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E-Pluribus | September 11, 2023
Have a nice day, and by the way, DIE!; is campus illiberalism a Chicken Little issue?; and the Golden State leads the way (the wrong way) on DEI.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Kaitlyn Tiffany: How Telling People to Die Became Normal
While there have always been those bold (rude? brazen?) enough to tell someone in person with whom they disagree to “drop dead,” the number willing to do so online seems dramatically higher, and the bar for doing so seems significantly lower. At The Atlantic, Kaitlyn Tiffany examines this ugly trend and suggests it may not just be a phase.
After the journalist Billy Ball’s 6-year-old son died in January, the result of a cerebral-swelling condition, he wrote in this magazine, “My grief is profound, ragged, desperate. I cannot imagine how anything could feel worse.” In his essay, he described how the pain of this loss had been compounded by the arrival—on social media, via email, in the comments section beneath a link to his child’s online obituary—of anti-vaccine activists who insisted, with no evidence, obviously, that Ball’s child must have died because he’d been given the COVID-19 shot. Some trolled with animated GIFs (of Bill Gates clapping and smiling, for example). Others seemed enraged. “It isn’t cruel to state the obvious,” one wrote. “What’s cruel is to continue to promote a jab that has killed so many knowing that your own child died from it.” Ball was forced to wonder why so many people on the internet would write to him to tell him that he had murdered his child. Even if they were confused enough to think it, who could imagine saying it?
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When I wrote to some of the people who had harassed Billy Ball and other grieving parents earlier this year, some of them, as could be expected, didn’t want to discuss anything with me. But many of them did agree to talk. Luke Portell, a man I wrote to on Facebook, was a bit surprised that I would ask him about posts he’d made, when he felt his motivations were obvious. He defended a sarcastic tweet that he had posted when Representative Sean Casten’s teenage daughter died of a cardiac arrhythmia at the end of last year. Portell felt that the death was probably caused by the vaccine. And Casten’s office had been active in encouraging Illinoisans to get vaccinated as soon as possible. “The whole point of me tweeting that was because the vaccines don’t work,” Portell said in a phone call. “You don’t need to believe everything the government tells you. It’s that simple.” Dalton Stokes, the owner of a flooring company in Alaska, yelled at me on the phone for several minutes, arguing that anything he’d done had been done to punish the liberal elite, a group who deserved it. “I want them to hurt a little bit, because they wanted us in jail because we wouldn’t put a mask on,” he told me. He said he didn’t care if this was cruel and that I was probably going to die in an impending civil war.
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Research has established that groups in direct opposition to each other are apt to take joy in the suffering of the other side. More recently, social scientists have tested whether this impulse is one of the motivations for online trolling. In 2021, Pamela Brubaker, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, published a paper that identified common motivations among trolls that she and her colleagues had surveyed via Reddit. They found that schadenfreude—or the desire to watch bad things happen to people you dislike—was a powerful predictor of trolling behavior. The people who were motivated by schadenfreude were also likely to think of trolling as justifiable and even productive. “Most of those people actually thought that trolling played some type of functional role in online discourse,” Brubaker told me. They think it’s important to disrupt the conversation by poking holes in arguments or poking fun at others, and they also demonstrate a narcissistic fixation on their own viewpoints and the importance of expressing them. “They’re not thinking about other people. In fact, they may have gone so far as to dehumanize others,” she said. “They’re being selfish … That’s kind of what it boils down to for me.”
Read it all.
Eric Celler: Are Concerns about Campus Illiberalism Just Another Moral Panic?
Are concerns about illiberalism at colleges and universities overblown? One of the challenges at Pluribus is to focus on true threats and to recognize when we’re just being hit by falling political or cultural acorns. Writing at his Substack The Oyster Club, Eric Celler looks at some recent research alongside frequent surveys by organizations such as The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and Heterodox Academy to help separate the real from the imagined.
To the extent that there is a moral panic surrounding free speech on campus, it could be argued that it is simply a manifestation of the anxieties of historically powerful groups and individuals having to reassess their positions vis-á-vis historically marginalized groups that have emerged to claim their rightful places in the discourse. Indeed, Dr. Niehaus’ argument takes on this flavor, and she enriches it with student perspectives that expose a sensitivity to different individuals and their perspectives. Students recognize that their ignorance of different perspectives might cause unintended offense to someone, but those surveyed did not then argue that discussion should be shut down because of it. Instead, one student opted for a strategy of “just figuring it out.” This student, like Dr. Niehaus, recognizes that the classroom is a space where ethical dilemmas we all face in real life can be navigated and explored in a low-stakes environment.
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Perhaps the most critical point in Dr. Niehaus’ study is that if this is all, in fact, just a moral panic, we should be motivated to temper the narrative around campus speech issues simply because it invites actual authoritarianism to campus. Whether the surveys conducted by organizations like FIRE and Heterodox Academy are accurate is irrelevant when we’re faced with state legislatures who use and abuse the narratives they foster about campus censorship and illiberalism to exert more control over universities. The most egregious example of this is New College in Florida, where the state has basically gutted the liberal arts college in favor of turning it into the “Hillsdale of the South.” But aside from this high-profile example, there are many more reasons to worry about how states use the narrative surrounding campus free speech to limit free speech and academic freedom through legislation or intimidation.
State interference in higher education should force us to consider how we talk about on-campus threats to free speech and academic freedom. We cannot and should not ignore legitimate examples and trends of campus-generated problems. Still, we also should be measured and clear about our concerns and how they are motivated by a dislike for all types of authoritarianism, not just the type that can emanate from the classroom.
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If we are to address campus illiberalism, we should focus less on what’s taught in college classrooms and more on the authoritarian nature of the growing administrative apparatus. Often, administrative offices do not exist to serve open inquiry and academic freedom. Instead, they are created to address some ill-defined problem. They then benefit from the vagaries of their missions and creep further and further into campus life until they are so inextricably entwined in campus culture that extricating them seems impossible.
Read it all here.
John Sailer: American colleges embrace California’s DEI model
California has been setting progressive trends for decades, and John Sailer writes at Unherd that it’s no different with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While some progress (no pun intended) has been made against the tyranny of DEI on some campuses, the Golden State is still helping to drive the country’s higher education system deeper into the DEI weeds.
In 1960, UC System President Clark Kerr spearheaded the “California Master Plan for Higher Education,” an attempt to modernise the state’s system of higher education. The Master Plan institutionalised a rigidly tiered system for California’s colleges and universities, reserving the UC system for the top 12.5% of the state’s graduating high school students, the California State system for the top 33.3%, and the California Community Colleges system for everyone else.
The plan captured the country’s strong faith in higher education, its aspiration to send virtually every young person to college. Kerr once jokingly quipped that the mission of the university is “to provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty” — an amusing, and functionally accurate, description.
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California still sets the tone for American higher education. And for that reason, we might add one more item to Kerr’s tongue-in-cheek summary of the university’s mission: “DEI initiatives for the administrators.” The trend Powell describes — whereby enthusiasm for DEI, whatever that might mean in practice, has become a virtual job requirement for scientists and scholars —has trickled down.
Berkeley’s Life Sciences Initiative, for example, was designed to test whether universities could use a method known as “cluster hiring” to advance the goal of diversity. Basically, the approach involves hiring multiple faculty at once with a heavy emphasis on DEI. In a forthcoming National Association of Scholars report, I describe how DEI-focused cluster hiring has boomed since Berkeley undertook its Life Sciences Initiative.
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As a consequence of these measures, trust in higher education will likely continue to fall, owing in part to a sense that some views are simply not tolerated. But DEI litmus tests do not merely diminish the public’s trust in higher education. They degrade higher education itself. Clark Kerr knew that the mission of the university isn’t sex, sports, or parking. It isn’t social justice, either. It’s the pursuit of truth, which, following California’s example, all too many universities seem to forget.
Read the whole piece.
Conor Friedersdorf with some quotes out of California’s higher education system that sound like ChatGPT with a DEI filter turned up to maximum:
Disturbing on any day, but perhaps more so on September 11th. Daniel Burnett on college students’ endorsement of violence to stop speech:
And finally, Jonathan Kay on why, for him, pronouns are a litmus test for politicians: