Last August, a couple of law professors published a half-baked op-ed arguing that sex, drugs, and rock & roll started undermining the golden age of American civilization, aka the late 1940s-mid 1960s, aka their childhoods, right around the time of the release of Electric Ladyland or maybe Beggar’s Banquet, with catastrophic consequences for everybody, especially blacks, Hispanics, and the white working class.
This is not an original or interesting or plausible argument, and the op-ed that made it is subjected to withering criticism here if you’re in the mood to read a novella-length critique, and here if you want a much shorter take.
Anyway, a lot of people currently trapped in Trumplandia thought that parts of the editorial sounded a bit too white supremacy-curious for their taste, and said so. This violation of the authors’ first amendment right to publish right-wing screeds without being subjected to criticism naturally brought them to the sympathetic attention of Tucker Carlson et. al., and now one of them, Amy Wax, has taken to the pages of the Wall Street Journal:
The reactions to this piece raise the question of how unorthodox opinions should be dealt with in academia—and in American society at large. It is well documented that American universities today are dominated, more than ever before, by academics on the left end of the political spectrum. How should these academics handle opinions that depart, even quite sharply, from their “politically correct” views?
The proper response would be to engage in reasoned debate—to attempt to explain, using logic, evidence, facts and substantive arguments, why those opinions are wrong. This kind of civil discourse is obviously important at law schools like mine, because law schools are dedicated to teaching students how to think about and argue all sides of a question. But academic institutions in general should also be places where people are free to think and reason about important questions that affect our society and our way of life—something not possible in today’s atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy.
What those of us in academia should certainly not do is engage in unreasoned speech: hurling slurs and epithets, name-calling, vilification and mindless labeling. Likewise, we should not reject the views of others without providing reasoned arguments. Yet these once common standards of practice have been violated repeatedly at my own and at other academic institutions in recent years, and we increasingly see this trend in society as well.
One might respond that unreasoned slurs and outright condemnations are also speech and must be defended. My recent experience has caused me to rethink this position. In debating others, we should have higher standards. Of course one has the right to hurl labels like “racist,” “sexist” and “xenophobic”—but that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Hurling such labels doesn’t enlighten, inform, edify or educate. Indeed, it undermines these goals by discouraging or stifling dissent.
So what happened after our op-ed was published last August? A raft of letters, statements and petitions from students and professors at my university and elsewhere condemned the piece as hate speech—racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, “heteropatriarchial,” etc. There were demands that I be removed from the classroom and from academic committees. None of these demands even purported to address our arguments in any serious or systematic way.
I’m not completely unsympathetic to Wax’s complaints. As someone has been subject to vicious and evidence-free personal attacks by other academics — including suggestions that I be fired — I can attest to the fact that such things are unpleasant. (Indeed, a few years ago my-then dean did try to fire me for publishing material which he found unhelpful to the economic interests of our institution, but it didn’t occur to me to whine about it in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. I figured that’s what tenure and lawyers are for, and I employed both to maximum and successful effect).
(1) Some of the criticisms of Wax’s piece have been insult-free, wholly substantive, and in my view devastating (I linked to two of them above). Wax does acknowledge the existence of this sort of academic criticism of her article in one sentence in her WSJ editorial. This would seem to undermine her claim that the subjects she addressed “can’t be debated” appropriately in the contemporary university.
Indeed, complaints such as Wax’s about the supposedly repressive nature of PC orthodoxy have more than a little of a self-refuting character. If PC orthodoxy is so repressive, then why is a chaired professor at an elite law school getting to attack that orthodoxy in the nation’s largest-circulation newspaper, without suffering any actual negative professional consequences other than bruised feelings? (regarding which, see (3) infra).
(2) The claim that it’s never appropriate to “hurl labels” such as “racist,” “sexist,” and “xenophobic” in formal or even less formal academic debates seems problematic, if one assumes that some arguments made by academics do in fact manifest these qualities. Wax deals with this potential problem in the classic fashion favored by “anti-PC” rhetoricians, which is to say by defining racism as shooting Medgar Evers (hat tip: Chris Rock), sexism as opposing the 19th amendment, and xenophobia as being a Nazi:
About three minutes into our conversation, [a colleague who signed a letter condemning the op-ed] admitted that he didn’t categorically reject everything in the op-ed. Bourgeois values aren’t really so bad, he conceded, nor are all cultures equally worthy. Given that those were the main points of the op-ed, I asked him why he had signed the letter. His answer was that he didn’t like my saying, in my interview with the Daily Pennsylvanian, that the tendency of global migrants to flock to white European countries indicates the superiority of some cultures. This struck him as “code,” he said, for Nazism.
Well, let me state for the record that I don’t endorse Nazism!
Obviously (or I guess not) a standard for racism, sexism, etc. that requires someone to literally be in the KKK, a neo-Nazi group, or what have you, before they are criticized for advocating racist, sexist, etc. views empties those terms of any practical meaning, which I suspect is the idea.
(3) As academic martyrdom goes, Wax’s seems to have been, like that of so many other “victims” of “political correctness,” rather mild. She claims that her dean suggested she take a leave of absence, and that she not teach required first-year courses, which give students no say in who will be their professor. The dean, Ted Ruger, disputes her claims, but even if we accept her account as accurate, such suggestions only become problematic if they are either transformed into actual administrative orders, or are followed by retaliation of some sort if they aren’t agreed to by the suggestee.
Since Wax hasn’t, as far as I know, even alleged any actual retaliation on the part of her institution, her complaints come down to the claim that all these criticisms of her views are making her uncomfortable.
This is all reminiscent of Conor Friedersdorf’s argument that, when it comes to the rough and tumble of intellectual debate, Kids These Days need to toughen up, but prominent public intellectuals should be treated with delicacy and circumspection.