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Jonah Gelbach Responds to Amy Wax and Jon Haidt

[Guest post by Jonah Gelbach] As is by now well known, my Penn Law colleague Amy Wax recently co-authored a controversial op-ed published at Philly.com with University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander; for brevity, which is in short supply in this post, I’ll generally call this just the “op-ed” and refer to it as Professor Wax’s, except when it is especially relevant to refer to Professor Alexander. Professor Wax subsequently gave an interview to the Penn student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, which led to an article that fueled the controversy; henceforth, I’ll call this the “DP interview”. Much more has transpired, including a number of critical columns and other statements, as well as various tweets and posts in support of Professor Wax and articles with quotes from or extended interviews with Professor Wax.

This post will focus principally on the op-ed and the DP interview, as well as an open letter to the Penn community that I signed along with 32 other colleagues of Professor Wax’s; henceforth, I’ll call this the “Open Letter”. As a matter of full disclosure, I note that I was the organizer of this letter and took ultimate responsibility for creating and finalizing its contents. [There is a brief response from Haidt at the end]

I Don’t Care if Amy Wax Is Politically Incorrect; I Do Care that She’s Empirically Incorrect

I was one of the 33 members of the University of Pennsylvania Law School faculty to sign a letter criticizing Amy Wax’s (joint with Larry Alexander) op-ed and subsequent comments regarding the decline of bourgeois culture and its role in America’s perceived social ills. Was this the predictable response of a morally squishy, politically correct, ivory tower academic lefty who is unwilling to endorse unspeakable truths for fear of being bounced from faculty cocktail parties? I can understand this presumption, but, in my case, I prefer going to my kids’ football games to chatting about Derrida over wine and cheese anyway… [I believe that] Wax’s arguments come up lacking when judged by rigorous empirics.

In Defense of Amy Wax’s Defense of Bourgeois Values

Since 2015 we’ve seen an increase in petitions and movements to denounce professors. Typically a professor says or writes something, then a group of students protests. The students demand that the professor be censured or renounced by the university administration, or by his or her colleagues. The event is amplified by social media and by secondary, agenda-driven news outlets, pressuring other professors to take sides and declare themselves publicly. (There is a different script for pressure from right-wing sources off-campus).

The two highest profile cases so far involved Erika and Nicholas Christakis, at Yale, and Bret Weinstein, at Evergreen. We also had the case of Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher at Rhodes College, in which the pressure campaign did not come from students but rather from other professors.  In all of these cases the professor in question was on the left politically, and had said something that most professors did not find offensive. As far as I can tell, most professors outside of the immediate conflict zone supported the accused professors, thought it was inappropriate to subject them to punishment of any kind for what they said or wrote, and thought that these denunciation campaigns ultimately reflected badly on the academy.

Now, in late August, we have a case that may play out differently because the professor in question is a conservative who has made a conservative argument about poverty and culture. She made the argument a few days before the events in Charlottesville. Students at Penn have demanded that the university denounce her, and many of her colleagues did so.

The Implications of Charlottesville

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot about the events in Charlottesville last week, and President Trump’s comments about those events. I taught at UVA for 16 years and I lived a few blocks East of Emancipation Park (back when it was called “Lee Park”). I share in the horror felt by my friends and former neighbors that neo-Nazis, the KKK, terrorism, and death came to our lovely town…. To explain why I thought “very fine people” could be a turning point, I wrote an essay for The Atlantic in which I analyzed the whole affair through the lens of my research on moral psychology—specifically the psychology of sacredness, taboo, and contamination. I showed how the psychology of sacredness could explain why the alt-right would march to defend a statue, why UVA students would risk their lives to defend another statue, and why the President’s delays and equivocations in condemning white supremacists are likely to have longer-lasting effects than his previous taboo violations. … What are the implications of Charlottesville for universities, and for those of us who believe that viewpoint diversity is a good thing, and who believe that we need more of it on many campuses? There are many, and its going to take us a while to work them all out. I have no time to write this week, but I just wanted to raise a few points briefly, as markers for future posts.

The Motte and the Bailey: A rhetorical strategy to know

Joseph (Joe) Zabel has been working in China in venture capital since graduating Stanford University in 2016 and is a rising law student at Stanford Law School. The freedom to be exposed to and engage in true substantive argument has been the historical strength, and even greatest gift, of a college education in the United..

Blinded with ‘Science’

‘She blinded me with science’ is a wonderful 1980s song by the Brit Thomas Dolby.  It could be the signature tune for Professor Lisa Barrett’s fallacious New York Times Gray Matter article on speech as violence.  Professor Barrett’s arguments are supposedly based on science, but the facts don’t support them.  She uses eugenics as a bad example, but her proposal is itself a kind of mental eugenics.

Psychological Harm and Free Speech on Campus

In this short piece recently published in Society, I defend extensive toleration of speech on college campuses based on John Stuart Mill’s famous harm principle.  I argue that only prevention of harm is a justification for interference with individuals and that while speech can be harmful, it’s rarely harmful on college campuses- despite the current preoccupation with microaggressions. When we say that only prevention of harm is justification for interference, we do not mean that any claim to be hurt justifies interference.

Why Call for Heterodoxy in the Academy?

By Preston Stovall

In a series of three essays published at Crooked Timber, philosopher John Holbo argues that the Heterodox Academy’s campaign against ideological homogeneity in the academy is not well founded. Holbo’s argument takes the form of a reductio ad absurdam, developed over his first two essays. Suppose Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) is true. According to MFT, the left-dominated academy of today is characterized by a lack of individuals who respect the loyalty/authority/purity axis of moral sentiment. This results in a narrowness of moral vision that, so the Heterodox Academy tells us, leads to problems. At the same time, (Holbo argues) PC-culture displays reverence for values along just that axis—for what is all the protesting and shouting down of debate, the aggressive suppression of those who disagree with orthodoxy, and the call for safe space from microaggressions, etc., but the display of loyalty to a cause, respect for the authority advancing that cause, and an emphasis on social purity? Thus, by MFT’s lights, these displays of outrage should be the corrective to the problems the members of the Heterodox Academy are pointing to. But the Heterodox Academy takes precisely the opposite stance. And so the project is incoherent.

Professors Must Now Fear Intimidation From Both Sides

The string of recent cases in which professors have been fired, sanctioned, or placed on leave by their universities in response to public outrage generated by right-wing media sites is an alarming turn of events for the academy and for the country….
I’d like to close with a simple request to university leaders: Please stop giving in to mobs and their demands. It may seem like the easy way out of your predicament in the moment, but it encourages more mobs to form in the future – student mobs on campus, and right-wing internet mobs off campus.

Zachary Wood’s Quest for Political Diversity at Williams

Zachary Wood, President of Uncomfortable Learning (a group that invites controversial speakers to campus) and member of the Class of 2018 at Williams College, delivered compelling testimony on the value of free speech and viewpoint diversity in the academy at this week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses.” Wood, a self-described “liberal Democrat who supports many progressive causes” sees higher education as an opportunity for “students…to engage with people and ideas they vehemently disagree with.” His full testimony is in the video below.