Following up on my previous posts (links below): Wall Street Journal: The Closing of the Academic Mind, by Amy Wax (Pennsylvania):
There is a lot of abstract talk these days on American college campuses about free speech and the values of free inquiry, with lip service paid to expansive notions of free expression and the marketplace of ideas. What I’ve learned through my recent experience of writing a controversial op-ed is that most of this talk is not worth much. It is only when people are confronted with speech they don’t like that we see whether these abstractions are real to them.
The op-ed, which I co-authored with Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego Law School, appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Aug. 9 under the headline, “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.” It began by listing some of the ills afflicting American society. ...
The reactions to this piece raise the question of how unorthodox opinions should be dealt with in academia—and in American society at large. It is well documented that American universities today are dominated, more than ever before, by academics on the left end of the political spectrum. How should these academics handle opinions that depart, even quite sharply, from their “politically correct” views?
The proper response would be to engage in reasoned debate—to attempt to explain, using logic, evidence, facts and substantive arguments, why those opinions are wrong. This kind of civil discourse is obviously important at law schools like mine, because law schools are dedicated to teaching students how to think about and argue all sides of a question. But academic institutions in general should also be places where people are free to think and reason about important questions that affect our society and our way of life—something not possible in today’s atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy.
What those of us in academia should certainly not do is engage in unreasoned speech: hurling slurs and epithets, name-calling, vilification and mindless labeling. Likewise, we should not reject the views of others without providing reasoned arguments. Yet these once common standards of practice have been violated repeatedly at my own and at other academic institutions in recent years, and we increasingly see this trend in society as well.
One might respond that unreasoned slurs and outright condemnations are also speech and must be defended. My recent experience has caused me to rethink this position. In debating others, we should have higher standards. Of course one has the right to hurl labels like “racist,” “sexist” and “xenophobic”—but that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Hurling such labels doesn’t enlighten, inform, edify or educate. Indeed, it undermines these goals by discouraging or stifling dissent.
So what happened after our op-ed was published last August? A raft of letters, statements and petitions from students and professors at my university and elsewhere condemned the piece as hate speech—racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, “heteropatriarchial,” etc. There were demands that I be removed from the classroom and from academic committees. None of these demands even purported to address our arguments in any serious or systematic way. ...
Shortly after the op-ed appeared, I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen for a while and asked how his summer was going. He said he’d had a terrible summer, and in saying it he looked so serious I thought someone had died. He then explained that the reason his summer had been ruined was my op-ed, and he accused me of attacking and causing damage to the university, the students and the faculty. One of my left-leaning friends at Yale Law School found this story funny—who would have guessed an op-ed could ruin someone’s summer? But beyond the absurdity, note the choice of words: “attack” and “damage” are words one uses with one’s enemies, not colleagues or fellow citizens. At the very least, they are not words that encourage the expression of unpopular ideas. They reflect a spirit hostile to such ideas—indeed, a spirit that might seek to punish the expression of such ideas. ...
As for Penn, the calls to action against me continue. My law school dean recently asked me to take a leave of absence next year and to cease teaching a mandatory first-year course. He explained that he was getting “pressure” to banish me for my unpopular views and hoped that my departure would quell the controversy. When I suggested that it was his job as a leader to resist such illiberal demands, he explained that he is a “pluralistic dean” who must listen to and accommodate “all sides.”
Democracy thrives on talk and debate, and it is not for the faint of heart. I read things every day in the media and hear things every day at my job that I find exasperating and insulting, including falsehoods and half-truths about people who are my friends. Offense and upset go with the territory; they are part and parcel of an open society. We should be teaching our young people to get used to these things, but instead we are teaching them the opposite.
Disliking, avoiding and shunning people who don’t share our politics is not good for our country. We live together, and we need to solve our problems together. It is also always possible that people we disagree with have something to offer, something to contribute, something to teach us. We ignore this at our peril. As Heather Mac Donald wrote in National Review about the controversy over our op-ed: “What if the progressive analysis of inequality is wrong…and a cultural analysis is closest to the truth? If confronting the need to change behavior is punishable ‘hate speech,’ then it is hard to see how the country can resolve its social problems.” In other words, we are at risk of being led astray by received opinion.
The American way is to conduct free and open debate in a civil manner. We should return to doing that on our college campuses and in our society at large.
Prior TaxProf Blog coverage: