Sunday, December 04, 2016

Two Petitions

It is instructive to compare the petition in support of Mary Bryson with the petition in support of Jordan Peterson. By signing the latter, you are petitioning the University of Toronto not to punish Peterson for expressing his views, nor restrict his ability to do so. By signing the former, you are petitioning the University of British Columbia to "to express their clear and unequivocal support for Dr. Bryson" and "to condemn the intentional and malicious attacks that have been directed at Dr. Bryson in public and in private." Notice the very important difference. While UBC is being asked to "express support" and "condemn attacks", UofT is merely being asked not to punish someone for exercising their academic freedom.

The most telling part of the Bryson petition addresses Christine Blatchford's column in the National Post. Blatchford, the petition tells us,

intentionally refused to use Dr. Bryson’s pronoun ‘they/them’ in the article, referring to Dr. Bryson instead as ‘she’, thus self-consciously violating the terms of the Ontario Human Rights Code. The extent of expressed hate in the National Post article Comments sections provides extensive evidence of the efficacy of incitement of hate towards LGBT people.

To me, this reads as an indictment of Blatchford's column as hate speech. UBC's administrators are presumably being petitioned to "condemn" this column as well, and to do so with reference to the Ontario Human Rights Code. I think this makes it starkly clear that Jordan Peterson was onto something when he worried that refusing to use preferred pronouns was indeed implicitly covered by C-16, and that those who support it do, in fact, intend to use it to compel compliance in this regard.

The worry here for me is that if Blatchford can be accused of "inciting" the "hate" expressed in the comments to her articles, then surely Peterson can be similarly accused. The Tim Hunt case made it very clear to me that the universities have an obligation to the scholars they employ to protect them from mobs stirred to action by hurt feelings. What we're trying to do here is maintain a sense of decency. That means that when a reasoned, principled refusal to use particular words, or, for that matter, a reasoned and principled request to use such words, elicits angry responses and even hateful rhetoric, we cannot hold the person who was, indeed, reasoned and principled responsible for the least thoughtful members of their audience.

One last thing. I had never heard of Mary Bryson before the U of T forum. Bryson, I soon found out, is "not 'gay' as in happy but 'queer' as in fuck you." This was in a video profile on YouTube that has since become inaccessible, no doubt because it was discovered by trolls. Now, while I wouldn't ordinarily use such language myself, I'm happy to let public discourse include strong language. But I don't quite understand why someone who does talk this way would find it particularly distressing (or even surprising) to be called, say, a "dyke bitch". That seems to be merely an equal and opposite reaction. "Queer as in fuck you?" the trolls might well have been thinking. "Well, fuck her!"

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Maintaining the Value Proposition of the University

For quite a long while, American higher education has been adrift in a devolving eddy of self-pity, whining about overregulation while obsessing about bracket placements and rankings, pandering to political and philanthropic overlords while remaining largely silent on the great social issues of our times. We have lost the great narrative of American higher education as the counterweight to government excess, as the bastion of free thought and speech, as the public intellectual voice of the society.

Patricia McGuire seems to think that, since Trump owes his victory to non-college-educated Americans*, the disaster (if that's what it is) could have been avoided by getting more Americans through college. I think that misunderstands what the true "value proposition" of the university is.

In so far as it has anything to do with politics, the university should teach people what Hillary Clinton forgot: how to govern people, not deplore them. Those who hold university degrees, especially from elite colleges, are likely to enter the governing class, whether in business or politics. Their job will not be, as many progressives assume, to transform society, but, rather, to maintain civilization. The skill set that is needed for this is quite traditional. Indeed, it's pretty conservative.

Higher education is almost by definition elite education. It should be reserved for the most intelligent and curious people among us. But if your education only works with other educated people it's not much of one. Imagine an engineer who knows how to build bridges that only other engineers can safely cross. Or a doctor that can only explain a healthy lifestyle to another doctor. Or an architect who can only design buildings that are livable and workable for other architects. Indeed, imagine a nation's poetry that can only be enjoyed by other poets, or novels that only novelists can appreciate. (I'll leave it to you to decide how far along we are.)

In a civilized society, there should be no shame in not having a university education, nor should not having one make life particularly difficult. A university education certainly shouldn't be a prerequisite for meaningful participation in civic life. And it is the responsibility of our educated elites to maintain a public sphere that it doesn't take an elite education to participate in. If you ask me, it was their failure to provide such a sphere that gave Trump his victory, not the failure to provide the masses with a college education.

I realized where McGuire went wrong when I read this sentence: "We need more focus on students and less on institutions." That is exactly backwards. Universities have been chasing after students for way too long. (as McGuire actually implies when she says they "obsess" about "rankings"). They need to reassert themselves, precisely, as institutions. "Too many institutions, particularly wealthy private and flagship state institutions," McGuire says, "claim a desire to welcome more low-income students of color yet fail to change the interior circumstances of costs, culture, educational programs and pathways that would enlarge the pipeline and ensure success for those students." That's not how it looks it to me. My sense of the unrest on college campuses is that the institutions have been bending over backwards to "ensure success" for students that might otherwise struggle.

The problem is that the struggle university students are being spared is the very "value proposition" of the university. It is supposed to be providing an environment in which that struggle can go on and where the skills to overcome it can therefore be developed. To use McGuire's propositions, it is the struggle to exercise "free thought and speech" and, ultimately, become a "public intellectual voice" in society.

It's interesting to note that McGuire doesn't say that it's the students who should be these voices. She believes that the university, in the person of the university president, should be "the public intellectual voice of society". That's an interestingly authoritarian sentiment, and implies that higher education is the process by which one comes to respect an intellectual authority, understand what the master's voice is saying. Indeed, what was most notable, at least to me, about the reaction to Trump's victory on college campuses was how inarticulate it was. The reaction was, for lack of a better word, uneducated. It was unformed. The students lacked voices of their own, and so they joined various mobs.**

What is needed is for the universities to reassert themselves as institutions of free speech and thought. This does not mean that they should "enlarge the pipeline" of academic success. On the contrary, it means that they need to insist on "interior circumstances" that require a great deal of discipline to master. It's true that some students—those who come from already elite segments of society—will find those disciplines somewhat more natural than others. But the universities are supposed to be precisely the place where their natural advantage is redistributed a little, where those who aren't born with it can gain some of it. The value proposition of the university is most certainly not to subject all 17-23-year-olds to such coddling that they are unable to deal articulately with a populist president and will then have to look to their college president to speak for them.

University should be a place where you learn to make up your own mind and speak with your own voice. It should make you a better interpreter of the vox populi, not deaf to it or, worse, afraid of it. (After four years of "safe spaces" is it any wonder that so many young people can't stand to hear Trump speak?) The existence of a cadre of highly educated people should enrich the public sphere for all. It should not require the indoctrination of the same "value proposition" into every citizen.

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*There is good reason to think this is true.
**We see here the important sense in which so-called "elitism" is actually a form of anti-authoritarianism. But I'll save that for another post.

The Foundations of Society, part 2

Jordan Peterson has explicitly argued that [in order to maintain our civilization] we have to be free to make up our minds and to tell others what we've come up with. For him, the real threat to "the very foundations of our society" is the restriction of free thought and speech. But Peterson also seems concerned about another possible "foundation", namely, the mechanisms, both social and biological, by which we keep the species going. In a word: sex. And here gender, of course, plays a crucial role.

[Some] progressives seem intent on undermining our intuitions about gender differences. These intuitions, however, are at the core of our mating rituals. We try to choose a mate across a pretty radical distinction, namely, sex. [In order to navigate this "ultimate gap, as between two people, that not even a penis can bridge," as Rosmarie Waldrop aptly puts it, we have (socially) constructed the category of gender.] Peterson is concerned to keep this distinction [, this construct,] sharp and the selection processes it manages precise.

Now, one thing I've noticed about the people who have been arguing (some of them explicitly with Jordan Peterson) that gender is not a natural kind but a social construct—strangely, some of them have even argued that there's no biological basis for distinguishing between the sexes—is that the "science" isn't settled. Or, more precisely, they have argued that it's been recently unsettled by, say, comparative studies of male and female brains—or, if you think that begs the question, the brains of people who were "assigned" male and female at birth.

I'll detail this criticism of gender studies in later posts. (I've seen it come up in enough discussions to be confident in asserting that the argument does exist.) My point here is that if we're going to say that our society is "science based" we get into the problem that science hasn't yet understood everything. And on the points where science doesn't yet have anything very clear to say, we seem then to be in the unhappy position of having to declare our social practices "baseless".

So, suppose it's true that a brain scan can't distinguish "male brains" from "female brains". Does this mean that we have to abandon all our intuitions about how men and women think differently? (Notice that this also supposes that the only "scientific" basis for psychology is biological, i.e., neurological.) I'm not saying those intuitions aren't due for some adjustments (just as I won't suggest that men will be men, and women, women, unchanged for as long as human beings roam the Earth), but I am very skeptical about letting "science" set the agenda for the coming changes to our perceptions of ourselves and each other.

I don't think that people who distinguish between men and women every day are doing so on the basis of "science". And I'm not going to give science the authority to undo that distinction. I'm certainly not going to let scientific ignorance (i.e., the incompleteness of biology and psychology) undermine my confidence when trying to mate. Just because science can't tell men from women (and I'm only granting for the sake of argument that it has any difficulty doing so) doesn't mean I can't. And it certainly doesn't mean that I have no legitimate basis to make that distinction.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Foundations of Society, part 1

Here are two statements that are worth bringing together:

"The anti-knowledge and anti-science sentiments expressed repeatedly during the U.S. presidential election threaten the very foundations of our society."

"The pronoun discussion is not simply about grammar or gender – it's about re-examining the very beliefs upon which our society is based."

The first is from "An open letter from women of science", which, according to Jessica Kirkpatrick at the Women in Astronomy blog, was written by "a group of women scientists who have been working in Washington as AAAS science fellows". It's sort of a vague affiliation, but I take it seriously because it is being promoted by the CSWA. The second is from an opinion piece for the CBC by Julian Paquette weighing in on the Jordan Peterson controversy.

I will presume that Paquette and the "500 Women" are natural allies in the current iteration of the culture wars. But the ideological contradiction is here quite glaring and very common on the Left. Depending on the issue, the ideologues are prepared to declare either that "the very foundations of our society" are threatened or that "the very beliefs upon which our society is based" must be questioned. I think it's fair to say that this ambivalence is itself foundational for "progressive" politics.

One way to resolve the contradiction is to assume that they are talking about the foundations, not of our society, but their society. That is, they are talking about the basis of the ongoing progress towards the utopia they imagine. And that utopia is indeed "science based", if you will. As the "Open Letter" put it: "Science is foundational in a progressive society, fuels innovation, and touches the lives of every person on this planet." What about a "conservative" society? we might ask. Perhaps innovation is there fueled by something like human ingenuity and initiative, and perhaps the state is there constitutionally restrained from building institutions that, somewhat creepily, propose to "touch the lives of every person on the planet".

These foundations need, precisely, to be conserved, not implemented after traditional beliefs about what people are and how they can most happily live together have been "re-examined"—a word that is almost certainly a euphemism for "overturned". I have to say that, given the state of science (and the science of the state, if you will) these days, I understand the anti-science sentiment. Many pro-science people seem to the think that science is simply epistemic authority: an institution that has the power to tell you what to think and to believe. I like to think of science as a protected space of free thought and inquiry—not a place where I'm forced to examine my beliefs, but where I'm allowed to.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fear of Fear

Dictionary.com has declared "xenophobia" to be the Word of the Year. I think it's a good choice. If we take the two big spikes in look-ups that Dictionary.com cites to explain the choice, we can see that both came at a time when a populist backlash against the elites needed to be reinterpreted as a pathology in the population. There wasn't anything wrong with the elites, it had to be made clear, there was something wrong with the people. Ordinary people, it was said, are irrationally afraid of "people with backgrounds different from their own".

And this fear, it is usually implied, makes them bad people. It makes them less compassionate of others. At bottom, then, the rise of the word "xenophobia" marks a doubled othering: first "foreigners" are othered by ordinary people, and then ordinary people are othered by the elites. In fact, the fear of others marks a fault line (let's play the pun: a "line of blame") within the "common people" themselves. "We" are turned against each on the question of whether or not we fear "them".

I've always found the political "phobias" puzzling. We don't vilify people for their fear of flying or fear of spiders. We don't even hold agoraphobia against people, even though we might, as members of the "public", take a little offense at their anxieties about us. But xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are a different matter. Here we confidently denounce the person who harbors the relevant fear. We do not grant them the right to be afraid, we might say.

In my view, we should take seriously the idea that xenophobia is an exaggerated fear of foreigners. In an important sense, it is "irrational" (just as flying is actually perfectly safe and spiders are perfectly harmless), since most xenophobes have perfectly safe encounters with the relevant "other" every day. But, in another sense, there really is something to worry about. (When I was a young man, I, too, took a wrong turn in an American city.) Certainly, if the xenophobe is worried about the pace of cultural change, then it is rational to worry about the rate of immigration. This worry becomes a fear once one comes to believe, as many xenophobes do, that the elites don't care about the effect of immigration on local neighborhoods. Or when, in a more paranoid variant, they come to think that the elites are actively trying to destroy local culture.

The best way to cure oneself of fear is to face it. This does not, however, mean that it is always a good policy to force people to face their fears. If you put an arachnophobe in a closed room with a spider you're probably just going to turn them into a claustrophobe as well. (I have no idea if that statement is psychologically valid, but you get the point.) The important thing here is compassion. We have to understand that we really are talking about something that is rooted in fear. Too often, I think, we think it is rooted merely in hate. But that's only a consequence of mismanaging fear. We often come to hate the things we fear.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin D. Roosevelt. (You were already thinking it, I'm sure.) We seem at the moment to be very afraid of the fear of others—indeed, we are afraid, sometimes pathologically, of other people's fear of other people. This fear makes us hate the "xenophobe", who, ironically, is really just another Other. Maybe we need a word like phobophobia, the fear of fear. And then, maybe, we need to face that fear courageously. Perhaps we need to be as accepting of the existence of people who fear strangers as we are of the strangers themselves. Perhaps we need to face our fear of phobia.