*Harper’s Magazine* publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”

Harpers

 

This letter will appear in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Signers include Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Gary Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Bond Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

Here is a taste:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the entire letter here.

Peter Wehner on Jonathan Haidt

Righteous MindSome of you are familiar with Haidt‘s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He argues that ethical judgments “arise not from reason but from gut feelings.” Over at The Atlantic, Peter Wehner has an extended piece based on an interview with Haidt.

Here is a taste:

In 1992, Haidt received his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he encountered several professors who had interesting things to say about morality that, he said, “set me up to think about a much broader moral domain.” But it was the years immediately following Haidt’s time at the University of Pennsylvania that were transformational. He spent two years at the University of Chicago working with Richard Shweder, an anthropologist, who was his postdoctoral research adviser. Shweder has a motto: If someone asserts it, try denying it and see if that makes sense. If someone denies it, try asserting it and see if that makes sense. “It’s a great way to overcome confirmation bias and to try on new ideas,” Haidt told me. “Richard Shweder in particular just blew my mind wide open.” The experience “really changed me and prepared me to step out of my prior politics, my prior moralism, my prior self-righteousness.”

While he was at Chicago, Haidt received a fellowship to study morality in India. In September 1993 he traveled to Bhubaneswar, in the Indian state of Odisha, where, among other things, he learned the power of rituals and of a commitment to religious purity as a way to knit communities together. While in India, Haidt “really tried to understand a culture very different from my own, and in the process, for the first time, I was able to look at evangelical and conservative Christianity not as a force hostile to me as an atheist, a cosmopolitan, and a Jew, but as a moral community striving for certain virtues—and I could understand those virtues and I could respect those virtues. It was that combination that really drained me of my anger and hostility and, I think, helped me to just listen to people and try to map out what [they are] aiming for. What are the virtues they’re trying to instill? What is the vision of the good that they are pursuing? Without that period, I don’t think I ever could have written The Righteous Mind or been of much use in studying a culture war.”

And this:

In preparation for teaching a graduate seminar in the spring of 2005 on political psychology, Haidt read an introductory essay by the historian Jerry Muller in a book Muller edited, Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought From David Hume to the Present. All of a sudden, a whole new world opened up. Haidt discovered that conservatives had some important insights to offer on human nature, the value of institutions, and the importance of moral capital. He felt conservatism offered an important counterbalance to the excesses of progressivism. He also came to appreciate the pedigree of conservatism, from the writings of people like Edmund Burke in the 18th century to Thomas Sowell in the 20th. (Haidt told me he considers himself to be a centrist, engaging with views from multiple sides in order to understand issues. But he’s a centrist who only ever votes for Democrats, because he thinks the Republican Party has been in a state of moral and philosophical decline for many years.

Haidt laments the state of contemporary American politics, believing that on both the right and the left we’re seeing populism that responds to real problems but in illiberal ways. “On the right,” he said, “the populism there is really explicitly xenophobic and often explicitly racist … I think we see strands of populism on the right that are authoritarian, that I would say are incompatible with a tolerant, pluralistic, open democracy.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Controversial Jonathan Haidt

Haidt

He is the founder of Heterodox Academy and one of the country’s foremost champions of free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses.  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Evan Goldstein offers a very fair treatment of Haidt and his critics.

Here is a taste:

Through the 1980s, Haidt says at the conference, liberals outnumbered conservatives on college faculties by about two to one. In his own field, psychology, a left/right disparity of four to one existed until the mid-1990s. “That’s not really a problem as long as there are some people on the right who can raise objections if someone says something that’s just overtly partisan and isn’t backed up by the facts,” he says. Today, however, precious few conservatives are in psychology departments. “If you say something pleasing to the left about race, gender, immigration, or any other issue, it’s likely to get waved through to publication,” says Haidt. “People won’t ask hard questions. They like it. They want to believe it.” This represents “a real research-legitimacy problem in the social sciences.”

Solving that problem has become a crusade for Haidt. In 2015 he co-founded Heterodox Academy to advocate for what its mission statement calls “viewpoint diversity.” The organization began as an online salon frequented by a few colleagues, but after high-profile student protests at the University of Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere, the ranks began to swell. The group now has more than 800 members, primarily tenured or tenure-track faculty. The active ones conduct research and distill their findings into blog posts, which has made the Heterodox Academy website a clearinghouse for data and views on academic bias, scientific integrity, and the latest campus free-speech flaps. Last year a quarter-million people visited the website….

He’s an active presence on social media, with more than 50,000 Twitter followers, and he’s often quoted in major newspapers explaining the campus culture wars. The Wall Street Journal opinion section has published a flattering profile as well as several of his op-eds. When an appearance by Charles Murray led to protests and violence at Middlebury College, Haidt was booked on Charlie Rose to offer insight. He’s in such demand that he charges $30,000 per speech. At the Students for Liberty conference, Haidt explained that his activism is driven by a belief that the stakes could not be higher: “This could be the beginning of the end for liberal democracy.”

His critics, of whom there are many, see his efforts to shift the conversation about diversity away from race and gender and toward politics as at best obtuse and at worst hostile. They say his absolutist stance on free speech is at odds with the need for a diverse and inclusive university. They say he lends a social-scientific sheen to old conservative arguments. They say his penchant for skewering the left, coupled with his willingness to engage the right, is suspect and creates confusion about where his sympathies actually lie. They say he’s either a closet conservative or a useful idiot for the right.

Haidt acknowledges that, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, he risks sounding like a guy in Berlin in 1933 insisting that wisdom is to be found on both sides of the political spectrum. “The election has ramped up emotions so strongly that any effort to say, ‘You really need to have more conservatives in the university, and you need to listen to them’ strikes some people as immoral.” On the other hand, he says, the election has forced a reckoning. More academics are saying, “Wow, we really are in a bubble. We must get out of this bubble.”

Read the entire piece here.