courses on my research specialty—nationalism and the politics of culture. For undergraduates, I created a large lecture course called “Nationalism, Racism, Multiculturalism,” which I have taught to hundreds of students over the past twenty-five years. In that course, I honed a lecture style designed to be both engaging and provocative. I constantly looked for course materials to challenge students’ commonsense assumptions about nation, race, and culture.

In teaching this and other undergraduate courses, I start from the position that one cannot separate knowledge and politics; U.S. anthropology is intellectually critical and in particular antiracist, and the politics of the discipline are decidedly leftist. To teach anthropology, in my opinion, one cannot be neutral; we must take a political stance in the classroom. The result, at an elite Southern university with an affluent and politically middle-of-the-road student body, is that over the years I have acquired a reputation as an instructor who challenges and at times shocks his students. This probably means that I attract an audience (such as the students in “Culture, Gender, and Violence”) who are interested in exposure to the position and pedagogy for which I am known. But as I am becoming more aware, it also means that I have created a comfortable niche for the cultivation of critique that is divorced from consideration of the uses of critique.

I initially organized “Culture, Gender, and Violence” into three units, guided by each of the three terms in the course’s title. I designed the unit on culture to get across fundamental anthropological ideas about the symbolic construction of reality, including (importantly, for our students) the reality they experience as self. In the unit on gender, I introduced students to ideas about gender and sexuality as culturally constructed rather than natural. This led to the always challenging issues of the limits of relativism, on the one hand, and the imposition of Western gender standards on colonized peoples, on the other.

The final unit of the course was designed to allow students to situate the incident around the Rolling Stone article within a longer history of the modern heteronormative regime. A quick historical survey of the origins of the Greek system in U.S. higher education led to contemporary studies of rape on college campuses. The Greek system cannot but be central to such a topic. Focusing on fraternities and sororities allowed us to bring together, in one final discussion, all the elements of culture, gender, and violence at UVA.

To tie together these topics and readings, I privileged two arguments. First, not only is culture—and the human actions and feelings it conditions people to embody and enact patterned, but such patterning is “unconscious,” as Edward Sapir (1985) argued. People act out their culture without having much awareness of its structure, hegemony, or implications. This fact makes social engineering difficult, since people are often unable to gain enough critical purchase on social problems to propose solutions that have a chance at success.

Second, the favored solution that universities proffer these days to the problem of campus rape is individual awareness. Various programs try to teach students to act responsibly in their romantic interactions. But, I argued through the course, you can’t fix structural problems with individualist solutions. All the self-awareness in the world will not change the structure of partying and dating—grounded as it is in the Greek system, on the one hand, and in hierarchical (patriarchal) gender norms, on the other. As I told my students, it is almost as if the university puts its efforts into solutions that it knows can’t work. At the same time, it eschews action vis-à-vis the Greek system, whose alumni are crucial to university fundraising.

Working my way through these arguments in front of an audience of young women who were excellent students and either members of sororities or considering joining them gave me an almost surreal understanding of the difference between critique and action. These students, for the most part, “got it.” They understood the arguments that I (and, in the course’s second iteration, Ida and Xinyan) was making. Yet they did not know how to articulate those arguments with the taken-for-granted trajectories of their college careers. The gap between critique and action became almost unbearable the day after Donald Trump won the election. At that moment, these young people and we, their teachers, had to ask ourselves: “Now what do we do?”

Throughout the course, I found myself recalling Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens go on a sex strike to force their male partners to forego war. I suggested several times that if undergraduate women felt compelled to participate in the Greek system, perhaps they could change it from the inside. But I didn’t think any of these women would take me up on such a suggestion. I asked myself: “After all, why should they? Why should they take marching orders from a privileged, sixty-something white man whose only action in the face of a crisis was to teach a course in a format that was comfortable for him?”

And yet, if nothing else, the undergraduate courses I have taught over the years have been fora for expressing anger. Anger, as my anthropological ancestor Jules Henry (1963, 146) taught, must accompany growing critical awareness: “To think deeply in our culture is to grow angry and to anger others; and if you cannot tolerate this anger, you are wasting the time you spend thinking deeply. One of the rewards of deep thought is the hot glow of anger at discovering a wrong, but if anger is taboo, thought will starve to death.” Thus, for their final assignment, we asked our students to weigh Sapir’s emphasis on the understanding of unconscious cultural patterning against Henry’s endorsement of self-conscious anger. Then, we asked them to review some of the other course readings and to “tell us where you find yourself, intellectually and emotionally, on the spectrum between understanding and anger.” It is telling that we did not ask them to discuss what actions they might take following such an exercise.


Henry, Jules. 1963. Culture against Man. New York: Random House.

Sapir, Edward. 1985. “The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society.” In Selected Writings in Language, Culture, and Personality, edited by David G. Mandelbaum, 544–59. Berkeley: University of California Press. Originally published in 1949.