In some circles, the First Amendment’s right to free speech is viewed as a bug rather than a feature, and defenders of free speech have not been welcome on campus. But as Matthew A. Sears, associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick, argues, proponents of viewpoint diversity like Jonathan Haidt aren’t the real defenders of thought.
Indeed, many now insist that healthy skepticism and free inquiry, the supposed heart of the Socratic method and what Haidt labels the “disinterested pursuit of truth,” are in dire need of a revival in the academy.
I’m not so sure.
In fact, in important ways the social justice approach — which emphasizes the dynamics of power and oppression — that many fear has taken over the humanities and social sciences at its best is actually an improvement over the “disinterested pursuit of truth” and more in line with the Socratic method. In fact, rather than constituting an attack on knowledge, the social justice lens reflects new ideas generated by academic disciplines and experts within them, and generally encourages expanding our knowledge and opening up subjects to new perspectives, much like Socrates advocated.
This was driven home in reaction to a cut of a talk by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.
This week, a video surfaced of a Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, which appeared to show him lauding members of a racist movement. The clip, which was pulled from a November event at Harvard put on by Spiked magazine, showed Mr. Pinker referring to “the often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right” and calling them “internet savvy” and “media savvy.”
The clip went viral. The right celebrated; the left fumed.
It was, as Jesse Singal explains, nonsense.
The idea that Mr. Pinker, a liberal, Jewish psychology professor, is a fan of a racist, anti-Semitic online movement is absurd on its face, so it might be tempting to roll your eyes and dismiss this blowup as just another instance of social media doing what it does best: generating outrage.
But it’s actually a worthwhile episode to unpack, because it highlights a disturbing, worsening tendency in social media in which tribal allegiances are replacing shared empirical understandings of the world.
Singal goes on to use the Pinker video, and the left’s tribal outrage, to prove a point.
That’s because the pernicious social dynamics of these online spaces hammer home the idea that anyone who disagrees with you on any controversial subject, even a little bit, is incorrigibly dumb or evil or suspect. On a wide and expanding range of issues, there’s no such thing as good-faith disagreement.
The online anger aimed at Mr. Pinker provides a perfect case study.
So stupid people on the internet are stupid. This isn’t exactly breaking news. But for those who wrap themselves in education, knowledge and insufferable self-righteousness, the “perfect case study” is illuminating.
It’s getting harder and harder to talk about anything controversial online without every single utterance of an opinion immediately being caricatured by opportunistic outrage-mongers, at which point everyone, afraid to be caught exposed in the skirmish that’s about to break out, rushes for the safety of their ideological battlements, where they can safely scream out their righteousness in unison. In this case: “Steven Pinker said the alt-right is good! But the alt-right is bad! We must defend this principle!”
>This is making us dumber.
And so it would seem, despite Sears’ argument that the social justice lens is supposed to make us smarter. Why is this? The internet? Tribalism? Or is it a product of the unduly passionate, filled with their passion and righteousness, making us hate them?
What the hell just happened pic.twitter.com/uk3MnIYk36
— Seth Mandel (@SethAMandel) January 10, 2018
Mandel’s twit couldn’t have been more benign. The response was one of the more extreme examples of progressive idiocy, but beyond Singal’s point, this has become a common reaction to any statement, controversial or not, that fails to demonstrate the willingness to die on social justice mountain.
There is a broad spectrum of thought out there that abhors the alt-right, racism, sexism, etc., but refuses to adopt the orthodoxy of social justice, that everything, and I mean everything, is about “dynamics of power and oppression.”
Jesse called it a “sliver” of the population. I believe that it spans the vast majority of Americans, who believe in equality but are not about to make it the centerpiece of their lives, the primary purpose for their existence, for their every thought, the overarching goal of their every breathe.
And when the tribe rips people to shreds, hurls their hatred at the “misogynistic bigots” for failing to accept their religion of social justice and political correctness as passionately as they do, they don’t shame anyone, persuade anyone, change any mind. What they do is drive the vast center of America away from them. Who wants to have anything to do with these outraged flaming nutjobs?
This doesn’t push anyone into the waiting arms of the alt-right. They don’t become Trumpers. They don’t become conservatives. They surely don’t become white nationalists. What they do become are people who believe that the harder progressives try to ram their ideology down people’s throats by force, the more they will never enable, encourage or support them. And that infuriates the righteous tribe, for whom anyone not dedicated to their cause is their enemy.
You can make yourselves dumber, but you can’t force us to become dumber with you no matter how loudly you shriek or what names you call us. And that’s how you make enemies.