Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued, quite convincingly, that a university can dedicate itself to the search for truth, or to the promotion of social justice, but not both.
Truth and justice are seldom about the same thing. But when they are, what’s true may not be just, and what’s just may not be true. Suppose it was true that the rest of us would be much better off if we could just rid ourselves of those damn _____, you fill in the blank. But I take it we’re all of a mind that genocide is just not on.
It’s also widely believed, at least in Turkey, that there’s no injustice in criminalizing the historicizing of the Armenian genocide, notwithstanding most Turks know full well what happened. Jesus taught that ‘the truth will set you free.” But often enough it’ll just bury you!
But there’s a more straightforward philosophical argument that can be appended to Haidt’s case, and it’s this:
There’s a fact-of-the-matter as to whether nineteen (mostly) Saudi young men did or did not hijack and pilot those planes on September 11, 2001. And that fact is, in theory at least, empirically discoverable. But there’s no such fact-of-the-matter as to whether a woman does or does not have the right to control her own reproductivity. That’s a political decision.
So it’s not that a truth-seeking university couldn’t or shouldn’t host a lively debate between 9/11 Truthers and the official story about what happened that morning. That’s what historians do. Nor is it that a justice-seeking university couldn’t or shouldn’t host a lively debate about whether the Start-by-Believing and #MeToo campaigns will or will not accrue to the empowerment of women. That’s what seekers after justice try to work out. But the two debates involve very different kinds of questions.
The historian – the good ones at least – will be looking at the evidence for and against some historical hypothesis, and let the chips fall where they may. The social justice seeker will be looking at the impact of some policy or program on those on whose behalf she’s looking. In short, he has his work, she hers. God is in His heaven, and all’s well with the world. Except that …
Except that the social justice seeker will also be looking at the impact on her political agenda of the historian’s or scientist’s pronouncements on these facts-of-the-matter. And therein lies the problem. At a social justice university, a pronouncement that undermines some political agenda will be rightly disallowed. For that matter, even a question the asking of which undermines that political agenda will be rightly disallowed. Thus, for example, at a social justice university questioning the Holocaust is Holocaust-denial, Holocaust-denial is anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is grounds for immediate dismissal.
Here’s a less dramatic case in point. Shortly after it opened, the Women’s Centre at my university launched an awareness campaign about violence against women, in the service of which it distributed a poster pointing out that 60% of the victims of domestic violence are women and children. But hang on. Doesn’t that mean that fully 40% of the victims of domestic violence are adult men? And since more than 20% of victims of this violence must surely be the children in the home, that means that the targets of domestic violence are more apt to be men than women. So whoever thought these posters would raise awareness of violence against women was either too stupid to draw this simple inference, or else she hoped others would be too stupid to draw it.
But now suppose that this stupidity had been brought to her attention. Would she have gone ahead with the posters and let the chips fall where they may? Certainly not. She would have suppressed the information, and been damn quick about it! That’s just the nature of advocacy. It’s not about what’s true. It’s about what works. And that’s just as it should be.
What she could have done, I suppose, is point out that because of the physical and political asymmetry between men and women, the subordinating effect of a man beating a women is orders of magnitude greater than that of a woman slapping a man. But though obviously true, and even more obviously relevant, that would be far too subtle for an eye-catching poster. So even though her point is a sound one, she either has to make it stupidly or not make it at all.
Haidt doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with a university dedicating itself to social justice, just as long as it’s upfront about it. He just thinks that if it is upfront, it won’t have very many takers. This is because employers aren’t usually looking for people who know what’s politically correct. They’re looking for people who have a better than random chance of knowing what’s true.
People trained at social justice universities like Yale get jobs at other social justice universities. People trained at the truth-seeking universities like the University of Chicago get jobs at other truth-seeking universities. Neither MSNBC nor Fox News recruits out of the University of Chicago. MSNBC recruits out of Yale, and it shows. Fox News recruits out of Ronald Reagan Elementary, and it shows.
The social network is currently engaged in what appears to be a winner-take-all culture war. It’s over bathrooms and pronouns, immigration and health care, gun control and abortion counseling … On the one side are the Alt-Right, who are, for now at least, united behind their new Fuhrer. On the other are the LGBTQQIP2SAAISA+, who are currently fighting amongst themselves about the politically correct ordering of these letters. Taking cover – because what else can they do? – are the Jonathan Haidts and Steven Pinkers, who can only wish a pox on both their houses.
Left and right, liberal and conservative, and cross-overs that boggle the mind of any non-aligned observer … Has it always been thus? I’m not old enough to say with any confidence. But I do remember the Sixties. We liberals won that one. That was two-steps-forward. So even if the Alt-Right takes us back a step, we’re still one ahead. So yes, God is in His heaven, and all’s well with the world. Except that …
Except that the university at which I work is currently poised between Haidt’s two models. Since it’s relatively small, its students predominantly rural, and not yet very racially diverse, the pressure for political correctness is much weaker than it is in larger universities in more cosmopolitan centers. But the fields surrounding it don’t entirely set it apart from the world beyond those fields. So a decision has to be made. And it has to be made clear.
But because, like at most universities, our Administration is made up of ex-academics turned bean-counters, and because members of faculty who should know better don’t, what we’re getting, and what our students are getting, is a hodgepodge of mixed signals. It would appear – and who can blame them? – that all the stakeholders want to have it both ways, notwithstanding Haidt’s admonition that they can’t. Neither mandate is being well served. As a result it’s just not a very good university.
I’m in the twilight of my career, and I’m not a believer in leaving a legacy. Que sera sera. But the future is ours to see.