Sunday, March 26, 2017

Tyranny in the Academy

Some time ago I suggested that New York is a city of free thinkers all of whom think exactly the same thing. The most recent presidential election proved my point. There is less diversity of opinion on Manhattan Island than there is in Manhattan, Kansas. Better yet, the margin of electoral victory in Clinton-loving New York far exceeded the margin of electoral victory in Trump-loving West Virginia.  And New Yorkers think that they are much, much smarter than the rubes in West Virginia. 

New Yorkers are twisting their minds into knots because they do not understand what happened to “their” country. They ought to have noticed that their favorite sources of information, led by The New York Times have been feeding them predigested propaganda, little of which is designed to inform and most of which is designed to tell them what to think. It provides them with just enough skewed facts to make the accepted beliefs plausible. I will not rehash the issue, but in the aftermath of the election Times media critic Jim Rutenberg apologized to his readers for the appallingly bad job the newspaper had been doing. Of course, when it comes to the media, there is a marketplace, and media organs like the Times are barely surviving.

Anyway, New York’s intellectual guardian class cannot enforce its will by the exercise of raw power. It can punish people by marginalizing them, by ensuring that they not be invited to the right cocktail parties, and even, at times by stifling their careers. One suspects that the work of brainwashing and indoctrination began earlier in a place where a guardian class did its work by exercising power over children’s lives and livelihoods.

American institutions of higher and lower education seem, to the eye of John Boyers, to be functioning through social coercion, but in truth they exercise power with the grading pencil. They determine where you can go to college and graduate school. A student who has not escaped to the STEM world will be judged negatively (and ruthlessly) for any deviation from politically correct thinking. A child who defies the brainwashed legions who are controlling academia will end up with bad grades. At the same time, those students who buy into the prevailing ideological dogmas will have been deprived of an education, will have been taught how not to think. In some sense it’s more serious, because such a cohort cannot be expected to lead a great nation to a great future.

Aside from this minor point, Boyers’ article about how the American academy produces groupthink is excellent. He notes that in places like Middlebury College the politics of hysteria have taken hold. Anyone who would dare hold a dissenting opinion has been put on notice. Your job, your career, your future, even your life will be attacked if you hold the wrong opinion. We are obviously dealing with an inquisitional atmosphere where witch hunts are the order of the day. If these grand and petty inquisitors feel threatened by certain political figures, this does not feel like a very bad thing.

Boyers points out that liberal academics insist that they embrace diversity of opinion. This means that they are either deluded or are self-righteous hypocrites… or both:

… the Middlebury incident doesn’t begin to reveal the depth or virulence of the opposition to robust discussion within the American professoriate, where many self-described liberals continue to believe that they remain committed to "difference" and debate, even as they countenance a full-scale assault on diversity of outlook and opinion.

Boyers offers up a passage from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” noting that all academics agree with its every word:

Of course we understand that "the tyranny of the majority" must be guarded against — even when it is our majority. Of course we understand that "the peculiar evil of silencing"— or attempting to silence — "the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing … posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: If wrong, they lose … the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

What can be more obvious than that? Of course we understand that there is danger in abiding uncritically with the views of one’s own "party" or "sect" or "class." Who among us doesn’t know that even ostensibly enlightened views cannot entitle us to think of those views, or of those who hold them, as "infallible"?

And of course, these principles are discarded when liberal academics are facing ideas that they define as “heretical,” that is, inherently dangerous. One notes, because one does not want to miss the point, that these card-carrying atheists have managed to dig up some of the long buried horrors of Western civilization:

Thus a great many contemporary liberals subscribe to the belief — however loath they may be to acknowledge it — that certain ideas are "heretical" or "divisive" and that those who dare to articulate them must be, in one way or another, cast out. The burning desire to paint a scarlet letter on the breast of those who fail to observe the officially sanctioned view of things has taken possession of many ostensibly liberal people in academe, which has tended more and more in recent years to resemble what the Yale English professor David Bromwich calls "a church held together by the hunt for heresies."

How is it all enforced?

While dissentient views are today not always "absolutely" interdicted, and we do not hear of persons who are imprisoned for espousing incorrect views, we do routinely observe that "active and inquiring intellects" are cast out of the community of the righteous by their colleagues and formally "investigated" by witch-hunting faculty committees and threatened with the loss of their jobs. 

What does it look like when a university ceases to be an institution of higher learning and gives itself over to a totalizing process where all courses— especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences— must produce minds that are connected by thinking the same thoughts and believing the same beliefs:

In the university it looks like a place in which all constituencies have been mobilized for the same end, in which every activity is to be monitored to ensure that everyone is "on board." Do courses in all departments reflect the commitment of the institution to raise "awareness" about all of the approved hot-button topics? If not, something must be done. Are all incoming freshmen assigned a suitably pointed, heavily ideological summer-reading text that tells them what they should be primarily concerned about as they enter? Check. Does the college calendar feature carefully orchestrated consciousness-raising sessions led by "human resources" specialists trained to facilitate "dialogues" leading where everyone must agree they ought to lead? Check. Is every member of the community primed to invoke the customary terms — "privilege," "power," "hostile," "unsafe" — no matter how incidental or spurious they seem in a given context? Essential.

It’s controlling and coercive. In such a world all academic material is judged by its ability to advance the ideological agenda. There is no right or wrong except as it affirms the value of the dogmatic beliefs. Your task, whether you like it or not, is to persuade your guardian masters that you are a true believer and that nothing can shake your belief.

It’s not just students minds that must be occupied and controlled. Thought leaders on campus have made it their mission to police the minds of their colleagues. You might have thought that tenure would protect professors from such harassment. You were wrong. What is happening on campus looks, feels and appears to use the tactics that were afoot with witch hunts and inquisitions.

Boyers writes:

The desire to cleanse the campus of dissident voices has become something of a mission. Shaming, scapegoating, and periodic ritual exorcisms are a prime feature of campus life. A distinguished scholar at my own college writes in an open email letter to the faculty that when colleagues who are "different" (in his case, nonwhite, nonstraight, nonmale) speak to us we are compelled not merely to listen but to "validate their experiences." When we meet at a faculty reception a week or so later and he asks what I think of his letter, I tell him I admire his willingness to share his thoughts but have been puzzling over the word "compelled" and the expression "validate their experiences." Does he mean thereby to suggest that if we have doubts or misgivings about what a colleague has said to us, we should keep our mouths firmly shut? Exactly, replies my earnest, right-minded colleague.

As for the theological roots of these efforts, Boyers explains:

In the early 1950s, Isaiah Berlin identified what he called "a common assumption" informing the work of Enlightenment thinkers: "that the answers to all of the great questions must of necessity agree with one another." This "doctrine," Berlin argued, "stems from older theological roots," and refuses to accept any suggestion that we must learn to live with irresolvable conflicts. The consequence? John Gray calls it "a monistic philosophy that opened the way to new forms of tyranny."

Do you see that it’s a form of tyranny?

The word "tyranny" is perhaps just a bit extravagant as a description of tendencies at work in the contemporary academy, and yet, when we speak of the attempt to create a total culture, dedicated to promoting a perfect consensus, we may well feel that we are confronting a real and present danger. The danger that context and complexity will count for nothing when texts or speech acts become triggers for witch hunts, and that wit and irony will be regarded as deplorable deviations from standard protocol. "Tyrants always want language and literature that is easily understood," Theodor Haecker observes.


James said...

This is what I've been saying. We are seeing a strange mix of the old Inquisition with a good bit of the Chinese "Cultural Revolution".
Don't forget the Cardinal wore red.

Sam L. said...

The conservative students could claim victimhood, legitimately, and ought to, just to mess with what minds their opponents claim to have. They won't of course.

Ares Olympus said...

I recall a New Dimensions Program with poet Robert Bly, talking about William Blake's works, and an idea Blake called "Fourfold vision."

So my understanding is we start from single vision where you're only focused on yourself and what you want, and then double vision is where we include a worthy rival to face, and then you have a tension of opposites that can be expressed through two points of view, and then threefold vision is where sufficient common ground or mutual respect is found that rivals can begin to work together for common purpose. This can also be the union of marriage where the masculine and feminine come together in common.

So the problem apparently is that this threefold vision is also the level that polite society stops and tries to stay and once you find common ground, you'd prefer to not go back down, and assume there will always be agreement after that, but each of us changes and grows in different ways, but most will try to suppress the differences as long as possible, and resentment and small misunderstandings start to build up, and at some point can't be ignored any longer. And this can be explained by a process of "internalizing the other" so rather than interacting with someone else as they are, you end up interacting with a projected part of yourself that represents who you see in the other and their point of view, which is no longer accurate.

So Bly's and Blake's observations suggested if you try to stay too long in threefold vision you can't even fall back into twofold vision of a worthy rival, and narcissistic rage sends people all the way back to single vision, and they have to start all over.

So this is where Blake's fourfold vision comes, where you step back from the illusions of agreement in three fold vision, and do your best to see things as they really are, and letting others be as they are, without making that about you. Or you could say that threefold vision is about an expanded ego, and fourfold vision pulls the ego back down to where it should be.

Anyway, I thought about that story here, where perhaps the Universities in their quest for consensus are trying to stay in a false triple vision that isn't large enough to contain reality, and rather than questioning the limits of their social justice ideology, they prefer to purge voices that challenge their vision. And it makes sense with Blake that this motive sinks them back to the bottom of single vision, where rivals aren't even worthy adversaries to debate, but are only wrong-heard people who can't be safely dialogued with.

And I believe Bly said that this single-vision is contagious so as soon as one side falls to that level, it's almost impossible for the other side to avoid their own version of it, and both sides can retreat, convinced they have won the argument while dismissing the opposition, and blind to their own fall.

I'm glad Haidt is being discussed, and perhaps his call for Universities to declare their mission for "Social justice" OR "Truth". So that's an honest attempt to allow the social justice warriors their own home ground, while kicking them out of other grounds, and let the "markets" of public opinion (or university patrons) decide their merits to continue.

It is a curious division, and no one would claim they're against truth, but somehow every has a different idea what truth is, at least once you leave the hard sciences of Newton's sleep. It's easy to see where moral relativism comes from when everything that hold society together is deconstructed and arbitrary and irrelevant. I mean its the opposite side of the "free market", let everyone do whatever they want, there's no authority, and hope for the best. And that's where we are, just in time for the chaos as fiat-currency inspired globalization fails us.

Anonymous said...