To what end, to what purpose are today’s college students being trained to be social justice warriors?
Jonathan Haidt raises the issue by introducing the concept of telos, the purpose or goal of an action. Allow me to distort it slightly and ask this question: what will happen when these college students take their social justice training and apply it to real world situations? What will happen when they go off on their first job interviews?
If a student has a resume or a social media footprint that shows a marked dedication to advancing a cause, and thus, to disrupting the established order… how far do you think he will get on his job interviews? Do companies want to hire a student who announces from the beginning that he will not feel any special loyalty to the company? Will they be inclined or disinclined to hire a student who will be spending his time critiquing instances of racism and sexism or who will be militating for transgendered restrooms and locker rooms?
It seems to come down to this: social justice warriors are excluding themselves from good jobs. It will provide them with endless grievances. They seem to be sacrificing their future economic success for a dumb idea. Perhaps it’s just a way to help corporations to have an easier time making hiring decisions.
Haidt argues that pursuing social justice is not the same as pursuing the truth. He is saying that an extremist pursuit of an unattainable ideal will compromise your ability to work through a problem in order to find the truth.
Whereas Karl Marx—remember him?—said that philosophers should go beyond their impulse to understand and interpret the world… in order to change it, John Stuart Mill, Haidt says, had a basic understanding of the way that the marketplace of ideas—what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called “free trade in ideas”-- would help us to arrive at the truth.
In Mill’s words:
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.
One might say that Mill is a modern Thomist. Consider his and Marx’s point in terms of its goal or purpose. Let’s say that a young staffer at a company is attending a meeting. A group is debating strategy or devising a plan or updating current projects. Let’s say that different members of the group have different opinions.
Do you want to be the employee who grants credence to the different opinions and attempts to integrate them into the final decision or do you want to be the social justice warrior who is going to dismiss differing opinions as bigotry and who will be inclined to fight to the death for his own ideas? In other words, do you want to be the person in charge or the impudent brat who is making it more difficult for others to participate?
In principle, students should be learning these skills in college. When students participate in a seminar should they be trying to suss out instances of bigotry in the other students or should they be learning how to respect differences of opinion? Are they learning how to fight a culture war over ideas or are they learning how to work together?
Haidt points out that those who want to protect students from ideas they might find offensive are doing them no favors. Treating them like children does not help them to become adults:
Haidt outlines the point:
Instead they [students] are enmeshed in a “safety culture” that begins when they are young and that is now carried all the way through college. Books and words and visiting speakers are seen as “dangerous” and even as forms of “violence.” Trigger warnings and safe spaces are necessary to protect fragile young people from danger and violence. But such a culture is incompatible with political diversity, since many conservative ideas and speakers are labeled as threatening and banned from campus and the curriculum. Students who question the dominant political ethos are worn down by hostile reactions in the classroom. This is one of the core reasons why universities must choose one telos. Any institution that embraces safety culture cannot have the kind of viewpoint diversity that Mill advocated as essential in the search for truth.
Should colleges be infantilizing students? Should they make them more socially dysfunctional? Have the social justice warriors considered that an adult will naturally be exposed to a variety of different ideas and points of view?
An adult who cannot sustain a civil discussion with someone who has a differing point of view—because he has learned that anyone who holds such an opinion is a bigot— will have difficulty getting along with different kinds of people and will barely be able to function and succeed in the real world.
Infantilizing students by protecting them from alternative points of view will ultimately make them hypersensitive. They will not merely be attuned to instances of transphobia but they will be on the lookout for the most minimal sign of prejudice or discrimination—like a dedicated ladies’ room. And they will believe that they need to go to culture war over all such instances of injustice.
Becoming hypersensitive to adult realities will not improve your chances to get or to keep a job. What will you do when your business takes you to nations and cultures that do not hold to your high ideals and your delusional beliefs? Will you be trying to do business or will you be declaring culture war?
Haidt correctly sees the will to censor as a revival of blasphemy laws. If one believes that students in universities should be learning skills that will serve them in the real world and on the job, they should get over the reactionary mindset that undergirds blasphemy rules.
At Truth U, there is no such thing as blasphemy. Bad ideas get refuted, not punished. But at SJU, there are many blasphemy laws – there are ideas, theories, facts, and authors that one cannot use. This makes it difficult to do good social science about politically valenced topics. Social science is hard enough as it is, with big complicated problems resulting from many interacting causal forces. But at SJU, many of the most powerful tools are simply banned.
If you punish those who hold to bad ideas you are freed of the obligation to refute them. For those who are who are incapable of refuting bad ideas this is a godsend. Social justice warriors know what they believe, know which idol they worship and do not much care what happens when such ideas are put into practice.
Of course, the current debate about social justice rests on the notion that equal opportunity is not enough. If outcomes are not also equal, then that, in itself, is evidence of the existence of prejudice.
The notion makes no sense. Haidt explains why:
But what if there is a correlation between a demographic category (e.g., race or gender) and a real world outcome (e.g., employment in tech companies, or on the faculty of STEM departments)? At SJU, they teach you to infer causality: systemic racism or sexism…. At Truth U, in contrast, they teach you that “disparate outcomes do not imply disparate treatment.” (Disparate outcomes are an invitation to look closely for disparate treatment, which is sometimes the cause of the disparity).
In tech companies white and Asian males are overrepresented. Members of minority groups are clearly underrepresented. Does it mean that the nation is racist and sexist or does it show that some people work harder or have more aptitude for certain kinds of work?
After all, Facebook has been offering bonuses to recruiters who hire qualified minority applicants. As of now, they have not been successful. The group was not being overlooked. It simply does not exist. You can run to the barricades and declare culture war on racism, but would it not be better to encourage minority youth who want a career at Facebook to work harder on their studies and to spend less time militating for social justice.