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Recalling First Principles

A number of articles have crossed my desk recently wherein the authors step back and look at ongoing social conflicts from a perspective that evokes first principles. How nice to see common sense, clear writing, and dispassion — three qualities that are in short supply in these feverish days. I commend the following pieces to you:

1. For Freedom of Expression, For Due Process, and For Yale: The Emerging Threat to Academic Freedom at a Great University. José Cabranes has been mentioned in this space in the past for his incisive descriptive work on the general ineffectiveness of university Trustees: Myth and Reality of University Trusteeship in the Post-Enron Era (2007). A sitting judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and a member of the three-judge United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, Cabranes was a trustee at Fordham (1974-77), Colgate (1987-90), Yale (1987-99), and Columbia (2000-2102); in addition, his wife Kate Stith-Cabranes ‘73 was on Dartmouth’s Board from 1989-2000. His sons Alejo ‘08 and Ben ‘14 attended the College.

Here are Cabranes’ opening paragraphs in a comprehensive article about the ongoing threat to free speech on college campuses:

We have good news and bad news today. The good news is that we are printing in hard copy the Woodward Report on Freedom of Expression at Yale. The bad news is that we need to reprint the Woodward Report.

We are dealing today with interrelated developments at Yale that threaten freedom of expression and the institutions that protect it, including faculty due process rights, sometimes described as academic tenure.

Many writers on this subject understandably focus on the fate of students. But it is important to recognize that today’s developments are also redefining the rights of faculty—and the role of faculty in the governance of this University. These are developments that, if not addressed, ultimately threaten Yale’s place among the great universities of the world.

2. The Warlock Hunt. Claire Berlinski, a freelance journalist who lives in Paris, dares to ask if we are over-reacting to the wave of revelations about the sexual depredations-peccadillos-playfullnesses of powerful white men. She does not defend Harvey Weinstein by any means, but she asks if all of the actions that are lumped under the term “harassment” deserve the same penalty of personal and career destruction:

#Metoo, of course. Women are not going nuts for no reason. We’re fed up with feeling prickles down our spine as we walk alone on dimly lit streets. Fed up with thinking, “If he feels entitled to send me that message, what might he feel entitled to do to if he knew where I lived?” Fed up with strangers who smack their lips and murmur obscenities at us. Fed up with thinking, “No, I don’t want to go to his hotel room to discuss closing the contract. I’ll have to tell him my husband’s waiting for me to call. ‘My husband? Oh, yes, he’s pathologically jealous, bless his heart, and a bit of a gun nut…’” My husband is perfect in every way but one—he doesn’t exist—but he has served me so well over the years that I’m willing to overlook his ontological defects. I shouldn’t need him, but I do…

All true; yet something is troubling me. Recently I saw a friend—a man—pilloried on Facebook for asking if #metoo is going too far. “No,” said his female interlocutors. “Women have endured far too many years of harassment, humiliation, and injustice. We’ll tell you when it’s gone too far.” But I’m part of that “we,” and I say it is going too far. Mass hysteria has set in. It has become a classic moral panic, one that is ultimately as dangerous to women as to men.

If you are reading this, it means I have found an outlet that has not just fired an editor for sexual harassment. This article circulated from publication to publication, like old-fashioned samizdat, and was rejected repeatedly with a sotto voce, “Don’t tell anyone. I agree with you. But no.” Friends have urged me not to publish it under my own name, vividly describing the mob that will tear me from limb to limb and leave the dingoes to pick over my flesh. It says something, doesn’t it, that I’ve been more hesitant to speak about this than I’ve been of getting on the wrong side of the mafia, al-Qaeda, or the Kremlin?

But speak I must. It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life. Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, overnight costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. The punishment for sexual harassment is so grave that clearly this crime—like any other serious crime—requires an unambiguous definition. We have nothing of the sort.

3. The Age of Outrage: What the current political climate is doing to our country and our universities. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and award-winning Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU, is consistently original in his analysis of society and current movements on college campuses. The Manhattan Institute published an edited version of Jonathan Haidt’s November 15 Wriston Lecture. A few excerpts:

What is happening to our country, and our universities? It sometimes seems that everything is coming apart…

Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: it teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation. But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.

Here is how one young queer activist described the cult. The essay is titled “‘Everything is Problematic’: My journey into the center of a dark political world, and how I escaped.” The author identifies four features of the culture: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. Of greatest relevance to our exploration of tribalism, he writes: “Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup—believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous… . Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare.”

Can you imagine a culture that is more antithetical to the mission of a university? Can you believe that many universities offer dozens of courses that promote this way of thinking? Some are even requiring that all students take such a course.

Haidt’s Heterodox Academy is a force for good in the world.

Happy reading.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

Thanks for posting the Jonathan Haidt excerpt. I had read the whole thing a few days ago (posted on arts & letters daily) and found it to be simply true —perceptive, well balanced and non-trivial in its insights. It’s always a thrill to come across excellent writing such as this.

Addendum: As does a senior member of the faculty:

Your post today leads me to voice a brief gasp of protest. Free speech is hardly at risk on university campuses. This is a bogus issue made up by the right to discredit institutions of higher education. Yes, “#MeToo” can go too far, but the problem pales beside the evidence of widespread sexual harassment. The remarks on “identity politics” are just another version of the attack on “political correctness,” which has become a tool for silencing minorities and women.

Meanwhile, a real and tangible danger emerges in the concerted political program to weaken our great universities. For Dartmouth alone, the 1.4% tax on endowments deprives scores of students of scholarship aid. This is where our great institutions of higher education are imperiled, but about this you’ve said almost nothing.

Addendum: Today’s first correspondent responds to the second:

When reading the second addendum to today’s post (from the ‘senior faculty member’), my immediate reaction was ‘oh, please.’ As to his first point, about the demonization of the universities by ‘the right’ (do the koch brothers even know where Hanover is?), well, they brought it on themselves by the very things that Haidt is writing about. As for the financial hit from the new tax setup, I’d dearly love to see a comparison of the cost he decries against the cost of the diversity bureaucracy or of the bloated ‘administration’ in general.


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