The following is a guest post* by Philippe Lemoine, a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell University. It’s a response to a post by Les Green (Oxford) published here yesterday, “Because They Are Universities” (originally published at Green’s blog under the title “Why it is hard to be a campus conservative“). Lemoine’s response, below, was first published at his blog, Nec Pluribus Impar.
It’s Not Hard For Conservatives To Be On Campus Because They’re Stupid, It’s Hard Because You Are
by Philippe Lemoine
Leslie Green, professor of philosophy at Oxford, recently published a post on his blog called “Why it is hard to be a campus conservative”. I said elsewhere that I have rarely come across anything that was both condescending and stupid to the extent this post is, but that’s not exactly true, because I have already heard the kind of things Green says in this post countless times in conversation. The only difference is that he lacked the good sense not to write it down. I could also have added that his post was incredibly tone-deaf, something that should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with the reasons conservatives have to complain about how they are being treated on campus, which Green evidently isn’t. It was also featured as a guest post on Daily Nous, where it drew a lot of criticism in the comments. (On Daily Nous, the post’s title was changed to “Because they are universities”, which somehow manages to make it even more condescending than it already was.) Given how much criticism this post has already received, if I were a better man, I may have just left it at that. But I’m not, so I won’t. Moreover, this will be the occasion to make a few points about the left-wing bias in academia, which I think are important.
Green claims that, when conservatives complain that universities have been taken over by “liberals” and that faculty/students of “conservative” opinion are afraid to speak up (I’ll come back to the significance of the fact that he put scare quotes around both “liberal” and “conservative”), what they mean is that universities are full of people who believe things like:
- Species arose through natural selection.
- No author of any gospel ever met Jesus.
- Homosexuality is a normal variant in human behaviour.
- The United States lost a war against Vietnam.
- Human activity is a significant cause of climate change.
- The United States has worse public health than do countries with nationalized health care.
Even more threatening to conservatives, according to Green, is that people at universities insist that belief should be proportionate to evidence and formed in a rational way. (Note that, at this point, there are no more scare quotes around the word “conservative”.) This is a pretty common explanation of both why conservatives are underrepresented in academia and why they complain about the way they are being treated. It’s also remarkably ignorant and stupid.
First, although several of the examples Green mentions, such as the belief that species arose through natural selection, are indeed clearly true, not all of them are. Not only is the claim that the US has worse public health than countries with nationalized health care not a “banal truth”, as Green calls it on his blog, but it’s not a truth at all. For instance, healthcare in Russia is largely provided by the state and the Constitution states that every citizen has a right to free healthcare, but public health in Russia is definitely not better than in the US. Perhaps Green was just talking about countries that not only have nationalized healthcare, but are comparable to the US in terms of economic development. Although this may be true, it’s a rather uninteresting claim unless they have better public health than the US because they have nationalized health care, so I’m guessing that it’s what Green meant and it’s indeed a widely shared belief on American campuses. The problem is that it’s hardly obvious, because there are large differences in lifestyle between Americans and people in other developed countries where healthcare is nationalized, which could explain the difference in health outcomes.
I’m not even saying it’s not true that a nationalized healthcare system would improve public health in the US. (I’m personally agnostic on that question. Not because I’m not familiar with the evidence, but precisely because I am, which I’m afraid is more than I can say about Green. Moreover, as I explained a few months ago, public health is not the only consideration in this debate.) I’m just saying that, if you think reasonable people can’t disagree about that, it’s either because you’re a fool or because you’re not familiar with the evidence and the methodological difficulties that are involved in settling this question. I’ll let you decide which is the most likely explanation in Green’s case, but while you’re pondering this, keep in mind they are not mutually exclusive. Anyway, it’s bad enough that some of the things Green think are “banal truths” may not be true at all, but this is hardly the most important problem with his post.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Green’s post is that, despite what he believes, most conservatives do not complain about liberal bias on American campuses because they are full of people who believe that evolution is true or that the US lost a war against Vietnam. They complain about liberal bias on American campuses because they are full of people who think conservatives are just cretins who are incapable of forming their beliefs in a rational way and have no problem saying so on a regular basis. In short, they complain about liberal bias on American campuses because they are full of ignorant fools like Green, who know next to nothing about what conservatives actually believe. Green’s lazy rant is a perfect illustration of why it’s hard to be a conservative on campus. Of course, he didn’t do it on purpose, but that doesn’t make his post any less valuable.
Conservatives also complain because right-wing intellectuals are regularly prevented from speaking on American campuses by unhinged, illiberal left-wing thugs, who sometimes don’t hesitate to resort to violence. They point out that large segments of academia have become hotbeds of activism posing as scholarly enterprises. In other words, far from complaining because universities are places where people are devoted to the rational search for the truth, they complain because universities increasingly are not. I should add that conservatives are right about that and that one doesn’t need to be a conservative to worry about that. I know plenty of liberals who find the politicization of universities extremely concerning. You have to live in a parallel universe to deny that it’s a problem.
If Green actually listened to what conservatives say when they complain about liberal bias on campuses, he would know that, but it’s clear that he has no idea what conservatives really think and that he is only familiar with a caricature. When I say that, people often retort that it’s because I’m a European conservative, who isn’t even religious and isn’t really familiar with American conservatism. So if that’s what you’re inclined to say, I’m going to stop you right there. I’m far more familiar with American conservatism than any American liberal I know. I read American conservative publications every day, know many American conservatives personally and have read countless books about American conservatism. (I also listen to Democracy Now and read plenty of left-wing sources.) I even watch Fox News on a regular basis, so I’m quite familiar with the kind of things American conservatives say when they complain about liberal bias on campuses, which is clearly more than I can say about Green and people who take his post seriously.
This bias is a real problem that should concern everyone and deserves better than Green’s idiotic post. I’m one of a handful of openly right-wing people in academia, so I’m in a particularly good position to talk about it. In my experience, people who aren’t conservative have no idea what kind of shit those who are have to deal with in academia on a daily basis, which is part of the problem. Universities worry a lot about micro-aggressions, implicit bias, etc. against women and minorities. But there is nothing “micro” or “implicit” about the hostility conservatives have to face on campus. Nobody goes around campuses saying that women and black people are stupid, but not a day goes by on campus without people saying that about conservatives. In my field, conservatives are so afraid to speak up that some of them have created secret groups, where they can say what they think without fear of reprisal. Just think for a second about how toxic the environment must be in order for things to have come to that.
And don’t tell me that conservatives just need to grow a pair and speak up more often. I actually agree that conservatives in academia should speak up more often, but most people who say that have no idea how difficult it is, because they never had to face the kind of hostility that conservatives in academia have to deal with. Everyone is a war hero until they actually go to war. Moreover, conservatives aren’t the only ones who are afraid to say what they think in academia, the problem is far more widespread than that. One of the advantages of being so outspoken is that everyone tells me what they really think, because they know I don’t give a shit and don’t have to worry that I’m going to repeat it. You have no idea how many people have reached out to me privately to thank me for saying things nobody else will. Most of them are conservatives, but many are liberals, who have views that are at odds with the zeitgeist and don’t feel comfortable expressing them. Often, they don’t even agree with what I’m saying, but they’re just glad that someone is saying it so they can have another viewpoint. Which brings me to why the liberal bias on campuses is bad even for people who aren’t conservative.
The problem with political bias, no matter who it’s directed against, is that it makes people who share the dominant view stupid and uninformed. Most of the things liberal academics think are obvious really aren’t obvious at all, but they don’t know that, because they rarely get to hear the other side. And they rarely get to hear the other side not because conservatives have nothing to say against their arguments, but more often than not because they are just afraid to say what they think. As a result, intelligent conservatives in academia are typically in a much better epistemic position than similarly intelligent liberals, because they are familiar with the best arguments for the views they disagree with, whereas liberals are robbed of this opportunity by the fact that conservatives don’t feel comfortable speaking freely.
As people who read this blog know, I’m strongly in favor of restrictionism about immigration, a view that most academics think is not only misguided but obviously false and morally repugnant. The problem is that I have read and thought a lot about immigration. Moreover, because almost everyone around me thinks restrictionism is wrong, I’m very familiar with their arguments. But they’re not familiar with mine, because they have almost never met anyone who disagreed with them on that issue and wasn’t afraid to say it. So when I have a debate about someone about that, it usually becomes really embarrassing very quickly, but not for me. In almost every case, I know exactly what they’re going to say. I know what studies they’re going to cite and, since I have actually read them (which is rarely the case of my interlocutors), I can explain why they don’t show what they think they show.
To be clear, although I think I’m right about immigration, I’m not saying that I’m obviously right. Precisely because I have read and thought a lot about it, I know this debate involves many complicated issues, both empirical and philosophical. My point is that, because of the liberal bias on campuses, most academics don’t know that. They think it’s obviously true that restrictionism about immigration is both intellectually and morally bankrupt, which is why they typically look like fools when they have a debate about this with someone who actually has a grasp of how complex the issue really is. Of course, I’m not saying that nobody on the pro-immigration side of that debate knows what they’re talking about, I know some who do. But I don’t know many of them and that’s really not surprising given the abuse people who defend a restrictionist position are subjected to.
Nobody benefits from this state of affairs. This isn’t just bad because it makes academics politically uninformed. There is plenty of evidence that it actually affects their scholarship and make it worse than it would otherwise be. There has been a healthy conversation about this in social psychology, a field that heavily leans left, where some researchers have demonstrated that the lack of diversity harmed the field. This was the impetus for the creation of Heterodox Academy, which seeks to remedy this problem in academia. Unless you have a completely unrealistic view of human cognition, you have to realize that any environment that leans so heavily toward one side of the political spectrum, far from being a place where belief is proportionate to evidence, will be epistemically suboptimal. Echo chambers aren’t exactly ideal environments to discover the truth about anything. If you don’t want to take seriously the liberal bias on campuses, that’s fine with me, but then don’t complain when people elect a vulgarian like Trump or when Republicans defund universities.
Finally, I want to reply to one point some people have made in defense of Green’s post, because it adds insult to injury. Both he and other people have claimed that his critics were misguided because he wasn’t talking about conservatives in general but only about a specific type of conservative. It’s true that, in his post, he occasionally qualifies his claims with vague expressions such as “a certain kind of conservative”. But he doesn’t always do that and, in any case, this is largely beside the point. You don’t write a post called “Why it is hard to be a campus conservative” if all you want to do is point out that people who form their beliefs in a totally irrational way, which is the case of only a small proportion of the people who complain that it’s hard to be a conservative on campus (at least it’s not larger than the proportion of people who deny it’s a problem and form their beliefs in the same irrational way), are bound to be uncomfortable in places such as universities, which are supposed to be dedicated to the rational search for the truth.
Are there conservatives who complain that it’s hard to be conservative on campus for bad reasons? Well of course there are, plenty of them even. But that their reasons are bad is obvious, so when you write a post which you claim is about why it’s hard to be conservative on campus and only address those reasons, you are in effect suggesting that conservatives don’t also have plenty of good reasons to complain that it’s hard to be a conservative on campus. If that’s not what you think, then why not address the interesting reasons people have to complain that it’s hard to be a conservative on campus, instead of writing a post on reasons nobody intelligent cares about? Even if it were true that most conservatives complain about the liberal bias on campuses for the reasons Green seems to think, which it isn’t, it would still not be why most conservative academics, who aren’t typical of conservatives in general anymore than liberal academics are typical of liberals in general, complain about it. This defense of Green’s post is a classic case of gaslighting. It will only work against imbeciles, but despite what Green seems to think, most conservatives aren’t imbeciles.