Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dishonesty on Diversity

Apropos of nothing in particular... Via SpydersDen.
Shorter Ross Douthat, "Diversity and Dishonesty", New York Times, 13 April 2014:
University faculty should be encouraged to engage in research promoting or justifying oppression or tainted by racism, sexism, or heterosexism, because freedom.
Hahaha, just kidding. The Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street merely argued that tenured faculty should be permitted to engage in such research, against the threat represented by Sandra Korn, a Harvard senior and twice-a-month columnist at the influential Crimson newspaper, who wrote a piece in February expressing a certain nostalgia for the Harvard of [jump]
1971, where the quantitative behaviorist Richard Herrnstein was made to feel somewhat uncomfortable by student protest over his support for the theory that intelligence is an inherited trait and therefore a racial trait, with some races being smarter than others as groups because of their genetic endowments. Korn wrote:
the liberal obsession with “academic freedom” seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication. Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever “free” from political realities. If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?
Clearly, even though academia seems safe for the moment from this kind of attitude, thanks to the policy on academic freedom and tenure proclaimed by the American Association of University Professors (organized labor! sort of) in 1940 and which has held sway for the past almost 75 years (if you discount the McCarthy unpleasantness, which some would call right-wing), the freedom of US tenured professors to publish racist and/or sexist research is under serious threat, because as soon as Korn is appointed Dictator of the Republic of Letters (I guess she wants to graduate first) she will be scrapping the old AAUP statement in favor of a new set of Guidelines for Self-Criticism and Self-Censorship.

Or maybe she won't. Maybe, indeed, she'll go to graduate school and learn (supposing for the sake of argument that she doesn't know already, which is not clear to me from her well-argued piece, as opposed to its incendiary headline) that the most effective way to attack racist and/or sexist research is through more research, as in the case of the now thoroughly discredited work associated with the late Professor Herrnstein (even Herrnstein's co-author on The Bell Curve, Charles Murray, has been attempting to recast his theories in post-racial form, arguing that it's not black people that are stupid but poor people in general; though he's having a very hard time getting past the sexism part).

Because the bogeyman with which young Ross is trying to frighten us is not merely a bogeyman but a strawman, and not merely a strawman but a strawman that has been left out in the rain so long that it's really starting to smell. As Corey Robin was saying just the other day, the concept of censorship from the left, peaking with a certain fairly marginal-in-itself but influential kind of feminism 20 years ago, no longer really exists in any significant way:
if we think about this issue from the vantage of the 1960s, my sense is that today’s left—whether on campus or in the streets—is far less willing to go down the road of a critique of pure tolerance, as a fascinating text by Marcuse, Barrington Moore, and Robert Paul Woolf once  called it, than it used to be. (As Jeremy Kessler suggests, that absolutist position, which is usually associated with content neutrality, historically went hand in hand with the politics of anti-communism.) Once upon a time, those radical critiques of free speech were where the action was at. So much so that even liberal theorists like Owen Fiss, who ordinarily might have been more inclined to a Millian position on these matters, were pushed by radical theorists like Catharine MacKinnon to take a more critical stance toward freedom of speech. But now that tradition seems to be all but dead.
And it is more than a little dishonest, to use a Douthat word, to conflate one undergraduate editorial with this week's big news about the ex-CEO of Mozilla and the non-honoree at Brandeis into
a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.
The dishonesty of which Douthat accuses elite culture in America is, in the first place, that the Mozilla Foundation statement on Brendan Eich's resignation as CEO did not mention Eich's financial support of a referendum to outlaw same-sex marriage in California, and the Brandeis University statement on its withdrawal of the offer of an honorary doctorate from Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not mention Hirsi Ali's anti-Muslim hate speech;
The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, or its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.
Because Mozilla and Brandeis really hid this stuff from us, and we didn't have any idea same-sex marriage and anti-Muslim hate speech have anything to do with the cases? Uh, no. What the statements were intended to do was to put the issue on the broadest possible footing so it could be handled as a real policy issue and not just a panicky reaction to some bad news: Mozilla said,
Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
Where it's understood that "equality" includes "marriage equality", and the problem is laid out with a directness that is honest enough to be painful.

Douthat, though, in trying to upgrade his complaint from economy-class "you're biased against conservatives" to club-class "you refuse to admit your bias against conservatives" is guilty of exactly the kind of deception he's talking about, because neither case has, in fact, anything to do with politics; Eich had to stand down because he had made himself incompatible with his employees (you'd better not tell the Mozilla staff their health insurance won't pay for family planning either, or for that matter that they can't buy Bitcoin or vote for Rand Paul—there are many opinions represented and I'd be careful about all of them) and Hirsi Ali's degree was withdrawn because of really unacceptable slurs on entire groups of people. Not conservative opinions
his past support for the view that one man and one woman makes a marriage... her sweeping criticisms of Islamic culture...
but destructive actions. But because they go along with conservative opinions (sexual arrangements other than sacramentalized heterosexual monogamy are evil, Muslims are evil), he trots behind them.

He is also dishonest in saying that
Korn could only come up with one contemporary example of a Harvardian voice that ought to be silenced — “a single conservative octogenarian,” the political philosophy professor Harvey Mansfield
when she also mentioned the case of another anti-Muslim activist, the Hindutva politician Subramanian Swamy, removed by faculty vote as a Harvard summer-school instructor a little over two years ago. And still more dishonest when he writes:
The statement on Hirsi Ali was slightly more direct, saying that “her past statements ... are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” But it never specified what those statements or those values might be...
Because neither the offensive words of Hirsi Ali (see link above) nor the core values of the Brandeis community are exactly in hiding; I found some Brandeis core values in about three minutes of Googling:


The Division of Student Affairs seeks to support a community based upon mutual understanding and consideration, in support of the Division's Core Values:
  • Citizenship   Every individual has a vested interest in the well-being of the community, and therefore, an obligation to stay informed, to make positive contributions, and to offer assistance to those who need our help.
  • Integrity   Every person is responsible for the consequences of his or her own actions, and our community is stronger when we contemplate the context of our decisions, and uphold the principles of sincerity, trust, and honesty.
  • Respect   Our community is one in which care and concern for ourselves and one another are of paramount importance.  Our words and deeds reflect our appreciation for theory and practice, institutions and individuals, tradition and innovation.
  • Civility   Regardless of difference in opinion or background, our conduct must demonstrate courtesy and compassion, and reflect our recognition of the dignity of every human being.
  • Lifelong Learning   Each of us is both teacher and student; we regard each moment as an opportunity to share a learning experience with others, and we accept challenges for the advancement of the community as a whole.
  • The Embrace of Diversity   Because our lives are richer the more we are exposed to a full range of people and experiences, we celebrate human diversity, and strive for the broadest representation of perspectives in all that we do.
I've bolded the bits with which Hirsi Ali's remarks conflict. I don't see academic freedom listed there, oddly enough, though we know Brandeis cares about it, sometimes in ways that worry some of us on the left (I believe the American Studies Association boycott against Israeli institutions, not Israeli individuals, is not out of line, and that Brandeis was wrong to leave the association). But there is nothing in either of these cases that contradicts the teaching of the great spirit for whom the university was named:
[The founders] believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. (Louis D. Brandeis)
The Founders didn't say a word about anybody having a right to an honorary doctorate.
Mr. and Mrs. Strawman. Via Uncyclopedia.

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