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Mar/17

11

Middlebury and The Heretic

Cross-posted on The Corner.

Looked at one way, the attempt to silence Charles Murray and the violence that followed it was nothing more than another chapter in a long power struggle, but there was something else about it, something more disturbing still.

Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan:

At around the 19-minute mark, the students explained why they shut down the talk, and it helped clarify for me what exactly the meaning of “intersectionality” is.

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required…

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.

And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. Here’s how they begin: “This is not respectful discourse, or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated, it is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas.”

Sullivan’s article comes with a few nods to orthodoxy of its own, but the fundamental point he makes, which can be applied to many other religions beyond Puritan New England, not least to Marxism (itself a millenarian creed) and its offshoots, is very well worth noting.

And here, writing more explicitly from the left (his observations  on the role that class has  to play in what’s going on in the colleges of the elite is something to think about), in The American Scholar, is William Deresiewicz. If I had to guess the article was written before the events  at Middlebury, but:

Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion…

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.

Deresiewicz understands how this religion uses of the mechanisms of social control:

So it is with political correctness. There is always something new, as my students understood, that you aren’t supposed to say. And worst of all, you often don’t find out about it until after you have said it. The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism—and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty, and therefore were always controllable.

There is always another sin.

Speaking of which, there was this in Reason:

A residential advisor at Pitzer College sent a campus-wide email informing students—white women, in particular—that they should stop wearing hoop earrings.

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Nov/15

25

Intellectual Liberty and the Student Demands

Of the demands being made by protesters in the current wave of unrest on American campuses, some no doubt are well grounded and worth considering. Some of them, on the other hand, challenge academic freedom head on. Some would take control of curriculum and hiring out of the hands of faculty. Some would enforce conformity of thought. Some would attack the rights of dissenters. Some would merely gut the seriousness of the university.

Last night I did a long series of tweets drawing on a website which sympathetically compiles demands from campus protests — TheDemands.org — and noting some of the more troublesome instances:

  • From Dartmouth: “All professors will be required to be trained in not only cultural competency but also the importance of social justice in their day-to-day work.”
  • From Wesleyan: “An anonymous student reporting system for cases of bias, including microaggressions, perpetrated by faculty and staff.”
  • From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “White professors must be discouraged from leading and teaching departments about demographics and societies colonized, massacred, or enslaved under white supremacy.”
  • From Guilford College: “We suggest that every week a faculty member come forward and publicly admit their participation in racism inside the classroom via a letter to the editor” in the college paper.

My series drew and continues to draw a strong reaction. Now I’ve done a Storify pulling it together as a single narrative and including some of the responses. Read it here. (cross-posted from Overlawyered)

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Feb/14

13

Spaghetti Monster Monstered

Sphaghetti MonsterHuffington Post UK:

A poster which replaced the image of God from the Sistine Chapel with a picture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been removed after with a row with a London University.

The South Bank University Atheism society created the graphics for their freshers’ fair stall last week, but returning to the pre-prepared stall on the University campus for the first day of the fair, they allege the posters were removed by union representatives.

Cloe Ansari, president of the Atheist society, alleges she was told initially that the Michelangelo Sistine chapel ceiling was offensive in itself, because it included a “naked man”. But she claims she was later told, having offered to blur the image, that the issue was that ‘The Creation of Adam’ is a religious painting.

Pause to consider the absurdity of the fact that Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam could be considered “offensive”.

And then there’s the whole business about religion.

Ansari claims the stall was removed entirely the following day and says she has lodged an official complaint, though a union representative told HuffPost UK that any such complaint had yet to be seen by officers.

“This incident is just one of a catalogue of attempts to censor our society,” Ansari said in a statement. “I never expected to face such blatant censorship and fragile sensibilities at university, I thought this would be an institution where I could challenge beliefs and in turn be challenged.

Good grief, Cloe, where have you been living all these yours? I thought atheists were meant to see the world as it is….

In any event, the university has now apologized.

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From Heather, The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity:

Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.

Such defenestrations have happened elsewhere, and long before 2011. But the UCLA coup was particularly significant because the school’s English department was one of the last champions of the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay. Precisely for that reason, it was the most popular English major in the country, enrolling a whopping 1,400 undergraduates.

In this day and age we sometimes reflect upon the insanity of the intrigues of the late dynastic courts in Imperial China, where manipulative functionaries migh chop off the knees of their own armies while barbarians massed at the walls. So insulated within the walls of their world, they were obvlious to the actions which were hastening their own demise. Modern humanities in the United States is somewhat like this. The vast majority of students at universities might be willing to endure a few courses in diversity and such to fulfill requirements, but far few will enter into a course of study to explore the shallow waters of ostcolonial theory after the depths of the classics are closed off to them. And without students the field slowly dessicates and dies.

Oct/13

5

Teed Off

Jesus and MoCross-posted on Ricochet.

The Tab reports:

[The London School of Economics] has sparked a free speech row after banning atheist students from wearing t-shirts which depicted Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed. Two members of the uni’s atheist society were threatened with expulsion from Freshers’ Fair unless they removed or their t-shirts

Student Union officers and security guards surrounded Abishek Phadnis and Chris Moos and forced them to remove their t-shirts because they were “in danger of eroding good campus relations and disrupting efforts to run a Fresher’s Fair.”

When they finally agreed to cover up their t-shirts, staff instructed security to follow them round the event. The atheist students, were manning a stall as representatives of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. They say they were approached by Community and Welfare Officer Anneessa Mahmood who removed material from their stall without explanation.

A number of SU representatives allegedly then told the group to remove t-shirts they were wearing containing pictures from the satirical ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon. According to the Phadnis and Moos, when the group asked the officials which rules they had broken, they were told that the SU did not need to provide a reason at that time.

Phadnis and Moos said: “We refused to take off our t-shirts or leave without appropriate explanation, we were told that LSE security would be called to physically remove us from the building”.

After resisting expulsion from the event, without being informed as to which rules they were in breach of, they say they were then approached by the Head of Security and a member of LSE’s Legal and Compliance team who informed them that the T-shirt could be considered ‘harassment’ towards other students.

I suppose it’s pointless to note that there is no right not to be offended.

Yes it is:

…five security guards [allegedly] then positioned themselves around the stall and insisted that the group wear jackets or coats to cover up their t-shirts. According to the students, after they agreed to cover up the cartoon, “the head of LSE security told us that as he believed that we might open the jackets again when he was going to leave, two security guards were going to stay in the room to monitor our behaviour” and that the group were subsequently followed around for the rest of the event by security. The Student Union denies restricting freedom of expression and say the t-shirts “were clearly designed to depict Mohammed and Jesus in a provocative manner” and that action was taken after they “received a number of complaints from other students”.

Because God forbid (if it’s not indelicate to put it that way) that any university should ever have room for anything that could be construed as “provocative”.

Atheist and professor Richard Dawkins has spoken in support of the students, tweeting that “Everything probably offends somebody, to be on the safe side, LSE Student Union, better ban everything.”

He later added: “I’m ‘offended’ by backwards baseball caps, chewing gum, niqabs, ‘basically’ and ‘awesome’. Quick, LSE Student Union, ban them all.

Dawkins also described the student union’s censorship squad as “sanctimonious little prigs”.

Too kind, I reckon.

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Jun/13

1

The Rewards of Violence

surrenderThe Commentator reports:

The Australian National University (ANU) has apparently banned the satirisation of Islam for fear of inciting violence and creating a backlash.

The Australian newspaper reported this week that the ANU cited international violence in the wake of the Danish cartoons and Innocence of Muslims film to justify its decision to force student newspaper Woroni to pulp a satirical infographic which described a passage from the Qu’ran as a “rape fantasy”.

The university also reportedly threatened student authors and editors of the infographic with disciplinary action, including academic exclusion and the withdrawal of the publication’s funding. Critics have argued that the university is effectively introducing a “blasphemy law” seeking to protect Islam from criticism.

The piece was the fifth in a satirical series entitled “Advice from Religion” which had previously discussed Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism and Judaism – none of which drew complaint or university action.

To make a truly fair comparison, it would be necessary to see what “advice” the other religions were purportedly giving, but the statement issued by the university delivers a clear enough message nevertheless:

“In a world of social media, (there is) potential for material such as the article in question to gain attention and traction in the broader world and potentially harm the interests of the university and the university community. This was most clearly demonstrated by the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy … and violent protests in Sydney on September 15 last year.”

The question is not the quality of what was published or whether the university was entitled to do what it did (legally, yes, it seems) or even whether it was right, or at least prudent to do so, at least as seen from ANU’s own perspective. What really is at issue here is whether fear of a violent response is having a chilling effect on the ability of those in the west who would do so to mock or otherwise criticize Islam.

The answer, of course, is yes. And this is just another reminder.

More background here.

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There’s been so much said about l’affaire Richwine that I am not keen to get deeply involved. I would advise that you read Jason Richwine’s account, as well as Ph.D. thesis itself. There are now various movements to expurgate Richwine’s thesis on explicitly ideological grounds. This is very stupid.

As a non-liberal with some affiliation with academia I’m in a peculiar position. I get to observe people blithely confusing their normative presuppositions with the basic background assumptions of the average person. By analogy, in a conservative evangelical church “Christians” have specific opinions on issues such as abortion and taxes. And yet the reality is that there are many self-identified Christians who would take issue with these assumptions. But these other types of Christians may not be part of the social group of conservative evangelicals, so the implicit assumption is that those who would espouse abortion rights and higher taxes must be secular humanists (actually, most self-identified liberals are religious and believe in God).

What’s happening here is that many liberals hold that Richwine’s thesis is ipso facto racist due to the axioms and inferences he made. Obviously this is a red line for the cultural Left today, and it makes sense why they would be outraged. The issue is that this thesis has already been given the stamp of approval by Harvard via the regular channels. If the thesis was put under special scrutiny or even revoked on ideological grounds then that would be rather exceptional, and also a major crack in the facade of the idea of intellectual integrity within the academy.

The problem with this is that many questions and conclusions which liberals are not so offended by are quite offensive and objectionable to non-liberals, and especially social conservatives. People within the academy are generally not conscious of this because they rarely encounter people who are offended by the concept of Queer Studies, or the type of Ph.D. theses which come out of these departments. Currently exploration of topics objectionable and offensive to “Middle America” are protected by the idea that part of the academy’s role is to provoke and even offend, to explore taboo  issues and reach shocking conclusions. But if the academy starts to make exceptions in such a blatant manner for areas which it finds the offense unacceptable, then its defense of heterodoxy becomes much weaker. Outrage for thee, but not for me.

This may not may not be a big issue in the short run. But, it will contribute to the continued alienation of the majority of the nation from elite higher education, especially the sort of research institutions which by their very nature are going to be culturally transgressive of mainstream values. If the cultural Left manages to get an asterisk placed on the Richwine Ph.D., or have it revoked, then the rational move by conservatives is simple. First, conservative think-tanks should go put the spotlight on the Ph.D.’s of prominent liberals and highlight aspects which are “objectionable” so as to smear their reputations (e.g., anything “anti-American” or sympathetic to cultural Marxism, or questioning bourgeois institutions like marriage). Second, an army of activists could comb through departments which are known award Ph.D.’s with “radical” political and social agendas, and use these as evidence to argue that the academy has become just an arm of cultural Leftism and should no longer receive public funds aside from explicitly practical disciplines (e.g., engineering).

I think a reasonable person can make the case that academic research questions and conclusions should not be adjudicated in by a “voice vote” of democratic acclaim or rejection. But once you open this sort of Pandora’s Box it’s hard to put the tool you unleashed back in. You can’t always control the ends once the means are available.

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