Politics Foreign Affairs Culture We're Hiring

P.C. Not Necessarily Tempest in a Teapot

How campus crackpottery has a way of making its way into the broader culture

A senior at Barnard College pushes the bounds of social progress in this op-ed in the student paper. She concedes that the number of transgender Americans capable of attending college is vanishingly small, but Something Must Be Done all the same. Excerpts:

The logical response is developing an affirmative action policy for non-gender conforming students at Barnard. An inclusive admission policy for trans women would appear a good first step, but will likely prove insufficient to building a greater trans presence on campus. An open door for trans women would likely culminate into insufficient means for building a more egalitarian culture.

As it stands, Barnard’s social environment cultivates conformity, neglecting its commitment to “intellectual risk-taking and discovery.” Attending Barnard, with its diversity of thought and culture, is the greatest among my myriad privileges. A majority of us, however, appear more invested in acclimating to norms.

Oh dear lord. There’s more:

Critical thought becomes endangered when we instead prioritize being understood and included. We tend to forsake encounters with difference, which are crucial to fully engaging “issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency.” Approaches to women’s issues seem predicated upon universalized, homogenized perceptions of patriarchy. For example, some students found offense with Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in a discussion section. My classmates immediately denigrated the masculine gaze, denying the sophistication of Picasso’s possibly gender-fluid portrayal. The tendency to apply gender binaries propagates uncreative scholarship.

An affirmative action policy for non-gender conforming students assures learning that is more worldly, creative, and insightful. I’m not stating that trans women are the antidotes to narrow-minded scholarship. Rather, their open self-identification as trans, in a society hostile or indifferent, epitomizes the boldness that Barnard values. The college needs more than a handful of non-gender conforming students to instigate more courageous and innovative learning.

And so, you might be thinking that this stuff can’t possibly exist outside of the hothouse environment of campus. It’s going to burn itself out, right? Because there’s no way to out-progress them. As Jon Chait said:

The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.”

Okay. Ross Douthat, though, points out that political correctness sometimes works very well. Excerpt:

If you look at the place where the left has won arguably its biggest political-cultural victory lately, the debate over same-sex marriage, you can see an obvious example of this dynamic playing out. In the recent examples of ideological policing around the marriage debate, particularly the high-profile case of Brendan Eich, we aren’t watching a cloistered circular firing squad whose actions are alienating most Americans; we’re watching, well, a largely victorious social movement move to consolidate its gains. Was there a time, in a more divided and socially conservative America, when the P.C.-ish pressure on Mozilla to ease Eich out, and other flashpoints like it, would have backfired against gay activists? No doubt. Do we live in a world now where making an example of a few executives and florists and blue-state colleges is likely to lead to backlash against the cause of same-sex marriage? I very much doubt it; it seems to that the cause has enough cultural momentum behind it that using taboos to marginalize its few remaining critics is likely to, well, work.

And homosexuality and same-sex marriage really are cases where what once seemed like hothouse ideas and assumptions — an expansive definition of homophobia, a dismissal of traditional arguments as sheer bigotry — first took hold college campuses and then won over the entirety of elite culture. The mood and norms and taboos around these issues that predominated when I attended a certain prominent Ivy League college back in the early 2000s are the moods and norms that now predominate just about everywhere that counts. So even if they’re mistaken about how to apply the lessons of their victory, I think it’s very natural for left-wing activists, on campus and off, to see that trajectory as a model for how other cultural victories might be won.

“Critical thought becomes endangered when we instead prioritize being understood and included. We tend to forsake encounters with difference,” writes the Barnard student. Of course she does not mean, not in the slightest, that she wants to encounter difference in any non-progressive way. I am confident that she does not want to encounter the point of view of the white working-class Arkansas Baptist, or the black prosperity-gospel-believing Pentecostal , or the Republican frat boy from Alpharetta, and so forth. I remember a New York encounter a few years ago in which my conversation partners were genuinely shocked that I didn’t support same-sex marriage rights — this, even though they knew from my reputation that I am a religious and cultural conservative. It honestly never occurred to them that someone they actually enjoyed talking to, and felt warmly towards, could fail to believe what all intelligent, civilized people believed. I could tell that I confounded and distressed these Manhattanites. They were all for diversity, but for the right kind of diversity, not the diversity that includes people like me.

Believe me, a lot of us on the cultural right get this. I spoke to a friend of mine not long ago, a guy who teaches philosophy, and who has written at a very high level about human nature, marriage, and sexuality (he is a Catholic who believes what the Catholic Church teaches). He says that he is grateful that he has tenure, because he doesn’t think he could get it today, even at many Catholic institutions, because of the things he has published on the topic. Again, this is not a newspaper polemicist, but a professional philosopher working within academia.

Thus the Law of Merited Impossibility. It depends on the illiberal left believing on the one hand that it is not censorious, McCarthyite types, while at the same time believing that virtue requires it to censor and blacklist those guilty of wrongthink.

A reader passes this along today from the professional philosophers’ blog Daily Nous:

Graduate students in a philosophy department somewhere in the English-speaking world did some online sleuthing about a job candidate for a position in their department, and learned that the candidate seems to hold views they find offensive. In particular, they found reports (including alleged quotes) that the candidate had expressed in online fora the view that homosexual acts and premarital sex are immoral. The candidate’s original postings on this matter were not found, and were presumed to have been deleted or made private.

At a meeting in advance of the candidate’s campus visit, the graduate students discussed the matter. Some students expressed the view that hiring the candidate would create a “hostile atmosphere” for gay and lesbian students. One proposal on the table was that the students boycott the candidate’s job talk. This proposal was rejected in favor of an alternative: writing the faculty to urge them to withdraw the candidate from consideration for the position. Some such notes have been sent, I am told; they include links to the relevant sites and say something along the following lines: “I am concerned about evidence showing that [the job candidate] has defended the view that homosexuality is immoral. If the candidate has in fact defended this view, I would not be comfortable having this person as a member of our community.” Not all of the graduate students support this initiative, I am told.

Daily Nous commenter Joshua Miller writes under this item:

I think we should endorse the claim that holding and publicly promoting false views is evidence of lack of philosophical competence, with the caveat that being persuaded to change one’s mind about false views after having promoted and discussed them publicly should be deemed evidence FOR a candidate’s philosophical competence. (That is: I think we should both endorse and act on the claim that admitting error for previously held and promoted beliefs is extremely valuable.)

What’s more: if I’m wrong about this, and am not able to be persuaded by good evidence and reasons, then that should count against my own candidacy for relevant jobs. (Perhaps even it already has!) Note that I publish under my own name.

“False views”?! How do you know what constitutes “false views”? Isn’t the whole point of philosophy to test views through debate and rigorous analysis? Elsewhere on that comments thread, this:

I’m not sure whether or not the students’ behavior is appropriate. But whether it is appropriate or not, I expect this sort of thing (i.e., grad students looking out into the Internet for evidence about job applicants) to be more the norm than the exception. I imagine that current graduate students, armed with google, will be looking here, at Leiter, the other blogs, the reddit philosophy communities, etc. to see what they can learn about what job candidates are actually like. And I’m guessing they’ll see through the pseudonyms we’ve decided to use. (Hi classmates at my mid-range Leiterrific department!!) Current graduate students (and others on the job market) should probably take note: until you’re safely installed (and tenured), there are at least pro tanto, pragmatic reasons not to get involved in public debate or to conduct your public behavior conservatively and diplomatically.

Happily, most of the commenters on that site think that treating this anonymous grad student in this way is wrong. One said: “Remind me not to work in a department that would not have hired Plato, Cicero, or Aquinas because of their views on sexual morality.” Another, who identifies as a “trans LGBT philosopher,” writes:

Well, I guess this means that I should stop applying to tenure-track positions in philosophy. Given that I have defended the view that homosexuality is *not* immoral online, a group of graduate students where I’m applying who think otherwise might find it “uncomfortable” if I bring my partner to social events, accuse me of creating a “hostile environment” by my very presence, and use one of the most visible platforms in the profession to undermine my candidacy before my on-campus visit even occurs.

That is encouraging. Despite my own views on sex and sexuality, I would never try to keep that trans candidate out of my department, and would stand by him/her if anyone tried to push him/her out, provided that he/she was competent and collegial, and, if hiring for a job, our department had need of his/her philosophical expertise.  Still, I will have a talk with my teenage son today to tell him not to defend anything that might be remotely controversial online, unless he does it under a false name, and leaves no identifying details. Six to eight years from now, when he will be applying for a job or to graduate school, someone, somewhere, will Google him. If he has ever said anything that violates the progressive code, he may be sunk.

Or not. Much depends on old-fashioned liberals finding their voice, and standing up for old-fashioned liberalism and values like free speech and free thought.



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