Wednesday, March 01, 2006

again with the academic freedom
I wrote a post on Academic Freedom, Dan responded, I responded to him, he responded to me, and this is my response to that.

1) Industry versus academia
First, to clear up one misunderstanding: I oppose (strongly) cracking down on gratuitous politicking in the classroom, but not because of the need to allow professors to say (for example) gratuitous antifeminist things. In fact, I'm against anything that I go out of my way to label "gratuitous". In fact, I'm against gratuitous antifeminism in the classroom as much as I'm against gratuitous feminism. Rather, I oppose such a crackdown because I'm afraid it will have the effect of chilling non-gratuitous, necessary and appropriate speech in the classroom.

But I certainly believe we need to allow free speech in the university (to non-captive audiences, as explained here), and I still think that nothing approximating this exists in industry. Dan claims that this blog is a counterexample, but I'm skeptical. Rather, I believe, its continued existence is due to its small readership. The typical IT employer is constantly bemoaning the lack of women in IT, and apologizing for it and saying: "we have to do more", and announcing efforts to make the workplace more woman-friendly. Now what would happen if a NOW type complains to the press about the horrible antifeminist attitudes of an employee of this hypothetical company? Would we have a simple statement from management such as "he has a right to express his opinions"? Or would there be a Summers-style blood-letting? The fact is that I see no well-known outspoken antifeminists in IT (although I have good reason to believe many antifeminists exist in IT) and I see no such controversies. To translate into the modern vernacular: the reason there are no protests is because the cartoons just aren't being printed (where enough people will see them).

I'm perfectly willing to admit that I might be wrong here, and I'd be happy if this were the case. I wish I could see a lot of serious public discussion about the whole "women in IT" issue from people in IT, but I just don't see it. Anywhere.

2) Which whistle-blowers should be on hiring committees?
Another misunderstanding, since I thought I said this. What standards should be used for choosing whistle-blowers? They should be chosen only as they are needed, and in a very conservative fashion. Since there is glaring proof in my department and my university of blatant, inappropriate discrimination against anti-feminists (and I am not referring here to indirect evidence, such as a shortage of antifeminists), antifeminists are needed as whistleblowers. There is no such proof (or even evidence) of discrimination against Elvis-sighters, and there is proof of nondiscrimination against the extreme left, so whistle-blowers for these groups are not needed. Whistleblowers should be used only in the most extreme and clearcut situations. (Why can't Dan believe I'm sincere about this, and not self-serving?)

Dan says, "if there are good, capable researchers and university-level teachers who are being denied an opportunity to enter academia because of political bias ..." (emphasis mine). Does he actually question whether or not this is the case? The Summers case (that I refuse to link to again) is an aberration only because Summers stepped out of line a wee little bit. Most of us never step out of line.

3) Why not competing "free-speech" universities?
Many people have noted that the market in high-quality, private universities has been frozen for many decades. None of these universities have shut down, and no new ones have started up. I don't fully understand the reason for this, but it is a fact and it is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. (Note, however, that it is possible for universities to change to take advantage of the existence of people desiring more free speech. George Mason University may be an example.) My guess is that when he is not arguing with me, Dan will readily admit that most current such universities are suffused with a stultifying, regimented, extreme-left atmosphere. The real difference between us is that Dan would be happy (I think) to have competing high-quality universities with different stultifying atmospheres, whereas I want an atmosphere where people feel free to speak (to willing audiences), and where people feel no right not to be offended. This difference between myself and Dan also exists in the realm of newspapers, where there really is a marketplace.

4) Can newspapers be improved?
Dan is happy (I think) as long as the marketplace gives us competing, ideologically different newspapers. I think that we (as a society) can do better. There are two reasons I prefer one newspaper that makes a reasonable effort to be relatively unbiased, to two (ideologically opposed to each other) that do not. One reason is that I often go to a news source to find out information -- not to be told something that I already know. I would like, therefore, a news source I can trust. The second reason is that I want both myself and my fellow citizens to have access to moderate, sensible reporting rather than two (or more) sets of screaming loonies. Dan seems to think my dream is impossible, but his only evidence is that it hasn't happened; more specifically, it has happened a little, but because of external pressures rather than because of internal discussions of opposing viewpoints leading to moderation.

Why has no internal mechanism worked? Maybe it's because it can't, but maybe because it's because it hasn't been tried. I would really like to know what goes on inside the New York Times. Imagine the discussion about what to put into the paper, that occurred just after Al Gore gave a speech in Saudi Arabia apologizing for the sorry state of civil liberties in the U.S. and advocating closer ties with the Saudis. Did someone at the table say: "Maybe Gore's speech is news. We've certainly ran enough stories accusing Bush of being too close to the Saudis, so let's run this story."? If no one said this, then there is no internal mechanism that can be accused of failing. Alternatively, if someone did say this but it had absolutely no effect on the mindset of the others, then my proposed internal mechanism has failed (at least in this case). Until we learn more, I'm still hopeful.

3 comments:

Dan Simon said...

Some responses to your points 1 through 4:

1) It's true that IT employers tend to go on at length in public about the need for more "diversity" in their industry, including their own organizations. That's because they're terrified of being sued, and presenting evidence of having paid sufficient lip service to "diversity" happens to be legally recognized in US civil courts as a legitimate argument for the defense in a discrimination lawsuit.

It's also true that few people in the IT industry are speaking out against all this "diversity" rhetoric. That's because it's (fortunately) just rhetoric. The industry is simply far too dynamic and competitive for companies to be able to afford to host a large cohort of self-evidently unproductive "diversity" hires. So they don't.

2) You may well be sincere, but your proposal to insert anti-feminist "whistleblowers" on hiring committees suffers from a deep, irresolvable contradiction. This is not a "free speech" or "academic freedom" proposal--it's a proposal to give special privileges to a particular point of view that you happen to think is being unfairly discriminated against. And every time I mention other points of view that are arguably being unfairly discriminated against at least as much as your own pet views, you come up with excuses for not jumping to their defense the way you do for, say, anti-feminism.

This is, in fact, precisely what the "free speech" advocates of the 1960's did when they foisted what is now the reigning dogma on academia. They demanded equality and protection for "suppressed" "alternative" points of view, but it turned out that their definitions of "suppressed" and "alternative" were, respectively, "that most people disagree with" and "that we agree with". So let's see if you can distinguish yourself from them. Can you name a single point of view that (a) you think is discriminated against enough to merit "whistleblower" protection, and (b) you strongly disagree with?

For example, how about support for suicide bombings? After all, you specifically mentioned your willingness to defend the academic freedom of Ward Churchill and Sami al-Arian, both of whom were persecuted for publicly defending suicide bombings. Would you advocate a pro-suicide-bombing "whistleblower" on every academic hiring committee? If not, and if you can't come up with an alternative position that meets criteria (a) and (b) above, then I'll draw the obvious conclusion.

3) I'm glad we both agree that opportunistic universities such as George Mason can take care of the problem of able academics not being able to find positions because of political discrimination. Of course, you want much more than that: you want universities with "an atmosphere where people feel free to speak (to willing audiences), and where people feel no right not to be offended." But you still have yet to explain why this is in any respect a desirable goal for universities, other than that it will allow you to spout off constantly about your own pet political obsessions to annoyed colleagues and students. As far as I'm concerned, the damaging effect on academia of professors who already feel far too free to spout off about their pet political obsessions is by now so massive and so obvious as to self-evidently more than negate all the potential positive psychic effects of your personally being able to immerse yourself in the university atmosphere of your dreams.

4) I, too, prefer "moderate, sensible reporting" to "two (or more) sets of screaming loonies." Unfortunately, I have neither the time, nor the money, nor the inclination to do all the reporting, editing and publishing, all by myself, for all the news I would like to get reports about. I'm therefore afraid that we must both satisfy ourselves with reporting by screaming loonies who have the clueless audacity to disagree with me on occasion. (Of course, some people disagree with me only a little on some subjects--and on those subjects, they're capable of moderate sensible reporting, despite not entirely agreeing with me. But just about everybody disagrees with me completely enough on at least one issue to qualify, on that basis, as a screaming loony. It's sad, but true.)

LTEC said...

I'll leave it to the readers to form their own opinions regarding the issues in Dan's points 1,3,4. I will respond to point 2, however, since it attacks me personally.

A) I think that what Dan calls "excuses" are in fact good explanations.

B) The "free speech" advocates of the extreme left in the sixties were hypocrites, and this was obvious to everyone else at the time. Some "free speech" advocates on the right today are hypocrites. Some people of Dan's age and sex are terrorists, but until now, I've refrained from pointing this out.

C) Does Dan seriously think that pro-suicide-bombers need protection against discrimination on our college campuses? If so, he has been away from academia too long (or perhaps I should say long enough). I would guess that about half of our faculty are supporters of suicide bombers (as long as the intended victims might possibly be as least slightly pro-American). They openly support the bombers, Chomsky, Churchill, al-Arian, etc. They do not need protection in hiring any more than Churchill or al-Arian did.

D) To respond to Dan's challenge of describing
-b) a group that I strongly disagree with that
-a) still needs protection:
Consider traditional social conservatives, especially of the Christian variety (SCs). I object to their position opposing abortion always (unless the mother's life is in danger), since I favor allowing abortion early in the pregnancy. (I even support creating embryos to use for body parts, as long as the embryo is killed very early.) Although I have some sympathy for this SC position that I strongly disagree with, there are other SC positions that I have no sympathy with at all. I think (see here and here) that the SC position against euthanasia is incredibly cruel, and I am furious that they will casually cause innocent people to suffer unimaginable horrors without even thinking the issue worth discussing. I think that all of that Jesus stuff is stupid even beyond the normal stupid stuff of religion. I think their attitudes toward extramarital sex and homosexuality and other things sexual are utterly ridiculous. I think their inconsistent and unexamined support for "federalism" (and something they
call "small government") makes no sense whatsoever. I think their support for "freedom of speech" is not very sincere, and in many cases, it is no more sincere than that of the extreme right or left. I have other serious disagreements with them as well.

Yes, I think these people need protection against discrimination by faculty hiring committees. They would probably be considered anti-feminists, and an anti-feminist such as myself could look out for their welfare, although I doubt that they would look out for mine. (There are other groups I strongly oppose who would need protection if they applied to universities in sufficient numbers, but they don't. I'm referring, for example, to the extreme right. These are people who believe that those who murder and destroy while wearing white robes rather than Muslim garb should be respected and their concerns taken seriously.)

I have done (a) and (b). If I hadn't, Dan would have drawn "the obvious conclusion." Now that I have, will this be enough for him to give me the benefit of the doubt (that should never have existed in the first place)?

Steve said...

It's hard to track exactly what you two are arguing about, but (as a student at a large, private academic institution) I can tell you that my classmates and I have a simple solution to "gratutious anything" in the university -- we stay away from it and ignore it.

If the university simply listened to the market forces of student interest in classes and cross-discipline faculty interest in collaborating, they would get a really good indicator of crackpot versus innovator.

Does every university have drivel? Yes. Does every private corporation (especially Fortune 1000) have fat that needs to be cut, you bet. Unless drivel and fat are significantly overwhelming valuable services (which I doubt) then what is the real problem here?