I was recently listening to a speech by NYU moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt on the problem of free speech on US campuses. For those who don’t know who Haidt is, he is the author of The Righteous Mind, an excellent book that summarizes his moral foundations theory. The theory has it that morality is a multi-dimensional concept composed of care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty, which he theorizes all have some evolutionary origin. Left-wingers, by and large, have their moral fabric dominated by care and fairness, with much less importance attached to the other four. Right-wingers, however, hold a certain level of importance to all six dimensions, although less than left-wingers on the care and fairness front. When these morals clash, we have it why both sides fail to reconcile their difference, a good example being the burning of the flag which would trigger the right-winger’s loyalty foundation which is absent on a left-winger. Or homosexual marriage, which would trigger their sanctity foundation. In contrast, the support of welfare policies by the left is in line with their care and fairness foundations.
Haidt, however, is also well known on the internet for being one of the most vocal antagonists to radical progressives (disparagingly but not incorrectly called social justice warriors or SJWs) on US campuses. It’s not hard to see why: Haidt himself was embroiled in a major dispute with an oversensitive student who objected to a word used in a video shown in one of his classes. The ridiculously overblown situation can be read about in an open letter to the dean by the offended student, and do note the transcripts of the “homophobic” video as well as Haidt’s apology which seemed to look like he was in front of a student inquisition (complete with applause from the offended masses). In 2015 Haidt co-authored a widely read article on The Atlantic, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” (it’s a long but recommended read), which explains the possible origins and the consequences of radical political correctness on campus.
I applaud Haidt for his anti-SJW activism: universities are not places where you change the world, but rather, where you learn how to change it, and students must accept that they will face a variety of opinions, beliefs, and ideologies. I also believe university staff should be far less tolerant of class disruptions, protests, and other such activities unless they are a response to truly offensive actions by faculty: in this case, for example, had Haidt himself said homosexual sex was “disgusting” rather than shown a video where one character used it as an analogy and with no indication that he even believed it to be. However, Haidt (who ideologically considers himself a centrist but who I personally think is more center-right than he would like to admit) very frequently resorts to a particular statistical trend to show the underlying problem: universities are getting more left-wing. Before the 1990s, the ratio of left-wing to right-wing faculty in US universities was about 2:1. This hardly comes as a surprise; academia has always had a left-wing tilt. Nowadays, it’s a whopping 5:1, and with the fewer right-wing academics now in perpetual fear of being open about their beliefs in the face of perennially outraged left-wing students.
Don’t blame universities
Haidt argues that the widening ideological tilt in US campuses is largely the result of baby boomers now dominating teaching positions, thus replacing the older generation of conservative intelligentsia that was far more influential in the decades before the 1990s. Economist Paul Krugman, however, fired back with a more convincing explanation: the Republican Party in the US had become ever more extremist which in turn alienated academics. Take for example, the GOP’s opposition to climate change or evolution, two positions that have nearly universal support among scholars. In his piece, Krugman showed a graph which revealed how Republicans have gotten increasingly right-wing since the mid-1970s whereas Democrats has leaned far less notably the left since then. Haidt’s response was that in fact, the swing in academia’s ideological leanings began in the 1990s which is consistent with the generational hypothesis. He also shows that the self-identification of the electorate has remained largely consistent since the 1970s. That still ignores the very valid critique that even though the number of left- and right-wingers in the US may have not changed, both sides became more radical – right-wingers to a far greater extent.
Haidt also ignores the fact that society as a whole has become more progressive (despite SJWs, rather than because of them). Whether it’s tolerance for same-sex marriage, or marijuana legalization, on practically all social issues the left-wing position is now held by the majority of people in the US, or at the very least has been gaining considerable support. When one adds to this the increasingly anti-intellectual attitude of the Republican Party, it should be pretty obvious why the smartest people in the land, academics, are increasingly rejecting conservatism. Whether this conflicts with the notion of “diversity of opinion” on campus becomes moot. Just because the average conservative does not believe in climate change or evolution does not mean that student’s best intellectual interests are served by having a 2:1 ratio of professors who are climate change deniers or creationists. What’s worse is that the anti-intellectualism of the US right is rising, as evidenced by the frightening slump in positive views of universities themselves. This does, however, seem to coincide with many of the most high-profile campus protests beginning in 2015 as well as the political emergence of Donald Trump.
SJW’s may be mad, but…
Despite the well-deserved intellectual de-legitimization of conservatism, there’s still no reason why academic debate outside the classroom can’t be controversial. Personally, I do not believe in Antifa-led violent riots, or “de-platforming” or any other of these petulant strategies employed by the SJW outrage brigades whenever confronted by a speaker whose views they disagree with, and it must be made clear that not all of those on the receiving end of protests are as a radical (i.e. alt-right) as they’ve been made out to be. But even if they were, bigots have to be confronted, their ideas challenged, but give the alt-right fascists credit for at least putting themselves up on stage – progressives rarely bother to do the same, and it’s telling that there are no figures among the young left that are even remotely as charismatic and provocative as those on the young right: the alt-right has become the ideological punk rock of the 21st century for all the wrong reasons, namely because progressives have turned into the sanctimonious, moral puritans that their hippie parents fought so hard against during the 1960s. This only helps fuel support for the alt-right since people are naturally drawn to the enemy of their enemy (especially young, impressionable students desperate to belong to some campus tribe).
Even so, it is interesting to note that the invitations to alt-right fascists like Milo Yiannopolous or Richard Spencer are typically at the behest of the university’s Young Republicans or some other conservative student group which by now is nearly synonymous with alt-right/Trump support. If Milo and Spencer are the best that the young right can bring to the table, then the moral rot of the American conservatism is complete. It would be an ideological tragedy if the left follows suit.