pseudo-Socratic Politics

Read that Atlantic profile of Stephen Miller yet? This part in particular jumped out at me:

That night was the culmination of a well-organized campaign of campus disruption. It had begun when Miller formed a chapter of Students for Academic Freedom—a national conservative pressure group [David] Horowitz had launched to expose the leftist “indoctrination” taking place at America’s universities. As the head of the Duke chapter, Miller was sent a 70-page handbook that provided detailed instructions for orchestrating a campus controversy. It included guidance on how to investigate faculty members’ partisan biases (special attention should be paid to professors of women’s studies and African American studies, the handbook noted); tips for identifying “classroom abuses” (“Did your professor make a politically-biased comment in class about the war in Iraq?”); and advice for drumming up publicity (“Appearing as a guest on your local talk radio station is probably easier than you think”). The handbook also urged students to invite controversial speakers to their schools, adding that if the administration declined to fund such visits, students should “issue a press release … questioning why they have refused your request to increase the scope of intellectual diversity on campus.”

The playbook was in many ways ahead of its time, but Miller recognized its merits—and executed flawlessly. After inviting Horowitz to speak at Duke, he seized on the pushback from some professors as evidence that the university was trying to stifle free speech. He wrote an incendiary op-ed in the student newspaper, The Chronicle, titled “Betrayal,” in which he claimed that “a large number of Duke professors” were determined to “indoctrinate students in their personal ideologies and prejudices”—and then presented a series of anonymous student testimonials as proof.

Amazingly enough, you can grab a later edition of that document for yourself. On the surface it seems quite innocuous:

Students for Academic Freedom is exclusively dedicated to the following goals:

  • To promote intellectual diversity on campus.
  • To defend the right of students to be treated with respect by faculty and administrators, regardless of their political or religious beliefs.
  • To promote fairness, civility and inclusion in student affairs.
  • To secure the adoption of the Academic Bill of Rights as official university policy, and the Student Bill of Rights as a resolution in student governments.

For a thorough treatment of our mission, please see the red Students for Academic Freedom booklet, pages 4-12.

That resembles the language of contemporary progressives, right? If you dig into the history and context, however, a sinister side starts to appear.

The proposed Academic Bill of Rights directs universities to enact guidelines implementing the principle of neutrality, in particular by requiring that colleges and universities appoint faculty “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.” The danger of such guidelines is that they invite diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession. Measured in this way, diversity can easily become contradictory to academic ends. So, for example, no department of political theory ought to be obligated to establish “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” by appointing a professor of Nazi political philosophy, if that philosophy is not deemed a reasonable scholarly option within the discipline of political theory. No department of chemistry ought to be obligated to pursue “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” by appointing a professor who teaches the phlogiston theory of heat, if that theory is not deemed a reasonable perspective within the discipline of chemistry.

These examples illustrate that the appropriate diversity of a university faculty must ultimately be conceived as a question of academic judgment, to be determined by the quality and range of pluralism deemed reasonable by relevant disciplinary standards, as interpreted and applied by college and university faculty. Advocates for the Academic Bill of Rights, however, make clear that they seek to enforce a kind of diversity that is instead determined by essentially political categories, like the number of Republicans or Democrats on a faculty, or the number of conservatives or liberals. Because there is in fact little correlation between these political categories and disciplinary standing, the assessment of faculty by such explicitly political criteria, whether used by faculty, university administration, or the state, would profoundly corrupt the academic integrity of universities. Indeed, it would violate the neutrality principle itself.

The first attempts at pushing the “academic freedom” line were clumsy and gave the game away too easily; for instance, Rick Santorum’s attempt in 2001 used much of the same language but mentioned “biological evolution” as a topic of controversy. But by 2003 it was clear that basic tactic of appropriating progressive language and concepts to push regressive ideas was powerful, the American far-Right just had to tune the messaging to appear as neutral as possible. By 2010, the date of the revised handbook, you either have to be quite adept at decoding dog-whistles or the patience to dig in deep to spot what was really going on. On page 31, well away from the lofty goals, you’ll find the giveaway alluded to above:

As you complete this process, you may begin to get a sense of which professors are particularly partisan in their teaching. If you know that a student is taking a class with one of these professors, make sure to ask whether they have encountered abusive actions in the classroom. Some departments are known for their ideological and partisan leanings. These include Cultural Studies, American Studies, English Literature, Women‘s Studies, African-American (or Black) Studies, Chicano/Latino/Hispanic Studies, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Studies, American-Indian Studies, and Asian-American Studies. Fertile ground is also found in the Political Science, Sociology and History departments, although to a lesser degree than the departments mentioned above.

The end goal of all this is confusion and frustration. They want progressives arguing with one another about what “diversity” and “inclusion” means, as it makes them susceptible to a re-framing of those terms via emotional pleas, conspiracy theories, and well-funded think tanks. The messaging has become so finely crafted that without the history you’d have no idea it was created to teach Young-Earth Creationism in schools.

Universities ought to be the arena in which political prejudice is set aside and open-minded investigation reveals the way the world works. But just when we need this disinterested forum the most, academia has become more politicized as well – not more polarized, but more left-wing. Colleges have always been more liberal than the American population, but the skew has been increasing. … The proportions vary by field: departments of business, computer science, engineering, and health science are evenly split, while the humanities and social sciences are decidedly on the left: the proportion of conservatives is in the single digits, and they are outnumbered by Marxists two to one. Professors in the physical and biological sciences are in between, with few radicals and Virtually no Marxists, but liberals outnumber conservatives by a wide margin.

The liberal tilt of academia (and of journalism, commentary and intellectual life) is in some ways natural. … A liberal tilt is also, in moderation, desirable. Intellectual liberalism was at the forefront of many forms of progress that almost everyone has come to accept, such as democracy, social insurance, religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery and judicial torture, the decline of war, and the expansion of human and civil rights. In many ways we are (almost) all liberals now.

But we have seen that when a creed becomes attached to an in-group, the critical faculties of its members can be disabled, and there are reasons to think that has happened within swaths of academia. In The Blank Slate (updated in 2016) I showed how leftist politics had distorted the study of human nature, including sex, violence, gender, childrearing, personality, and intelligence. In a recent manifesto, Tetlock, together with the psychologists Jose Duarte, Jarret Crawford, Charlotta Stern, Jonathan Haidt, and Lee Jussirn, documented the leftward swing of social psychology and showed how it has compromised the quality of research. Quoting John Stuart Mill – “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that” – they called for greater political diversity in psychology the version of diversity that matters the most (as opposed to the version commonly pursued, namely people who look different but think alike).

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin, 2018. pg. 377-378.

In practice, the tactic comes across as a pseudo-Socratic politic: on the surface it advances no unique ideas of its own, instead borrowing from other movements in an attempt to embrace, extend, and extinguish, but the “extinguish” bit gives away that there actually is a unique vision buried under layers of obfuscation and plausible deniability. Read the section on tabling on pages 43 to 46, for instance, and you’ll find the SAF advises their student groups to avoid debate, and instead focus on pushing a standardized message to recruit new members.

The tactic has a strong resemblance to trolling, hence why that Atlantic piece was subtitled “Trump’s Right-wing Troll.” And unfortunately, it’s just as effective.