Secular Right | Reality & Reason

May/13

22

Why liberals should defend Harvard’s right to accept and publish Jason Richwine’s dissertation

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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.

6 comments

  • Contemplationist · May 22, 2013 at 4:15 am

    Hasn’t this horse already left the barn? I understand that theses may not have been expurgated for ideological reasons yet, but gatekeeping already serves this purpose and has for decades. Would you disagree?
    The reputation of the academy is already that of an arm of the cultural Left. Infact this expurgation, if it happens, may actually be the straw that broke the camel’s back and if so I would wholeheartedly support it. The academy needs to be reorganized or destroyed in its current form. Its a malign and pathological influence on mainstream culture.

  • Author comment by David Hume · May 22, 2013 at 5:00 am

    many scientists do good work within academia. though your position is defensible IMO.

  • Contemplationist · May 22, 2013 at 5:19 am

    Yeah it’s not the scientists I’m worried about, though I think you would agree, most ‘science’ is just grant-whoring non-reproducible junk these days as well. Its obviously understandable that you are worried about collateral damage to the sciences in a culture war that would break out (sorry for assuming this I know you hate readers making assumptions but this seemed like a defensible one), but I am mostly interested in the destruction of the “Studies” departments.

  • Author comment by David Hume · May 22, 2013 at 5:40 am

    yeah. i wish studies were destroyed too. but i don’t want academia torn down around them.

  • j mct · May 22, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    I’m kind of thinking that your argument won’t fly because I don’t think you’re using the right yardstick to measure outcomes.

    The bright white line between a social liberal and a social conservative is what they consider human welfare to be, with social liberals thinking that the best life a man can lead is the most pleasant one, and social conservatives think that being virtuous, being a good man, trumps having a pleasant life, or social liberals are Epicureans and social conservatives, Christians included, are Aristotelians, with regard to ethics, to use the traditional words.

    So the issue du jour, this Richwine guy though it will be somebody else tomorrow and was somebody else yesterday, only the names of the characters change, wrote a very bad paper if one is using an Epicurean yardstick to measure ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in that lots of Epicureans that go to Harvard, and most of the faculty at least at Harvard are Epicureans though many of them probably do not realize it, find it and it’s conclusions, displeasing and unpleasant. Unpleasant is bad or evil, if one is an Epicurean, so that’s pretty all much he needs to know, so out it goes, Epicureans don’t care if what’s in it is or is not true per se. The sort of proposition that an Epicurean might care about as to whether or not it is true is if being mistaken would lead to future unpleasantness, like ‘I think my brakes are in fine working order, so I’ll go out for a drive in the mountains’, and none of this stuff is like that, so true/false doesn’t come into play at all.

    Saying ‘if you university guys keep doing this, the rest of society is going to get ticked off and cause you lots of future unpleasantness so you should knock it off’ might be correct, as in ‘a bar on this corner should do rather well’, but the argument hinges on being factually correct, and I don’t think that it is. Harvard can do this all day long and I don’t think that there’d be any downside as measured by an Epicurean. Personal unpleasantness is the only downside an Epicurean will or can recognize, one might think that ‘compassion’ might be an exception to this, but it’s not, compassion from the Latin means ‘our pain’ as in ‘I feel you pain as if it were my pain’ or ‘I find the fact that you have a toothache unpleasant’, and Epicureans will act on things they find personally unpleasant, and won’t otherwise. Thinking that the Aristotelians are going to ever get even with the Epicureans for saying things about them or what they find unpleasant is just wrong I’d think, it’s not going to happen. So I think that per their Epicurean lights, they don’t care about true/false, which aren’t mine, I’m an Aristotelian, they should keep behaving like this, and will. It’s their university.

  • Zalophustra · May 25, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    “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… Second…”
    First, Second, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th should be done whether or not Richwine gets his Ph.D. The Academy has become the seminary and boot camp for radical leftist activism. Even the sciences and business schools are becoming politicized.
    I work in the library of a major research university, and I can tell you it would be difficult to exaggerate the extent to which this is so.
    The conservative middle of American needs to realize this, and also should realize that ultimately, it is they themselves who hold the purse strings funding the leftist intelligentsia’s campaigns to subvert the United States politically, culturally, socially, economically. Stop feeding the Beast.

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