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E-Pluribus | January 12, 2023
Cannon to right of free speech, cannon to left of free speech; correcting campus cancel culture; and a call for human rationality.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Cathy Young: Perils to Free Speech from Woke and Anti-Woke
An adjunct professor at Hamline University recently found herself without a contract renewal (some might say “fired”) after a brouhaha arising out of a class presentation that included images of Muhammad. At The Bulwark, Cathy Young says the incident is indicative of a wrong-headed view of academic freedom, but that by no means does idea-policing occur exclusively on the Left.
One should not, of course, generalize from the Hamline University fiasco. Many professors continue to show Muhammad images in class without incident. Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, told the New York Times that “he regularly shows images of the Prophet Muhammad in class and without Dr. López Prater’s opt-out mechanisms” and that part of his goal is to make students grapple with how images once considered pious can be later redefined as blasphemous and forbidden. But a chilling effect, at least for untenured faculty and especially adjuncts, is quite likely.
There is also the larger chilling effect of a large percentage of American educators—and students—embracing the “social justice” dogma which holds that disagreement equals harm or even violence, at least when it comes to claims of trauma, discrimination, or bigotry made by members of presumptively oppressed groups. Pressures to censor or abridge “harmful” speech are unlikely to remain confined to college campuses. In a 2019 Knight Foundation survey of college students, over 40 percent said that “hate speech” (which, as the Hamline University incident shows, can be very broadly defined) should not be protected by the First Amendment.
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However limited in scope, the Hamline University incident does confirm that a problem with speech- and idea-policing on the left exists—whether you want to call it “cancel culture,” “political correctness,” “wokeness,” or any of the other buzzwords applied to this phenomenon. And while there is a large segment of progressive opinion in which all talk of a left-wing “cancel culture” is met with derision and spin, it is also true that, as Bulwark editor Jonathan V. Last pointed out yesterday, the very existence of a New York Times story clearly critical of the school’s actions shows the left policing its own.
Read it all.
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Sigal Ben-Porath: Thinking Differently About the Cancel Wars on Campus
University of Pennsylvania Professor of Education Sigal Ben-Porath has a new book out: Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy. At Heterodox Academy, Ben-Porath writes about the ideas in her book that she has been using to try to help schools and students alike to understand, appreciate and support true free expression on campus.
Democratic norms deserve our attention: Democracies are sustained not only by good laws and institutions but also by a democracy culture, and the attitudes, commitments, and habits of its members. Norms around knowledge and belonging animate the shared and public components of a democratic culture, and the current state of polarization reflects an erosion of these aspects of democracy.
Whatever the main causes of polarization are — economic inequality, political practices (such as districting practices or primaries processes), or other reasons — its effects do not remain within the political domain. Polarization affects where we get our information, whom we believe, and what information ecosystems (or echo chambers) we join, and in this way it sends us spiraling into divergent views of reality.
Polarization seeps into our personal relationships too, enhancing our ideological contempt toward those whose ideology is different than ours. Increasingly we refuse to associate with people who have different views: We don’t befriend them, share a meal or a dorm room with them, or simply see them as people who may have different views from ours.
Read the whole thing.
Steven Pinker: Reason To Believe
As conspiracies theories continue to run rampant online, Steven Pinker, a strong booster for human reasoning, details at Persuasion why he believes so many rational human beings can hold such irrational beliefs.
The first is rooted in the very nature of rationality. Reason, almost by definition, is inference deployed in service of a goal; no one gets rationality credit merely for enumerating true but useless propositions. But that goal need not be an objective understanding of the world. It can also be to win an argument in which the stakes matter to you. As Upton Sinclair pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
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A second contributor to irrationality is that human reasoning is guided by deeply rooted folk intuitions, the evolutionary legacy of having to figure out the hidden laws of reality before the scientific revolution gave us a sound method for doing so. Those intuitions, while indispensable for navigating everyday human life, are incommensurate with our best modern understanding of the world. The mismatch makes us vulnerable to superstition and pseudoscience.
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The third key to public irrationality is to consider how we unlearn these folk intuitions and acquire a more sophisticated understanding. It’s certainly not by each of us exercising our inner genius. It’s by trusting legitimate expertise: scientists, journalists, historians, government record-keepers, and responsible, fact-checked authors. After all, few of us can really justify our beliefs by ourselves, including the true ones. Surveys have shown that creationists and climate change deniers are, on average, no less scientifically literate than believers (many of whom attribute warming to the ozone hole, toxic waste dumps, or plastic straws in the ocean). The difference is political tribalism: the farther to the right, the more denial.
Read it all here.
Coleman Hughes on “where are you from?”:
A disturbing report from NPR’s Emily Feng about those being arrested in China after a peaceful Covid-zero protest:
And finally, while we may complain about the lack of civility in this country, we’re still just amateurs compared to our British cousins: