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.
Here are the basic facts. Amy Wax is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She is also a longstanding member of Heterodox Academy. On August 9, Wax did what members of Heterodox Academy sometimes do: she challenged a widely held viewpoint. She published an op-ed at Philly.com titled: Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture. (Wax had a co-author: Larry Alexander, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, but for simplicity, and because Wax is at the center of the controversy, I’ll focus on her.) Wax opened the essay with a list of declining social indicators (e.g., the opioid epidemic and the decline of male labor-force participation) and then asserted something that conservatives have been saying since the 1960s:
The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture…. The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.
She then followed up with the phrase that has elicited most of the objections: “All cultures are not equal.” Here is the entire paragraph:
All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.
In response to the op-ed, a group of students and alumni, mostly from the anthropology department, wrote an open letter, a Statement on Amy Wax and Charlottesville, signed by 54 Penn students and alumni. They criticized Wax and Alexander for:
extolling the virtues of white cultural practices of the ‘50s that, if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.
The letter includes a call to action:
This is the time for members of the University of Pennsylvania community who claim to fight systemic inequality to speak up, especially those anthropologists and scholars who claim an understanding of culture and who recognize culture talk’s deleterious potential as a vehicle for racism and sexism… We call for the denunciation, not of racism as some abstract concept “out there” — in Charlottesville, in America, by the poor uneducated white or by an individual racist ideologue — but for a denunciation of racism at the University of Pennsylvania. In particular we must denounce faculty members that are complicit in and uphold white supremacy, normalizing it as if it were just another viable opinion in our educational tenures at the University. We call for the University of Pennsylvania administration — Penn President Gutmann and the deans of each school — as well as faculty to directly confront Wax and Alexander’s op-ed as racist and white supremacist discourse and to push for an investigation into Wax’s advocacy for white supremacy.
This call to denounce Wax was answered by 33 of her colleagues at the law school—nearly half the faculty—who signed and published an Open Letter to the University of Pennsylvania Community. In it, the law professors affirmed Wax’s right to express her opinions, but said:
We write to condemn recent statements our colleague Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at Penn Law School, has made in popular media pieces. In an op-ed published recently at Philly.com, Wax and a coauthor wrote that “All cultures are not equal,” going on to claim that various social problems would be “significantly reduce[d]” if “the academics, media, and Hollywood” would stop the “preening pretense of defending the downtrodden,” because that would lead to “restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture.” In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian about the op-ed, Wax was quoted as saying that “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans,” because, in the phrasing of the DP article’s author, “Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior.” … [they then affirm Wax’s right to express her opinions, then say:] We categorically reject Wax’s claims.
Those are the basic facts.
I think it is important for the academic community to reflect on this case. In the wake of Charlottesville, all of us on campus might encounter passions among our students beyond even what we saw in the previous academic year, a year in which violence and the justification of violence became more common on campus. This year, we are likely to find many more professors accused of “white supremacy.” Professors and administrators may face many more campaigns designed to get them to sign open letters and collectively denounce colleagues. It is important, therefore, that we think about this case carefully and draw the right lessons. When and why should professors come together to denounce and condemn other professors? Of course we are always free to dispute each other; Wax’s colleagues could certainly have written essays or a collective essay debating her claims and pointing out flaws in her reasoning, but when is it morally and professionally appropriate to issue a collective public condemnation of a colleague?
I think such collective actions are only appropriate when colleagues have clearly and flagrantly violated their professional duties. I mean things like data fabrication or taking bribes to produce dishonest academic papers desired by a trade association. I would include writing a racist and hate-filled diatribe in that list, but is that what Wax did? She wrote an essay on the importance of culture for poverty-related outcomes, and the Penn students asserted, in their open letter, that such “culture talk” has “deleterious potential as a vehicle for racism and sexism.” The students are certainly correct that claims by a professor about the value of bourgeois culture could be misused by racists to say that one race is inherently superior to another. But does that make any discussion of cultural differences taboo? Does that make Wax a white supremacist for saying that culture matters for poverty-related outcomes, that not all cultures are equally good for escaping poverty, and that the 1950s American “bourgeois cultural script” was particularly good for that purpose? No, and here’s why.
The most intellectually exciting project I’ve done in the last ten years was to moderate a bipartisan working group composed of 14 of America’s top experts on poverty. We worked together for 15 months to analyze the existing research literature and write up a set of principles and proposals that we thought would actually work to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility. Our report, sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, was published in December 2016.
In poverty debates, scholars on the left generally emphasize economic and structural causes, including systemic or structural racism, and there is a lot of evidence that these causes matter. Scholars on the right, in contrast, generally emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, the cultivation of virtues and skills, and the benefits of marriage, and there is a lot of evidence that these factors matter a great deal too. In fact, research by one of our members (Richard Reeves) shows that for children born into the bottom quintile of the income distribution, if their parents are married, they are just about as likely to end up in the top quintile as to remain in the bottom. It’s not quite that simple; marriage doesn’t create perfect mobility by itself, but its antipoverty effects are very large.
It was thrilling to moderate the group because after some tensions in the early meetings, the group settled into an extremely productive relationship that allowed the insights of each side to emerge, get refined by challenge, and then contribute to an emerging and novel approach. Viewpoint diversity allowed us to see the full problem of American poverty and then offer a far more comprehensive set of remedies than if we had all been on the same political side.
Our group almost hit an impasse: some of the scholars on the left were hesitant to say that marriage itself matters (as opposed to long-term committed cohabitation); some scholars on the right were hesitant to say that long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) were a powerful way to break the cycle of poverty. We finally agreed to say both, and we developed a clear formulation about the importance of creating better environments in which to raise children. We agreed to urge the importance of “delayed responsible parenting.” We knew that marriage promotion interventions are generally unsuccessful, but given the huge importance of marriage for the outcomes of children, we thought it was urgent to try to change social norms in poor communities. Here is how we put it (with emphasis on culture added):
So what can be done? We’ve said that marriage matters. But past government efforts to encourage unmarried parents to marry have not proven very effective. Promoting marriage to strengthen American families isn’t primarily an issue of specific policies or programs in any case: it’s in large part a question of culture. Political leaders, educators, and civic leaders—from both the political left and right—need to be clear and direct about how hard it is to raise children without a committed co-parent. We’ve effectively reduced major public health problems, such as smoking and teen pregnancy, through changes in cultural attitudes facilitated by public information campaigns. According to a review of the research by contraception expert Adam Thomas, mass media campaigns about the consequences of unprotected sex have reduced unplanned pregnancies. We propose a campaign of similar scope to emphasize the value of committed coparenting and marriage. It’s not a small thing for leaders to be clear in this way—cultural norms are influenced by the messages leaders send. Major cultural norms have been changed many times before when leaders expressed firm and unequivocal views about even entrenched cultural attitudes, including norms surrounding civil rights and gay rights. Presidents, politicians, church leaders, newspaper columnists, business leaders, educators, and friends should all join in telling young people that raising kids jointly with the children’s other parent is more likely to lead to positive outcomes than raising a child alone.
In other words, Wax was correct, based on the available evidence and expert opinion, to argue that “a strong pro-marriage norm” would reduce poverty and blunt or reverse the pernicious social trends she described at the beginning of her article.
In our report we drew heavily on the work of Belle Sawhill, a widely respected expert on child poverty at the Brookings Institution. Sawhill herself had recently argued for the importance of culture change, and of having kids at the right time, to reduce poverty:
The genie is out of the bottle. What we need instead is a new ethic of responsible parenthood. If we combine an updated social norm with greater reliance on the most effective forms of birth control, we can transform drifters into planners and improve children’s life prospects… The drifters need better educational and job opportunities, but unless we come to grips with what is happening to marriage and parenting, progress will be limited. For every child lifted out of poverty by a social program, another one is entering poverty as a result of the continued breakdown of the American family. If we could turn back the marriage clock to 1970, before the sharp rise in divorce and single parenthood began, the child poverty rate would be 20 percent lower than it is now….
We need more (and better quality) child care and a higher minimum wage, as well as serious education and training for those who are struggling to care for their families. But government alone can’t solve this problem. Younger people must begin to take greater responsibility for their choices. The old social norm was, “Don’t have a child outside of marriage.” The new norm needs to be, “Don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents.” Whether or not it was a realistic norm in the past, it is now — precisely because newer forms of contraception make planning a family so much easier.
Again, marriage, and norms promoting marriage-like behavior, are among the most powerful known antidotes to American poverty.
Ultimately, all of us, including Sawhill and Wax, are building on the insights of sociologist (and later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his famous report on the state of black families, which he wrote while working for the Labor department during the Johnson administration. What is less widely known is that Moynihan wrote a private memo in a format suitable for his boss (Willard Wirtz, the Secretary of Labor) to give to President Johnson, underlining the absolute urgency of re-tooling federal policy to promote and not undermine marriage and family stability among African Americans. Moynihan argued that the decline of marriage was the “master problem,” the “principal cause” of the problems facing Black America, and he predicted that African Americans would not be able to attain equality if this problem was not addressed.
Unfortunately, Moynihan was roundly condemned as a racist for his analysis of the black family and the importance of marriage, and his advice was largely ignored. He was socially shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard. It wasn’t until several decades later that sociologists began saying (quietly) that he was probably right. Now Wax is being pilloried for broaching the same topic — for saying that marriage and culture really really matter, and that some norms, some cultures, are more conducive to success in modern America than others. Does anyone seriously believe that all cultures are equal–either morally (including the culture of Nazi Germany) or as packages of norms and practices that are likely to lead to success?
Wax is provocative. I have seen her speak, and she clearly enjoys challenging received wisdom. Until recently such vigor and fearlessness were considered virtues in the academic world. In today’s far more charged and perilous academy, many of us have become timid and try to avoid saying anything that might upset anyone–even things that we know to be true and relevant to the topic being discussed. Wax has not caved in to the new pressures on academic speech, and this explains some of the reaction to her writings.
So what should Wax’s colleagues do about her provocative essay? Are the Penn students correct that Wax is an “advocate” for white supremacy? If so then a group denunciation may be appropriate. Such accusations are common on the internet, but professors should not accept such wild charges about their colleagues without clear evidence. Slurs and guilt-by-association are not enough. Wax made an argument about culture and poverty—one that has been espoused in some form by some of the country’s top poverty researchers, one that appears to be correct in its general outlines, and one that perennially offends many people. This case is therefore an excellent way to test the courage and integrity of the modern academy: How should professors, deans, and college presidents respond to professors who say things that are true but that offend some people? What would Socrates, Galileo, and John Stuart Mill advise us to do?
I have gone to great lengths to show that Wax’s central claim about culture is probably correct because the necessity of protecting dissent is clearest when the dissenter brings an important and neglected truth into the conversation. But the choice to denounce or not denounce should not really hinge on whether Wax was correct in this particular instance; it should hinge on whether she was making an argument in good faith using methods of argumentation that fall within the normal range of her part of the academy. There are no footnotes in a Philly.com opinion essay, but in Wax’s other writings on family law it is clear that she knows and is informed by the relevant social science research. Do Wax’s colleagues believe that her essay in Philly.com constituted a profound violation of professional ethics, akin to data fabrication or taking a bribe? Or do they just believe that she was wrong?
I said earlier that I think it is important for the academic community to reflect on this case. In the coming academic year, many of us will receive multiple emails from students and friends asking us to sign open letters and petitions denouncing each other. My advice is to delete them all. We already have bureaucratic procedures for investigating charges of professional misconduct. If you think that a professor has said or done something wrong then write an article or blog post explaining your reasons. But every open letter you sign to condemn a colleague for his or her words brings us closer to a world in which academic disagreements are resolved by social force and political power, not by argumentation and persuasion.
1) This post is part of my larger effort to call attention to the rising role of intimidation and fear, which are distorting life in the academy, interfering with both the research we conduct and the education we provide. I oppose intimidation whether it comes from the left or from the right, and whether it affects students or faculty.
2) I have made my own views on white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the president’s hesitancy to condemn them clear in this article.
3) Watch HxA member Glenn Loury interview Amy Wax about the controversy on The Glenn Show, Aug. 28, 2017.
4) Jonathan Klick, one of Wax’s colleagues who signed the open letter against her, has written a direct response to some of Wax’s claims; we have published it on the HxA blog.
Opinions expressed are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We welcome your comments below. Feel free to challenge and disagree, but please try to model the sort of respectful and constructive criticism that makes viewpoint diversity most valuable. Comments that include obscenity or that sound like a tirade or screed are likely to be deleted.