Plato’s suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Apparently I am rather rare among my friends to be deeply disturbed by what this article in The Atlantic labels “the new intolerance of student activism.” I guess I’m either old fashioned, insensitive, or both, but the fact that someone belongs to an oppressed group does not license any kind of behavior on his part, or a complete disregard for standards of civility and rationality.

Why do intelligent people believe stupid things? Ben Carson as a case study.

What? A progressive liberal such as myself suggesting an article in a conservative magazine, about a book written by a conservative that bashes some of the cultural icons of the New Left? Yup. And with good reasons, I think.

The sad realities of the so-called “sharing economy.”

Thoughtful article in Aeon about trigger warnings, tracing the history of the idea that books are dangerous, and pointing out that we may be witnessing the first time in history when it is potential readers, not the State or religious authorities, who want to enforce censorship.

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

22 replies

  1. Hi Massimo,

    Apparently I am rather rare among my friends to be deeply disturbed by what this article in The Atlantic labels “the new intolerance of student activism.”

    I join in your concerns. We seem to have arrived at the position where many who regard themselves as “left” and “liberal”, or indeed as “social justice warriors”, simply don’t accept the idea that, on many issues, educated and well-meaning people can sensibly disagree.

    If you try disagreeing with them they will first consider that you are misinformed, and so they will state their position at you. The only acceptable response to that is a humble admission of error, an error that likely resulted from your “privilege”.

    If you still disagree you are then “doubling down” and they will then freak out. They will leap to the conclusion that you are deliberately wicked person, and thus dismiss you as a person worthy of consideration.

    Over the last few years this attitude has destroyed one major atheistic blog network as a place suitable for intelligent discussion. It now seems to be taking over whole student bodies at some universities.

    We need to get back to a recognition that people are diverse and can legitimately have a range of view points, and that adults should be able to encounter viewpoints that differ from their own without losing their equanimity.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Coel, you mean the increasingly ironically named “freethought” blogs?

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  3. Yes, Massimo, I have a longtime friend who describes himself as a “free thinker.” 🙂 We don’t hear such often these days. The term has an almost plaintive quality as if the user had found himself transported to the wrong time and place by means of Wellsian time machine.

    Very good article. Thanks. I encountered many thematically related articles in The Atlantic over the latest few days. For example, the goings-on at the University of Missouri. Socratic has blogged on it. The link below provides some viewpoints. Note: You have to scroll down to the entry entitled “The Authoritarian Turn of Academia.”

    http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/all/2015/11/debating-the-protests-at-mizzou/415212/

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  4. “Free” speech is framed sometimes as there being a symmetry (or balance) of permissible speech on two (or more) sides. But when its effect (to help or to harm) is taken into account, it may not be symmetric. E.g., debating the passing of transgender rights ordinances: Who is actually hurt/helped more on each side? Conservatives, who may be in the presence of transgenders, or transgenders themselves? So “free” speech idealistically may be symmetric in terms of permissibility but asymmetric in terms of effect.

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  5. Massimo, especially re Mizzou, I have a professional stake at play, of course. My personal thoughts, but from my profession as a newspaper editor:

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2015/11/journalism-vs-mass-communication.html

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  6. And, my more general thoughts about the “Concerned Student 1950” as a non-New New Left liberal: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2015/11/maoism-on-missouri-from.html

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  7. Thomas, I emailed the first of my two links to the Atlantic address.

    Massimo, well, it’s Kristof you’re linking to. Soggy neoliberalism, but it’s OK.

    All: I strongly recommend this from the site Popehat. (It’s a milder, group-blogged version of Volokh, if you know him.) https://popehat.com/2015/11/09/safe-spaces-as-shield-safe-spaces-as-sword/

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  8. As a current undergraduate student, I’d be very interested in why the type of activism we’re discussing here takes hold at some universities and not others. I attend a Northeastern liberal arts college that by all accounts, if you buy into certain conservative stereotypes “should” be a hotbed of this sort of thing, and yet it’s not prominent at all. There are protests, but mostly about things like fair pay for cafeteria/facilities workers, and I’ve never heard any calls for faculty or administrators to be fired. It might very well just be coincidence though, and I also might have a distorted view of things being a natural sciences/mathematics student.

    Changing tracks, I normally don’t think very highly of Scruton’s work, and just from the review alone I’m not sure how much I agree with all his reasons for criticizing these “New Left” thinkers, but I think he’s 100% right to criticize them. They’ve both been harmful to the left politically and above and beyond politics are usually just not very good philosophers and social scientists.

    I do get a sense that the reviewer, and perhaps Scruton (although it’s harder to tell without the book) may be overestimating the influence of these figures, however. They are pretty much only revered figures in stuff like humanities “theory” and cultural anthropology, as far as I can tell. Foucault has some influence in history, but he arguably had some good points to be made about historiography; people don’t tend to buy much of his broader philosophy. They’re definitely still around (I have a film major friend who just took a Deleuze-filled film theory class) but I think there might be a self-selection effect, in that the types of people who write book reviews and pieces for the culture sections of cultural, political, and literary magazines tend to have studied fields and taken classes in college where this sort of thing is disproportionately represented. I’d be interested in data on this.

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  9. The Standpoint review of the Scruton book sounds like old-fashioned Culture-War-mongering to me – and I do mean old-fashioned, this sort of diatribe as been written by others before, over the decades.

    It is simply a mistake to lump the whole of the Continental tradition together, without context and history, and blast it as ‘those dam’ Lefties!’

    Georg Lukacs “horrifying”? Oh, come on! And uttering Habermas and Zizek in the same breath makes sense to whom, exactly? Probably not to either Habermas or Zizek!

    The contemptuous dismissal with which Strauch-Bonart remarks Galbraith and Keyensian economics, the undertone of dire warning in her chance remarking Corbyn as “cryptoMarxist,” her evident confidence that free-market capitalism is the only viable economics grounded in reality – all pretty much screams propaganda. (Which is a core problem for all conservative punditry these days, as much as it was for the New Left.)

    There would be something worth discussing about socialist and Marxist economics; about liberal economics; about Left theories before WWII’ about Left theories after WWII; about contemporary thinkers on the left, and their differences and congruences – once we have the details, the history, the alternative readings available. But lumping these topics all together to shake a finger at ‘those dam’ Lefties! (-and, oh, horrors, the Labour Party might actually win next election!),’ is neither interesting, insightful, inspirational, nor conducive to proper digestion.

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  10. ej,

    I think the bizarre association of Corbyn and Keynesian economics with the thinkers in question definitely is a silly bit of conservative propaganda. It’s particularly odd in the case of Keynesianism, which is not even a full political ideology, it’s a family of mainstream views in macroeconomics. It’s the hardcore austerians like Osborne that are out to lunch with respect to mainstream macro.

    However, I don’t see what’s unreasonable about lumping things together with respect to some property that they share. Scruton alleges that the thinkers he is criticizing share certain features of which he is critical, including a lack of appreciation for a tension between freedom and equality, a lack of respect for reason and evidence/a certain disdain for empiricism, and seeing oppression everywhere.

    Now he might be wrong to do this, either because the thinkers do not in fact share these flaws or because they are not actually flaws, but with the exception of bringing in Corbyn and Keynesian economics, I don’t think the lumping is straightforwardly ridiculous here. It’s also not a lumping together of the whole continental tradition; I have a hard time imagining someone like Christian Beyer or Michael Rosen or Oswald Schwemmer being subject to most of the same criticisms.

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  11. Regarding Ben Carson, the focus is misdirected at his views which are considered “outside-reality”. General Michael Hayden (George W. Bush’s former CIA and NSA director, and supporter of Jeb Bush) this morning said he was comfortable with Ben Carson after a lengthy conversation with him as he had the right “sensibility” when it comes to national security. Bottom line: Political orientation trumps scientific knowledge.

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  12. Philip, visual pun intended — I think you meant “Political orientation Trumps scientific knowledge.”

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  13. With the Paris terrorist attacks today, I want to add one other thing re Mizzou, Yale, etc.: “Triggers” aren’t bad words in a book. Triggers are things like being traumatized by violence or abuse, then having that trauma re-exposed, or reporting on such trauma (read Chris Hedges on how the traumatic war reporting then became addicting for him) or similar. I know this both personally and professionally.

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  14. On Orac’s piece, I don’t think Dunning-Kruger (which I remember by thinking of convicted pseudoskeptic Brian Dunning and Freddy Kruger) is the only explanatory factor. I think that there’s a related issue.

    It’s the fallacy of false appeal to authority, but looking at that fallacy through the other end of the telescope, the false authority thinking he’s an authority outside his field, rather than the actual appeal.

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  15. Guess I’m not much up on the culture wars. The piece on Halloween in the Atlantic read like some B grade far right spoof of political correctness. Though a recent parental notification from the daughter’s university showed similar worries.

    The tone of the students described in it, as well as the book review, reminded me of a point I keep trying to make,

    “It is because its ideal is not supposed to be realised: it is here to be dreamed about, and so never to be questioned.”

    That much of our culture is built around the premise of treating ideals as absolutes. That somehow our beliefs in and desires for perfection are/should be cosmically manifest, be it students at Yale, or jihadis chopping heads. Necessarily this would apply to the Right, as well as the Left. As with everything from monotheism to the mathematical universe. Like a dimensionless point, platonically pure. Beyond question, beyond debate, even beyond explanation. Anyone who deviates is an apostate.

    No one gets elected telling people what they need to hear, only what they want to hear. Consequently reality gets pushed as far away as possible. Until it comes crashing back.

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  16. ej,

    I sympathize with some of your comments, but I also think Scruton has some good points, along the lines of Christian’s comments. I have been pretty horrified at the “thinking” of some leftist thinkers, despite my own political leanings toward that end of the spectrum. That, of course, doesn’t mean I am somehow convinced that Scruton’s worldview is palatable or just or in any way endorsable.

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  17. Massimo,

    Well, I was responding to the review, rather than the book.

    I do agree that there is a problem of fixing political belief and then finding arguments – or elaborately worded enthymemes masqueraded as argument – to sway people to views rather than persuade them to think about issues carefully and reasonably. But this seems to be an illness of the age, in different political guises, left and right, using differing languages, but achieving the same essential confusion over political interests and appropriate actions to take.

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  18. I add to the conversation this VERY insightful piece by Fredrick deBoer on the corporatization of the modern American university. It’s two months old, but very timely: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/magazine/why-we-should-fear-university-inc.html?_r=0

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  19. Socratic,

    What makes the corporation such a very effective structure is its linearity. The exclusive focus on making some combination of product and profit, to the necessary diminishment of other directions and relations. As such, it is the organism in the economic ecosystem.
    Now the ecosystem is composed of many such entities, but the overall effect of one of a non-linear balance. In fact, many such organisms, the flora for example, avoid the necessity of linearity by just not moving.
    The problem is that when we try to construct institutions with a mandate to create balance, from governments, to schools, they have to contend with multiple forces and agendas and effectively play them off one another. Occasionally this broader vision fails and the dynamic becomes propelled in a particular direction. Much as the author described current colleges as being a one party state. In politics, the result is often some variation of totalitarianism.
    Then again, we have monolithic religious models, that have to be explicitly segregated from the political process, in order to sustain multiparty systems, so it is not as though this dichotomy is broadly understood and considered.
    The fact is that singular entities are ultimately unsustainable and just like any organism go through a lifecycle of advance and decline and the state where they seem their most rigid and unyielding is also often the point at which this cycle is peaking. Though in individual human terms, it can be a lifetime, or several.
    My view is that eventually there has to be some broader philosophic consideration of this dynamic, rather than just viewing its limiting effects in a negative light. Then people will understand the broader reality and adjust to it, working within the internal ecosystems imbedded in any large organism.
    The will of the larger entity is susceptible to subconscious influences and finding the right strings to pull can be very entertaining.

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  20. A final note on the thread, extending my last comment to other dualities;
    Males tend to be more linear, while females tend to be more non-linear.
    Conservatives more linear, progressives/liberals non-linear.
    Time is linear, while temperature is non/linear.
    Rationality is linear, emotion is non-linear.
    Past is linear, future is non-linear.

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