Monday, May 30, 2016

The Liberal Blind Spot

In this week’s New York Times Sunday Review, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof takes on the closed-mindedness of the ideological left in an essay entitled “The Liberal Blind Spot.”

Always a good thing to do, criticizing blind ideology.  I can only applaud.

Problem is, Kristof has a few blind spots of his own.

He starts by revisiting the problem he had with a bunch of “fellow progressives” when he insisted that while academics were good at promoting most kinds of diversity on their campuses, they fall down when promoting ideological diversity.  The blind spot in Kristof’s eye is the fallacy that there are always two sides to every story and the truth always lies in the middle.  It doesn’t.  When anti-Semites argue that Jews should be wiped out and Jews argue that they shouldn’t, the solution is not to wipe half of them out.  When slave owners argue the law should return runaway slaves to them and slaves argue that they shouldn’t, the solution is not to let half of them get away.

“As I see it,” Kristof says, “we are hypocritical: We welcome people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us. It’s rare for a column to inspire widespread agreement, but that one led to a consensus: Almost every liberal agreed that I was dead wrong.”

One liberal tried to shame him, he says, by pointing out that is is “mindlessly accepting patriarchy, misogyny, complementarianism, and hateful, hateful bigotry against the LGBTQ community into the academy.”  He insists that he is not.  That all he is doing is claiming that “liberals have turned departments into enclaves of ideological homogeneity.”

It’s unfortunate that Kristof chose to use the word ideology in the first place, since ideology is commonly defined as a closed mind-set, and what is at issue here is whether people with one mind set (or “orientation,” if you will) can cross over and work with people of other mind-sets.  They can, of course, provided the people on both sides have an open mind and a willingness to change their opinions when confronted by new information and sound reasoning.  But Kristof used ideology, so we have to deal with the choice of words.

“There are dumb or dogmatic conservatives, just as there are dumb and dogmatic liberals,” he says, “So let’s avoid those who are dumb and dogmatic, without using politics or faith as a shorthand for mental acuity.”

So far, so good.  What reasonable person would want to disagree with that?

Kristof cites a study by racism scholar George Yancey (i.e., presumably not a closed-minded conservative) which shows that in some fields of academia most academics would discriminate against an evangelical job seeker.  I agree with Kristof.  “That feels…like bigotry.”

But “feels like” is not the same as “is”.  To know whether there is bigotry going on or whether hesitation to hire an evangelical for a given job is legitimate, one would have to know more about the hiring circumstances.  Discriminating against a first-rate mathematician who teaches his kids to pray is indefensible.  But rejecting an active proponent of creationism in the schools for a job in the Graduate School of Education is another story.

In filling a new faculty position, if a candidate announces during an interview that “men should rule the world and the little lady should stay at home,” does Kristof really think the committee should hire this person to “promote the free exchange of ideas?”  It’s possible the bigotry is not in the hiring committee but in the candidate.  

There are benefits of diversity, Kristof says.  Well, yes.  That too is not even an argument.  But while putting people who believe Jesus is the Messiah in a classroom with Jews and others who believe he is not may be good for churning the thinking process, and while it may do football players and ballet dancers good to get to know each other as fully-developed human beings and not merely a function of their passion for art or for sports, this is not an argument for diversity for diversity’s sake. 

Kristof is uncomfortable with the fact that “at most only about one professor in ten in the humanities or social sciences is a Republican.”  He calls that a “sickly sameness.”  But turn the question around.  Instead of asking why more professors aren’t Republican, ask why conservatives should want to spend their time in disciplines where one is constantly searching for new and better ways to do things rather than passing on the traditions of the past.  There is no need to assume there’s a conspiracy here to keep conservatives out.  Being more inclined to embrace change is not a form of “sickly sameness.”  It is, on the contrary, a very healthy mindset and at the very heart of the purpose of higher education.

“I suspect many liberals disdain evangelicals in part because they don’t have any evangelical friends,” Kristof says.  Well, if you accept that the chief characteristic that distinguishes liberals from evangelicals is that liberals define truth as shifting and changing as new information comes in while evangelicals claim that all that really matters has been established once and for all, it should come as no surprise these two groups are not all that likely to bowl together.  Why would those advocating an open door approach to life want to hang out with those advocating a closed one?  We can agree with Kristof that it might be a good thing if people hung out more with people of different mindsets.  But that should not translate into a mandate for giving university positions to folks simply because they bring ideological diversity.  If you already have a Joseph Stiglitz on your faculty, does that mean you should pass over a Robert Reich to hire an Ayn Rand?

Kristof claims that conservatives avoid jobs in academia because of the risk of being belittled and having to suffer microaggressions.  Really?  It’s about bullying?  I spent my professional lifetime in academia.  It can be a brutal place.  Academics can be small-minded bullies, for sure.  But it’s a toss-up whether one is any worse off than with the obsequiousness to be found in the world of sales, or cut throat business practices, or hypocricy of the world of politics.  All fields have challenges.

I think Kristof is barking up the wrong tree.  It’s not ideology that’s the problem.  If it were, I’d be in his camp when he insists that “we liberals should have the self-confidence to believe that our values can triumph in a fair contest in the marketplace of ideas.”  If students protest the policies of Benyamin Nethanyahu, or Recep Erdoğan, they're going to protest the presence on campus of former Vice-President Dick Cheney and you're going to see large numbers of signs urging he be tried as a war criminal.  If he finds it difficult to actually speak, it may have something to do with the evidence that we were lied into the Iraq war and there is broad consensus that Muslim rage around the world at American foreign policy is what's behind the growth of Al Qaeda and ISIS.  Asking those people to sit quietly and applaud politely when Cheney speaks - for the sake of allowing all ideologies an equal place in academia - is really pushing it.

France insists that in the interest of social harmony, which the state has a duty to foster, children may not wear headscarves or other religious symbols in public schools.  America insists those are individual choices and the state should keep its hands off.  In Germany, the law doesn’t permit you to advocate anti-Semitism.  In America, we have that right, obnoxious as it is, provided it is not directed at a specific individual.  It’s useful for Americans and the French and the Germans to debate these questions and recognize how history dictates many of our choices.  And how freedom may be restricted under specific extenuating circumstances.  There I fully support the “marketplace of ideas.”

The problem is that in recent years the American political right has come to reject the scientific approach, where claims must be supported by evidence.  It has not only resisted change; it has tried to pull society back to the time when women had no control over their own bodies and black citizens had a much harder time getting into polling booths.  Debating whether big government is better than small government is one thing.  Obstructing the working of government in order to advance the cause of the Republican Party is another.  Today, if one has reservations about what the word conservative has come to represent, it’s those moves into alarmingly restrictive and self-serving territory that drives those reservations.

“There are no quick solutions to the ideological homogeneity on campuses,” Kristof argues.   “But shouldn’t we at least acknowledge that this is a shortcoming, rather than celebrate our sameness?”

No.  Not if the sameness is a shared conviction that the work of the university is the pursuit of knowledge, and not the furtherance of the belief system of a particular segment of the traditional culture. 

Yes, of course the label “liberal” or “progressive” doesn’t mean you’re right all the time about everything.  There are liberal blind spots.  I just worry that when Nicholas Kristof lays out his ideologies and wants to give them equal time and equal weight, he has not thought through the possibility they may not be of equal value.

photo credit

No comments: