When speech is violence

Jonathan Haidt has a great interview with WSJ on April 1, 2017. But, the matter was anything but a matter of ‘Fool’s Day’.’

Some extracts from his interview:

People older than 30 think that ‘violence’ generally involves some sort of physical threat or harm. But as students are using the word today, ‘violence’ is words that have a negative effect on members of the sacred victim groups. And so even silence can be violence.” It follows that if offensive speech is “violence,” then actual violence can be a form of self-defense.

What are the causes for this shift. He names political polarisation as one of the causes. Campuses in the United States have become overwhelmingly left-leaning. There is no room for Right/Conservative professors on campus except, perhaps in Economics?

The second cause, he mentions, is that justice means equal outcomes now. That is very dangerous. Many developing societies have made that mistake and are now trying, with great difficulty and little success, to move away from equal outcomes to equal opportunity. But, if America is now moving towards or has moved towards equal outcomes, then that is one irreversible downhill slippery road to mediocrity and oblivion, if unchecked.

Jonathan Haidt points to that in his own, understated way:

Mr. Haidt argues, what happens on campus affects the “health of our nation.” Ideological and political homogeneity endangers the quality of social science research, which informs public policy. “Understanding the impacts of immigration, understanding the causes of poverty—these are all absolutely vital,” he says. “If there’s an atmosphere of intimidation around politicized issues, it clearly influences the research.”

Then, there are other causes – not necessarily minor. He points to ‘hyper-parenting’ although he does not use that phrase. Second is the attitude of Universities and colleges that treat students as customers and that customers are always right, in that great language of commerce. I am not sure if centres of leaning and knowledge should treat students as customers or just as students – with a mixture of compassion, understanding, justice and, importantly, discipline.

That is a great finish to the interview:

“People are sick and tired of being called racist for innocent things they’ve said or done,” Mr. Haidt observes. “The response to being called a racist unfairly is never to say, ‘Gee, what did I do that led to me being called this? I should be more careful.’ The response is almost always, ‘[Expletive] you!’ ”

He offers this real world example: “I think that the ‘deplorables’ comment could well have changed the course of human history.”

Well, after the last one week of President Trump’s audacious, unprecedented and dramatic somersaults, we do not know if history is merely continuing or is changing. That is an aside.

Back to Haidt and his ‘Heterodox Academy’. How big his challenge and how long the road ahead is, is underscored by these two stories. In case you had not watched this video, please do so (ht Harikiran). It is downright scary. It is from Australia. The disease is prevalent in all affluent societies. Perhaps, this is how the wheels of societies turn.

In the final analysis, one has to wish Haidt well. He is performing a very important task here with his Heterodox Academy. It is impossible to exaggerate its necessity in these times.

Disclined to discuss and hence, disinvite

The media outlets that are relentlessly pursuing Donald Trump should pause and do a story on the data that the Heterodox Academy had presented. See here and here.

Second part is more interesting. The Left proposed more disinvitations and disrupted events more!

It shines another spotlight an aspect of the ‘Regressive Left’ behaviour that needs to be highlighted. This is not ‘Left-Liberal’ but ‘Left-intolerance’. Really, we should come up something far more accurate than ‘Left-Liberal’. There is really nothing ‘Liberal’ at all about this behaviour.

Refusing to discuss problems will not solve them or make them disappear but make positions harden and rigid. In fact, discussion of a problem is, in itself, a step towards the solution.

The media’s non-coverage of the problems faced by European nations with respect to immigrants (primarily Sweden, Belgium and Greece) is objectionable not because it is unfair, immoral but because it is so stupid. It does not even help them advance their goals, regardless of my agreement or disagreement with them. It is so counter-productive,
self-defeating and hence, so stupid.

Avoiding hard questions is neither progressivism nor enlightenment. It is escapism. Escapism has never solved problems nor made the world a better place.

Since when ostriches with heads buried deep in the sand produced problem-solving leadership?

Further, from Prof. Jonathan Haidt’ Twitter handle: The Student Assembly in Cornell U. votes down a resolution to increase ideological diversity. We should worry for America, but not for the reasons many think.

The purpose of liberal arts education: an examined life

A conversation between Professors Robert George Cornel West of the Princeton University (ht: The Heterodox Academy). I have extracted some portions that made me think and I am presenting them in this blog post. You can find the full transcript here.

  • It’s the gospel of liberal arts education. It’s a gospel that is all about interrogating your own assumptions and presuppositions. In an age of ideology, it’s hard to think of what could be more important than the self-critical attitude and the virtues of intellectual humility and love of truth that are at the core of liberal arts learning.
  • As Plato said, perhaps an unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps the wealth and the prestige and the status and the power and influence are mere dross. Maybe the real meaning of life, what it’s really all about is something different, something that can only be obtained through critical self-examination.
  • And to learn how to die is to muster the courage to critically examine yourself, the courage to interrogate yourself so that you must wrestle with a certain doctrine and dogma that may have to die — certain xenophobic prejudice, certain assumption or presupposition you’ve had in your life, you’re holding on for dear life and you have to let it go. That’s a form of death.
  • Spiritual blackout is about the eclipse of integrity, the eclipse of honesty, the eclipse of decency. And once that goes, no matter what our ideological or political orientations are, we’re just on the way to the survival of the slickest.
  • What we don’t want is for higher education across the board to be instrumentalized to the goal of, for the individual, career attainment, and for the society as a whole, simply training our workforce for the new economy or the next stage of the economy.
  • I do believe in all honesty that we’re in a deep moral and spiritual crisis. The liberal arts tries to get us to look at the world through moral and spiritual lens, whatever our traditions are, so that the sense of what it means to be human is not reduced to just money making, status seeking, manipulation, domination. Those are the dominant forces in human history. Human history is a cycle of hatred and revenge and resentment, domination, exploitation, and subordination. How do you interrupt those? That’s what Plato is concerned about. Why is Plato concerned about it? Because his mentor
    condemned — Socrates. He said, I’m going to make the world safe for the legacy of Socrates so every generation will have to come to terms with his example, the enactment of an examined life. And Plato pulled it off pretty well.
  • think the dominant goal for most people these days, or at least many people these days — perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so judgmental — is feeling good. It’s having satisfaction. People find it in different places, look for it in different places, often look for it in all the wrong places. But they’re after a certain psychological status, a certain desirable psychological state….something deeper and more difficult to handle.
  • Why do people want money? Because prestige comes with it. Why do — or status. Why do people want prestige and status? Because you feel good. It makes you feel good. It’s like a drug. It’s the same reason people like applause. It’s the same reason people, including students at universities, are so conformist, so unwilling to cut against the grain, so unwilling to question the campus dogmas and orthodoxies, because if you do, you get criticism, and that doesn’t feel good. What feels good is applause. It’s like a drug. It’s addictive like a drug. And to avoid that drug, you need spiritual strength.
  • What’s our age? Well, it seems to me that our age is the age of feeling,… And the age of feeling — feeling is what slips into the role of governor when faith and reason are abandoned, when they lose their status, when they lose their prestige, when they lose their authority. And that’s what you get — I think what Cornel is calling spiritual blackout. You get spiritual blackout when feeling is the whole thing and what we’re after is feeling good. Some people seek that in very, very bad and dangerous ways: through drugs, promiscuity. Other people seek it in other ways, less physically dangerous but perhaps no less spiritually dangerous: through the status and prestige that comes with wealth or power or what have you.
  • Again, there’s nothing wrong in itself about feeling or desiring to feel good, but if that’s your fundamental goal, then you’ve got a deep spiritual problem. And the last thing you’re going to be looking for is the examined life. You will not see the point of the examined life because what it does is make you feel bad.
  • The examined life is a life in which you’re constantly questioning yourself. You’re subjecting yourself to self-criticism. Intellectual humility is a central virtue because in order to carry out the enterprise of self-criticism, you have to actually deal with the possibility that you might be wrong, and that’s hard, especially if changing your view would result in your being stigmatized, ostracized, isolated on your campus or in your community, whether your community is right, left, center, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim — whatever your community is. Seeking the examined life can be a very dangerous thing if what you’re after in life is satisfaction and feeling good. It’s a probe. It’s a prod. It’s a disruptor.
  • People don’t feel as though anything matters, that they’re looking to feel good, something that will make them feel good. People want to at least feel like they matter, something matters. And when they can’t find that, when they’re in the condition of nihilism, you will turn to something else. Now, drugs are just the kind of gross, obvious example for people who are very poor, who don’t have an alternative, although it also affects people who are very rich. But for a lot of people who are very rich, they can find that. They can look for that in a less obviously physically dangerous way. And it can, in its pathological forms, take the form of not just power but domination; not just influence, but narcissism — can take these kinds of forms. And there’s an awful lot of that about.
  • So the call for the restoration of liberal arts ideals is necessarily a call for a sort of spiritual reawakening, a revival, which is at the same time a condition for anybody’s truly appreciating that it’s worth working hard for things, that there are things that are worth having that go beyond how they make you feel, things that are worth having even though — you know, the drug rush is not going to be the reward but, nevertheless, whose value we can perceive and appreciate and struggle for and dedicate ourselves to.
  • So this is not an argument that you have to have a college education or a liberal arts education to be a good person. It’s just that the value of a liberal arts education consists at least in part in its capacity to contribute to our spiritual and moral fulfillment, our spiritual and moral well-being, and there will be a certain number of people for whom, absent that provision, the path is going to be the wrong one. It will be down the path toward seeking wealth and power and status and prestige and influence because there will be a certain number of people who will confront Shakespeare or confront Plato and suddenly realize, “I’m on the wrong path. I’m going the wrong direction. I need to reevaluate my life. I need to assess what really matters. I need to rethink what I’m going, what I’m going to dedicate these next 60 years or 70 years to doing.”
  • My brother David Brooks talks about this in terms of the shift in his own life from being obsessed with his resume as opposed to becoming obsessed with his eulogy said at his funeral. That’s a very different set of stories and narratives and analysis of what’s said at your funeral as opposed to just what’s on your resume. I think what’s said at your funeral is very much about integrity and honesty, decency, love, sacrifice, self-surrender, service, and what have you.
  • On Liberty” — there Mill makes the point that we should value dissent even when we are confident that the dissenter’s wrong because that dissent will enable us by way of defending the truth to deepen our understand and appreciation of it.
  • We human beings wrap our emotions around our convictions, which is not a bad thing in itself, but it can become an impediment to having an open mind. So, you know, I’ve got a lot of stuff against Nietzsche, and yet I read him and I assign him not only because I know that trying to respond to his criticisms will deepening my understating of what I believe to be true, but also because I know that there is a chance — maybe an outside chance, but a chance — that he’s right and I’m wrong.
  • … a true liberal arts education with that openness of mind, with that intellectual humility, that willing to recognize that one might be wrong, that willingness to engage the greatest that’s been thought and said by the greatest minds, the greatest people, it’s like getting on a train not knowing where you’re going to get off and maybe even not recognizing who you are anymore when you get off that train.

I had read about Professors Robert George and Cornel West last year in a Bloomberg article. Their collaboration, despite different ideological viewpoints, was refreshing to read. They reminded me of Professor Daniel Kahneman who had done that too, in practice. This is the original Bloomberg article and this is my cover story for Swarajya for December 2015 (‘Who is a Liberal?’) in which I had mentioned them and Professor Daniel Kahneman.