Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ideological Purity and the Loss of Tolerance

I've written before (here and here) about the dangers of trying to create an ideologically "pure" environment. Our politics are problematic in part because there are some folks on both the Left and the Right who refuse to have anything to do with anything that smacks of the other side. These people are doomed to live frustrated lives, since they will never achieve what they seek.

In academia, the forces pulling in this same direction can be even stronger. There is something about academic training, about dedicating a large portion of your life to seeking truth in a particular area, that seems to engender in us the need to Be Right and to vanquish all of the Wrong Thinking in the world. Academics are not much known for humility.

In this context, the latest wave of opposition to campus speakers has become particularly fertile ground for this sort of quixotic quest for purity. In the minds of some, to host an outside speaker on campus is to allow anything and everything that person has ever said to taint you. The institution itself becomes unclean by their presence, requiring rituals of purification. You could write these sorts of strictures up in Leviticus and they would fit right in.

One of the latest of these incidents involves a kerfuffle surrounding an invitation extended to James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who, along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, discovered and articulated the structure of DNA. He had a hand on one of the signature scientific achievements of the 20th century, on which a vast amount of biological and medical knowledge has been built. He is, as the saying goes, one of the giants in the field.

He has also, at various points, expressed some outdated views about race, gender, and other social issues. He has expressed concern that people in Africa are less intelligent than people in other parts of the world. He has said various things about women, about body types, and about homosexuality which most people these days don't agree with. He has also apparently been a supporter of eugenics, at least at the individual level. He is, from many points of view, on the wrong side of history on a number of social issues.

So here we have a man who has led a stellar scientific career, contributing to some of the most impactful scientific advances of the modern age, who also apparently holds some retrograde views on issues of race, gender, and sexuality - views not that uncommon, it should be noted, for white men born in the 1920s.

In other words, James Watson is a human. He has done things that are laudable, and he has done things that are condemnable. He has said things we wish he hasn't said, and he has done things we are extremely grateful for.

So when he is invited to give a talk about science - about the thing for which he clearly deserves praise - and then is disinvited because of things he has said unrelated to his scientific research, I not sure what the standard is. Can we only invite speakers who have led exemplary lives and have been saints since birth? Can we only host speakers who have never said anything that might offend someone's point of view? If so, our list of campus speakers will be very short indeed.

From a Christian point of view, this kind of intellectual purifying of the academy is nonsense. We are all sinners, and there is no coherent theological justification to suggest that some sins (racism, for example) are more egregious in the eyes of God than others (pride, or lust, or greed). People love to read the Beatitudes, but the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 makes us profoundly uneasy (Cut off your hand! Tear out your eye!)

I am therefore a little perplexed when people write "I am ashamed to be faculty at Illinois" because some part of the university - which is a large, complex organization with many parts, not a unified whole - has decided to host Watson for a talk about his research. Such a person must be perpetually ashamed of many things, because we are all connected to institutions and social structures that do things that we find objectionable.

None of this is to defend racism, or sexism, or homophobia. When Watson argues that one "race" of people is inherently less intelligent than another, he is doing so on the basis of prejudice rather than careful scientific study. The bases of intelligence are complex and multifaceted, and it is entirely likely that his own intelligence is a result of the nurture of his upbringing and circumstances (of having "won the ovarian lottery", as Warren Buffet puts it) rather than what's in his genetic code. As we seek the roots of intelligence we find a very complex web indeed. We would also do well to carefully untangle judgments about intelligence from judgments about moral value, lest we fall into the trap of moral elitism - "smart" people do not have a greater inherent moral value than "dumb" ones.

But it is one thing to disagree with an argument or a point of view. It is another thing entirely to assert that, by inviting a speaker to talk on one topic, you are in some sense endorsing his views on others - an assertion that, when brought to light, is clearly silly. It is still another thing to claim that, by that person's presence on campus in some kind of invited capacity, the institution as a whole is morally tainted - a modern version of the Levitical code of purity.

Ultimately, I think our problem is that we are confused. We see ourselves as individual moral agents - as responsible for our own moral choices. Yet we also imbue our institutions - which are, after all, simply collections of individuals - with a sort of moral status of their own. In itself, this can be useful,  because we want to feel that we belong to and contribute to something greater than ourselves. But we are unclear about the moral rules surrounding our institutions. We seek to hold our institutions to the same standards as ourselves - forgetting that we are not alone, and that others may have different ideas about what is appropriate or inappropriate.

All of this, of course, is just a description of what it means to live in society. My concern is that we are forgetting this - we forget that one of the chief qualities that enables us to get along with each other and improve our individual and collective lives is tolerance for difference and ambiguity. The quest for purity is really just the reduction of the moral world to a zero-sum game: either I win, or you do. Either we are not racist, or we are. We are either a conservative place or a liberal place. Throughout the history of humanity, this approach has always led to suffering, and never to the victory that its adherents sought. Maybe we should step back and look for a better way to listen to each other without so much throwing of stones and slurs and signs.

1 comment:

  1. While academia seems unsuited to declare humbly that the opponent might be right, it is a place where the recipe to fight bad speech with more and better speech could and should find fertile ground. Instead, illiberal lefts seem to intend to spray the whole campus with their dominant intellectual urine and defend THEIR turf against other dogs.