Thursday, March 17, 2016

Academic Diversity and Ideological Conformity

Robert Boyers has written an excellent analysis of the power of ideas. In particular, he has explained how ideas are trafficked on college campuses today. He argues that when universities create safe spaces, spaces designed to protect students from dissonant and dissenting ideas, they are stifling intellectual inquiry and damaging students’ abilities to think rationally. 

His idea, dare I say, is unimpeachable. He is also suggesting, without quite using these words, that the thought police that patrol college campuses are really agents of cults. Ideas are one thing. The question is: who is thinking the great ideas when we are not? The answer must be the gods and goddesses who are associated with the ideas. When we bow down to an idea we are joining a cult that worships the god or goddess. Multiculturalism, I have occasionally argued, is a return to pagan idolatry. As you know, Greek gods and goddesses are all associated with big ideas. Apollo with reason; Athena with wisdom or science; Aphrodite with sensuality; Hermes with communication; Dionysius with spring break.

Boyers expresses the notion thusly:

A friend of mine told me, not long ago, that passionate intensity was overrated, and conviction too. I knew what she meant. People with convictions are much of the time tedious. Moreover, they are intent upon achieving a grand consensus and, not incidentally, bringing everyone else to their knees. They want the rest of us to feel free to express ourselves, as they like to say, but only on the condition that we find them and their convictions irresistible and keep our mouths shut when we don’t. No surprise that passionate intensity seems often to belong most insistently to the commissars of correctness and their inflamed camp followers, who have as little use for real argument as they have for genuine difference or diversity.

People with passionate intensity and fervent convictions are cult followers. They want to bring us to our knees, not merely metaphorically and not merely in an attitude of submission. They want us on our knees worshipping the god associated with the idea.

When you worship an idea with passionate intensity and are convinced beyond reason that it represents  a higher truth, you become a member of a cult.  The more intense your conviction the more status you have in the cult. How better to prove your conviction than sacrificing yourself for an idea. That is what we are seeing on campuses today.

To underscore the point: holding the right beliefs does not fill your life with meaning. It makes you a member of a cult where everyone thinks the same way and where you are allowed membership in a space where you are never being forced to listen to any ideas that do not echo your own. Narcissism, anyone?

And yet, Boyers sagely notes, ideas are not fixed entities. They shift over time. His point will be easier to understand if you think in terms of word usage. Words do not have fixed meanings. Their meanings change in the marketplace of language usage.

With ideas or with the words that supposedly convey them, something slightly different happens. Rather than have the meaning of words change with usage, certain words are taken over by ideologues who try to impose one usage on everyone else. We can call it the fetishization of ideas, if you like.

In Boyers’ words:

Though people hold them or dismiss them, promote them or disparage them, ideas often seem unstable. Often we think we are debating an idea only to discover that it no longer means what we thought it meant. We proclaim our affection for equality, autonomy, liberation, authenticity only to find that the meanings of those words and the concepts they name have changed into something unrecognizable. Those of us who have long been wary of big ideas, ideas that mobilize infatuates, find that even modest ideas are routinely appropriated for purposes that can seem astonishing. This is a time when students and their mentors at major universities declare themselves endangered by the "unsafe and hostile" environment created by a professor — call her Laura Kipnis if you like — who had the nerve to publish a so-called offensive essay. Thought you understood terms like "unsafe," "hostile," and "endangered" and knew more or less what diversity of outlook or opinion might entail in an academic environment? Think again.

He continues:

Ideas have always been in flux. The standard, unfavorable sense conveyed by the word "prejudice" was consistently challenged, over centuries, by thinkers like Edmund Burke and, later, T.S. Eliot, who saw in prejudice the goal you hoped to arrive at if you were to have a foundation for your thoughts and any hope of conducting a serious argument. MacIntyre changed the way we think about "identity" by asserting that rebellion against one’s own inherited identity is often a powerful way of expressing it. Herbert Marcuse, by no means alone in this, stirred a generation of radicals to consider whether tolerance might itself be an instrument or symptom of repression, thereby converting the benign idea celebrated by John Stuart Mill and other liberal thinkers into something else.

When ideas have been fetishized you need to take care that you do not misuse an idea. Doing so constitutes a thought crime and opens you to assault. Since no one ever knows with certainty what you really believe, all cult members are especially sensitive to anything that seems to reveal deviant thoughts. When you get it wrong, you have not just offered an opinion. You are threatening someone’s group (or cult) membership:

And yet, in spite of this long history of instability in the domain of ideas, it is now harder than ever to argue about ideas without first ascertaining that you and your antagonist share even rudimentary assumptions about what exactly is intended when a concept is invoked. Is judgment an exercise of discrimination or, as Montaigne had it, "an expression of habit"? Is "the other" to be understood as external to oneself or as a part of oneself? Is perfectibility to be understood as a delusion or, as Rousseau contended, that which principally distinguishes us from animals? 

Once ideas function within a cult, they become dogma. Or, as Boyers says: their status becomes “all but unimpeachable:”

We have long supposed that so-called liberal societies are worth defending precisely because they are committed to pluralism and the clash of ideas. And yet on several fronts our liberal societies are advancing toward what a number of thinkers, from Isaiah Berlin to John Gray, call "missionary regimes" promoting what they take to be "advanced values." These values are informed by ideas whose status is — or is felt to be — all but unimpeachable.

How has it happened? Boyers names the principal culprits:

More and more in such settings, the learning agenda is controlled by cadres of so-called human-relations or human-resources professionals and their academic enablers, who, as the Yale English professor David Bromwich has described them, regard "learning as a form of social adjustment," and believe that it is their business to promote "adherence to accepted community values." Ideas thus are esteemed only insofar as they ordain a safe and accredited direction that we can learn, all of us, to follow. Dialogue is encouraged so long as it is rooted in approved suppositions and clearly headed where we must all want it to go. The atmosphere has about it, as Bromwich sharply observes, the qualities of "a laboratory that knows how to monitor everything, and how to create nothing" and "a church held together by the hunt for heresies."

It is inevitable. If you believe that cults hold together when people all adhere to the same doctrines and believe in the same dogmas, you will need to institute inquisitorial practices to figure out whether people really believe what you want them to believe—that is, whether you have full control of their minds—or whether they are faking it.

Boyers then uncovers the contradiction that underlies the current acadmic mania about safe spaces. An academic culture that proclaims the value of diversity demands ideological conformity:

Bizarre that a culture officially committed to diversity and openness should be essentially conformist, and that the hostility to the clash of incommensurable ideas and even to elementary difference should be promoted with the sort of clear conscience that can belong only to people who don’t know what they’re doing.


David Foster said...

I have a hypothesis about the increasing turn against free speech....hasn't gotten much agreement from those I've tried it out on so far, but anyhow...

Key to free speech is the clear distinction between *speech* and *action*. This distinction is pretty clear if you're a farmer or a mechanic or an assembly worker or even an electrical engineer....but what if you're a lawyer or a consultant or an ad man or a professor (outside the hard scientists)...then your speech, in a professional context, *is* your action. Hence, the boundary becomes more fuzzy.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Once ideas function within a cult, they become dogma. Or, as Boyers says: their status becomes “all but unimpeachable:”

Lots of big thoughts here, and they do seem unlimitedly applicable to all human behavior everywhere, so it makes me skeptical about anything and everything, as if I was careful enough to believe absolutely nothing, then I'd be free from dogma.

What seems to be missing from the discussion perhaps is the idea of cult and counter-cult, that is when there are two competing cults, each convinced of their own truth, and rejecting of their counter-truth.

At one level that may be the worst of all conditions, at least for the true believers who are trapped into a refusal to think, but the two sides do sort of represent psychic landmarks for others who are not true believers to try to make sense of things. And journalists are also taught to be objective and neutral and to try to identity the landscape, and so if you write an article about evolution and the fact that the earth is likely 4 billion years old, a truly objective journalist will feel compelled to include the Creationists point of view, of a literal Genesis, and a 6000 year old earth as a competing scientific theory.

And true believers in the Dogma of young earth creationism are convinced that their beliefs deserve equal attention to biology class, and then we can allow 15 year olds the luxury of deciding for themselves which science dogma they should accept. And some smart-alex 15yos might see some people are rigid and sensitive on the subject, and like might pretend to believe in a 6000 year old earth, just because it upsets his science teacher so much, and that's fun to piss off adults who think they know everything.

Then we can also go to the idea that there are 3 subjects that shouldn't be discussed in polite company: religion, sex, and politics. And maybe we need to add science to that list, since science has become a religion to people. And Progress is also clearly a religion. Oh, Capitalism also looks like a religion, so that's out.

I can see the problem of taboo subjects, if you limit discussion to whatever the most sensitive, and most rigid thinkers can handle, and you look at the intersection of the all categories of sensitive thought, common ground leaves home team sports and the weather as the only topics available of discussion within a "safe space".

I also notice the primary argument against Muslim immigration is the belief that Islam prevents Muslims from complete integration to our secular society. And that might be true.

And conservatives would prefer to end multiculturalism as a valid ideal, because as I've described above, such a society has no common ground to rally behind, and civic spirit sinks into professionalism, where people perform legal duties and nothing more.

But if universities are supposed to be the "Liberal education" needed to allow professionals to gain the skills in dealing with diversity, but that liberal education is breaking down into illiberalism of sacred individual privilege of minorities to never be offended, then I agree we're lost.

It does often seem amazing that civilization ever works at all. Perhaps it succeeds by the occasional conviction that all the alternatives are worse?

Anonymous said...

Ordinary people also seem furiously dogmatic.

Discussion turns to rage. It happened to me. I lost a friend of 20+ years because he disagreed with me.

"You don't know shit. You worked for the government!"

Colleges. Freedom is Slavery. And the other insane diktats in "1984". Orwell was suicidal (really), but he was oh so prescient. -- Rich Lara

David Foster said...

The issue is why some people are threatened to the core by differing opinions, to the point they become enraged, unhinged, or even violent.

Most believing Christians..not all...can remain calm and polite when talking with someone who says there is no God and no Heaven.

But a very substantial # of believers in, let's say, Anthropogenic Global Warming or the evils of GMOs will react to challenge like the devil himself is about the carry them away. They appear to be threatened to the core of their identity by disbelievers.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

David, you make a good point about identity. When everyone is told they are special, and their world of make-believe is as good or important as anyone else's, you get this kind of madness. A friend once described Leftists thusly: "We think they're wrong. They think we're evil. That's a huge difference." For a group that evangelizes about social justice, racism and the barren earth we're creating, they seem like spoiled children. They have no sense of humor. I never understood what was noble about protesting something, like being an activist is a coming-of-age experience. I was turned off by it because they seemed so pissed off about... well, everything. Every idea is boiled down to some dualistic simplicity of good versus evil. For people who celebrate diversity and tolerance, they don't seem to have much themselves. It's a farce. I expect one of these peace-loving punks to wear a T-shirt that says "I HATE BIGOTS," and it will of course be partially funded by the college's community service fee. I am scoffed at for being a Catholic white male of privilege by youths blind to their own privilege. They're humorless and spoiled because no one challenges them to think and make distinctions. That's not a well-formed identity, that's programming. So many people have told these kids they're extraordinary, but not that they are also equally ordinary. This is shocking to them. When your self-concept and social identity is this fragile, it's a wonder more aren't terrified.

Ares Olympus said...

David Foster and IAC,

Tonight happened upon a new TED talk by Celeste Headlee with 10 rules of good conversation.

On the subject of "everyone is being told they are special", she said
"And I kind of grew up assuming everyone has some hidden, amazing thing about them. And honestly, I think it's what makes me a better host. I keep my mouth shut as often as I possibly can, I keep my mind open, and I'm always prepared to be amazed, and I'm never disappointed."

Perhaps that's consistent with my Pastor's statement from more than one sermon "We're all unique, but we're not special."

I thought her list item #2 was most interesting, "Don't pontificate", and her suggestion was if you want to offer your opinions, start a blog. So either blogging is a way of exercising opinions without having to inflict them on your friends, or its a way of building the bad habits of needing to have and express an opinion on everything.

So her advice (as a radio interviewer, at is perhaps to make a "safe space" for others to express themselves, but its less clear what's the purpose of conversation. And since she's a people person, her purpose is apparently to draw people's unique experiences, which can be noble, and yet I wonder at what point I can challenge someone else's unique confused narrative without corrupting it with my own confused narrative? Or are we supposed to just keep quiet and write our interpretations down later in our secret journals, and not bother other people with our own differences?

On the other side, perhaps the biggest failures in politics now is if 90% of politicians are focused on agenda, and they fail in the social lubricants and making friends outside of their political allies, then you fail to see they're treating your rivals as enemies, and create what you see, because they are nothing to you but objects of frustration to power.

At least I can see that hyper-partisanship kills something important important, as Orrin Hatch said "The environment is toxic" as an excuse why the republicans have to refuse any hearings on a candidate for Supreme Court they've already declared must be categorically rejected out of principle. Everyone has an excuse that explains why the other side poisoned the well first.

Anyway, I copied her list:
1. Don't multitask.
2. Don't pontificate. [opinions]
3. Use open-ended questions.
4. Go with the flow.
5. If you don't know, say that you don't know.
6. Don't equate your experience with theirs.
7. Try not to repeat yourself.
8. Stay out of the weeds [incidental details].
9. The most important one. Listen.
10. Be brief.

....FULL TRANSCRIPT on #2...

Number two: Don't pontificate. If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog.

Now, there's a really good reason why I don't allow pundits on my show: Because they're really boring. If they're conservative, they're going to hate Obama and food stamps and abortion. If they're liberal, they're going to hate big banks and oil corporations and Dick Cheney. Totally predictable. And you don't want to be like that. You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn.

The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. He said that sensing this acceptance, the speaker will become less and less vulnerable and more and more likely to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener. Again, assume that you have something to learn.


Anonymous said...

Never understood why being a protester in one's youth was powerful, brave or necessary. Seems like the tired old hippies just weep with joy when they see angry, spoiled youths getting angry about yet another something. Like its an automatic assumption that an assembly of PO'd students must be standing for an affront to justice. These adolescent brats have no idea what they're standing for. They might as well be protesting about the injustice of people having different color hair, or different bathrooms for men/women, or the absence of trans charcacters on I Love Lucy, or there aren't enough Asians in Riverdance. Our college campuses have amplified the most minute difficulties into blood curdling horrors that threaten our democracy. They look, sound and behave like idiots. I have no time for them. Enough. They need jobs. They need to grow up and get into the real world ASAP.