By Justin Henry
Do you remember your first classes where you had a vague sense all the cool kids sat at the Bernie Sanders table? You highlighted aspects of your beliefs that signaled you weren’t a racist, sexist homophobe. If you’re a young man you might have let everybody know you were aware of your male privilege and alert other men to their own.
We are the children of World War II baby boomers, for whom capitalism was synonymous with freedom and socialism was synonymous with government enslavement. We began to sympathize with ideas we never thought of before. Like how the white capitalist hetero-patriarchy continuously reconstructs itself to suppress uprisings against it. We feel compelled to join the fight because we are told there is no neutrality in situations of injustice.
Much to the surprise of our parents, we came home during break with a critical Marxist analysis of society from an English gen-ed. It’s because we finally realized how blindness to our privilege has aided in maintaining oppressive power structures and now we have a lot of repenting to do.
Although I am left-of-center in my voting style, I am concerned about the intellectual bigotry which forms in an echo chamber, where our perception of leftist orthodoxy becomes restricted to a narrow corner of the political spectrum and certain ideas become heretical. College is a place where young people should be free to develop their viewpoints without beguilement or bullying from professors or students.
I’m talking about when people test your allyship so you feel compelled to join political causes for which you have no genuine conviction. So you avoided the social suicide of speaking up and being labeled as racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted. This is how any ideology can resist honest vetting and become naturalized into an environment like Ithaca College.
There are many ways to learn which don’t relegate you to a certain identity politic. These ideas should be critically vetted in a college institution—after all, it’s your time, your money and your college experience; nobody gets to make up your political mind for you.
Conservative activists like Pat Buchanan and Jordan Peterson believe the liberal university indoctrinates young people into communist, anti-Western dogma, an idea that is laughable to the accused professors and students. No one thinks of their viewpoints as just another partisan ideology but as a code of ethics that has transcended partisan politics to academic righteousness.
These activists usually refer to critical theory, a broadly defined term unified by a common criticism of liberal western society and capitalism. Its adherents maintain a conviction that scholarship should move students to activism. Critical theory is not inherently intolerant unless it has been distorted by the self-confirming logic of an echo chamber.
If nobody challenges the fundamental assumptions of our worldview, we cease to become free-thinking liberals but high-priests of political dogma as we submit ourselves to mob rule. We become bigoted ideologues, urging the “sheeple” to wake up to the democracy, all the while being herded ourselves. Like the hero of a Greek tragedy, we become the very thing we set out to defeat.
Constructing the chamber
Bring together students from the sociology department and the business department and they are likely to have differing views of the world. Many introductory-level sociology courses use “Sociology: a global approach”, a textbook that analyzes income inequality as a social problem. The textbook provides objective facts and statistics to demonstrate how income inequality has increased in the last half century and how it is related to societal instability. Naturally, this moves students toward left-wing activism to raise taxes on the one percent.
In contrast, students in business will read texts like “Fundamentals of Corporate Finance” where the fiscal philosophy is by definition a conservative one. This is why the business department sees the concentration of conservative students while the social sciences see a concentration of liberal students, according to a survey by IC Chronicle. The language of opposing political interests are naturalized into the curricula.
One curriculum spotlights a left-leaning narrative and the other promotes a right-leaning narrative. Conservatives adhere to conventional ideals of western society like traditional law and capitalism and are therefore represented in the department of business. Progressives seek to reform and sometimes dismantle these very institutions which conservatives hold dear.
We cannot make any progress bridging our college’s tumultuous divides unless we are willing to confront fundamental assumptions of our ideologies.
Academia is a kind of intellectual wilderness in which we operate as though we can only survive in tribes. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at New York University, recently published “Political diversity will improve social psychological science” with several colleagues. The paper is an investigation into the development of group mentality in departments of social psychology.
“If left unchecked, an academic field can become a cohesive moral community, creating a shared reality that subsequently blinds its members to morally or ideologically undesirable hypotheses and unanswered but important scientific questions,” Haidt and his colleagues wrote.
Since the McCarthy era it has long been established in psychological and sociological academic circles that conservatives are racist, sexist and anti-intellectual. This is because they have often advocated against funding ethnic studies, gender and women’s studies and sociology. Contrary to this common wisdom, much of the underlying foundation of these fields lie in a class-based criticism which is the antithesis of conservative ideals. In other words, many conservatives are anti-leftism, naturally, rather than anti-woman.
Theodor Adorno, a German critical philosopher and target of Nazi Germany for his Marxist leanings, wrote “The Authoritarian Personality” in 1950 in which he argued Republicans were afflicted with a pathological “father-fixation” and compared them to nazis. Adorno described democratic-socialist politics as a healthy response to the inequalities of industrial capitalism. Rutgers anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote in “On Being Human” that communitarian politics were not a matter of opinion but in fact biologically determined.
Considering these criticisms were written in the midst of anti-communist paranoia in Republican history, these are valid criticisms of the conservative movement and industrial capitalism. But like any academic theory, they are only as good as their ability to address counter arguments.
This strength is supposed to be tested in the peer review process. However, in an ideologically homogeneous environment, peer review is subject to confirmation bias and any disputes become contained within a narrow corner of the political spectrum. Haidt and his colleagues investigated publications in their fields of psychology and sociology continue to undermine conservative politics in ways that inform contemporary stereotypes. They cite six studies spanning across the 20th century which propagate the common knowledge that conservatives are more intolerant than liberals.
Jarret T. Crawford, one of the paper’s authors, suggested these studies proposed only left-leaning targets like communists and wealthy people. When they performed the same study with right-leaning targets like Christians and military personnel, liberals were found to be equally, if not more, intolerant.
“In this way, certain assumptions, theories, and findings can become the entrenched wisdom in a field, not because they are correct but because they have consistently undergone less critical scrutiny,” Crawford and his colleagues wrote. “When most people in a field share the same confirmation bias, that field is at a higher risk of reaching unjustified conclusions.”
Intellectual segregation is an existential threat for civil society because the solutions for the issues we face sample from the best of the political right and the political left.
Disadvantages of political echo chambers
Political tribalism form from two parties mutually assuming defensive positions. Left-wing cultural criticism contends with the neoliberal administrators, neo-McCarthyites and neo-fascists who are actively trying to silence them. Conservative activists claim their free speech is marginalized by the dominant leftist culture. The “us” group strikes first in anticipation that the “them” group will strike us. However, this validates their defensive stance against “us.”
This is why stereotypes of the “them” group are self-confirming. Working-class white conservatives, progressive academia’s “them” group, know liberal academics think of them as racist and resent the idea that they are more privileged than African Americans attending university by virtue of their skin color. This is why they take so much glee in watching Donald Trump troll the liberal establishment. However, their support for his trolling confirms the view that they are racist.
The same way that the general public dismisses nazis and fascists as unworthy of consideration, much of cultural criticism dismisses conservative ideas—border security, interventionist foreign politics, unregulated economy—as self-interested maintenance in one’s privilege and actively marginalizing oppressed groups.
In liberal arts classes, we have discussions which are constrained to a narrow area left-wing idealism, although we feel as though there is a world of difference between our viewpoints. Derek Adams, professor in the department of English, described a dispute between student protesters about whether or not white students could genuinely be allied with students of color in the fight for liberation.
The question relies on the theory of oppression by a white supremacist system, an idea that is taken for granted in many class discussions. It resists the scrutiny necessary of any standard of academic rigor by dismissing the scrutinizer on an ad hominem basis. If you’re white, you’re protecting your privilege. If you’re a person of color or a woman, you harbor internalized oppression. If you’re mixed-race like me, you’re socialized as white and therefore protecting your privilege.
It’s the same circular logic Karl Marx used in “The Communist Manifesto”, that any criticism against communism inevitably came from a position entrenched in bourgeois preconceptions. Or when fundamentalist Christians said dinosaur bones, whose presence should dispel any notion of creationism, were interred by God to test faith.
Neither of these responses can be proven false, but every hypothesis needs a standard for fallibility to be scientifically viable. In the debate discussed by Adams, the ad hominem argument steers the discussion away from the question of whether or not we live in a white supremacist heteropatriarchal society to the scrutinizer’s subconscious motivations.
Furthermore, if students are told in class mainstream politics were fascist and foundations of our economy are racist, there’s no wonder why they don’t feel safe on college campuses today. If they are told nationalism and libertarianism are variants of a genocidal ideology, there’s no wonder why former President of Cornell Republicans Olivia Corn was assaulted and called a “racist bitch”. If you believed you were in Germany in 1933 and had the chance to punch a Nazi, wouldn’t you?
An ad hominem invalidation of a reasonable dispute serves two functions: it is a self-affirmation for uncomfortable allies to undermine their lack of genuine conviction as fragility and a compelling recruitment tactics for others. How can any compassionate person not feel guilty after looking at posters saying “white silence = white consent” and “Men: Silence is violence”?
The benefits of viewpoint diversity
Adams said he adheres to a radical pedagogical philosophy which confronts preconceived biases that frame our view of texts. However, he also acknowledged how left-wing bias alienates students. In fact, he said that bias has the opposite effect of an authentic liberal Marxist education, one which was originally intended to liberate people to new ways of thinking.
“A ‘good liberal’ would not be alienating and marginalizing people while they are crying out against marginality and alienation,” Adams said. “That happens on the part of professors when they’re teaching classes and they don’t make room for any other kind of thought.”
Something happens when everyone is afraid to question the fundamental principles upon which our philosophy stands; they become doctrinal truths. But faith alone cannot sustain our natural hunger for knowledge. Principals are like muscles; they have to be challenged beyond their capacity so they will tear and then strengthen, otherwise they become atrophied and incapable.
Right-wing news outlets like Hypeline News and Campus Reform love pointing out how mob rule leaves students without genuine knowledge. See “DeVos haters support her policies” and “Young Obama supporters not sure why they love him” for some cringe-worthy moments of fellow liberals.
The primary beneficiaries of leftist dominance in colleges are in fact conservative students. If they engage with their liberal counterparts without trying to troll them, they will never have a shortage of chances to build the muscular strength of their principles.
With viewpoint diversity, liberal students would have to contend with a viewpoint which challenges the very core of their beliefs. What choice do we have now but to dismiss an challenging idea because it is supposedly racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted? Haidt’s paper suggests increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of confirmation bias and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking.
The numerous studies conducted throughout the 20th century, which correlate higher intelligence with leftist thought, is nothing if not a consequence of confirmation bias which has been deeply entrenched in academia. Haidt and his colleagues wrote that this can only serve the purposes of “social cohesion”.
“Although such processes may be beneﬁcial for communities whose goal is social cohesion (e.g., a religious or activist movement), they can be devastating for scientiﬁc communities by leading to widely accepted claims that reﬂect the scientiﬁc community’s blind spots more than they reﬂect justiﬁed scientiﬁc conclusions,” they wrote.
A study by Harry Triandis, psychology professor at the University of Illinois, asked pairs of subjects to devise how a church can fund itself when it is ineligible for bank loans. The conservative-liberal pairs were shown to devise more creative solutions than the homogeneous conservative-conservative or liberal-liberal pairs.
Where else but an environment where ideas do not undergo proper vetting would statements like “I don’t see race”, “I think people should be hired based on their merits” and “You speak English well” be considered acts of racial aggression? Imagine if you went to a non-English speaking country where you were struggling to learn a second language but no one ever gave you positive feedback because they were too afraid to offend you.
There is a twist of irony to the integration of critical theory in classes in the humanities and social sciences. “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paolo Freire described an egalitarian model of learning which rejects European traditionalism and frees students from its “banking model”. Originally intended to liberate students from the western bourgeois mentality, critical Marxist theory has itself become a constraining dogma.
I suggest we get back to the core foundations of critical analysis and to continue to question the status quo of the academy in all its complexities.