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E-Pluribus | April 28, 2023
Finding common (and sacred) ground; taking sides on everything; and merit takes a back seat.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Barbara McGraw: On Equal Dignity: Calling Americans Back to Our Sacred Ground
Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Conflict drives novels, and it also drives much of our public discourse today. At Discourse Magazine, Barbara McGraw argues that a focus on equal dignity would be the common ground that could help heal some of the conflict that is dividing our American family.
At the time of its adoption, the Declaration’s stated endorsement of equal creation was a major departure from the dominant view everywhere that there is a hierarchy of human worth or dignity. One’s “dignity” was one’s place in that hierarchy, with some dignities being more worthy than others. That view supported the notion that some are slated to rule, and the rest are to be subjected to that authority—each in their supposed rightful places.
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[As] we all know, the Declaration’s spoken ideals were unrealized from the start. That is no surprise because servitude was everywhere the norm with the various social strata ascending from there to the heights of hierarchical authority and privilege. That so many ever came to understand slavery as immoral, considering its long tradition and custom throughout the world, was an astonishing achievement. Nevertheless, the concept and practice of hierarchical dignity ideology remained salient as a countervailing trend to equal dignity in American culture and law before and during the founding. Once Jefferson’s original draft criticism of slavery as “piratical warfare” against the “most sacred rights of life & liberty” of the enslaved people was omitted in the final version, the Declaration was palatable enough for slaveholders to sign it, even though it announced that all men are created equal. They could interpret that statement more narrowly than its wording implied.
[ . . . ]
[H]istory has shown that our stronger impulse is and always has been equal dignity. Since America’s founding, the Declaration’s ideals have prevailed as our touchstone: Every person, created equal, has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Equal dignity is rooted in who we are as equally created human beings. It is self-evident as it manifests in our deep sense of the need for fairness. It is found today when people set aside self-interest for the good of others. It is found when we embrace the human spirit and recognize our common humanity. It is revealed in our unfolding history with its greater and greater recognition of equal dignity in law, policy and culture over nearly two and a half centuries since the Declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress. Today we don’t disagree about equal dignity. Rather, for the vast majority of us, our disagreements are really about how best to honor it. The question for our time, then, comes down to this: How do we embrace equal dignity while ensuring maximum liberty for the pursuit of happiness?
Read it all here.
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Jim Geraghty: Everything Is the Culture War Now
Speaking of conflict, Jim Geraghty of National Review takes a look at some recent polls on culture war issues and notes how the results of such polls are at least in part a function of how the questions are framed. When only two choices are presented, polarization, or at least the appearance of it, is an almost unavoidable outcome.
Yesterday, NBC News unveiled a new poll with a lot of questions focusing on social issues, and not all that surprisingly, it found “stark partisan differences on major cultural issues — racism, accepting LGBTQ people, the term ‘woke,’ and even the fundamental goals of American society.” The good folks at NBC were kind enough to have me on their panel discussing these topics.
One of the things that stands out about this poll, and makes it really intriguing but also disputable, is that it often gave respondents two options and asked which is most important, and aimed to dissuade them from saying, “both” by not listing that as an option. For example, the surveyors asked, “Which should be a more important goal for our society these days — promoting greater respect for traditional social and moral values, or encouraging greater tolerance of people with different lifestyles and backgrounds?” “Both” was only recorded if that was volunteered as an answer, 5 percent volunteered that answer, and another 3 percent said, “not sure.”
[ . . . ]
This is a poll designed to push people off the fence into one camp or another, and to see what they believe when the more neutral, consensus, or socially approved answers are taken off the table. It’s not the same as a push poll; it’s more of an examination of where people lean when the easy answers are removed.
It is also worth noting that Americans likely have some contradictory beliefs. Seventy percent of American adults agreed with the statement, “Our country needs to do more to increase social justice.” At the same time, 64 percent agreed with the statement, “Our country needs to reduce political correctness and cancel culture.” Sixty-one percent of respondents agreed that they “want our country to become more tolerant and accepting of the L-G-B-T-Q community.” But in the same survey, 59 percent agreed that “we have gone too far promoting L-G-B-T-Q lifestyles in our culture.” Maybe they’re just tired of rainbow decorations in store windows every June.
Read it all.
Jerry A. Coyne and Anna I. Krylov: The ‘Hurtful’ Idea of Scientific Merit
When seeking a publisher for their paper on judging science based on merit, Jerry A. Coyne and Anna I. Krylov experienced the very phenomenon about which they were writing. Coyne and Krylov make the case at the Wall Street Journal that as long as the potential feelings of the readers of scientific literature are more important than the substance of such papers, everyone will lose out.
Merit isn’t much in vogue anywhere these days. We’ve seen this in the trend among scientists to judge scientific research by its adherence to dominant progressive orthodoxies and in the growing reluctance of our institutions to hire and fund scientists based on their ability to propose and conduct exciting projects. Our intent was to defend established and effective practices of judging science based on its merit alone.
Yet as we shopped our work to various scientific publications, we found no takers—except one. Evidently our ideas were politically unpalatable. It turns out the only place you can publish once-standard conclusions these days is in a journal committed to heterodoxy.
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But scientific research can’t and shouldn’t be conducted via a process that gives a low priority to science itself. This is why we wrote our paper, which was co-authored by 27 others, making for a group as diverse as you can imagine. We had men and women of various ages, ethnicities, countries of origin, political affiliations and career stages, including faculty from community colleges and top research universities, as well as two Nobel laureates. We provided an in-depth analysis of the clash between liberal epistemology and postmodernist philosophies. We documented the continuing efforts to elevate social justice over scientific rigor, and warned of the consequences of taking an ideological approach to research. Finally, we suggested an alternative humanistic approach to alleviating social inequalities and injustices.
But this was too much, even “downright hurtful,” as one editor wrote to us. Another informed us that “the concept of merit . . . has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow.” Legitimately?
In the end, we’re grateful that our paper will be published. But how sad it is that the simple and fundamental principle undergirding all of science—that the best ideas and technologies should be the ones we adopt—is seen these days as “controversial.”
Read the whole thing.
The state of Minnesota is considering establishing a database of “bias incidents.” In the rather astounding video, a representative responding to questions about the bill could not definitively state whether or not wearing an “I Love J.K. Rowling” t-shirt would warrant an entry in the database.
Here’s a portion of a long thread on the First Amendment and the right to anonymity by Jeff Kosseff, associate professor of cybersecurity law at the United States Naval Academy. Click for the whole thing.
And finally, on a personal note, my struggles with socialism. No, not the ideology, just the struggle for stock photos: