Canaries in the Coal Mine: Murray, Peterson, Singer, and Free Speech

"Free Speech" spraypainted on a brick wall.

First Milo. Then Murray. Then…Singer and Peterson? Has the free speech canary died in the coal mine?

It’s 2017 and humanity faces a multitude of challenges. The usual specters of poverty, violence, inequality, and tribalism rear their heads (though at largely lower levels relative to the past). And added to our plate we find the uncertainties of global environmental change, surges in population, looming automation, increased political polarization, religious fundamentalism, and resurgent nationalism to name a few (you’ll forgive me if I’ve left out your favorite worry).

But the challenge I find myself most agitated over lately is the diminished respect for free speech on college campuses.

By now of course you have seen or heard about the incident at Middlebury College involving Professor Charles Murray and Allison Stranger. The former was shouted down and unable to deliver his (invited) talk without moving to a separate room, and the latter was physically assaulted by a member of the un-satiated student mob. Murray can legitimately be considered a “controversial” speaker, having co-authored The Bell Curve, which includes a chapter related to possible average-IQ differences attributable to race. However he is not a “white nationalist” as he was incorrectly described by the increasingly unreliable Southern Poverty Law Center, and was not even at Middlebury to talk about The Bell Curve, but instead his 2012 and pertinent-to-the-times book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Disturbing as it was (particularly the cult-like chanting which you can see here), I did not despair, considering this an isolated incident of naïve activism on the part of mostly well-intentioned students.

But perhaps it was I who was being naïve.

This afternoon I was shown a video of University of Toronto psychologist Jordan B. Peterson similarly confronted by a group of students at McMaster University. As I read their “NO HATE SPEECH” poster boards and heard their shouts of “SHUT HIM DOWN”, I had the sinking feeling that the canary in the coal mine of free speech had just slumped over.

Peterson, insofar as I can ascertain, is not a controversial speaker of the Murray sort (unless you are one of those sexpots energized by questioning the validity and value of archetypical forms in mythology and religion). And Peterson is certainly no Milo. Thus, I realized that the no-speech movement on college campuses is in fact closer to the Salem-analogies than I was originally ready to admit. Labeling speakers as unworthy of a platform, or as “offensive” has become a weapon, and no one is safe. Are you a college student feeling inadequate, bored, or self-righteous? Wait for someone to be invited to speak on your campus—truly anyone, as the Peterson example shows, will do—and feign to take offense at something this individual has said or written, no matter how far in the past, the context, or the person’s overall body of work and character. Presto! You have yourself a protest, a taste of the 60’s that you hold so dear, and complete assurance that you’re a good person.

And in case you’re tempted to call me melodramatic, consider another report in which a Q&A by the moral philosopher and inspiration for the Effective Altruism movement, Peter Singer, was similarly disrupted. If you know Singer’s work, you’re likely asking yourself something along the lines of: Am I in a Joseph Heller novel or How on earth can students be protesting, much less attempting to shut down, a talk by such an objectively thoughtful, rational, and ethical person?

Jonathan Haidt provides some help in understanding this phenomenon by explaining that we may be looking at a paradigm shift in higher education discourse and morality, isolated mostly to social science departments at elite private universities. He discusses this shifting moral order on campus in this interview with Frank Bruni and elsewhere, explaining that in contrast to the traditional university ethos based on teaching multiple perspectives and encouraging debate among them, the new moral order assumes certain perspectives as correct, then filters all other discourse through that lens. The result is that many of today’s students seem consider their points of view beyond reasonable objection, and thus feel justified shouting down speech because they know it’s wrong.  The problem, of course, is that they don’t know it’s wrong. And they don’t know it’s wrong because they have rejected the surest defense to delusion: frequent exposure to new or different ideas. Most disturbingly, it seems that in some cases students are so intellectually lazy that they don’t even take the time to confirm whether the person they’ve decided to disagree with in advance actually holds the views they disagree with. If someone’s accused of being a witch, they must be a witch; no need to investigate.

So this stark reality (noticed perhaps late on my part) has convinced me forevermore that even very good ideas are fragile and not to be taken for granted.  And free speech is a very good idea. It is in fact one of the few ideas I have trouble seeing another side to. So much so that I had to overcome embarrassment at writing this post in the first place, feeling it akin condemning an obvious platitude like, say, stealing is wrong and acting otherwise leads to a society most would not be happy in. The best defense of free speech can be found by Mill (On Liberty)—which I encourage you to read at this instant—but then you also have Hitchens, Van Jones, and many others today and through the ages. Digest the argument of the marketplace of ideas, and then tell me: what harm can come from hearing speech that you disagree with, so long as you are armed with the very same freedom to argue against it?

All of this is not to suggest, in some demented way, that I consider free speech comparable as a life or death matter to those considerable challenges facing humanity listed above. And it is not to suggest that I disagree in principle with the intentions of many of the aforementioned activists (or, “delayed adolescents” if I’m being harsh), insofar as they dislike racism, sexism, and the like. But it is to suggest that free speech is worth defending loudly and with conviction. And it is to suggest that free discourse is the best way to solve those considerable challenges.

Incidents like Middlebury, McMaster, and surely more soon, are worth sounding the alarm over—and I hope you’ll help sound it.


A Nightmare In Reverse: Thoughts on President-Elect Trump

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada June 18, 2016.   REUTERS/David Becker - RTX2GYKG

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada June 18, 2016. REUTERS/David Becker – RTX2GYKG

This morning marked the fifth consecutive on which I was assaulted by the reality that Donald J. Trump will be the forty fifth president of the United States. The same Donald J. Trump who lied to the American public as a matter of course throughout a campaign branded by blatant demagoguery, factual illiteracy, and innumerable displays of grotesque character. Each morning, my mind strains and twists for some buoy of hope that I may still be asleep—a nightmare in reverse.

While it’s true that we do not yet know whether a Trump presidency will result in a literal nightmare, we can take little comfort in the fact that the spectrum of possibilities includes the fall of the republic. Mirroring his campaign, we are beginning to see a flurry of decisions and statements that in previous years would each result in sustained scandal (a climate skeptic leading the EPA transition; Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist; a transition team full of family members), but which are coming so fast that the media and public is forced to move from one issue to the next. This is a precarious situation—the executive mistakes have the potential to pile on so quickly that the most rotten and consequential will not be given their due.

Even if the Trump presidency escapes catastrophe, it has caused permanent damage in at least one way: lowering our standard of qualifications and fitness for the position. Trump has now proven that one need not have governance experience, policy expertise, establishment connections, or even consistent principles to be elected leader of the free world. Roll the dice enough times with these lowered qualifications and with these stakes, and disaster will ensue. Whether it happens during Trump’s reign or sometime in the future is anyone’s guess.

What we should do now is recognize that our actions can have a greater or lesser chance of bringing about the as-still-hypothetical disaster scenarios we fear, and being disciplined enough to engage in only the former. This will require humility and a steeling of nerves. We’re going to face policy positions we do not like, and we must pick our spots for outrage carefully. Challenge Trump too early on divisive issues (e.g. identity politics) and he will strike back with ferocity, and with the full backing of Congress. The ideological Right is so giddy with its control of the House and Senate that I have little hope that any issue that is not existential (e.g. climate change, NATO) or any action that is not unconstitutional will sever their honeymoon loyalty to Trump. If I were the Democratic establishment, I would be prepared to compromise beyond normal comfort levels early with congressional Republicans—particularly if this acquiescence blunts the most insidious Trumpian initiatives—and to wait to mount, if deservedly, a full-bodied political attack nearer the midterms. This strategy would of course need to be carefully applied, as many Republicans will use the threat of Trump’s scariest proposals to try to force capitulation to lesser evils as seen by Democrats.

In the meantime, I suggest we, as the opposition, keep our eyes on two things. First, any legitimate and realized steps toward authoritarianism or fascism. The suggestion of acquiesce above emphatically applies only to actions which are constitutional—if Mr. Trump steps beyond that line or if institutional checks fail, we must improvise a response. Second, we must keep our eye on the ultimate goal: bringing a divided nation back together. Unless we do this, any progress, now or in the future, can be unwound. Anger and resentment cannot override reason, tolerance, and empathy—to let that happen risks further division which ultimately can and will lead only to violence.

Trump is as unlikely a figure as one can imagine to bring about the unity we need. His campaign was the antithesis of unity.

Here’s hoping he can surprise us once again.

No, Obama, ISIL Does Not Have a “Nihilistic” Ideology

I think the entire world is shocked and appalled by ISIL’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. This afternoon, President Barack Obama spoke about the killing, and did a good job of expressing our collective anger and sadness. So all in all I was pleased with the statement, but one thing has been bugging me all afternoon…

Why wasn’t there any criticism of religious fundamentalism? Obama completely whitewashed the role religion is playing in ISIL’s actions. Instead of acknowledging that these are religious extremists killing in the name of Islam, Obama obscured the issue, saying that “ISIL speaks for no religion” and blaming their “nihilistic ideologies”. The first quote is understandable – he was simply trying to say that ISIL does not represent the majority of practicing Muslims around the world (and that is certainly true). However, in other ways it isn’t an accurate statement. ISIL is clearly speaking for Islam, at least in their own way. And the second statement, that ISIL is fueled by a “nihilistic ideology”, is simply wrong. ISIL is not a group of nihilists. They are group of extremists guided by an explicitly religious ideology. 

To ignore the role religions is playing – in fact, to tacitly deny religion is playing a role – does humanity no favors. We have to examine problems objectively, and if religion is at the bottom of a group of people’s justification for committing horrendous acts, we have to acknowledge that and respond accordingly. 

Go home, Dick Cheney, you’re drunk.

This won’t be a full post, I just very briefly need to vent my frustration with Dick and Liz Cheney’s new Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine“.

Anyway, here’s what I put on Facebook a minute ago, and it very nicely summarizes my thoughts:

Things that will make me dislike you: First, you help orchestrate a poorly planned, almost unwinnable war in Iraq under mostly false pretenses that turns into an utter disaster. Second, after a few years of leisure, accident free quail hunts, and mild heart attacks, you have the gall to shout at the next guy for running said war incorrectly.

If you leave a baby on someone’s doorstep, Dick, don’t expect any credibility when you return six years later to criticize their parenting.

I do think Cheney makes some correct points, but just can’t get over the nerve of him having anything but humility over his administration’s decision to go to Iraq in the first place. And then to criticize Obama for not leaving troops in Iraq? When it was Cheney’s administration that oversaw the bilateral agreement mandating that all troops would be out in 2011? Unbelievable.

I’ve been the following ISIS/Iraq conflict pretty closely over the last few days, as all indicators point to this being a game-changing situation for the Middle East (as in redrawing of the map, game-changing). Charlie Rose has had excellent coverage here, here, and herethis NPR article from 2009 summarizes the origins of the Sunni-Shia conflict quite clearly; and my new favorite website, Vox.com, has these helpful notes if you are interested in catching up. I plan to stay tuned, with the civilians of the region in my thoughts.

(If time permits, I will try to write a post exploring the greater influences of religious belief on this conflict. And if I don’t have time, I’ll at least be looking forward to the inevitable such commentaries by people like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris.)

The Greater of Two Evils: Lt. Gov Elect, Dan Patrick (TX-R)

I live in Texas. That’s a fact. But thankfully, with a little discipline, I manage to forget that fact most of the time (it certainly helps that I live in a major city in Texas, and that major cities in Texas are not really in Texas). Yet every once in a while, I am jolted back to reality by a piece of news I can’t ignore.

The most recent jolt of this kind came on Tuesday, when Texas state senator Dan Patrick defeated long-time incumbent David Dewhurst in the race for Lieutenant Governor. Now, I’m not a Republican. There’s probably not a single social policy issue on which I agree with Lt. David Dewhurst. He’s very conservative, and I mean very – not even close to being considered a “moderate”. Against a competent democrat, I wouldn’t vote for Dewhurst in a million million years.  But in this race, he was unquestionably the lesser of two evils, and I found myself, strangely, rooting for him.  And the reason, my friends, is that the stakes were so high.

Alas, we have now elected this loon into office:

“We as Christians have yielded to the secular left and let them rule the day in this country. When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed. It should be heralded.”

– Texas State Senator Dan Patrick

Yes, Patrick said that at a recent debate in Dallas. He was one-upping Dewhurst on his conservative bona fides – the latter had just uttered an atrocious but otherwise expected advocacy for equal time in the public classroom for intelligent design, creationism, and evolution. The fact that Dewhurst even separated creationism and intelligent design into two categories is proof he’s missing something, but maybe naively I wasn’t expecting an even stupider comment to follow from his opponent. Then again…Texas.

It’s pretty easy to bemoan this type of claptrap – no thoughtful person can actually believe the earth is 6,000 years old or that creationism is tenable enough to come anywhere near a science classroom, much less “triumphed” – the hard part is to figure out whether politicians at this level are thoughtful people. Does Dan Patrick really believe what comes out of his mouth, or is he doing what all politicians do, and saying what must be said to pander to an influential base and get elected? I honestly don’t know. Dewhurst, I’m reasonably sure, is not as backwards as he came across in this debate, but nowadays all big races in Texas devolve into sprints to the right, with each candidate trying to out-conserve their conservative opponent through sound bytes about guns or religion or immigration or Obama.

But does Patrick, who will now wield considerable influence across the state, actually believe creationism should be taught in public schools? My good friend, who follows politics pretty closely and actually interned for a while as a staffer in the House (I think it was the House), says no way. Her opinion, and she seemed sincere on this, was that politicians, particularly those at the state Senate level or above, know they have to say certain things to get elected, regardless of their actual views. She admitted some state House members might actually be that dense, but was pretty sure those at the Senate level didn’t mean most of what they said on social policy issues. I was skeptical, but she also tried to assure me that even if Patrick does believe those things, there are enough checks and balances to prevent any kind of ludicrous position to actually get passed.

I hope so. Otherwise I’m going to have much more trouble forgetting that I’m in Texas.

Some articles for further reading (also linked above):