Author Topic: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom  (Read 2001 times)

viper37

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Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« on: September 01, 2020, 12:09:59 pm »
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ur national reckoning on race has brought to the fore a loose but committed assemblage of people given to the idea that social justice must be pursued via attempts to banish from the public sphere, as much as possible, all opinions that they interpret as insufficiently opposed to power differentials. Valid intellectual and artistic endeavor must hold the battle against white supremacy front and center, white people are to identify and expunge their complicity in this white supremacy with the assumption that this task can never be completed, and statements questioning this program constitute a form of “violence” that merits shaming and expulsion.

Skeptics have labeled this undertaking “cancel culture,” which of late has occasioned a pushback from its representatives. The goal, they suggest, is less to eliminate all signs of a person’s existence—which tends to be impractical anyway— than to supplement critique with punishment of some kind. Thus a group of linguists in July submitted to the Linguistic Society of America a petition not only to criticize the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker for views they considered racist and sexist, but to have him stripped of his Linguistic Society of America fellow status and removed from the organization’s website listing linguist consultants available to the media. An indication of how deeply this frame of mind has penetrated many of our movers and shakers is that they tend to see this punishment clause as self-evidently just, as opposed to the novel, censorious addendum that it is.
More by this writer

    Trader Joe’s Knows That Petitions Aren’t Commandments
    John McWhorter
    The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility
    John McWhorter
    The Dictionary Definition of Racism Has to Change
    John McWhorter

Another defense of sorts has been to claim that even this cancel-culture lite is not dangerous, because it has no real effect. When, for instance, 153 intellectuals signed an open letter in Harper’s arguing for the value of free speech (I was one of them), we were told that we were comfortable bigwigs chafing at mere criticism, as if all that has been happening is certain people being taken to task, as opposed to being shamed and stripped of honors.

Read: A deeply provincial view of free speech

To the extent that the new progressives acknowledge that some prominent people have been unfairly tarred—including the food columnist Alison Roman, the data analyst David Shor, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art senior curator Gary Garrels—they often insist that these are mere one-off detours rather than symptoms of a general cultural sea change.

For example, in July I tweeted that I (as well as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury) have been receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook. Then various people insisted that I was, essentially, lying; they simply do not believe that anyone remotely reasonable has anything to worry about.

However, hard evidence points to a different reality. This year, the Heterodox Academy conducted an internal member survey of 445 academics. “Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work, at a time when faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues were present. To what extent would you worry about the following consequences?” To the hypothetical “My reputation would be tarnished,” 32.68 percent answered “very concerned” and 27.27 percent answered “extremely concerned.” To the hypothetical “My career would be hurt,” 24.75 percent answered “very concerned” and 28.68 percent answered “extremely concerned.” In other words, more than half the respondents consider expressing views beyond a certain consensus in an academic setting quite dangerous to their career trajectory.

So no one should feign surprise or disbelief that academics write to me with great frequency to share their anxieties. In a three-week period early this summer, I counted some 150 of these messages. And what they reveal is a very rational culture of fear among those who dissent, even slightly, with the tenets of the woke left.

The degree of sheer worry among the people writing to me is poignant, and not just among nontenured faculty. (They write to me privately, and for that reason I will not share names.) One professor notes, “Even with tenure and authority, I worry that students could file spurious Title IX complaints … or that students could boycott me or remove me as Chair.” I have no reason to suppose that he is being dramatic, because exactly this, he says, happened to his predecessor. 

A statistics professor says:

    I routinely discuss the fallacy of assuming that disparity implies discrimination, which is just a specific way of confusing correlation for causality. Frankly, I'm now somewhat afraid to broach these topics … since according to the new faith, disparity actually is conclusive evidence of discrimination.

The new mood has even reached medieval studies; an assistant professor reports having recently just survived an attack by a cadre of scholars who are “unspeakably mean and disingenuous once they have you in their sights,” regularly “mounting PR campaigns to get academics and grad students fired, removed from programs, expelled from scholarly groups, or simply to cease speaking.”

Conor Friedersdorf: Why I cover campus controversies

Being nonwhite leaves one protected in this environment only to the extent that one toes the ideological line. An assistant professor of color who cannot quite get with the program writes, “At the moment, I’m more anxious about this problem than anything else in my career,” noting that “the truth is that over the last few years, this new norm of intolerance and cult of social justice has marginalized me more than all racism I have ever faced in my life.”

The charges levied against many of these professors are rooted in a fanatical worldview, one devoted to spraying for any utterances possibly interpretable as “supremacist,” although the accusers sincerely think they have access to higher wisdom. A white professor read a passage from an interview with a well-known Black public intellectual who mentions the rap group NWA, and because few of the students knew of the group’s work at this late date, the professor parenthetically noted what the initials stand for. None of the Black students batted an eye, according to my correspondent, but a few white students demanded a humiliating public apology.

This episode represents a pattern in the letters, wherein it is white students who are “woker” than their Black classmates, neatly demonstrating the degree to which this new religion is more about virtue signaling than social justice. From the same well is this same professor finding that the gay men in his class had no problem with his assigning a book with a gay slur in its title, a layered, ironic title for a book taking issue with traditional concepts of masculinity—but that a group of straight white women did, and reported him to his superiors.

Overall I found it alarming how many of the letters sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. A history professor reports that at his school, the administration is seriously considering setting up an anonymous reporting system for students and professors to report “bias” that they have perceived. One professor committed the sin of “privileging the white male perspective” in giving a lecture on the philosophy of one of the Founding Fathers, even though Frederick Douglass sang that Founder’s praises. The administration tried to make him sit in a “listening circle,” in which his job was to stay silent while students explained how he had hurt them—in other words, a 21st-century-American version of a struggle session straight out of the Cultural Revolution.

The result is academics living out loud only in whispers. A creative-writing instructor:

    The majority of my fellow instructors and staff constantly self-censor themselves in fear of being fired for expressing the “wrong opinions.” It’s gotten to the point where many are too terrified to even like or retweet a tweet, lest it lead to some kind of disciplinary measure … They are supporters of free speech, scientific data, and healthy debate, but they are too fearful today to publicly declare such support. However, they’ll tell it to a sympathetic ear in the back corner booth of a quiet bar after two or three pints. These ideas have been reduced to lurking in the shadows now.

Some will process this as a kind of whining, supposing that all we should really be concerned about is whether people are outright dismissed. However, elsewhere a hostile work environment is considered a breach of civil rights, and as one correspondent wrote, “It isn’t just fear of firing that motivates professors and grad students to be quiet. It is a desire to have friends, to be part of a community. This is a fundamental part of human psychology. Indeed, experiments examining the effects of ostracism highlight what a powerful existential threat it is to be ignored, excluded, or rejected. This has been documented at the neurological level. Ostracism is a form of social death. It is a very potent threat.”

Read: The chilling effect of fear at America’s colleges

Especially sad is the extent to which this new Maoism can dilute the richness of a curriculum and discourage people from becoming professors at all. One professor has stopped teaching James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” after Black students claimed that it forced them to “re-live intergenerational trauma.” I have heard from not one but two philosophy doctorates who left academia. One explained that he was driven out by the “accelerating creep of what felt to me a pretty stifling orthodoxy. The hiring market was dominated by a concern for diversity statements, the ability to teach fairly ideologically-slanted courses on philosophy and critical race theory or philosophy and gender, etc.; and more generally it felt progressively less like a profession where I could opt out of those trends while still being a competitive job applicant.”

Very few of the people who wrote to me are of conservative political orientation. Rather, a main thread in the missives is people left-of-center wondering why, suddenly, to be anything but radical is to be treated as a retrograde heretic. Thus the issue is not the age-old one of left against right, but what one letter writer calls the “circular firing squad” of the left: It is now no longer “Why aren’t you on the left?” but “How dare you not be as left as we are.”

To some, the evidence of Heterodox Academy’s member survey plus my correspondents will still qualify as mere “anecdata”—after all, both groups are self-selecting—such that only a long-term academic study carefully interviewing at length a good 3,000 professors and submitting their responses to statistical analysis would qualify as empirically compelling. But let’s face it: Half a dozen reports of teachers grading Black students more harshly than white students would be accepted by many as demonstrating a stain on our entire national fabric. These 150 missives stand as an articulate demonstration of something general—and deeply disturbing—as well.
I would be really worried at that trend if I did not know from the left that it's all a fallacy and exists only in our mind, or for the few cases that it exists, it is perfectly justified.
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Valmy

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #1 on: September 01, 2020, 02:03:47 pm »
I mean I though academic freedom was part of these institutions to protect professors from things like this :hmm:

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I would be really worried at that trend if I did not know from the left that it's all a fallacy and exists only in our mind, or for the few cases that it exists, it is perfectly justified.

Dude don't be so insufferable if you want to cause a discussion. Plenty of people on this board, including many of us to your left, has been banging the drum about this for awhile.
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Crazy_Ivan80

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #2 on: September 01, 2020, 03:25:18 pm »
I mean I though academic freedom was part of these institutions to protect professors from things like this :hmm:

when has that ever stopped fanatics?

Barrister

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #3 on: September 01, 2020, 03:27:32 pm »
I mean I though academic freedom was part of these institutions to protect professors from things like this :hmm:

That's kind of covered in the article (ignoring all the academics who do not have tenure) - having to go through lengthy complaints processes, being removed from prestigious positions, having to go through Maoist "listening circles".

Razgovory

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #4 on: September 01, 2020, 04:02:59 pm »
Christ, not this again.
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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #5 on: September 01, 2020, 10:00:18 pm »
Sam Harris recently had a great podcast where he engaged with someone from academia who had went after him on twitter for his Murray podcast. It was a pretty awesome discussion about this very problem, and is well worth a listen.

https://samharris.org/podcasts/212-july-29-2020/

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In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Kathryn Paige Harden about the public controversy over group differences in traits like intelligence and ongoing research in behavioral genetics. They discuss Harden’s criticism of the Making Sense episode featuring Charles Murray, the mingling of scientific thinking with politics and social activism, cancel culture, environmental and genetic contributions to individual and group differences, intellectual honesty, and other topics.

Ironically, the exchange was setup by someone who knew both of them, and actually kind of coordinated the discussion. This person agreed to actually mediate the conversation - they would be on the line with both of them throughout the discussion, and if necessary, the discussion would be paused if needed, the moderator would try to resolve any issues, and then they would proceed. I think the idea was that Harris was concerned, after having tried this previously, that in semi-hostile discussions like this, the person he was talking to would simply refuse to address his points, and he wanted some neutral party to step in an force the conversation to stick to the agreed upon format. In any case, it turned out to not really be necessary, and the conversation was pretty great on both of their parts, I thought.

Anyway, the interesting part was that the discussion was all about how the current culture in the left simply does not tolerate certain topics to be discussed, and the risk to your career for many is too great, so they simply refuse to even get involved. The irony was that their moderator was "silent" precisely because they felt that while they thought Harris and Harden should definitely get together and talk, they did not feel their career would allow them to risk being seen as being on the wrong side of the discussion, or being seen as being in any way supportive of Harris, so much so that they insisted that their identity not be revealed.

Anyway, its a great discussion, and well worth a listen.
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viper37

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #6 on: September 01, 2020, 10:27:32 pm »
Dude don't be so insufferable if you want to cause a discussion. Plenty of people on this board, including many of us to your left, has been banging the drum about this for awhile.
I don't consider you to the left.
The left to me, are those who believe the Democrat Party is too much to the right, or too moderate for their own tastes.
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DGuller

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #7 on: September 01, 2020, 10:55:33 pm »
Anyway, the interesting part was that the discussion was all about how the current culture in the left simply does not tolerate certain topics to be discussed, and the risk to your career for many is too great, so they simply refuse to even get involved. The irony was that their moderator was "silent" precisely because they felt that while they thought Harris and Harden should definitely get together and talk, they did not feel their career would allow them to risk being seen as being on the wrong side of the discussion, or being seen as being in any way supportive of Harris, so much so that they insisted that their identity not be revealed.
That sends chills down my spine, and so does the attitude that dismisses this as nothing important.  When it comes to self-censorship, perception is reality.  If people are threatened enough to go anonymous in order to facilitate honest discussions, then self-censorship exists by definition.

Valmy

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #8 on: September 01, 2020, 11:24:01 pm »
Yeah it is a real problem but like most things it is being driven by a small group of fanatics.

The problem is when you create an atmosphere where you have to walk on eggshells to avoid being labeled a bad person, it empowers actual bad people since now being labelled a bad person just comes to mean you ran afoul of the fanatics not that you are actually bad.

Malthus has talked about this effect in the past, it seems to exist in many forms outside of academia as well in this golden age for busybodies.
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Valmy

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #9 on: September 01, 2020, 11:25:46 pm »
Christ, not this again.

Well when it stops being a problem people will probably stop discussing it :P
If we can hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate!

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DGuller

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #10 on: September 01, 2020, 11:29:46 pm »
Yeah it is a real problem but like most things it is being driven by a small group of fanatics.
Whether it's true or not, so what?  The culture that makes people self-censor exists just the same.

Eddie Teach

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #11 on: September 02, 2020, 01:18:29 am »
Dude don't be so insufferable if you want to cause a discussion. Plenty of people on this board, including many of us to your left, has been banging the drum about this for awhile.
I don't consider you to the left.
The left to me, are those who believe the Democrat Party is too much to the right, or too moderate for their own tastes.

To the left, to the left,
Everything you own in a box to the left
So we can redistribute it  :menace:
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crazy canuck

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #12 on: September 02, 2020, 10:27:51 am »
Dude don't be so insufferable if you want to cause a discussion. Plenty of people on this board, including many of us to your left, has been banging the drum about this for awhile.
I don't consider you to the left.
The left to me, are those who believe the Democrat Party is too much to the right, or too moderate for their own tastes.

An odd remark for a Canadian to make.  The Democratic Party is further right than the Conservative Party of Canada.  Let me know when the Democrats fully support single payer health care.  Then they might start approaching not being too far to the right.

Valmy

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #13 on: September 02, 2020, 10:34:56 am »
Pretty sure everybody who does not support Donald Trump is a radical socialist, at least that is what the RNC taught me.
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grumbler

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Re: Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom
« Reply #14 on: September 02, 2020, 11:03:17 am »
Pretty sure everybody who does not support Donald Trump is a radical socialist, at least that is what the RNC taught me.

You can believe them, or you can believe CC, whose single metric for leftism is to "fully support single payer health care."  Apparently Germany's Die Linke ("The Left") is a far-right party.
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