Thursday, October 7, 2010

When Academics Become Thought Police

In 1982 the Ed Koch administration decided to vary the message on New York's ubiquitous No Parking signs.

In place of No Parking, No Parking Anytime, No Stopping, No Standing, Tow Away Zone and the like, the Koch administration offered up: Don't Even Think of Parking Here. Link here.

Everyone thought it was good, clean fun. It was. Because, when you come right down to it, you cannot really police thought. By definition, thought is private property; it is the ultimate private property; it is a zone of freedom.

Unless you are an especially skilled mind-reader, there is no way to know for sure what anyone else is thinking. In truth, most of us have enough trouble figuring out what we are thinking.

If you want to know what someone else is thinking, you can make inferences from his actions. You can also hear what he says when he tells you what he is thinking. All of that assumes that he is telling you the truth. It also assumes that the thought is father to the word.

If you are up on Western theology you know that Christianity distinguishes sins of thought, word, and deed. One reason why it classes thought among the sins is that it might become father to the word and that the word might become father to the deed.

By this theory, it starts when you feel anger. It continues when you verbalize that anger. It culminates in your striking out in anger against another person.

Of course, we can ask whether the thought necessarily leads to the angry words and whether the angry words necessarily lead to the aggressive action.

After all, you can entertain a thought and then decide that you should not take things any further. Assessing different feelings, different verbal expressions of those feelings, and different possible actions does not, after all, make you a bad person. At least, by my lights, it doesn't.

What if you decide not to commit an action because you can imagine the reaction you would receive. In politics this is called deterrence. It involves your ability to imagine the unimaginable. You are not a bad person for having entertained the thought of committing an error and then deciding not to.

As it happens, courts often concern themselves with the mindset of criminals. After the fact, they attempt to ascertain whether the criminal did or did not intend to commit the crime or to cause the harm.

Given the reality of the action, and the words that might have been exchanged before the action, you can often determine, in a courtroom, which thoughts preceded the action. An intentional crime is more serious than an unintentional crime, but that does not make the intention an evil thought.

You can also determine whether the action was a spontaneous impulse, one that was clearly unintentional.

As I understand the theology, sins of thought are dangerous when they become part of that unholy trinity-- thought, word, and deed. Some would say that the thought necessarily leads to the deed, but I think it would be more accurate to say that when a deed has been committed, the degree to which it is wrong depends on whether or not it is intentional.

If , on the other hand, you believe that bad thoughts necessarily produce bad actions, then clearly you will have to abandon concepts like temptation and free will. If you do not really feel tempted, then what is the value of your decision not to commit the nefarious deed?

If you can not even imagine yourself being tempted, then you would barely be human. Or you would be profoundly dishonest. Even saints suffer temptation.

I doubt that any of us would really want to have to be on constant guard against bad thoughts, for fear that this bad thought will become verbalized and then become acted upon.

I am offering this longish preamble to introduce a fascinating speech that was recently delivered by Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker. Having received an award from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Pinker gave a speech in which he reflected on how academic research can be compromised and stifled by the thought police, by people who take offense at the implications of certain thoughts, or who simply think that certain thoughts are evil. Link here. Via Instapundit.

In fairness, the thought police are not just trying to shut down thinking. They are attacking thought become discourse become research project.  

Pinker offers some real examples of academic research that has gotten people into serious trouble. You will recognize that his second example refers to the brouhaha that then Harvard president Larry Summers provoked several years ago.

In Pinker's words: "Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer lifelong damage? Do women, on average, have a different average aptitude in mathematical reasoning than men? Are Ashkenazi Jews on average smarter than Gentiles because their ancestors had been selected for the shrewdness needed in money lending? Is morality just a gadget that evolution installed in our brains with no inherent reality? Are religious beliefs like parasites, which colonize the minds of believers? Is the average intelligence of Western nations falling because duller people are having more children than smarter people?"

Why are these ideas taboo? Pinker posits that some people believe, by the Psychology of Taboo, that "certain ideas are evil to think."

Now, this is strange indeed. It suggests that something like a contagion that will overtake your mind if you are exposed to certain ideas. And it assumes that these contagious ideas will naturally creep into your speech, and from there into public discourse, and from there into action.

Given that we are in realm of a kind of animistic thinking, we must add that if you need to handle certain evil or toxic ideas, then you had best be wearing your Hazmat suit. You might work with them if you never expose yourself to their pernicious influence.

Since Stephen Pinker was being honored for his work in trying to maintain an atmosphere where free inquiry and free trade in ideas could take place, I believe that I am accurately rendering his point that the wish to police thought represents a return to a very primitive way of thinking.

In truth, when an academic runs a research project, he wants to discover whether a hypothesis is correct or incorrect. When someone wants to shut down the project or to banish the results from academic conversation, he is responding that if the results do not correspond to his beliefs, he will simply not accept them and no one should be allowed to think them.

As I say, it is primitive, pre-scientific thinking.

While trying to explain why we are so concerned about what other people are thinking, Pinker makes the following point: "... as we associate with other people, as we commit ourselves to our friends and family, we care not just about what people think or what they do, but what kind of person they are.... we seek life partners, coalition partners, friends who are committed through and through, who would not even consider betraying us because it runs against every fiber of their being."

I find this puzzling. How is it possible for loyalty to mean something if the possibility of betrayal was never ever considered? Is it possible for a person never to have been tempted by the possibility of betraying a confidence or a spouse?

After all, you might watch a news story about a spy who has betrayed his country and listen to a series of experts explain how someone could have gotten to that point. Even if you had never thought to betray a sacred trust, you will be thinking, via empathy, about the mindset of someone who did so, and, thereby, imagining whether or not you could do it.

If someone offers you a bribe that would save your family from financial ruin, you may so moral that you would never consider taking it, but it is more likely that you would engage a brief flirtation with the idea.

Does it make you a bad person, someone that no one should ever want to associate with, if you have faced temptation and not yielded? Are you a better person if you have never even been tempted?

Not only do the thought police have a negative effect on academic research, but they also, if you follow their arguments, seem hellbent on holding human beings to standards that are almost superhuman.


David said...

There is a German song, dating from the peasant rebellions of the Middle Ages: "Die Gedanken Sind Frei"--the thoughts are free. In some versions, this is "Nur die Gedanken Sind Frei." (only the thoughts are free.) I was reminded of this song last year when reading about an indoctrination program at the University of Delaware and the persecution of a student for her unapproved thoughts--post here) Apparently, at U-D not *even* the thoughts are free.

One of the reasons why free speech is under such virulent attack today, I feel sure, is that so many people are *scribes*..their professional life revolves wholly around *words*. To a farmer or a machinist or even an electrical engineer, the difference between speech and actions is pretty clear. To a writer or an entertainer or a lawyer or a professor (outside of the hard sciences), not so much.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think you're absolutely right. It's a great point, one that shows how self-referential academics tend to be.

I think they also believe that if they are given more power over people's minds and can force more and more people to think the way they want them to think, they will change the world.

David said...

It's not just academics, though...the scribe class also includes journalists, writers, entertainers, lawyers, etc. The % of Americans who make their living through the manipulation of words and images is very substantial.

The absence of a market test for academic output *may* make the problem worse there, but I'm not sure. Entertainers and MSM journalists do face a market test, and there is arguably as much bizarre thinking among them as among academics.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Interestingly, enough the current feeling that there is a higher education bubble suggests that academics may soon be feeling what it's like to answer to a market.

I tend to single out academics because the other members of the scribe class seem to want to take them as role models. Academics and schoolteachers have the power to enforce correct beliefs and opinions through their control of grading.

Of course, many academics only present the point of view that their ideology allows into their classroom, but the power to grade is their ultimate instrument of control. By exercising power over a child's future by grading up or down a teacher can indoctrinate beyond the dreams of other members of the scribe class.

These latter are important for being able to disseminate ideas far more widely and to make the ideas more sexy, but they are all, I believe, wanna be teachers.