De-Tribalizing Academe

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

On February 8, New York Times science reporter John Tierney paid prominent attention to a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, Jonathan Haidt, who had stirred things up at a San Antonio meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Haidt had presented a talk, “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” on January 27, in which he characterized the contemporary field of social psychology as a “tribal-moral community.” He meant that social psychologists are more concerned with keeping certain “sacred values” from being questioned than they are in advancing scientific understanding. Essentially Haidt offered a fresh view on how and why an academic field becomes closed-minded and hostile to nonconforming opinions.

In the case of social psychologists considered as a community, Haidt argues that the profession sees itself as heir to the struggle for civil rights, which it treats as a sacred symbol. Anything perceived to threaten that symbol is not subject to dispassionate critique but is made anathema. Social conservatives are unwelcome in the field because they are seen as “blaming the victims” of racism if not as outright racist themselves.

Haidt’s argument has some peculiarities, which I’ll come to, but it is worth pausing just a little longer not on what he said but on how the mass media responded. His talk might not have gone much further than the 1,000 people in the lecture hall that day if John Tierney hadn’t spotlighted it in the Times. Tierney’s report in turn prompted Times columnist Paul Krugman to bat away Haidt’s ideas as obnoxious. Krugman’s comment prompted 332 reader comments (so far), which caught the attention of Wall Street Journal editor and blogger, James Taranto, who observed that the top six rated comments, like Krugman’s own post, are “unsympathetic to Haidt’s argument,” as though the “tribal-moral community” Haidt described extends to the New York Times‘s readership. Numerous other bloggers then took up the theme as well. And Haidt himself responded.

So is there anything more to say? Quite a bit, actually. The fuss so far shows what a tender issue Haidt touched. The liberal left does not like to be reminded of how often and how routinely it tramples on the principles of academic freedom and open-minded inquiry when it comes to conservatives. Haidt is an especially bothersome case: a self-professed liberal who admits that liberal academe does indeed trample.

What Haidt Said

Haidt’s original talk was not recorded but he recreated it along with the original PowerPoint slides here. It is 25 minutes well spent, but not because Haidt discerned something that has eluded all other observers. He didn’t. Nor because he uncovered evidence of the sort that will compel those who deny the prevalence of liberal bias in academe to revise their views. Krugman’s tart response is proof that at least some minds are constructed as to be unassailable by evidence at least of the kind Haidt offered. Rather, Haidt’s lecture stands out as a rare model of argumentative decorum on a fraught issue.

Haidt achieves this decorum by building a narrative of how a group of well-meaning, generally honest people can inadvertently slip into the habit of demonizing others and not even realize they have committed an error. The narrative goes like this:  Humans, like a few others species—ants, bees, termites, naked mole rats—live in large cooperative societies. All these other societies manage that “trick” genetically. The cooperative creatures are all closely related, e.g. daughters of the queen bee. But humans manage to be “ultra-social” without this genetic glue. Our “trick” is morality or religion, which bind us together in moral, rather than genetic, communities.

“Morality binds” but it also “blinds.” That is to say, a moral system is built on “shared devotion to sacred objects and principles,” and the devotion closes our eyes to some important things. The sacredness of the principles means they are granted a special status that exempts them from questioning. And they are removed from the world of “tradeoffs.” If an object or principle is sacred, according to Haidt, we can’t sacrifice some portion of it to achieve some other social good. We have to maintain it as absolute. Haidt here is of course following in the footsteps of Durkheim in treating religion primarily as a source of social solidarity, and he references Durkheim along the way. To maintain the sacred character of symbols, we also create their polar opposites: symbols of the infernal, the debased, and the utterly corrupt. Haidt speaks of the opposition between the sacred and its diabolical opposite as “the vertical dimension.” And one instance of the vertical dimension—we are getting closer to the destination of his argument—is the opposition between victims of racial injustice and the racists who perpetrate such injustice. Victims good; racists bad. There is no middle ground.

The absence of middle ground is evident in cases such as what happened to Patrick Moynihan after he published his 1965 report The Negro Family; The Case for National Action, which described in a chapter titled “The Tangle of Pathology,” the problems arising from single-parent families. Moynihan was shunned by his colleagues at Harvard, says Haidt, and it took decades for sociologists to admit, finally, that his analysis was essentially accurate. The trouble is that by citing pathologies in the African-American family (even while acknowledging that those pathologies arose because of racism), Moynihan seemed to “blame the victim.” Because victimhood had been raised to the status of sacred principle—shared devotion, exempt from questioning, no tradeoffs, etc.—there was no room among the devotees to give thoughtful, rational consideration to Moynihan’s views.

By this point, the reader can assemble the rest of Haidt’s argument fairly easily.  The realm of the sacred exercises a force of its own. Haidt even shows images of magnets with iron filings aligned on their lines of force. The poor social psychologists are no more morally responsible for their treatment of conservatives that the iron filings are for their speckled distribution on the glass sheet. We are programmed to respond in a certain way to defend our sacred symbols. When the sacred kicks in, our rational capacity gets detoured: “We use our reasoning not to find the truth but to find ways to defend what we hold as sacred.”

Haidt couples this with some very rough demonstrations that very, very few social psychologists consider themselves conservative. On a show of hands he finds three self-acknowledged conservatives in his audience of about a thousand. And he notes how grossly out of proportion this sample is with the ratio of conservatives to liberals in the general American population, where about 40 percent of American call themselves conservative and 20 percent call themselves liberal.

No Moral Argument

But Haidt sees no ground here for moral indictment in this disparity. The disproportion is in his view a phenomenon to be understood using social psychology’s own tools. He is holding up a mirror to his professional colleagues to make the point that they, as an aggregate, behave pretty much the same as other human aggregates, namely as a “tribal-moral community.” This isn’t something to be deplored, since it is in the nature of all human communities to work this way. Haidt is sensitive on this point, as is further evidenced by his response to Krugman where he emphasizes:

I very deliberately did NOT make the moral argument that ideological divides are like racial divides. I agree with you that there are many relevant differences. Also, I directly stated that personality differences will always guarantee that academe is mostly liberal, just as you noted that the military is mostly conservative. That’s all fine by me.

Haidt does see the disparity between conservatives and liberals in his field as a problem, but only a pragmatic one. The exclusion of conservatives means (probably) the loss of some good ideas:

when conservatives are entirely absent (as opposed to simply underrepresented), then there is NOBODY to speak up, nobody to challenge predominant ideas, and our science suffers.

The profession would benefit from having some conservatives around. To that end Haidt embraces—he uses the phrase—“affirmative action for conservatives.”

Don’t Add to the Problem.  Fix It.

The broad topic of the underrepresentation in higher education of conservative and other non-liberal views has long been a key interest of the National Association of Scholars. Over the last 24 years, I estimate we have published upward of two hundred articles about it in our journal Academic Questions or on our website, and many of our members have participated in conferences and other events where the causes, consequences, and possible remedies for academe’s ideological monoculture have been debated. Both Steve Balch (NAS’s chairman) and I are represented in the American Enterprise Institute’s 2009 volume, the Politically Correct University:  Problems, Scope, and Reforms—a volume that is of special relevance here because it includes three chapters providing and analyzing hard data on the ideological disparities among faculty members in the United States. Last year Steve Balch offered an elegant review (“Ideological Discrimination in Academe: The Burden of Proof”) of some of the other key studies of the drastic underrepresentation of conservatives in American universities. Balch comes to a conclusion that sounds a lot like Haidt’s, or at least a key part of Haidt’s lecture. Balch endorses what he says “common sense advises”—namely that:

people with powerful convictions will often fail to see the merits of opposing views and demonize those who hold them; that absent external restraint, intense believers will frequently seek to suppress dissent, ingeniously finding pretexts, and feeling all the more virtuous for having done so; and that those who view the scholarly calling as the practice of politics by other means will many times turn it into something more akin to war.

But Balch did not call for “affirmative action for conservatives.” Indeed, I know of very few critics of the liberal hegemony in higher education who are attracted to the idea of set-asides or preferences for conservatives. The National Association of Scholars has consistently rejected it; I have written against it in numerous places. David Horowitz, whose proposal for an “Academic Bill of Rights” is frequently mischaracterized as a plan for “affirmative action for conservatives” flatly rejects the idea. The problem I see—I’m tempted to say “we,” because in this instance I think I speak for a widely shared view among dissenters from academe’s reigning orthodoxy—is that higher education should not be ruled by political ideology in the first place. What I seek is not an artificial balancing of the faculty by adding a prescribed number or percentage of conservatives, libertarians, or what-have-you to predominantly liberal faculties, but rather a robust commitment to appointing faculty members on the basis of the quality of their work as scholars and teachers.  I want—we want—the university de-politicized. And we definitely don’t want to accede to an even more thorough politicization that would take the form of designating a special corner of the room for conservatives.

From my perspective, Haidt’s call for affirmative action for conservatives demonstrates his liberal bona fides. He says outright that he too embraces the politicized liberal views of his academic specialization, and surely he does. The problem posed by the existence of an underrepresented minority in his view is best solved by a form of tokenism. Let’s invite a few conservatives to the party.

To adopt this as the solution would not solve the real problem. A faculty member hired to fill a designated “conservative” position would be intellectually straitjacketed from the start—just as any member of a minority group hired under such pretenses is. The individual trying to develop his or her scholarly views is under constant pressure, sometimes subtle, sometimes quite openly, to represent the identity group that looms behind the appointment. This is a form of intellectual temptation, and it almost always turns out to be more in the interest of the chess players than the pawns.

Tribal-Moralism Revisited

But Haidt’s narrative is all of one piece. If social psychologists (or members of any other academic discipline) are best seen as members of a “tribal-moral community,” the best we might hope for is that that community erect a guest hut at the edge of the village where those who don’t truly belong will be allowed to stay for a while and practice their own customs unmolested. Tribal communities, after all, have long made provisions for strangers. Georg Simmel in 1908 inaugurated a social scientific interest in strangers in a brief essay that appeared as part of his book Soziologie. Simmel’s essay launched a rich vein of inquiry that continues to this day, but Haidt’s “tribal” conceit particularly brings to mind William A. Shack’s 1979 edited volume, Strangers in African Societies. The real-moral community, as opposed to Haidt’s imaginary construct, was often a lot more hospitable to the non-conforming outsider than the contemporary American university.

The characterization of the social psychologists as a tribal-moral community, however, strikes me as more politesse than actual description. This is what I mean by Haidt’s decorum. He has found a way to talk to an assembly of people who share a sharp political bias in soothing tones that assure them that their inclinations are entirely natural and quite right in their way. They need not be morally troubled by their evident exclusion of others who fail to share the sacred doctrines; such exclusion is just what communities do. But it would be useful to find a way to include a few of the dissenters—since they may possibly have an idea or two to contribute to the discussion.

The alternative is to cast out this metaphor. Human societies have many ways to form cooperative units based on matters other than sacred symbols and religious principles. Sometimes a faint trace of these may lie in the background, but when we work together in offices or factories, we usually manage the “trick” without a sacred symbol to kneel to. We cooperate with one another in myriad ways, from shopping in stores to driving on the highway, without the assistance of tribal fetishes. Surely we can cooperate in academic disciplines based on reasoned inquiry and scrupulous examination of evidence without making ourselves into a “tribal-moral community.”

Haidt may well be right that social psychologists have been acting like a tribal-moral community, but to the extent that is true, the members of the profession have not been acting like scholars or like scientists ought to act. They should hold themselves to the higher standard of intellectual disinterestedness. If they are so enamored of a self-image as crusaders against racism, sexism, homophobia, or other such causes as to have blinded themselves to legitimate scholarship pursued by individuals who don’t share their political enthusiasms, these social psychologists need to be called to account.

I suppose it is possible that Haidt is attempting to do that in the only way he imagines his audience could hear, but taken on its face, Haidt’s lecture invites a good deal of complacency on the part of people who have shown themselves pretty poor stewards of the public trust. Is it too much to ask that social psychologists return to the conception of their field as an academic discipline and not as a tribal community?

I don’t mean to suggest that such a reclamation of first principles would be easy.  Haidt’s most vivid point is how easily we turn our “reasoning not to find the truth but to find ways to defend what we hold as sacred.”  The defenders of the academic status quo are tireless in repeating two rationalizations for the exclusion of conservatives from academe.  One is that conservatives are driven by money and therefore forgo academic careers for more lucrative alternatives.  The other is that conservatives are stupid (and/or closed-minded) and therefore unable to compete for positions in brainy (and open-minded) occupations like, say, social psychology. These are gossamer illusions that fall apart on the slightest contact with facts, but they are apparently enough to reassure those who have a need to believe that the paucity of conservatives in the humanities and social sciences has nothing to do with discrimination.  

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