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E-Pluribus | January 13, 2022
Censorship versus engagement, what we can learn from David Hume, and why viewpoint diversity in the classroom is worth the effort.
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Nathan Cofnas: Should Philosophers Censor Kevin MacDonald?
To say that Cal State Long Beach psychologist Kevin MacDonald’s ideas on Jews and Judaism are controversial would be an understatement, but recent University of Oxford philosophy graduate Nathan Cofnas argues at Quillette that rather than dismissing MacDonald’s points as anti-semitic, they should be exposed, challenged and refuted.
Why bother refuting MacDonald? Why not just dismiss him as an antisemite? There are at least three reasons to engage with him. First, some respected scholars have (publicly or privately) endorsed his ideas. Second, Jewish influence is a legitimate topic for scientific investigation, and his theory cannot be dismissed a priori. Third, he has been enormously influential on the far-Right, and many of his readers interpreted the lack of a refutation as proof that there are no good arguments against his views. So both scholarly and political considerations dictate that he should be given a fair hearing.
When I first started writing on conspiracy theories about Jews, I thought this would win me some political correctness points. After all, I say there is not a Jewish conspiracy! But, as I discovered, that’s not how it works. The only way you’re allowed to criticize a politically incorrect idea is to call its proponents a slur ending in “-ist,” “-ite,” or “denier.” If you try to provide evidence against it then you are guilty of taking the evil idea seriously and therefore just as doubleplusungood as someone who actually believes it. Luckily, I don’t care about gaining political correctness points, or I would live my life very differently.
Under the editorship of Asa Kasher, Philosophia has been one of the few respected journals in the field that is open to publishing work defending genuinely controversial views. Not coincidentally, it has also featured some of the most interesting philosophy papers in recent years. The fact that it is an Israeli journal run by Jewish editors makes the publication of MacDonald’s paper a particularly bold statement: all sides of a debate should be heard, and we are not afraid of Kevin MacDonald’s arguments.
Read the whole thing.
Julian Baggini: Lessons From a Flawed Genius
Writing at Persuasion, Dr. Julian Baggini says that the classic Essays of David Hume might come across as dated, but they still contain lessons for today. His observations about factionalism, consent of the governed, and the unfortunate efficacy of lies in politics are as relevant now as they were when Hume wrote them.
Hume’s observations about political factionalism ring equally true and wise today. In the essay “On the First Principles of Government,” he lamented: “When in a faction, [people] are apt, without shame or remorse, to neglect all the ties of honour and morality, in order to serve their party.” These words seem tailor-made for the Republicans who abandoned all principle to support the Trump presidency, and the Conservatives in the UK who elected Boris Johnson as their leader, choosing electoral appeal over competency to govern.
Hume saw how excessive factionalism causes division not only in politics, but in society as a whole. He would have despaired at how our communities have polarized today, as politicians express contempt for those they disagree with, even as they claim to speak for “the people.” “Public Spirit,” Hume concluded, “shou’d engage us to love the Public, and to bear an equal Affection to all our Country-Men; not to hate one Half of them, under Colour of loving the Whole.” He could be describing the many twenty-first century populists who have demonized their critics as unpatriotic or subversive.
Despite these uncanny contemporary resonances, we never lose sight of the fact that Hume was writing very much as an eighteenth-century Scottish man. Alongside more universal insights comes an inescapable sense of time and place, with many of the accompanying prejudices of the past. No essay illustrates this better than “Of National Characters,” which reads just like the racist European armchair anthropology it is, damned further by a notorious footnote in which Hume declares “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.”
Read it all.
Ilana Redstone: Viewpoint Diversity in the Classroom Benefits Everyone
Using the experience of one high school teacher in Tennessee, Ilana Redstone explains at Discourse Magazine the benefits (and pitfalls) of introducing disparate viewpoints in the classroom. Redstone asserts that legislative efforts to rein in excesses (or perceived excesses) of some teachers have a chilling effect on everyone and make it more difficult to present a broad range of issues to students as they begin to navigate their way toward adulthood in an increasingly diverse society.
[L]egislative attempts to shape what and how teachers teach—particularly when it comes to issues that are ultimately moral in nature—will almost certainly create tension, resentment and do little or nothing to resolve the underlying problem. Even worse, such mandates can have the unintended consequence of discouraging educators from tackling any difficult topics at all. A teacher might reasonably wonder: Why should I bring up this controversial subject if it could cost me my job? In the end, this policy led to Hawn’s dismissal. And Hawn, at least anecdotally, was in many other ways a good teacher. Good teachers are difficult to come by.
The upshot is that the lack of viewpoint diversity in schools is a problem that’s bigger than any one teacher, and solving it requires more than a one-size-fits-all legislative solution. Addressing it requires a willingness to think broadly and a commitment to teaching in a manner that prioritizes the presentation of a variety of viewpoints on equal moral ground. Without a doubt, bringing such an ethos into the classroom requires either a motivated instructor or a motivated administrator.
While that motivation can and should be nurtured and encouraged, people ultimately find it in different places. Some may be moved to act by their own intellectual curiosity, while others may be concerned about promoting democratic norms. Still others may see viewpoint diversity as necessary to building and growing community trust and social cohesion.
Read it all here.
Yascha Mounk plugs and explains his new book coming out in April in a long thread today, excerpted here:
Here’s Bari Weiss with a brief reaction to one Danish newspaper’s realization that even a pandemic is no reason to suspend the media’s skepticism of government rhetoric:
A Thomas Edsall column in the New York Times gave rise to this short exchange on “wokeness”:
And finally, speaking of “wokeness”, a prediction from Peter Boghossian: