Diversity of thought
We can seek truth, or we can push our politics on one another, but not both
At a recent online academic conference, I co-organised and attended a session focusing on welfare and mental health within our field. These topics, and strategies for improving one’s own mental health, were addressed with compassion and professional insight by several speakers.
Suggestions from these speakers were just that: suggestions. Offers of better ways to massage the work-life balance, to avoid the pitfalls of stress and over-work. There was a humility to them, a respect for the individuality of each audience member. I felt that were I to disagree about the utility of any advice, I would be taken seriously even despite my inexpertise. I would be thanked for the challenge, and for the chance to clarify further. I would be treated as an honest interlocutor, seeking the truth in good faith.
These were the feelings generated by most of the day’s talks. However, one talk later in the session would go on to create in me the very opposite feeling. If you read my previous piece, you probably surmise correctly that this talk was all about identity, i.e. nationality, country of origin, wealth, skin colour, dis/ability, gender, sexuality, sex, religiosity, parental status, mental health status, etc.
After a lengthy outline reducing each axis to a simple binary — e.g. female = unlucky, white = lucky — we were given every possible example by which the lucky might hurt the feelings of the unlucky, inadvertently or otherwise. The talk finished with sets of dicta for students and academics with ‘power’, those with ‘less power’, and those who ‘are marginalised’.
Ostensibly, the speaker’s idea was that we would tackle inequalities and promote workplace harmony by dividing the community up into low-resolution haves and have-nots, and then telling each what kind of behaviour is appropriate for them. I knew that to object to this identity politicking would be to invite destruction upon myself; one does not argue here, not without inviting the accusation of indifference to inequality.
I’ll not recapitulate any arguments for continued vigilance in the face of discrimination — at this point in history, particularly in places like universities, they really do go without saying. Nothing disgusts polite society like the maltreatment of persons according to things that they cannot control, and we rightly accept few excuses in this regard.
But this is not what these talks are about. They are not about fighting to eradicate discrimination and inequality; they are about seeking to enshrine them as guiding principles. Rather than digging through sociological literature, presenting evidence, and formulating strategies to address the real, important questions: ‘Why are we seeing inequality? Is there unfair discrimination here? If so, how can we mitigate it?’, these talks begin and end with arrogant, unqualified assertions: ‘Given that all of these inequities stem entirely from unfair discrimination, this is what all of us must do’.
The purity of these speakers’ intentions, the kindest interpretations of their dogma, should not excuse them from criticism; particularly if their aim is to be effective in driving change. Their foregrounding and moral condemnation of accidental harms perpetrated at universities demand that the intentions of any action are subordinate to the results — but results of any sort are conspicuously absent from the seminars.
With a brazen lack of epistemic humility — uncharacteristic of scientists, until recently — decrees are made without any supporting data. These are not nuanced, self-correcting, productive discussions on a complex topic. They are a one-sided peddling of simplistic philosophy, accompanied by a threat of moralistic denunciation.
I do not doubt the existence of discrimination that I cannot see, and to which I may unknowingly contribute. I support the discussion of solutions for the avoidance and mitigation of discrimination. As a member of the community, a stakeholder, I want to participate in such discussions with honesty. I also want the freedom to choose not to participate; to have work be about work, sans politics, if I so wish. I do not want to have my own identity used to discredit me, or to disqualify me, or to compel me — indeed, that would strike me as precisely discriminatory.
How do my desires line up with the philosophy of identity? As an academic with ‘less power’ — meaning: favoured identity, junior career stage (I remain unsure as to whether half-Indian = ‘marginalised’) — my instructions are to “be open to learn, be open to be wrong”. Great advice; everyone should observe this.
The next instruction is to “be an ally, advocate for [my] peers, take some of the burden off their shoulders”. Hmm. That sounds a bit like an injunction to agree — I am open to be wrong and to learn, but I still have to be persuaded to change my views, as do we all. Without lying, I cannot ally-with and advocate-for my peers if, after hearing their arguments, I believe them to be wrong. Sadly, though, if I can expect a public brow-beating for my objection — which I can — I will probably just hang my integrity, and nod along — which I do.
This small, seemingly innocuous example is characteristic of the wider issue. A minority of us — highly educated, profoundly privileged people — are enforcing, through fear, a rigid set of faith-based ideas about bias, merit, and tolerance within the academy, and the West more generally. This is not a concern for the university alone, but also for the rest of the culture. Purveyors of the doctrine do not stop beating others into ideological submission after they graduate, and the university — the furnace where youthful arrogance ought to be tempered with exposure to reasoned counterarguments — is upstream of much of society.
What exactly is it that I must disagree with, and why? I will answer, but these are the wrong questions. Our right to speak our disagreements is not conditional upon what, or whom, we are disagreeing with. Intentionally or otherwise, implicitly or explicitly, that right is being eroded at the university.
The final instruction for academics with ‘less power’ was: “Do not invalidate your colleagues’ experience” — a common intonation in this (and every other) identitarian seminar. I find this phrase truly bizarre. It could generously be called ‘banal’, but it whiffs of insanity when touted as a way to live one’s life.
‘Experiences’ are our observations and interpretations of events, along with the lessons that we draw from them; different peoples’ experiences of the same events often differ dramatically. ‘Validity’ is the quality of being logically or factually sound. What is ‘logical’ is usually subjective, and has been a topic of philosophy for millennia. What is ‘factually sound’ cannot, by definition, be grounded in opinion.
As such, our experiences are not ‘valid’ a priori; they are subject to validation by our peers. They are always liable to ‘invalidation’ — though this is more commonly referred to as ‘disagreement’.
Banning disagreement at universities is quite a laughable idea. This rule, though, is no laughing matter; it is intended to censor specific people in favour of others. Though proponents know better than to say it explicitly, the full rule is something like: ‘Western, white, cis-hetero, male, neuro-typical, or abled people must not invalidate the experiences of their less privileged colleagues, nor defend the validity of their own experiences when called into question’. The implicit rule rarely penalises education or class — such would undermine the authority of identity, and knock all of us post-graduates off of our high horses.
I expect that some will not baulk at my direct framing of the full rule, whilst others will roll their eyes. I am aware of the reasoning behind the sentiment; to share one’s experience of discrimination requires courage and vulnerability, as associated feelings of pain, anger, and shame rear their heads. When we perceive that the validity of our feelings is being challenged, especially by persons not sharing our experience, it often hurts. When we also perceive an imbalance of power or authority, then distress, fear, embarrassment, or fatigue can spur us to retreat.
None of that makes us right, though. While such emotions are not pleasant, and while we should prefer that challenges are not so robust as to dissuade continued and productive conversation, these are not arguments to proscribe any such challenges. How else will we know when we are wrong, and when we require different perspectives to aid our own growth? The initial hurt in such cases is universal, and necessary — we can all recall the chagrin when we lose an argument, but we tend to then brush ourselves off, change our points of view to accommodate new information, and move forward the wiser.
Perpetual avoidance of that hurt or embarrassment, that sharp edge, is impractical and ill-advised — if your ideas are lacking, then the edge is coming for you eventually. If your ideas are solid, then the edge is nothing to be feared, and can only sharpen your outlook. Surely it is better to be prepared, to weather criticism, and to find the best version of your own argument, than to walk on in infallible ignorance? It is better that we strive for everyone to experience that same level of scrutiny, to access the resources that are the minds of our peers, right?
Wrong, so say these speakers — better to be steadfastly affirmative if your opposite is ‘marginalised’, so as to cause them no harm at all. Harmed feelings are equal to discrimination, if the victim can be considered to be marginalised. It is the duty of the privileged to avoid hurting the feelings of the marginalised at all cost — be it your honesty, dignity, or even compassion.
This proclivity for coddling is most clearly illustrated by the phenomena of ‘micro-aggressions’, ‘trigger warnings’, and ‘safe spaces’ — ideas that find their home at the university. In broadening our notions of what is harmful, and in condoning the wilful avoidance of discomforting material, we are actively encouraging young people to have thinner skin than any previous generation, to cry foul when their feelings are hurt, and to find self-worth and value in victimhood before resilience.
That one’s identity determines how much coddling they will suffer from the progressive class is a travesty, and may yet signal a reversal of actual progress. My best advice, that I would readily preach to friends and family, might be: Cultivate resilience, have a thick skin, fight your own demons first. Were I to withhold my best advice from a person because they are marginalised, how could one call it anything other than bigotry?
The above sentiments would probably be described by the majority at the university as somewhat conservative — perhaps they are, if conservatism is defined in opposition to the latest strategies of the vocal left. I detest tribal politics, and prefer to think of them as defending absolute equality, freedom of speech, and classical liberalism. I have, however, recently wondered whether or not I flee the word ‘conservative’ due to the derogatory sense in which it (and ‘right wing’) are spoken at the university — as if we really do not care about alienating half of society.
Many in the university milieu will be familiar with arguments suggesting that conservatism is just selfish idiocy with added cash. Or a mercenary bias against equality. Or the result of a lack of education. A failure of foresight. A failure of compassion. A failure of morality. Each such argument deployed with a faux affection/polite disgust usually reserved for ugly babies.
Justifications for out-group hatred serve to dehumanise those whom we would otherwise have to listen to. Listening to, and engaging with, opposing views are foundational pillars of liberal democracy. When we censor one another, or softer, elect not to engage with one another, or softer still, neglect to seek out disagreement, we are turning our backs upon the liberal tradition.
The economist Richard Reeves has written about the sustained relevance of the enlightenment philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Reeves reiterates Mill’s argument that citizenship within a liberal society means working to refine one’s ideas, to improve them, through contact with disagreement.
In On Liberty, Mill wrote: “Conflicting doctrines share the truth between them.” It is unlikely that anyone is completely correct; to find the best of our arguments we must hear them all spoken, and synthesise the best parts of them. That is liberty, and liberalism, in action.
It is painful to hear one’s otherwise intelligent and thoughtful friends and colleagues at the university excuse themselves from listening to conservative points of view. Of course there are conservative people who behave in an equal and opposite manner — but they ought not to be admired or emulated.
A refusal to ‘legitimise’ a ‘problematic’ speaker, by allowing their talk to go ahead, is illiberal. Whilst preferable to that, boycotting or storming out are also the actions of someone who is illiberal. To rationalise actions such as these, the word ‘problematic’ now operates as a dehumanising pejorative, meaning, ‘unworthy of the rights to speak and be heard’. According to whom, exactly?
What is ‘legitimate’, what is ‘problematic’? In ancient Rome, the censor had absolute power in the regimen morum — the control of behaviour. Censores were responsible for public morality and answerable to none other than the dictator. They were empowered to suspend rights for the greater good, as they saw it. They defined what was legitimate, or problematic, and governed accordingly.
Ancient Rome was not a liberal society. However unfairly, though, their censores were actually elected. Ours are not. Those who refuse to hear, or worse refuse to allow, objections to progressive positions are eking away at our liberty. By sanitising the forum, as they see it, they rob us all of greater clarity.
If you think that I am blowing these issues out of proportion, you probably haven’t yet looked at the data.
Several recent studies have sought to gauge the freedom of expression enjoyed at universities in the West. Prof Eric Kaufmann, of Birkbeck College, University of London, presents a meta-analysis (executive summary here) of attitudes in Britain, Canada, the USA, and elsewhere. The primary trends are replicated across countries and career stages, and should be cause for great concern within the higher-ed community.
Many students and faculty across the political spectrum feel that they face a hostile environment for their political views. Academics admit willingness to discriminate against: papers for publication; invitees for symposia; and applications for grants, hire, and promotion, all on the basis of the political views of the aspirant, or those expressed in their work.
These trends are amplified amongst those most ideologically committed, and likely even stronger than the researchers find, due to social desirability bias. These confessions by the professoriate demonstrate that self-censorship is not only reactive or even proactive, but possibly adaptive; your academic career could depend upon your surviving this selection pressure.
Large numbers of British and North American students and academics report engaging in self-censorship of their political beliefs for fear of negative consequences. Students at the University of North Carolina identified other students, not lecturers, as the primary root of their concern. The problem of self-censorship is found to be particularly acute in the social sciences and humanities (SSH), but not absent from STEM fields — particularly as one progresses beyond undergraduate study.
The ideological conflict hypothesis states that people are simply hostile to opposing politics, regardless of their own orientation. This would not be such a problem, but for the fact that the university populace leans overwhelmingly to the left. The left:right ratio is at least 2:1 among younger students, ~5:1 among PhD students and STEM field academics, and 10:1 or higher among academics in SSH disciplines. For reference, the academic ratios were below 2:1 in the 1960s across the UK and North America.
It is for this reason, the researchers argue, that authoritarian suppression of political belief, free expression, and academic freedom, is much more frequently reported by those on the political right.
Are conservatives discouraged from joining the academy due to a hostile environment, or is it just that birds of a feather flock together? As with most things, the answer is probably a bit of both. Dissecting the why is, to me, less interesting than the consequences:
The few conservatives among us neglect to express their beliefs for fear that progressives — a minority of the left-wing majority — will discriminate against them for it.
From open admissions to direct questions regarding willingness to: support dismissal campaigns; to discriminate against right-leaning papers, grants, and promotions; to avoid even eating lunch with Trump/Brexit supporters or gender-critical (= biological sex is real) feminists, we can infer that they are correct to be afraid.
This is not progress. This is the corruption of an imperfect and fragile ideal. We are sleepwalking away from intellectual freedom into the seductive arms of intolerance, all the while crying out ‘justice!’ We are obsessed with, or apathetic about, punishments for those voicing the ‘wrong’ ideas, rather than using disagreement and debate to converge upon truth — which we must do, if we wish to alleviate inequality in our societies.
Progressives extending this benevolent tyranny across the university are very cavalier about assailing the cradle of secular modernity, where the content of your ideas should be challenged, but never your right to speak them. Rather, we are being told that the worth of ideas derives from the immutable characteristics of the person sharing them — an archaic notion, used to justify many of the atrocities of our history.
Couple this with unashamed gaslighting of dissenters; denials of the severity or even the reality of the indoctrination project; denials of the chilling impact upon our discourse and culture, and we have grounds for pessimism. Rest assured, though, you are not crazy.
When a defector from North Korea talks about witnessing the suicide of our civilisation as she “learned to censor [herself] all over again”, lest she be penalised for her honesty by her university classmates and lecturers — people positively oozing with privilege as compared with her; a rape survivor and former slave — we ought to take a serious look in the mirror.
This blog is my attempt to stop self-censoring, in some minor way — burning my career during an EDI session is, for now, less appealing. The data show that the university is no longer so tolerant of diversity of political thought. Drawing attention to the choked atmosphere, and trying to pump some air back into the room, are as important as any other calls for diversity.
We want diversity, and it is as much, or more, about how you think as it is about your identity.
It is no easy thing to challenge a friend on these topics — far easier before the pandemic, especially in the pub with a few beers — but we must do so with honesty, and hope that our relationships can take the strain. Sadly, it doesn’t always work out; I have been ghosted by one progressive friend (and counting). That event plagued me for months — am I so reprehensible that a friend would abandon me for saying honestly what I think is right? It took time to realise: No, I am not, and this person was no true friend.
This is why we self-censor, because we imagine that the argument is not worth it, that the consequences are not worth it. In the short term, unfortunately, sometimes they are not. In the short term, one is better served by sitting quietly, hoping that the ship will right itself before one is called upon to give the lie of allegiance. Should the university find its spine once more, enshrine freedom of speech and open inquiry again, I will be glad (maybe a little embarrassed) to be revealed as a fool who insisted that the ship was sinking.
In the longer term, though, if the university should continue listing dangerously to port, who knows whether or not it will recover? What if, one day, you send your children off to become learned and worldly, and instead they return pious and superior? What if they come to believe — by dint of their heightened moral authority — that whilst all people are equal, progressives are more equal than the others?
In that worst-case scenario — the possibility of which only seems to loom larger — I could not forgive having censored myself into oblivion when I should have been standing up and pointing at the rot. My plea to those in the academy, on either side of the aisle, is to try to see the humanity behind the identity, speak honestly, and encourage others to do the same. None of us has the right answers yet, and none of us deserves to be punished for trying to get closer to the truth.