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E-Pluribus | May 8, 2023
Message over messenger; friendly fire, self-censorship and campus free speech; and closing minds is wrong regardless of who is doing the closing.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Sally Satel: Focus on the Research, Not the Researcher
In this case, no one is shooting the messenger — but, according to Sally Satel at Persuasion, an increasing trend in the scientific community is to allow the demographics of researchers to determine how seriously their research is taken. Here, Satel takes a close look at “positionality statements.”
A foundational principle of truth-seeking is the norm of universalism: the concept that work must be judged on its own merits.
[ . . . ]
But authors are now distorting that process with so-called “positionality statements.” These disclosures are included in the body of research papers and describe personal attributes of the authors, like their identities, experiences, and societal advantages.
[ . . . ]
[P]ositionality statements violate the norm of appraising new knowledge according to quality, independent of the person who produced that knowledge. The anonymity of the work is important—symbolically and pragmatically—because it trains readers’ attention to the substance of the project and the methods used to determine claims about how the world works. The identity and proclivities of those who conduct the project has little bearing on that.
Second, positionality statements are themselves biased. Authors choose what to disclose about themselves, and that judgment—like the research itself—is subject to blind spots and subconscious biases. As Savolainen and his team put it, “academic scholars cannot have it both ways. They cannot, on the one hand, claim to be burdened by their biography when conducting the research, yet, on the other hand, be emancipated from it while constructing a positionality statement.”
The problems don’t end there. Revelations about the authors may distort the editorial process itself. Imagine, for example, that the author of a paper about rape trauma states that she was a rape victim herself. Knowing this, a reviewer might tone down or altogether omit warranted criticism out of concern for offending an author whose personal experience and research interest seem so intimately tied. Another parallel concern is that authors could tailor their positionality statements to serve their own needs, curating details about themselves in order to enhance the odds that their paper will be accepted and published. (Moreover, if a researcher’s personal details are especially unique, it could disrupt the “blindness” of the review process.)
Read the whole thing.
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Ash Kahn: Fear and Self-Censorship in Higher Education
Ash Kahn, a self-described progressive and social-justice activist, relates at Quillette her experiences on the wrong end of her own ideology. Despite the diversity/inclusion conceit of the left, Kahn writes that too often fear-based conformity rules the day.
Before going to college, I felt pretty confident in my convictions. In high school, I regularly testified in the Texas State Legislature and Austin City Council, where I spoke about issues including sex trafficking, paid sick leave, and postpartum depression. While I advocated for what I believed in and connected other young people to avenues of democratic participation, I also operated with a level of hostility that neglected community building. At school and in my community, I was known as a social-justice activist, and played the part of self-righteous progressive who some admired and others feared, ready to jump down anyone’s throat at the first hint of an offensive utterance.
[ . . . ]
I did not share my identity when I introduced myself in class, and this was the beginning of my social downfall. By the second semester, I had already been accused of being “transphobic” and “co-opting the trans experience” after my poetry classmates read pieces I had written about my penis envy and simultaneous phallus phobia. None of my peers asked me how I identified, nor did anyone stop to wonder why I would write about this kind of thing in the first place. In addition to leaving notes on my poem and condemning its “offensiveness” in critique, one student requested that I conference with my professor about my “concerning” material. They denounced my poetry as derogatory (which it wasn’t) when it would have been more appropriate to describe it as vulgar, lowbrow, and just plain bad (which it was).
To my chagrin, my queer peers proved to be among the most unwelcoming and jaded people with whom I interacted while at Columbia. I had foolishly assumed that the compassionate Left would want to include others and welcome dialogue. Thankfully, I found some solace among faculty, who encouraged me to share my ideas and also worried about the dearth of free and productive classroom debate. Throughout my degree track, but especially since COVID, students have remained quiet when encouraged to express divergent or possibly controversial opinions. Most analyze the world through the hyperidentitarian script spoon-fed to us all by social media.
My peers and I were afraid of three things: (1) Looking stupid, (2) offending someone, and (3) social ostracization. For a generation so keen on displaying individualism through gender identity, we are paradoxically terrified of being seen as different. . .
Read it all here.
Naomi Schaefer Riley: Closing Young Minds
When headlines are dominated by stories of violence in society, it’s a bit jarring when complaints about not feeling “safe” have less to do with physical safety and more to do with feelings. Such was the case at North Carolina’s Durham Academy, a private school that removed an Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) lawyer from its board because his presence caused discomfort to other board members, as Naomi Schaefer Riley relates at City Journal.
Roger Brooks describes himself as a “loyal supporter” of Durham Academy. A member of the class of 1980, he has donated money every year to support the 1,200-student North Carolina private school. His father was chairman of the board of trustees in the 1970s. When he left New York to move back to his hometown six years ago, he enrolled his two youngest children and joined the board. So it came as a surprise when Brooks was fired from the board earlier this year in the middle of his second term—because his presence made some faculty members feel “less safe.”
The problem, according to an anonymous letter sent to the board last year and claiming to represent dozens of teachers, was that Brooks is a lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a pro bono Christian legal-advocacy group that has argued in favor of bans on transgendered men competing in women’s sports and against forcing bakers to make cakes for gay weddings. By including Brooks on the board, the letter stated, school leaders “made the calculation that the lives, health and wellbeing of the queer community are ancillary and insignificant.” The group demanded that Brooks be removed and censured, and that the board apologize “to the entire DA community for a failure to do its due diligence to provide a safe and respectful community through the appointment and renewal of Roger Brooks.”
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After some back and forth with Brooks, the school caved to the anonymous letter campaign. A letter from the board chair, Edwin Poston, noted that its members “did not take issue with the trustee’s personally held beliefs” but objected because the legal positions taken by ADF “took a stand against treasured members of the community.” This inability to distinguish between legal arguments and personal attacks is one of the hallmarks of the modern progressive agenda.
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The faculty letter, which Brooks describes as “standard issue cancel-culture script,” has saddened him. Durham Academy has always leaned left, Brooks acknowledges. “When I was there, it was a university community”—many students are children of faculty members at the local colleges—“and therefore as a Christian conservative, I was part of an ideological minority.” But “that was never a problem,” he says. “The teachers tended to be liberal, but not uniformly. One could have a discussion about these things. I left loving the school.”
Read it all.
Thomas Chatterton Williams sparks a long, rambling back-and-forth about protesters’ tactics in New York City in response to the killing of homeless and mentally ill man Jordan Neely last week. Click through to navigate through various threads of the conversation (though it might be difficult for Twitter novices to follow.)
And finally, don’t hold back, how do you really feel, Richard Dreyfuss?