Peer Review, Political Correctness, and Human Nature

Paul Hollander

I

Peer review was presumably invented to help journal editors decide what should or should not be published relying on the recommendation of impartial and carefully selected scholars who would pass judgment over writings submitted for publication. It used to be assumed, and perhaps it still is in some circles, that such anonymous reviews are the best way to assure quality control over publications in academic journals. The reviewers unknown to the author (and vice versa) were to be selected solely for their expertise and their judgment was expected to be free of personal, professional, or political animus. Anonymity would make it easier for them to speak their mind, to make unbiased, and if necessary, harsh critical assessments of the writings submitted.

These have been problematic assumptions. Impartiality is always hard to attain in matters close to our hearts or professional interests. Bias, skewed judgment, and negative predisposition have many irrepressible sources often unknown even to those harboring and influenced by them. Moreover, peer review is an integral part of academic life as a whole and cannot be evaluated in isolation from it. Prevailing intellectual-cultural currents are bound to find expression in peer review. At the same time the process itself and its premises may be inherently flawed and misconceived for reasons noted above and further discussed below.

The most direct and obvious threat to the integrity of peer review are the orthodoxies that at any given time influence and sometimes dominate cultural, intellectual, and academic life. These orthodoxies influence the authors of manuscripts submitted and those evaluating them, reviewers as well as editors who have the last word about what gets published. In our time political correctness has been the reigning orthodoxy and influence in academic life, mainly in the humanities and social sciences. The latter are by no means “scientific” (notwithstanding the aspirations of some social scientists) and their findings invite subjective judgments, indeed value judgments to a far greater extent than the findings and propositions of genuinely scientific studies.1 For this reason political correctness was bound to have a far greater impact on the social sciences and humanities than on the real sciences.

An important distinction must also be made between scholarly journals and book publishers as to the influence of political correctness. Most publishers are interested in making money and therefore will publish almost anything, politically correct or not, that is likely to be profitable. By contrast, commercial considerations are irrelevant to scholarly journals; therefore political-ideological criteria are more likely to play a part in editorial decisions. University presses may occupy an in-between position weighing profit vs. political correctness.

The impact of political correctness on scholarly publications begins with the authors who intend to publish in them. Most authors are reluctant to submit journal articles that are unlikely to get published. Deviating from the prevailing, apparent consensus or orthodoxies could be a major roadblock to such publishing. The same goes for being “controversial.” In turn, editors may be disposed to select reviewers who will assure that politically incorrect pieces will not be published. Finally, those reviewing the manuscripts, the gatekeepers (regardless of how they were selected in the first place), are likely to have internalized the prevalent, conventional, politically correct wisdom, and will be reluctant to approve of writings that appear to deviate from it.

A major difficulty about reaching definitive conclusions about these matters is that empirical evidence is hard to come by. In the first place, there is no way to know what part is played by self-censorship and what is the result of the judgment of the reviewers and finally the editors. It may well be that the reluctance to produce and submit manuscripts that are politically incorrect is the major determinant of what gets published. If self-censorship operates on a large scale, few unorthodox writings will find their way to vigilant reviewers ready to weed them out and the significance of the process is greatly diminished. I suspect that this is probably the case, although we have no way to know what proportion of writings submitted violate the canons of political correctness. If and insofar as entire fields of social scientific and humanistic studies and disciplines have become permeated by political correctness, graduate students learn in the course of their training the taboo topics and incorrect thoughts to avoid in order to get published and to find jobs. Thus, substantial segments of academics are socialized early in their professional life to be and act politically correct.

Assuming that a small number of unwise or foolhardy authors may, despite these conditions, submit politically incorrect manuscripts, it is impossible to ascertain how many are rejected for political-ideological or other reasons. Likewise, there is no way to know what part is played by considerations of political correctness in the selection of reviewers by editors. Whatever the plausible speculations or definitive explanations, it is difficult to find politically incorrect writings in our peer-reviewed journals. Presumably, and for similar reasons, it is also difficult to find politically incorrect courses in the vast majority of colleges and universities.

Before proceeding further to ponder the impact of political correctness on what gets written and published, we must pause to reconsider this somewhat elusive concept.2

II

Political correctness is not a coherent set of ideas or clearly spelled out propositions but a mindset, a diffuse attitude, a complex of taken-for-granted beliefs. It certainly incorporates many left-liberal ideas, but it is broader and not reducible to them. For the most part, it is rooted in and derives from the political attitudes and convictions associated with the 1960s. A good deal of political correctness is not strictly political, but represents an expanded notion or redefinition of what used to be considered political—aspects of political correctness may even be considered matters of taste. Arguably, such diffuseness makes the interpretation and application of political correctness in peer review even more arbitrary and inimical to the free exchange and expression of ideas.

Political correctness is not entirely homogeneous; there are disagreements within the politically correct “community” as to what constitutes a breach of its informal norms. There are no authoritative rules or definitions or authorities determining and spelling out what precisely constitutes political correctness or its opposite. It may be debated whether it is possible to be politically correct and have reservations about “affirmative action” when it amounts to reverse discrimination. Probably it is not, although many people untainted by racism would argue that it is not the appropriate remedy. It will also depend on what we mean by racism.

Is telling a woman that she looks great a manifestation of sexist “lookism,” or a good-natured, old-fashioned compliment? This too depends on what we mean by sexism and on other circumstances. Commenting on specific body parts (probably eyes excepted) is more likely to be considered incorrect than an unspecified compliment about looks. It also depends on the relationship (if any) between the complimented and the complimenter. A woman is always free to tell another woman how great she looks without without risking accusations of sexism and lookism, major components of political incorrectness.3

Notwithstanding such possibilities for divergent interpretation, political correctness has numerous identifiable components and areas of concern. They include race relations, affirmative action, feminism, birth control, sexuality (and especially its less conventional forms), poverty, welfare policies, health care, drugs, crime, the natural environment, types of consumption, U.S. foreign policy, and even some (not fully articulated) conceptions of human nature.

A peculiar and contradictory aspect of political correctness is the simultaneous championing of “diversity” and aversion to differentiation, the latter often conflated or confused with discrimination. Political correctness excludes the possibility that genuine differences may exist among groups of human beings that were not produced by morally reprehensible discriminatory attitudes, beliefs, or policies. Thus it is politically incorrect to allow “tracking” in schools because it acknowledges differences between the capabilities of children and separates the more talented from the less talented, or the more motivated from the less motivated. Such distinctions are “elitist” and discriminatory from the politically correct point of view.

The embrace of “diversity”—central to political correctness—is a code word that has little to do with genuine diversity of beliefs, values, and ethnic or other affiliations. Politically correct “diversity” signifies aversion to groups, cultures, or values that are Western, white, heterosexual, or right-of-center. “Diversity” and “multiculturalism” overlap as both devalue traditional Western culture and traditions, sometimes dismissed altogether as noxious products of dead white males.

Underlying many of these priorities and preoccupations is a concern with inequality that is an integral part of political correctness—a concern that leads to apprehensions about differentiation among groups based on the recognition of differences in specific talents, abilities, motivation, or interest. The concern with “elitism” is part of an inconsistent egalitarianism. There is little evidence to suggest that politically correct Hollywood celebrities are embarrassed by their income and way of life and the same applies to tenured professors at elite universities of similar attitudes enjoying huge amounts of free time and far more modest but still impressive incomes. In other words, such groups and individuals find no dissonance between their own elite status and privileged ways of life and their deeply felt critiques of inequality in American society.

There are other positions linked to political correctness. Capitalism is generally held in contempt and blamed for poverty, racism, war, and sometimes even sexism and the overall deterioration of human relationships. Anti-Americanism, broadly defined, is also part of political correctness that holds the U.S. responsible for a wide range of global problems besides all the domestic injustices and failures. (Anticapitalism and anti-Americanism converge.) In the politically correct view, even Islamic terrorism has its “root causes” in American actions and policies.

A further characteristic of political correctness is a selective concern with and solicitousness toward certain victimized groups, preferably those whose victimhood can be blamed on capitalism, the United States, or on politically incorrect beliefs. A major concern of the political correct citizen is to censor and suppress behavior or expression that may offend selected victim groups (“insensitivity”). It may be noted here that what I have discerned and called “selective determinism” is implicit in political correctness.4 Thus, for example, common criminals, especially those of minority background, are not held fully (or at all) responsible for their actions since it is their oppressed or deprived social status and circumstances that permit them little choice and determine their behavior. The racist, sexist, or homophobic behavior of a poor white male would be viewed quite differently and less leniently. In another context, good intentions that led to horrendous slaughters by communist systems would be judged less severely as similar (or even quantitatively smaller) instances of political violence committed by right-wing regimes.

Decrying “consumerism” is another attribute of political correctness that stretches the boundary between what used to be seen as political, as distinct from nonpolitical matters. From the politically correct perspective consumerism means unnecessary, wasteful consumption that is deplored for several reasons. Consumerism is integral to capitalism and commerce; capitalism encourages consumption without any attempt to distinguish between frivolous, wasteful as distinct from justified and necessary consumption and the needs it seeks to gratify. Moreover, when consumption becomes a form of status-seeking or recreational activity it corrodes the human character and relationships. Excessive consumption is also rejected because it leads to damage to the environment. But one may be critical of such aspects of consumerism without carrying the baggage of political correctness. At the same time it remains problematic who is qualified to render judgment about the multiple human needs and their legitimacy that consumerism seeks to gratify.

III

My personal experience with peer review is limited. I have not submitted any manuscripts to any peer-reviewed journal in decades. I have refrained from doing so not only because of the anticipated rejection on account of the politically incorrect aspects of my ideas and interests, but also because my writings, not being sufficiently “scientific,” did not fit well into peer-reviewed social science journals. I am not quantitatively oriented, and therefore “unscientific.” Even the substantive topics I have been interested in—communist systems, totalitarianism, the sociology of literature—have not been of interest for most American social scientists and the journals. I have only had one article published in a peer-reviewed journal and that was at the beginning of my professional career, when political correctness barely existed.5

I’ve had somewhat more experience as a reviewer. On a few occasions (over a long period of time) I was asked to review by various journals manuscripts dealing with anti-Americanism, probably on account of having published three books on the subject. My views on this topic are far from politically correct, but then there are few American social scientists who have written about anti-Americanism. I do not recall any strong feelings, or problems reviewing and judging these manuscripts, and it is my further recollection that I had recommended them for publication with revisions.

By contrast, I was recently asked to review a manuscript for a journal of celebrity studies in Australia (I have written a few articles on the celebrity cult), a subject without much political salience. The occasion is noteworthy only because the manuscript provoked a strong aversion on my part on account of its style and substance. The style of writing encapsulated the sorry state of higher education, making me wonder where and how its author was “educated.” Not only was it pretentiously jargon-ridden (a common affliction of scholarly journal writing), but time and again it violated simple rules of grammar. In addition, the basic proposition was poorly articulated and dubious. It was not difficult to recommend against publication.

There is one memorable and thought-provoking encounter I had with peer review, though not in connection with a journal article but a book manuscript I already had a contract for with a distinguished university press. For reasons not clear, I rather unexpectedly received a letter from the editor informing me that he had sent the manuscript to an additional reviewer (it had already been reviewed and recommended for publication by other readers). The editor enclosed the comments of the new reviewer and advised me “to address his concerns.”

The reviewer’s comments filled several single-spaced pages and began with the strongly worded recommendation, before presenting the supposedly damning evidence to support it, that the manuscript should not be published under any circumstances. (It got published.) The review dripped with hostility and overflowed with groundless or irrelevant critiques. Rubbing my eyes in disbelief, so to speak, I showed the review to several colleagues and fellow academics who shared my reaction. I was puzzled by the intense hostility of my “peer,” which—important to note—could not be ascribed to political correctness as generally understood. Not surprisingly, I was curious to learn who the reviewer was and somehow figured it out, assisted by my editor’s revelation that the reviewer and I had the same ethnic background (Hungarian). I never met him until many years later, did not review any of his books, and never had any personal or professional dealing with him. There was no apparent reason for his hostility.

Several years later I wrote the reviewer a civil letter in which I expressed curiosity about why, as I believe I put it, the manuscript “rubbed him the wrong way.” In his reply he disavowed any subjective or personal motive for attacking the book, but admitted to a strong theoretical disapproval of my views and position the book expressed. The book dealt with the decline and fall of Soviet communism.6

I did a fair amount of reflection about the motivation of my no longer anonymous reviewer—and exchanged theories and hypotheses about this incident with people who knew him personally and professionally—but could not find an obvious or convincing explanation. Clearly, his motives had both personal/subjective and professional-intellectual components. People who knew him intimated that he was a difficult, opinionated, and idiosyncratic person. There was no reason to believe that the editor of the university press could have anticipated his reaction to my book, nor to believe that he sent him the manuscript to find somebody who would recommend against publication. Why he sent it remains a minor mystery.

In any event, this was an instance of peer review not doing any good—the biased and hostile recommendation did not serve well any of the parties involved, although it might have given fleeting satisfaction to the reviewer by allowing him to express an apparently longstanding, simmering aversion to me, both professional and personal.

There was no way to anticipate the nature of the review since it came from a respected, well-published scholar familiar with the subject of my book. The episode, however, illustrates the pitfalls of peer review even when political correctness plays no obvious part. Another reviewer took my side in the dispute and wrote once more to the editor supporting the manuscript unrevised. The book was published without my “addressing the concerns” of the hostile reviewer.

IV

The episode shows that peer review can be a dangerous and unpredictable process even when not influenced by prevailing orthodoxies. It is impossible to guess what portion of these reviews is subject to similar personal animosities and idiosyncratic judgments. The incident makes clear that political correctness is not the only factor undermining peer review as it was originally conceived. There are problems peculiar to the process, given the complete freedom from responsibility of the reviewer, who is shielded by anonymity (albeit not always impenetrable, as my discovery of his identity indicates) and the freedom of editors to select reviewers with possible ulterior motives or a personal agenda. But most difficult to overcome are the inherent limitations of human beings, their questionable and faltering capacity to be objective or impartial. These limitations are magnified when some prevailing orthodoxy such as political correctness encourages them to subordinate scholarly detachment and intellectual judgment to other less than fully reputable impulses and motives.

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