Saturday, March 19, 2016

On Generalizing and Stereotyping Illiberal Liberals

Of course the main point of this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is really about the illiberal intellectual climate in higher ed.  It's probably a pretty legitimate critique of the academy which, like everywhere else in our society, has been politicized and has become rather polarized.  In talking with our academic friends, it seems horribly stifling, actually, in dire need of reform.  It is really difficult to criticize many of the taboos, especially those which are racially charged, without being perceived as a bigot yourself, which is another legitimate point of the article.  

On the other hand, taking a broader view of history, we should probably admit that, while it might be hard to bring into question such taboos in academia at the moment, it is not impossible.  The cult of "political correctness" is not operating with equal force all disciplines and all schools.  But what really bothers me is that Boyers projects his complaints of American higher education to American society as a whole.  It seems to me a bit exaggerated to claim that "life of ideas is also increasingly compromised in precincts beyond the academy."  On the contrary, at the moment we're witnessing a very public moment where it's not only permissible to reject these taboos of political correctness, but it's also popular to deliberately single out and offend entire groups of people, even to the point of inciting violence, all in the name of being against "political correctness."  Isn't that evidence that the power of the so-called "liberal elite" -- which presumably controls American universities from coast to coast -- is not quite as absolute as Boyers claims?

This is tricky, however, because to some extent the critique of illiberalism of the "progressive left" is at least partially true.  It’s just exaggerated and incomplete.  First of all it's based on a rather biased stereotype of a monolithic, homogeneous and “organized” Left that in fact does not exist.  And then there are exceptions, like Boyer himself, who have been critical of the so-called taboo subjects regularly without repercussions. Ironically, the fact that Boyer is able to express his social criticism undermines his argument.

Boyers carefully buries this subtext, however, in two ways.  First, he casts "illiberal liberals" as an aggressive organized majority, on the one hand, and his beleaguered conservative minority as persecuted victims on the other.  And second, using this straw-man argument, he creates a new kind of "political correctness" of his own on the right, a narrative script that has largely been followed and seldom contradicted since the mid 1970's and the rise of the new Right.  They stereotype and vilify their liberal “enemies” and then demolish them rhetorically, rarely talking about real policy disagreements.  Although it seems like an argument, it’s really just name-calling.

Bullshit is another word for it.

Whether Boyers intends it or not, his essay and so many like it are being used to legitimize the attacks of Tea Party candidates like Palin, Rubio, Cruz and now Trump.  They all use the posture of exaggerated political incorrectness to demonstrate that they are strong and independent but, in the process, unnecessarily incite hate, intolerance and violence.  And by connecting the "illiberal liberal" argument with government elites, first of all, and then government itself, they divide the electorate, harvest electoral support, and diminish political institutions that have typically been fiercely defended by conservatives.  Although this narrative pretends to be conservatism, it is actually political activism.  I fear how this kind of authoritarian "leadership" is actually creating a kind of government-hating mob with considerable electoral clout.  I'm concerned that what was in fact a serious and free debate in Academic circles going back to the 70's has turned into a license for some of our political leaders to say whatever they want in public no matter what the consequences may be, intended or not, domestic or international.  

By the way, it bothers me when liberals similarly characterize conservatism as being intellectually stifling, as well, even though it is PARTIALLY true.  Could one of the 12 Republicans running for President actually say that climate change was real, let alone caused by humans?  Nope.  They are allowed to think that of course, if they were the thinking and reasoning sorts, open to examining the data.  But they cannot actually say that publicly.  Could one of the 12 (3 of whom were actually MD’s) even say that mandatory vaccination programs is a legitimate function of a centralized government?  It was a simple question at the 1st debate, one that could have been answered with a simple ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.  But not one of them could manage to say anything positive about government at all, even the CDC.  

This seems a little more consequential to me, anyway, than the culture war gone "cold" on campus today.  But I digress...

Of course this is all evidence supporting the position that there are taboos on the Right as well, it’s just intellectually dishonest to make that point and stop there, as Boyers does, ignoring any evidence to the contrary.  We know how partisan politics in any group can affect the open exchange of ideas, the assessment of what we know and how we know it.  So what?  It’s politics.  But even if it IS a problem in the GOP now, it hardly makes sense to identify this as being an inherent problem of conservatism.  It is, in fact, a problem in the GOP today.   But it has not always been so in the past, it need not be so in the future, and it is surely NOT the essence of conservatism.

In other words, it’s legitimate to characterize Republican Jim Inhoffe as a close-minded idiot:  he reads scripture literally, believes in a 6,000-year-old-earth and cannot except the overwhelming evidence of evolution.  And it’s legitimate to criticize the public arguments of Lamar Smith, a Christian Scientist who also reads the bible literally, takes more money from the fossil fuel industry than anyone else in Congress, and who considers climate change a hoax.  He's either an idiot, a liar, or both.  These are legitimate claims because there is ample evidence.  But just because Republicans have chosen Inhoffe to be the Chairman of the House Committee on the Environment and Smith to chair the House Committee on Science and Space (which includes NASA) doesn’t mean that all Republicans are idiots or close-minded either.  After all, it’s politics.  And it’s hard to generalize.

So I think it's a mistake to reject all of the intellectual positions of the Right simply because there are a few that are so patently false.

Boyers wrote:
Our educated classes regard the university chiefly as an instrument of our collective purpose and an efficient engine for transmitting anxiety about ideas felt to be dangerous or out of bounds. Bizarre that a culture officially committed to diversity and openness should be essentially conformist, and that the hostility to the clash of incommensurable ideas and even to elementary difference should be promoted with the sort of clear conscience that can belong only to people who don’t know what they’re doing.
Really?  Who are these "educated classes?"  Are they really so monolithic and so all-powerful?  Has it always been so?  Is it an inherent characteristic of liberalism?

And can we generalize beyond the halls of the academy?  Do such illiberal liberals actually control our entire society through their control of academic institutions?  Really?  With regard to partisan politics, is it legitimate to paint with such broad brushstrokes about a few people and a point in time without recognizing any exceptions?  Is it right to use such a simple characterization as it may have described SOME activists on the Left in the 1930’s, 1970’s and 1980’s as a substitute for meaningful engagement on completely unrelated issues in 2016?

It may not be intellectually legitimate but it certainly seems to be working for Donald Trump.


Rich T said...

It is truly disturbing to me that unless an American is of a certain age, they do not recall a time when there was a legitimate public debate between Conservatives and Liberals. or for that matter a legislative body that functioned as envisioned by the authors of The Federalist Papers. As you say, "it need not always be so in the future", but I fear that with the advent of ratings driven newscasts splintered into several competing echo chambers with an audience that chooses the flavor of news that suits their particular prejudices, it is difcicult to imagine the status quo not continuing, but rather perhaps worsening for some time to come. You make an excellent point about how often the neocons invoke the false image of a monolithic group who have all agreed in lockstep to some mythical dogmatic " Liberal Agenda". Apparently they cannot imagine how a person with some education, a willingness to question assumptions, a hard won belief in empiricism and quantitative reasoning might just happen to find himself in agreement with many others who have arrived at a similar viewpoint quite independent of any party affiliation, dogma, propaganda or agenda other than quite simply seeking the truth. I cannot help but believe that many who today call themselves Conservatives would be among the first to condemn Socrates, Jesus or Ghandi.

Stephen Quatrano said...

Thanks, Rich!