While we’re all waiting for the University of Austin to die…


And it is fading. The early ebullience from people like Bari Weiss is diminishing, and the only news about it I can find is that Niall Ferguson seems to be frantically touring right-wing podcasts to claim it’s really going to happen, which it isn’t. But I still see the occasional lefty chortling over the ridiculous concept. Like this one:

That those too-hot ideas—among them the celebration of free-market capitalism, eugenics and white supremacy, xenophobia, and transphobia, per the résumés of some of UATX’s founding trustees and advisors—are also cultural hegemonies championed by the richest and most powerful people and institutions thriving today in the Western world does not seem to be a problem for these self-styled revolutionaries. And why should it? This dippy bunch is not actually engaging in a genuine paradigm shift in the ivory tower; think of it more like the University of Pity Party at Austin.

Of course this project is silly. It’s brought to you by a group of wealthy—some of them mind-blowingly so—elites who are mostly known for whining about “cancel culture” and being rewarded handsomely for it. The very premise of UATX is preposterous, predicated on a subset of highly successful and privileged people’s unseemly thirst to be cast as victims in a grand narrative of—hilariously enough—intellectual and economic oppression. This scrappy underdog “university’s” board of advisors includes Larry Summers, former secretary of the treasury and president emeritus of a little college in Boston called Harvard (perhaps you’ve heard of it?). Other founders and advisors are professionally affiliated with Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, and UATX’s seed money flows forth from tech bro Joe “paternity leave is for losers” Lonsdale, a venture capitalist who co-founded the creepy surveillance/data-mining software company Palantir.

“Pity Party University”…that’s about right. But then, getting serious about it, the author says:

In contrast to the sharp rebuffs of my peers, I rarely experienced anything but the mildest pushback from left-leaning faculty. Far from being pressured to conform to left-wing groupthink by a socialist academic cabal, I got excellent grades and I was encouraged to share my ideas—offensive and ill-considered as they undoubtedly were—in class discussions. Oh, I had brilliant professors who planted seeds that would flower years later, but at the time, my own views hardly shifted. To the contrary (I was, after all, a contrarian) I dug in harder, sure that I was a powerful voice for the preservation of good old-fashioned American ideals, a bold defender of capitalism and the free market.

That’s the thing about the conservatives’ claims about those darned liberal universities. You read this blog, you know that I’m pretty fiercely partisan and that I despise Republicans with all my heart, but that doesn’t translate to how I manage a classroom. Like she says, your typical lefty professor encourages students “to share [their] ideas—offensive and ill-considered as they undoubtedly were”. We’re not interested in silencing, but in exposing.

The idea that we’d shout down conservatives and not let them speak is simply right-wing projection. That’s what they do.

Comments

  1. larrylyons says

    ” To the contrary (I was, after all, a contrarian) I dug in harder, sure that I was a powerful voice for the preservation of good old-fashioned American ideals, a bold defender of capitalism and the free market.”

    What do you expect, he’s a true believer. The thing about True Believers is that they will hold onto their precious beliefs no matter what. Unfortunately, when confronted by objective, credible and verifiable evidence that contradicts their cherished beliefs, True Believers dig in deeper and believe even stronger. What should be evident from the research on this phenomenon is you can never successfully refute an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the True Believer feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. In a pessimistic sense, this makes most refutations useless. http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/#more-1218

  2. Snarki, child of Loki says

    I am all in favor of “right-wing projection”.

    Load ’em in the trebuchet, and project away.

  3. Loree says

    @1

    you are actually making the True Believer feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. In a pessimistic sense, this makes most refutations useless. http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/#more-1218

    There has been some…. backfire(?)… on the “backfire effect” research… From 2020

    One of the most concerning notions for science communicators, fact-checkers, and advocates of truth, is the backfire effect; this is when a correction leads to an individual increasing their belief in the very misconception the correction is aiming to rectify. There is currently a debate in the literature as to whether backfire effects exist at all, as recent studies have failed to find the phenomenon, even under theoretically favorable conditions. In this review, we summarize the current state of the worldview and familiarity backfire effect literatures. We subsequently examine barriers to measuring the backfire phenomenon, discuss approaches to improving measurement and design, and conclude with recommendations for fact-checkers. We suggest that backfire effects are not a robust empirical phenomenon, and more reliable measures, powerful designs, and stronger links between experimental design and theory could greatly help move the field ahead.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7462781/

  4. says

    @3: Thanks for that. I do sometimes wonder whether such things as the “backfire effect” aren’t at least a little bit hyped up by people who want to discourage decent people from even trying to correct or push back against prevailing lies, errors or misconceptions.

  5. zagnut says

    Loree, @3

    Yes, a thank from me too. I mean, the linked article itself is an example of a person who changed their mind over time by interacting with other people and new environments. I’ve changed a lot myself over the years from the arguments I’ve read and participated in.

    Really, the article is a good read. I particularly enjoyed the unvarnished but clever invective, but there are a bunch of real thoughts worth reading in there too.

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    I don’t know how strong the “backfire effect” is, but I have found some success by “embracing and extending” instead of directly refuting their “knowledge”. For example, instead of saying they are wrong, I will respond with something like “Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but I recently saw a documentary / read a book/article that had this new information on the subject.”

    That way I am not directly contradicting them but empowering them with updated knowledge.

  7. pilgham says

    One problem with arguing with these people is that they are never honest about why they have the views they do. One guy wastes my time by arguing immigration. Problem is his arguments are easily refuted but it doesn’t matter because he’s a screaming xenophobe. In a similar way, I think the only reason people like Weiss or Sullivan (or any of the others) signed on to UATX is so they can write smug books after the fact complaining about the evil left that destroyed their dream. There were probably a few drafts at the publishers months ago.

  8. says

    A few years back I got asked to cover my local state university’s American Government 201 class. It was during the fall semester when Trump and Clinton were running for President. It was a large lecture class, of course, and had no room or time for political debate. College students being what they are, many tried to stir things up and it became problematic. Finally I reminded them that this class was about how the government was formed and structured. Arguing about how the government performed was covered in other classes. Finally, I reminded them that the course was offered by the Department of Political (cough, cough)Science and that our job as scientists was to take a position at 30,000 feet, look down at what we saw and ask ourselves (like all good scientists do) “just what the heck is going on here?” Describe, measure, theorize–rinse and repeat. I think if we acted more like scientists and less like partisans, we might just be able to build up the capability talk about politics in a way that doesn’t make it a blood sport.

  9. DanDare says

    As well as “the back fire effect” there is another meme to stop people from arguing. Its the “you will never change that person’s mind” meme. The meme ignores audiences. In reality the viewers may be influenced where the target is not.

  10. PaulBC says

    tigerprawn@8

    A few years back I got asked to cover my local state university’s American Government 201 class.

    I got a few sentences into your story before realizing you were the teacher and not a journalist reporting on the class, which made for an amusing double take. I don’t think it’s your fault. I have a knack for interpreting things in the wrong way if possible.

    On the term “political science”, I remember looking this up some time in the past year. (The context was asshole congressman https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Massie making fun of “political science” because he’s an engineer and therefore clearly smarter than his dimwitted grin would suggest and was having nothing of these girly man social sciences, but I digress.) Anyway, it’s an old term coined without reference to the scientific method, as generally understood, and was often used interchangeably with political philosophy. So the “science” part is more along the lines of Latin scientia or knowledge. Historically, there was no expectation of formulating hypotheses or measuring anything.

    It’s true that today, it is folded into the social sciences, so the current connotation puts more weight on the modern interpretation of “science.”

  11. PaulBC says

    DanDare@9 You can change people’s minds, but it requires presenting new information or (less reliably) a new interpretation. They also have to be receptive to it. While I agree it’s not impossible, I think it’s an area where cutting your losses early is more effective than protracted debate, which rarely has the intent of changing anyone’s mind.

  12. PaulBC says

    DanDare@9 BTW, I agree with your point that you might be addressing a more receptive audience, not your adversary whose mind is made up. But that requires having an audience. Also, many of them are just as invested as the speakers or debaters in having their views reinforced, not challenged.

  13. DanDare says

    @paulBC my main focus is social media where everything has an audience.
    You can’t tell if the audienceis impacted so you just keep planting seeds.

  14. Kagehi says

    @3 Given that they “can’t find the effect”, I suspect that its a) real, but b) only applies to certain specific people. I.e., there may be some for which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to convince, but they represent a minority. A minority which “seems” larger due to the ability of some of them to gain positions of power and influence, which itself would isolate them from both the consequences of being wrong, and the need to actually change their opinions.

  15. Jazzlet says

    @larrylyons
    Anecdotal, but I have changed my mind on two things as a result of information I found on line. One was GMOs outside of fermenters the other feeding my dog a raw diet. Neither was comfortable, the GMO one still caues aurguments ith family members, but the evidence was clear. Plus with both I realised that a lot of the opposition was atually opposition to large corporations with the specific issue in each case bein a hook to pull people into that mind set. But the thing about both of those is that I do change my mind when the evidence either changes or I find a balanced review of the totality of the evidence (if it is an area I am not familiar with)

  16. says

    I would like to remind you that this is hardly a new phenomenon. The University of Chicago and Stanford were both founded by rich guys to advance their agenda, and both turned into very respectable institutions. In fact, most all of the Ivy League schools and Oxford and Cambridge colleges were founded by rich people, for their own purposes, and these universities in England and the Ivy League have come to dominate the upper reaches of higher education. Historically, the wills of their founders were soon overwhelmed by the desire of their faculties to be respectable. Yes, there are schools like Hillsdale College or Liberty University that will never be anything but right wing rackets, but given the time, most colleges trend toward rationality.

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