More on "Bias Isn't Bias If It's Ours"

Peter Wood's article, "Bias Isn't Bias If It's Ours," published here last week, has drawn significant discussion. In addition to the lengthy comments posted on the original piece, some members of the Minnesota branch of our membership circulated an email exchange on social justice and education.  With their permission, we reprint the exchange here. To read the original article, click here: www.nas.org/polArticles.cfm?doc_id=566. If you would like to add to the discussion, please email your remarks to nasonweb@nas.org.

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Tom Abeles

Hi Jerry,

One of the questions that was put to me after the article by Peter was posted is whether Western civilization has an idea of justice or whether all is divided into two camps, right and left wing. I think we have extremes on both sides but it is hard for me to understand this attempt to polarize the issues. There appears to be a great desire amongst some to find every example which immediately gets extrapolated to the entire body, particularly in The Academy. But then we find that, internationally, when people in other countries say that they love Americans but not the government, or Catholics who find current papal doctrine not within their spiritual frame of reference.

Isn't it more important to address the ideas and not the messenger because if the messenger is removed, the idea still exists as we see with Nazism. Others reinvent history. After all that is what keeps clasicists employed in academia - each busy deconstructing each other's interpretation of the past. Or reinterpreting Shakespeare? 

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Jerry Reedy (in bold) replying to Tom Abeles

One of the questions that was put to me after the article by Peter was posted is whether western civilization has an idea of justice or whether all is divided into two camps, right and left wing.

            The definition I learned a long time ago and one that I like is this: “Justice is a virtue that inclines a person to respect the rights of others.” Individual justice regulates interactions between individuals, and social justice regulates the mutual relations between individuals and societies. Given a clear statement of human rights (which we’ve had since 1948 and civil rights (which we also have), it shouldn’t be difficult to identify injustices. What I’ve heard regarding the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that everyone involved in drawing up the statement agreed on the rights although they couldn’t agree on the justification of the rights which in the final analysis didn’t matter anyway.

I think we have extremes on both sides but it is hard for me to understand this attempt to polarize the issues. There appears to be a great desire amongst some to find every example which immediately gets extrapolated to the entire body, particularly in The Academy.

            I don’t understand who is trying to polarize what issues. Peter Wood doesn’t use the phrase “begging the question,” but that is what he is accusing Ms Applebaum of. Begging the question is a logical fallacy that involves assuming the very thing that needs to be proved. In other words, the conclusion is one of the premises. In Applebaum’s case that “racism is systemic” in our society is the starting point that is simply assumed or stipulated. This is what needs to be discussed, and the fact that she doesn’t do so shows that she is failing at what she herself calls “criticality.” What Peter is doing is what people who really think critically do; they identify fallacies in others’ arguments. I don’t call this “polarizing the issues.”

But then we find that, internationally, when people in other countries say that they love Americans but not the government, or Catholics who find current papal doctrine not within their spiritual frame of reference.

            I don’t understand the relevance of this statement.

Isn't it more important to address the ideas and not the messenger because if the messenger is removed, the idea still exists as we see with Nazism. Others reinvent history.

            Addressing the messenger would involve ad hominem arguments (or should I say ad feminam arguments in this case?) This is another logical fallacy, but there are no personal attacks in Peter’s essay that I can find. He is addressing her ideas, her claims, and her reasoning.

After all that is what keeps clasicists employed in academia- each busy deconstructing each other's interpretation of the past. Or reinterpreting Shakespeare?

            Postmodernists may “deconstruct each other’s interpretations,” but very few classicists are pomos (thank Goodness!). What we call classics are just the works that people have found worth reading, studying, and discussing through the centuries because their meaning is inexhaustible and lends itself to new interpretations. Discussing great works of literature and philosophy is the best way to learn to think critically and get a liberal arts education. Let us hope that there will always be a certain number of people who are interested in doing this.

 

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Peter Wood

 

Dear Jerry,

 
                Thanks.  It’s heartening to know that one of my essays provoked some discussion. 
 
                I am not sure I understand Tom Abeles’ response other than to register his view that he thought my article unfair to Professor Applebaum and too inclined to create antinomies where he sees a continuum, a middle ground, a more complex situation, or something.  Your answers were much on point.  I don’t think I can be fairly accused of attacking Professor Applebaum personally.  I drew no inferences about her mind or character, and introduced no extraneous biographical details.  I identified her only by quoting what she says about herself on her university website. 
 
                I have written a good bit about “social justice” over the last year, and I suppose there is a risk that because I don’t repeat the complicated intellectual genealogy of the term every time I write about it, one of my essays read in isolation might make me sound as though I reject the concept root and branch.  That isn’t the case, although I think the effort to distinguish a special kind of justice as “social justice” apart from the concept of justice per se has not proven to be especially helpful. 
 

                The more troubling phenomenon is the appropriation of the term “social justice” as a tool of partisan advocacy.  Certainly it must boost the spirits of anyone supporting proposals to redistribute wealth, use the classroom for advocating political views, foster group resentments, and in other ways seek to transform society  if they can label the whole enterprise as a form of seeking “justice,” and caricature any and all doubt or opposition as complicit with “injustice.”   Grasping the psychological dynamic isn’t difficult.  But I do think it is perplexing that an institution founded on reasoned inquiry would find this kind of rhetorical maneuver an acceptable basis for organizing a curriculum.

 

                 Is it polarizing to say that?  I guess it depends on what “polarizing” itself means.  I am not in favor of  a university that precludes debate on a question such as “Is American society systemically unjust?”  But I do draw distinctions between approaches that ask the question honestly and those that say, in effect, ‘the time for debate is over; it’s time to act.’   If “polarizing” means drawing into the open the weaknesses of a view so that they can be criticized, then yes, I’m polarizing.  But I think the term would be more accurately used for those who think there are only two choices in an intellectual confrontation, and that the “polarizing” style groups everything into those two opposing camps. 

                That’s not my approach.  But I do recognize a difficulty.  Professor Applebaum’s views are not some formulation that she has built up out of her own cogitations.  She openly and proudly acknowledges that she is speaking for an established and coherent position, with its own terminology, revered texts and writers, and program of action.  The simplest way to refer to this established position is that she self-consciously speaks for and defends the worldview of the academic Left.   Of course, the academic Left is not all one big settled doctrine.  It has its own fractures and internal debates.  To speak of as “the Left” is partly a heuristic convenience; but it also respects the self-identification of those who join this position, who frequently speak of their own movement as “the Left.”  So there seems no real reason to apologize for a simplifying term to refer to a more complex reality.

                The trouble is that to criticize a position on the Left from some intellectual standpoint outside the Left seems to invite the thought that the critic must speak of or for “the Right.”   This is a fallacy, but a very common one.  The language itself suggests it.  A left must have a right, no?  But that’s to be trapped by a metaphor.  It should be possible to conceptualize the university as a place where we proceed by rational debate on matters of enduring importance, and leave the door shut against political ideologies, of the Left, the Right, or wherever.   The Left has made this exceptionally difficult, however, by promoting a view that “those who aren’t with us are against us,” and by treating all thought, no matter how scrupulously free of political cant as driven by deep (and often unconscious) political motives.  If to criticize these sorts of arguments, hermetically sealed against everything but agreement, is “polarization,” I fear the term is just one more brick in the wall of foreclosed discussion.

 

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Paula Ruddy

In Applebaum's case that "racism is systemic" in our society is the starting point that is simply assumed or stipulated.
Jerry, are you saying that in writing her article Applebaum had to prove that in the U.S. racism is systemic before she could rely on it as a fact that influences the content and methods of education?  She was assuming a first premise but she was arguing to a different conclusion. Surely it would be impossible to write an article if you couldn't start with some premise assumed to be true.  Wood himself makes many generalizations without backing them up with evidence.
Isn't there a great deal of evidence, amassed in numerous studies, about racism in America? Are you questioning the truth of racism in America?  Or that it is embedded in all the institutions that originated in societies that traded in African slaves?  Doesn't your definition of social justice include inquiry into this condition of society?
When you speak of Wood being "on our side", what side is that?  I am sincerely interested in why you admire such a sneering tone about "social justice."  Wouldn't it have been more intellectually honest for Wood to argue with the premise, or with Applebaum's application of what she takes to be a social fact to the content and methods of education?  Wood says he values "dispassionate seeking of truth" but he doesn't demonstrate that. How can people seek truth together in this emotionally charged atmosphere?

***
Larry Purdy

Paula,
I assume you have never met Peter.  If you had, you would know instantly that few individuals value intellectual honesty and facts more than Peter Wood.
As for your statement that "there [is] a great deal of evidence, amassed in numerous studies, about racism in American," I believe your statement is illustrative of the problem.  I am more than willing to consider the evidence; but what "evidence" are you referring to?  Might it be the "evidence" of alleged "racial profiling" by police, or the "evidence" demonstrating the difference in incarceration rates between, say, blacks and whites?  Of course, there are numerous studies which set out to attribute often shocking differences in arrest and imprisonment rates to "racism." But one has to be very careful before accepting the accuracy of these conclusions which, as many of us have learned, have proven to be thoroughly inaccurate.  (If you're interested, you might begin by reading Heather MacDonald's wonderful piece published last Thursday in City Journal, written in response to Attorney General Eric Holder's recent comment about this being a nation of "cowards" when it comes to race.)
Finally, with all due respect, I believe you are misunderstanding Peter's views about so-called "social justice."  He isn't mocking the true meaning of the words.  Few people I know are more devoted than Peter to seeing true justice achieved throughout our society.  Instead, what Peter is "sneering" at (and, here, I agree that you've picked an appropriate term--but one which I feel is deserved) is the mockery which so many have made of the phrase, "social justice."  One simple example: In much of academia, it is well-accepted "social justice" to discriminate against--and reject--a better qualified poor white or Asian college or law school applicant and to favor--or accept--a far less qualified (and far less deserving) black or other underrepresented minority applicant, solely on the basis of one's skin color.  Somehow that is supposed to serve the cause of "social justice"? Peter doesn't think so.  Nor do I.  Nor do the likes of Prof. Thomas Sowell, or Shelby Steele or Justice Clarence Thomas and many, many others.
And one more "finally."  You ask, "Are [we] questioning the truth of racism in America?"  What exactly do you mean by that?  If you're suggesting that anyone is arguing that racism does not exist here, you are fundamentally mistaken.  Racism exist everywhere and crosses all color lines (it's truly an equal opportunity "ism").  In my humble view, racism (though surely with a little "r") will never entirely disappear so long as there is the slightest difference in skin tone among peoples.  But to characterize this nation as "Racist," as if to set it apart from other nations belies some very hard facts, not the least of which is the racial identity of our current President.
At any rate, I do take issue with anyone who asserts that "racism is systemic" in our society; and I would be more than happy to have a lengthy discussion about that--based, one would hope, on the hard facts.
All the best,
Larry

***

 

Jerry Reedy (in bold) replying to Paula Ruddy 

Jerry, are you saying that in writing her article Applebaum had to prove that in the U.S. racism is systemic before she could rely on it as a fact that influences the content and methods of education? She was assuming a first premise but she was arguing to a different conclusion. Surely it would be impossible to write an article if you couldn't start with some premise assumed to be true. Wood himself makes many generalizations without backing them up with evidence.

            Our History Dept. offers a course entitled “Historians and Critical Race Theory” and “Whiteness Studies” courses have been offered in other departments. There was even a seminar offered for alumni during an alumni reunion two years ago entitled “The Discovery of Whiteness” as if “whiteness” had been out there for eons like an undiscovered planet and had just been found. Everything is socially constructed except this essence shared by all white people. We had a huge controversy recently when a white student tried to register for the history course which was open only to black students, contrary to College policy. The instructor tried to persuade this courageous young lady to do an independent study project which he would direct, but he didn’t want her in the class. The Dean appointed a committee to try to resolve the controversy, and I never heard how it turned out. Students have told me that these courses are about hatred of whites and nothing else. The premise of such courses is that our society is inherently and systemically racist, that all whites are racists, and that members of minority groups cannot be racists because they are not “hegemonic.” This is a dogma that is not up for discussion. Any student who was brave enough to challenge this basic premise would be immediately silenced, ostracized, and made to feel just plain evil. That is what is wrong with courses of this sort. Historically, as you know, profs tried to present all sides of issues in an objective way. That ideal no longer exists in all too many courses.

            I argue, on the other hand, that no society in the world or in the history of the world has tried as hard as ours has to provide a “level playing field” for all and to eliminate racism and discrimination of all kinds. It is against the law in the U.S. to discriminate against people on the basis or race, sex, etc. In our schools on every level from K-12 to graduate school, everyone is taught that discrimination is wrong and is urged to appreciate and embrace diversity. Of course there is discrimination and there are racists, but anyone who has been influenced by Biblical or Greek notions about human nature will not be surprised. Only utopians are surprised.

Isn't there a great deal of evidence, amassed in numerous studies, about racism in America? Are you questioning the truth of racism in America? Or that it is embedded in all the institutions that originated in societies that traded in African slaves? Doesn't your definition of social justice include inquiry into this condition of society? 

I understand that Larry Purdy is sending you his book GETTING UNDER THE SKIN OF DIVERSITY as a response to these questions. I will only say that what is unusual about the U.S. is not that we had slavery but that we, with the aid of other European countries, put an end to it.

When you speak of Wood being "on our side", what side is that? 

            We hear almost daily about the “culture war” that is raging in the U.S. The sides are divided by such issues as abortion and the role of religion in public life. In higher education there is also a culture war, and there has been since, I would say, the late ‘60s. I am on the side of those who oppose the “politicization of scholarship and teaching,” “the use of sexual, racial and other criteria unrelated to merit in hiring,” etc. the “dogmatic hostility to Western civilization,” political correctness which limits students’ freedom of expression and makes it impossible to discuss such issues as racial preferences, the possible influence of genes on behavior, etc. (Traditionally there were no taboo subjects in liberal arts colleges which were influenced by Socrates’ saying that “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.”) Other trends I oppose are “the use of orientation and residential life programs to impose political and ideological conformity on student life” and the granting of academic credit for participation in marches and protest. (The phrases in quotes are from NAS’s “Issues that Concern Us.”)

I am sincerely interested in why you admire such a sneering tone about "social justice." Wouldn't it have been more intellectually honest for Wood to argue with the premise, or with Applebaum's application of what she takes to be a social fact to the content and methods of education? 

“Sneering” must be in the eye of the beholder since I didn’t and don’t detect it in Peter Woods’ essay.

Wood says he values "dispassionate seeking of truth" but he doesn't demonstrate that. 

There is a Latin saying, Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. (“What is gratuitously asserted can be gratuitously denied.”) I deny that Peter Wood isn’t demonstrating a dispassionate search for truth.

How can people seek truth together in this emotionally charged atmosphere? 

            In the Middle Ages there was a subject called “Dialectics” which could be defined as “the art of arguing philosophically.” It included logic and also a good deal of rhetoric. The idea was that if at least two persons of good will interrogated each other rationally, given enough time, they would arrive at a truth or at least a consensus. Kierkegaard called this “Socratism,” and it does go back to Socrates and Plato. Aristotle’s Topics is a handbook for people involved in dialogues. Scholars were expected to be able to discuss any subject rationally and sine ira et studio (without anger and excessive zeal). Today only students who out for debate learn to do this, and they even learn to argue both sides of issues. Imagine a debater who becomes angry and starts calling his or her opponents names. Imagine politicians debating on national TV, and one loses his temper and starts swearing and shouting. It would end his career. Imagine a philosopher at a national or international conference who, during the discussion of her paper, “blows her stack” and shouts insults at her questioner. That would certainly demage one’s reputation. Imagine a lawyer during a trial who became so angry he couldn’t talk. My point is that arguing rationally and without excessive emotion is a skill or set of skills that can be learned and should be taught. In any case, what is the alternative? Are you suggesting that, given the “emotionally charged atmosphere” regarding many issues, we should cease discussing them? Of course there are many issues that can’t be debated publicly in Academia, and that is because the people who have imposed political correctness on us can’t hold their own in rational discussions. I would say we should work to revive the ideal discussed above and that the emotionally charged issues are the very ones that need to be discussed.

 This will not be easy since many on the side I oppose have rejected the idea that truth is correspondence between assertions and reality because they think that “real reality” can’t be known and that each society therefore constructs reality for itself. Truth then is just what the people who have power say it is; it is not something to be sought. Some think that what we call “rationality” has been devised by white males to oppress and exploit women and minorities. (I’m not sure what Ms Applebaum means by “criticality”---it’s not in any of my dictionaries.) What we must do before we can discuss anything with postmodernists is convince them that logic like mathematics was discovered, not invented, and that they are mistaken about ontology and epistemology.  This will be a big job, but then according to recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education postmodernism is on its death bed or perhaps already in its grave. Finally there is some good news!

 

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