“I say unto you that likewise more joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance” – Luke 15:7
In the email introduction to his Sunday column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes:
My Sunday column will probably provoke a number of you to roll your eyes or curse me under your breath. I’m sure many will disagree with it, but here goes.
[..] I’ll get a torrent of angry emails and indignant comments, but as you read this I’m actually in southern Africa reporting a story. If the criticisms get too bad, I’ll seek asylum.
Such are the delicate eggshells that commentators on which the American Left must tread whenever they even think about holding up a mirror to the behaviour of their own side and calling out flawed thinking or bad behaviour.
What is the subject of Kristof’s column? You can probably guess. With great trepidation, Nicholas Kristof is asking his readers to consider the possibility – just the possibility – that the atmosphere of seething intolerance for conservative voices or opinions on the university campus may be a negative thing with potentially harmful consequences.
After Donald Trump’s election, some universities echoed with primal howls. Faculty members cancelled classes for weeping, terrified students who asked: How could this possibly be happening?
I share apprehensions about President-elect Trump, but I also fear the reaction was evidence of how insular universities have become. When students inhabit liberal bubbles, they’re not learning much about their own country. To be fully educated, students should encounter not only Plato, but also Republicans.
We liberals are adept at pointing out the hypocrisies of Trump, but we should also address our own hypocrisy in terrain we govern, such as most universities: Too often, we embrace diversity of all kinds except for ideological. Repeated studies have found that about 10 percent of professors in the social sciences or the humanities are Republicans.
We champion tolerance, except for conservatives and evangelical Christians. We want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us — so long as they think like us.
I fear that liberal outrage at Trump’s presidency will exacerbate the problem of liberal echo chambers, by creating a more hostile environment for conservatives and evangelicals. Already, the lack of ideological diversity on campuses is a disservice to the students and to liberalism itself, with liberalism collapsing on some campuses into self-parody.
One can already imagine thousands of triggered New York Times readers spitting out their morning coffee and clicking away from Kristof’s column in disgust at having their worldview and prejudices challenged instead of flattered.
And Kristof continues in a similar vein:
Whatever our politics, inhabiting a bubble makes us more shrill. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard professor, conducted a fascinating study of how groupthink shapes federal judges when they are randomly assigned to three-judge panels.
When liberal judges happened to be temporarily put on a panel with other liberals, they usually swung leftward. Conversely, conservative judges usually moved rightward when randomly grouped with other conservatives.
It’s the judicial equivalent of a mob mentality. And if this happens to judges, imagine what happens to you and me.
Kristof goes on to recommend to his readers a number of prominent American conservative personalities to follow on social media, so as to get a taste of arguments and perspectives which may otherwise have been long ago purged from Facebook timelines and Twitter streams. Again, this is a good thing – other publications have preferred to ensconce their readers deeper in the bubble by publishing hysterical lists of “fake news” publications which cannot be trusted because they do not reflect the Democratic Party’s view of the world.
And he concludes:
I fear the damage a Trump administration will do, from health care to foreign policy. But this election also underscores that we were out of touch with much of America, and we will fight back more effectively if we are less isolated.
When universities are echo chambers, they become conservative punch lines, and liberal hand-wringing may be one reason Trump’s popularity has jumped since his election.
It’s ineffably sad that today “that’s academic” often means “that’s irrelevant.” One step to correcting that is for us liberals to embrace the diversity we supposedly champion.
This blog has not always been a fan of Nicholas Kristof, having only recently taken him to task for comparing the American Left’s coming endurance of Donald Trump to the agonies of somebody suffering from addiction and receiving treatment through a 12-step programme.
But as a reader pointed out at the time, the people who need to hear this message are not likely to accept it from people like me and blogs such as this, with a proud tradition of beating up on “liberal” intolerance and the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics.
Nicholas Kristof is clearly one of their own, however, as evidenced by the fact that he thought it was appropriate to compare surviving the Trump administration to attending AA. When somebody with otherwise impeccable social justice credentials like Nicholas Kristof questions the culture and dynamic on the American university campus, people might actually listen, and so one cannot entirely dismiss his work.
Overall, this is a positive development. Nicholas Kristof is a prominent and celebrated left-wing columnist and commentator, as well connected to the establishment as a writer can be. If he is now expressing reservations about the oppressive climate for academic freedom on campus, then there must truly be disquiet growing about the takeover of academia by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics.
The Right cannot hope to win this fight on their own, but finally it looks as though we may be gaining a few unexpected allies. May many more follow in Kristof’s footsteps.
Postscript: At present, there are 93 comments to Kristof’s column, the majority expressing angry incredulity that anybody might think that hostility toward conservatism on American university campuses is in any way a bad thing. However, there are exceptions. One reader, a professor at a university I happen to know very well, writes:
An example: I am a professor at a university (Washington University in St. Louis) that brandishes “prestige” it doesn’t quite have—an Ivy League wanna-be. My web page contained some semi-controversial essays—arguing that science is a terrible career choice, that perhaps Summers’s ideas are worth consideration, “diversity”, “political correctness”, that some moral responsibility attaches to the movements that gave us the AIDS epidemic.
My essays, clearly marked as personal opinion, were censored—kicked off my university web page. As expressions of personal opinion, they didn’t belong in the classroom, and were never mentioned there. As thought-pieces on current issues, they are part of being a public intellectual, part of a professor’s job. Academic freedom? Not here.
As Yale University proved with the whole Halloween costume saga of 2015, Ivy League universities are often the worst offenders, so from that perspective Washington University in St. Louis is absolutely heading in the right direction.
Back in the real world, however, they are hurtling off a cliff, and threatening to take what is left of academic freedom down with them.
Top Image: World Economic Forum / Wikimedia Commons
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