heterodox: the blog
On the Role of the Public Intellectual in the United States
A guest post by Preston Stovall, member of the academic precariat, and currently an adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, a researcher with Studium Consulting, and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh.
One doesn’t have to look long or hard to see contentious divisions in American society today. From punditry and political debate to the polarization of both old and new media outlets, contemporary American life is riven with factionalism. As a consequence, Americans often find it hard to talk to and understand one another. This difficulty, in turn, redounds on our capacity for collective action. In failing to grasp the reasons and values that motivate our fellow citizens, we find it hard to come together and work toward common ends with them. For sympathy of the sort that makes for common cause cannot be had without understanding.
If that is right, then the public intellectual has a role to play in fostering the possibility of shared sympathy, establishing its base, by discussing divisive issues in a way that tends toward all parties better understanding one another. It would furthermore seem that institutions of higher learning would be an important venue for working toward that understanding by hosting exchanges between divergent factions in contemporary American society, as the youth of today go on to shape the social order of tomorrow.
Unfortunately, the intellectual climate on college campuses today sometimes inhibits the pointed discussion necessary for mutual understanding over contentious issues (the year-old archives of the Heterodox Academy already testify to the widespread character of this phenomenon in American universities). There is critical discussion of the impact of these trends outside the academy as well. At the end of last July John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University and HXA collaboarator, took aim at the deleterious effects that ‘anti-racism’, a cast of mind eager to condemn interlocutors as racist, is having on debate over social issues in the United States.
McWhorter used two examples to illustrate his claims about the effects of anti-racism on public discourse (this will be important in a moment). First, anti-racist sentiment manifests among some Black Lives Matter activists as a device that blocks off consideration of the fact that black communities often experience a disproportionate degree of violence from within their own communities. Second, questions of the value of standardized testing, and of the problems in getting black populations to take the tests seriously, both serve to feed the suspicion that the tests are racist while simultaneously encouraging us to think it is racist to suppose the tests are measuring anything worth addressing. And so the suggestion that there ought to be, as McWhorter puts it, “a massive effort—as concentrated as the people battling cop abuse against black people—to get black kids practice in taking standardized tests” cannot even be raised.
If McWhorter is right, then the attitude of anti-racism obstructs the ends its possessors claim to be aiming for. Here the effective exercise of agency, directed at the realization of a social good, is thwarted by a mindset that stifles the voices that would otherwise help keep true its orientation toward that end. Anyone familiar with how these conversations typically play out, however, will know that the intellectual and ideological climate of contemporary American culture, especially in academia, makes it practically impossible to raise the issues McWhorter discusses without coming under moral suspicion from some quarters. In the long view of history this is a surprising turn of events, particularly when considering the role that the university has played in fostering social development over the last half a millennium.
Not everyone is convinced that free expression is under threat today, however. In The New Republic Aaron R. Hanlon contends that a defense of freedom of expression given by Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch is a ruse for insulating free-market economic and political policies from criticism. In a piece published at salon.com on November 10, 2015, Amanda Marcotte says that the “real story” concerning campus unrest is the one about the “stressful, often unmanageable situations” that young people face today. At huffingtonpost.com, Alan Singer writes that student demands open up discussion rather than stifle it, and in the Chronicle of Higher Education in February of this year, Yale professor of philosophy Jason Stanley argues that in cases where free speech has supposedly been under threat the situation is actually one in which the free speech of the oppressed is being protected:
All year, the charge of imperiling free speech has been used to silence oppressed and marginalized groups and to push back against their interests. Shockingly, this misuse of free speech is defended, explicitly and repeatedly, by absurd arguments that place freedom of speech in opposition to social justice, activism, and even liberalism. Students subjected to this misshapen conception of freedom of speech would be well within their rights to resist, on grounds of basic plausibility. Or knowledge of history.
On one hand, I take it that questions regarding whether social justice activists are generally opening up avenues for dialogue rather than blocking them off, and whether the real story is the “stressful, often unmanageable situations” that Marcotte’s generation faces rather than the coddling they’ve come to expect, are at least in principle subject to operationalization and study by social scientists—in the latter case, for instance, by measuring indices of class-disparity and living conditions across and between demographics that include the educated elite protesting today and the students in the 1950s and ’60s, as contrasted with the injustices these two generations have raged against.
On the other hand, whether the positions of the people Stanley targets for opprobrium are absurd, as Stanley asserts, is a question to be addressed by looking at what his interlocutors have said. Happily, Stanley takes issue with the Heterodox Academy in particular, and he targets McWhorter and others by name. Unfortunately, Stanley mischaracterizes some of the views he considers. This is unfortunate because it inhibits understanding and thereby the possibility of, eventually, some reconciliation among the different factions. Worse still, because the successful operations of individual and collective agency require understanding the nature and character of the problems to be solved, this mischaracterization thwarts the ends we set for ourselves. Here is the entirety of Stanley’s discussion of McWhorter in “The Free Speech Fallacy”:
John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University and Heterodox Academy member, gives anti-racism as an example [of social-justice tactics that chill free speech], arguing that “antiracism is now a religion…Certain questions are not to be asked, or if asked, only politely.” The goal of the Heterodox Academy is to persuade universities to hire scholars who question this narrative, thereby restoring free speech.
What, exactly, is the tension between antiracism and free speech? If I tell you that you shouldn’t say racist things, am I really denying you the right to say those things? I told my mother the other day that she shouldn’t tell me that I am overweight. Was I challenging her freedom of speech? I tell students in my mathematical logic class they shouldn’t make certain errors. Is my class a hotbed of illiberalism? Is free speech really imperiled when activists argue that a football team shouldn’t be called “the Redskins”?
It is difficult to know what to make of Stanley’s decision to discuss McWhorter’s piece in these terms, as he directs attention away from the issues McWhorter was considering and asks us to entertain, inter alia, the empty claim that you “shouldn’t say racist things”, and something he found offensive that his mother once said to him.
This obfuscation is all the more puzzling given McWhorter’s actual position on the term ‘Redskins’—the only one of Stanley’s examples that bears any relation to what McWhorter is on about. Once again, however, Stanley’s remarks mislead his audience. In October of 2013 McWhorter published a piece with Time magazine in which he said that while it was “an embarrassment” that some people were still offering justifications for continuing to use the term, he was willing to go over those justifications to show that none of them succeed.
There is nothing absurd about any of this, and one cannot help but feel that the “misshapen conception” of the issues surrounding these debates is the one on offer from Stanley. Of course, one has license to editorialize in an opinion piece. But I am suggesting that in one’s role as a public intellectual one should exercise greater fidelity to the facts of the dispute when deciding to participate. This should particularly be the case when members of the academy contribute to the discussion.
The public intellectual builds expository bridges among the different viewpoints that stand out on the cultural landscape. By drawing these viewpoints into conversation in the interest of fostering mutual understanding among their partisans, the public intellectual performs a service in laying the intellectual groundwork for collective action and the cultivation of our mutual sympathies. Given the divisive character of contemporary social and political discourse in the United States today, and given the value that Americans place on collective self-determination, this service might be regarded as a characteristic virtue of the public intellectual qua American citizen—it is part of what constitutes her flourishing as the kind of person she is. Persuasion and advocacy have their place as well, of course, but let all sides agree that a shared commitment to accurately portraying the facts of our disagreement shall motivate the public intellectual in the United States.
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