A reply to Brian Leiter and other critics

Brian Leiter, professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, wrote a response to my response to Green’s idiotic post on conservatives in academia. Some of the points he makes echoes what other people have said on Daily Nous, where my post was also published yesterday. (He also replied to other people who criticized Green, but I will  focus on his reply to me.) I want to respond briefly to the central point of his criticism, which he articulates in this passage:

Lemoine complains a lot in his post about claims that aren’t at all “obvious” but are taken to be so by complacent liberals. That’s a good point, but now he’s committed the same mistake here: Ted Cruz conservatives–there are tens of millions of them–do not find it obvious that much of their worldview is “obviously” “irrational.” And these folks are, indeed, up in arms about universities. Lemoine asserts that “only a small proportion of the people who complain” about liberal bias in universities are what I’m calling Ted Cruz conservatives. How does he know? No doubt the people he and I talk to who are familiar with mindless “groupthink” across the spectrum of political opinion are not Ted Cruz conservatives, but I doubt that is a representative sample of those who think universities are inhospitable to conservatives.

The claim is that millions of conservatives in the US have the kind of views Green claimed were rightly not taken seriously in universities, so he wasn’t caricaturing American conservatives in his post. Many other people have replied in more or less the same way, but it’s clearly missing the point I was making.

Neither I nor Green wrote a post about what American conservatism was, we both wrote a post about why American conservatives often complain about liberal bias in universities, which is not the same thing. I’m well-aware that millions of American conservatives have silly views, but I could say the same thing about American liberals, and in any case that’s beside the point. The fact that millions of American conservatives don’t believe that e. g. the US lost a war in Vietnam, even if it were a fact, doesn’t mean that it’s why they complain about liberal bias in American universities. But this is what Green purported to explain. As I said in my response to Green, I read a lot of American conservative publications and listen to a lot of their talk shows, so I’m quite familiar with the kind of things they typically say when they complain about liberal bias on campus and it’s not the kind of things Green is talking about. For instance, if you read Breitbart, you will see plenty of articles that criticize universities, but I can assure you that you won’t find many that do so on the ground that most people in universities don’t take seriously views that e. g. are inconsistent with evolution theory. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they are talking about things like the mindless identity politics that has taken over many American campuses, which even Prof. Leiter, who is hardly a conservative, has no sympathy for.

People who deny this, such as Green, simply aren’t familiar enough with the kind of things American conservatives think and why they have become hostile to universities. I don’t think it’s a coincidence if the proportion of Republicans who had a positive view of universities radically diminished as the number of speakers who were disinvited or prevented from delivering their remarks on campus increased. As recently as in September 2015, 54% of Republicans had a positive view of universities, while only 37% of them do today. Even if it were true that “Ted Cruz conservatives” typically complain about liberal bias on campus for the kind of reasons Green claims, I don’t know that Ted Cruz’s ideas gained that much ground among conservatives during that period. It’s not difficult to understand why the image of universities would rapidly degrade among conservatives as they see a philosophy professor assault one of Trump’s supporters with a bike lock. The fact that it’s just one moron who isn’t representative of university professors, while obviously true, is neither here nor there. I’m sure that, if university professors were overwhelmingly conservative and one of them was seen on television bashing a left-wing protester in the head with a bike lock, the image of universities would also degrade among liberals. Of course, this incident is just one example, but there are plenty of others. Again, if you read American conservative publications and listen to American conservative pundits, you will see that Green’s explanation of why they complain about liberal bias in universities is completely off.

I want to comment on one last point Prof. Leiter makes in his response to me, because I think it’s important. He claims that the problem is not really with anti-conservative bias in academia, but rather with what he calls the New Infantilism, as well as the kind of mindless identity politics some call the regressive left. Now, as Prof. Leiter knows, he and I agree on the stupidity of this recent development. As he also knows, I’m grateful to him that, on many occasions, he took the principled stance and opposed this pathological outgrowth of the left, even though he gained many enemies in the process. But when he claims that, once we put aside the New Infantilism and the regressive left, there is no real problem of anti-conservative bias in universities, he is simply wrong. I know because I have been on the receiving end of it plenty of times, yet I’m no “Ted Cruz conservative” and even less a fool. Not, to be clear, that I think all conservatives who share Ted Cruz’s views are stupid. I know many of them who are very smart, even though I disagree with them on many issues.

There is plenty of evidence that liberals in academia are biased against conservatives. For instance, this study from 2011 (which is cited in the paper by Duarte et al. I mentioned in my response to Green) shows that, when you ask them, liberal social psychologists will openly admit their willingness to discriminate against academics who they believe to be conservative. (Just to be clear, because I know that people aren’t going to read the paper and that some idiot will raise this objection if I don’t anticipate it, the authors controlled for competence in the study.) This result was replicated more recently by this study, which found the same thing across academia, not just in social psychology. (It also found that conservatives are just as willing to discriminate as liberals, but since they are a minority in virtually every department, including in fields which many liberals/progressives mistakenly believe are dominated by conservatives, this is presumably less of a problem.)

There is no reason to think that most of the academics who admitted their willingness to discriminate against conservatives are part of what Prof. Leiter calls the New Infantilism or belong to the regressive left, because thank God relatively few professors are, at least for now. So even if we somehow manage to get rid of the New Infantilism and mindless identity politics, which is going to take a while, we still won’t have eliminated the problem of anti-conservative bias in universities. People like me, but even people in academia who share Ted Cruz’s ideas and are not stupid, will still encounter imbeciles who think our views are obviously wrong, even though they have no fucking clue what they’re talking about, because they are just not familiar enough with the arguments from the other side to have a well-considered opinion on most issues. Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to what Prof. Leiter calls the New Infantilism, it runs much deeper than that.

EDIT: Prof. Leiter noted in correspondence that what he calls the New Infantilism was distinct from mindless identity politics. I agree that I wasn’t using those expressions very carefully, so I edited the post to avoid this confusion.

ANOTHER EDIT: Again, since many people still don’t get it, the basic point I’m making is that even if you have evidence that x believes that P and that people in universities don’t take P seriously, it’s not evidence that x is hostile to universities because of that.

24 thoughts

  1. When I read Green’s post I only took it semi-seriously. That is, the charitable reading of Green is he was being quite hyperbolic, but that there is a kernel of truth alongside the exaggeration. Namely, at least some conservative academics that complain about liberal groupthink also believe crackpot theories and ideologies.

    Leiter has made similar posts on LR over the years. They’re the kind of half-joke posts that everyone can smirk at. Maybe you smirk because you’re a liberal and it’s a funny (somewhat true or, in your own estimation quite true) light jab at the other side. Maybe you smirk because you’re a conservative and you know Leiter isn’t really, seriously trying to de-value you as a thinker (even if you share substantive disagreement with him), and that there is a kernel of truth to the light jab that is also funny. Maybe you smirk because it’s just an off-the-cuff remark, similar to ones everyone makes in private, if not in public, about ‘the other side’; funny, regardless of the degree of truth.

    Was Green being merely semi-hyperbolic? Who knows, but charity requires trying to read a decent amount of hyperbole into that post. Green didn’t write a long, sophisticated analysis countering Heterodox Academy.

    Did you account for this possibility in your response to Green? Yes. However, if you want your blog to get more public traction (and with the right people) as well as make persuasive cases against academics on hot-button topics, I’d suggest reducing the number of times you say something is stupid or idiotic. You’ve used that tone before with claims that 95% of people could agree are stupid. The problem is that the more you use it, the less meaning it seems to have. Moreover, it’s quite easy to exacerbate dialectical disagreements with people you are currently arguing against.

    You’ve got a good thing going with this blog, partly because the argumentative methodology is fairly novel in the academic blogosphere. I’m hoping you get more followers, or at least, the content keeps coming.

    1. “…charity requires trying to read a decent amount of hyperbole into that post…”

      ,,,especially since Interpretive charity is, quite clearly, *so important* to this Green dude.

    2. “…if you want your blog to get more public traction (and with THE RIGHT PEOPLE) as well as make persuasive cases against academics on hot-button topics, I’d suggest reducing the number of times you say something is stupid or idiotic. You’ve used that tone before with claims that 95% of people could agree are stupid. The problem is that the more you use it, the less meaning it seems to have. Moreover, it’s quite easy to exacerbate dialectical disagreements with people you are currently arguing against…

      “You’ve got a good thing going with this blog…”

      Shame if anything were to happen to it.

      Hey, “Jordan” – how’s it going?

  2. There was also the study which showed that the majority of moderates felt the climate in Universities was hostile. It isn’t just a conservative thing ((and I am no conservative). It is an anti “progressive” bias.

    1. What study? If moderates feel like university climates are hostile who’s being hostile to whom. Of course conservatives have a bias against progressives, that’s why they are called conservatives in the first place. But as of yet, we’ve not seen many progressive speakers run off campus by the dreaded Young Republicans, have we?

  3. I suggest, as a matter of interest, that you (and others involved) read Robert Ardrey starting with”African Genesis”.
    Then “Territorial Imperative”
    “Social Contract”
    and “The Hunting Hypothesis”

    As an added thrill read Konrad Lorenz “On Aggression” and “King Soloman’s Ring”

  4. In his CHE article, Leiter divides the right into Ted Cruz conservatives and libertarians. He doesn’t mention Burkeans, paleocons, neocons, or just regular conservatives. Even if the average conservative is stupid, so too is the average liberal; the lack of smart conservatives (there are only 12 in the whole field of sociology) has negative impacts for academia, making them more extreme and worse at seeing their arguments’ flaws, and also deforms their fields by not raising or researching some questions of interest to conservatives and massively over researching race, sex, and gender.

    1. This is why movements like Heterodox Academy are so important. You know you’ve reached the rational limit of liberal saturation when professors from fairly decent universities are publishing articles on social justice for squirrels.

  5. I’m still curious exactly what things conservatives are hostile at universities for. Honest question (I don’t know enough), besides the bike lock and a few——really, a handful—cancelled speeches, what does make them so uncomfortable?

    Besides, if, as you seem to agree, conservatives are in fact hostile to universities, it should be no surprise that they are outnumbered by liberals. Then it’s worth rehearsing that conservatives are no less likely than liberals to discriminate on political grounds, as you also acknowledge. Conservatives are being discriminated against more often simply because of this skewed distribution, but for all we know they might be responsible for the latter to begin with. I’m inclined to think the situation is one of their own making, even if it turned out that Green was wrong (I’m not confident he is as wrong as you claim).

    So, again, honest question: what changes are you recommending, bearing in mind that conservatives just don’t like universities and a number of things that are being routinely taught there? (And you know, or should know, that in many places the issue is, in fact, things like evolutionary theory or climate change. You can’t deny many conservatives are complaining, of course for the wrong reasons, about these being taught as dogmas.).

  6. D-.
    Your failed attempt to equivocate from your unsupported assertion of “hostile at” to ‘hostile to” as an established fact was the high point of this miserable excuse for rhetoric.

  7. You don’t seem to be stupid. I would like to believe you’re simply ignorant. The alternative is that you’re engaging in slithering dissimulation. That’s the hypothesis I favor; can you supply us with some more data?

    So, besides the bike lock.. after all, what’s a little assault with a deadly weapon… we could look at the vicious policing of the Narrative (Larry Summers), the triumphalist assumption that The Revolution is so close at hand that previous rules no longer apply (Melissa Chick)… I could go on forever. And you could inform yourself very easily. Start with those two names and search outwards

    1. Slithering dissimulation, yeah probably. I’m simply addressing a point Philippe made and relying on the studies that he and others have cited, which show that both academic liberals and conservatives are about equally likely to discriminate against the opposite side of the spectrum. Start with this and let me know where I’m going wrong. And let me know if you think, here, the plural of anecdotes is data. Because you haven’t supplied data either. But please go on insulting people forever. It’s exactly what your cause needs.

      1. C+.

        Nice move of the goalposts. I made an assertion and backed it with examples. Rather than rebut, you blow squid ink. You pose as an intellectual, but your dialectic is nonexistent and your rhetoric is weak.

        Academic progressives and conservatives (warning, warning, badword follows!) discriminate each against the other, since their views are opposed. Indeed, without committing this ultimate crime they would be unable to… think, walk, or eat, let alone form themselves into opposing camps.

        Your false equivalence fails because the majority of academics are progressive rather than conservative in their views, and both have and exercise the power to effectively punish or exclude their perceived class enemies. Conservatives at this time have no such power, but are taking careful notes.

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