There is something an old guy can do that young people can’t: call bullshit. There is a reason for this, that you can’t cancel someone for thinking wrong after he’s out of the picture. You can disappear his books, articles and lectures, but it doesn’t change that they happened, that people read them and that they were influential.
You can call him mean names, bad words, but young people lack the capacity to understand that their elders aren’t vying for their “likes” and approval. We weren’t reared in the fragile climate of addictive validation, where getting ratio’d cracks our feigned self-esteem into tears of misery.
This is why John Staddon, 83, a Duke professor of psychology, neuroscience and biology, was willing to say what he had to say.
When Prof. John Staddon read the “Statement to the Community Regarding Anti-Racism” sent out by Duke University’s president this summer, he was alarmed. The president, Vincent Price, promised to require “anti-racism and anti-bias training for every member of our faculty, student body, and staff.” To Mr. Staddon, that sounded more like indoctrination than academic inquiry.
To be fair, Duke President Vincent Price’s statement was the usual heaping helping of social justice word salad, the sort of question-begging empty banalities that give Ph.D. candidates and high school sophomores a warm and fuzzy feelings of being seen. But Staddon was disinclined to let it pass.
(Quotes are all from the Statement.)
How widespread is racism? You say: “Those of us who are not subject to the daily oppression of racism…” Who, exactly, is “subject to the daily oppression of racism?” There are very few if any at Duke University. No doubt there are some in the country as a whole, but how many and where?
There are by some estimates 10,000 or more elected black officials in the U.S., including the mayors of major cities such as Chicago and Atlanta, not to mention the long-time much-respected mayor of Durham, Bill Bell—never mind a two-term black president. You are talking about now, not the decades before the civil rights legislation of 1964. African Americans are well represented in the legislatures of this country; they are far from powerless. It seems unwise to imply near-universal oppression when the current situation, though far from perfect, is obviously very different from the bad old days.
Empathy: “I cannot as a white person begin to fully understand the daily fear and pain and oppression that is endemic to the Black experience.” As a behavioral psychologist, I acknowledge that this is true, as is its converse: a black person “cannot begin to understand” how you or I feel. In other words, it is an epistemological truism that no one has direct access to the feelings of another.
Your reassurance is fine as an expression of empathy. I daresay you feel better, and possibly your African American audience does as well. But feelings differ: Unless the discussion can be moved from feelings to facts, no harmony is possible. Empathy, guilt, and good intentions are a dodgy basis for sweeping resolutions.
And sweeping they are: “Here at Duke, we aspire to be agents of progress in advancing racial equity and justice.” No one is against progress, equity, or justice, but views differ on just what they constitute. What is meant by equity, for example? Is it “equality of results” as at least one eminent Duke scholar believes? Does justice include reparations, advocated by another Duke professor? Just what counts as progress? In all these cases, many will disagree.
Staddon goes on with similar moderation in tone, but challenging the assumptions that are unacceptable to be challenged, questioning the begging and pointing out that this rhetoric doesn’t actually have any cognizable meaning.
Structural racism is one of the most ill-defined concepts in the current debate. The law is race-neutral and scrutiny does reveal examples of individual racism. Evidence of ill-defined systemic or structural racism is slight. In effect, allegations of systemic racism have become a way to deflect attention away from endogenous causes of racial disparities. In these tempestuous times, it is surely unwise to present this questionable concept as revealed truth.
One of Staddon’s foundational premises is that science isn’t strengthened by praise, but by criticism. Thought doesn’t need cheerleaders, but critics.
While Mr. Staddon has addressed issues in the hard sciences, he’s more concerned with “festering” problems in the social sciences, “where weak science competes with activist political tendencies around the fraught issues of race, class and gender.” In a forthcoming book, “Fact vs. Passion: Science in the Age of Unreason,” he writes that “many social scientists have difficulty separating facts from faith, reality from the way they would like things to be. Many research topics have become taboo which, in turn, means that policy makers are making decisions based more on ideologically-driven political pressure than scientific fact.”
Putting aside whether a younger academic, perhaps one seeking tenure or a seat with a name on it, would risk speaking openly of doubting the secular religion of social justice, would they want to? As Staddon notes, no decent person is for race or sex discrimination, but that isn’t the question. The question is where we are, in reality, and what needs to be done about it if we really want to address problems rather than praise the orthodoxy.
Sir, you repeatedly propose “transformative action” and end by saying that “These actions are only a starting point.” I hope that nothing happens until some of the questions I have raised are satisfactorily answered.
Hope springs eternal, of course, even when someone reaches the ripe old age of 83. But what one can’t say, no less think, as a younger person surrounded by others who can’t tolerate anything but praise for their beliefs, is that maybe it’s not a heaping helping of word salad but a steaming pile of bullshit backed by a coterie of youthful and enthusiastic, if none too wise, cheerleaders. If it can’t withstand rational criticism, maybe it’s not as tasty as they say.