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A Critique of “Valuing Civility: Moral Pollution, Preference Falsification, and the Demise of Civil Society”


Fasten your seatbelts, this post is going to be a bumpy ride. There’s little turbulence in the early going, but the final approach is gonna throw you around.

Rutgers Professor Lee Jussim has blogged extensively at Psychology Today about how the discipline of psychology leans strongly to the left. Jussim provides example after example of how left-wing ideology and values are embedded in the thinking, manifesting in numerous subtle yet insidious ways, which together combine to create a perfect storm of left-wing ideology being passed off as “science” that tends to impugn conservatism and purportedly demonstrate the superiority of progressivism.

Jussim argues, for example, that the leftward skew includes the way topics are framed, the questions that are asked, the designs of the studies intended to answer them, the way the evidence is interpreted, and the conclusions that are drawn.

The essay Valuing Civility: Moral pollution, preference falsification and the demise of civil society by Pamela B. Presky in Psychology Today is a case in point. The entire essay is copied here. My comments, in which I hope to show some of the ways left-wing bias  permeates current discourse in ways that are not generally recognized, are interspersed within it in blue font.

In no way should this blog post be construed as maligning the essay’s author, Pamela Paresky, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), or any other organization with which she is associated, including Heterodox Academy. They’re good people doing their best to address a systemic problem from within the very system in which it exists, and so they must walk an excruciatingly delicate line lest they too fall victim to the issues they’re trying to address. They’ve treated me with respect, kindness, and open-mindedness in every interaction I’ve ever had with them. In fact, the positive responses I’ve gotten from them have contributed greatly to any success I’ve had in communicating my ideas.

What I’m describing in this blog post is a trend that I’m seeing almost everywhere I look. Paresky’s essay is merely the unfortunate victim of my choice to use it, from among dozens or even hundreds of essays I might have chosen for the purpose, as a jumping off point from which I try to make my case.

I’d go even further by stipulating for the sake of my argument that every assertion in Paresky’s essay is correct. The case I’m making is that because of the types of systemic biases Jussim has been bringing to light, even an essay that is full of accurate assertions can still paint an inaccurate, even misleading, picture of what’s actually going on. Sins of omission, innocent as they may be, are still sins. My main intent here is to point out, through specific examples, that the problems Paresky, and groups like FIRE and Heterodox Academy (which I recommend highly) are trying to rectify are deeper, more pervasive, and therefore more insidious than even they may realize; that those problems affect even their work, and that the underestimation of the problems effectively buries our collective heads in the sand, making us unaware of the gravity of the situation we face, and therefore necessarily results in weak, if not ineffective solutions; stronger measures are required.

The tone among those within academia who are addressing these issues seems to be Pollyanna-ish, and, well, academic, in the sense that it apparently rests firmly in the assumption that kumbaya is possible through only the combined carrots of persuasion, evidence, logic. civility, demeanor, and University of Chicago style statements of intent. The sticks of enforcement and consequences for those who transgress the principles of open-minded inquiry seem to be not even on our collective radar.  It’s all very blank-slatist, in a way, seemingly resting in the notion that people are driven mostly by reason and evidence, and things will get better if only we can show them the evidence and find a way reason with them such that they see the light.  Indeed, this sort of Pollyanna-ish academic intellectualism is itself part of the problem, tone-deaf as it is to the depth to which people out here in the real world are affected, and at the same time dismissive of us. It all becomes a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies from which it seems nearly impossible to break free. It’s a textbook example of a Catch-22: a problem for which the solution is prevented by the circumstances that cause it.

Valuing Civility: Moral pollution, preference falsification and the demise of civil society

by Pamela Paresky

Posted Jul 01, 2019

At the second annual Heterodox Academy Conference in June, linguist Steven Pinker revealed that he routinely hears from other professors who privately disagree with campus orthodoxy but are too fearful to publicly say so. It is a regular feature of the most visible campus witch hunts, some even involving professors signing public letters of condemnation while privately expressing sympathy to the letters’ targets.

This is not simply a left-wing or campus phenomenon.

I agree with Paresky that this is not simply a left-wing or campus phenomenon. Many aspects of the ideological divide are common to all humans regardless of whether we lean left or right. As I said in Areo magazine:

Human nature is a hugely complex system of intertwining traits, attributes and tendencies. Many aspects of human nature are common to everyone, regardless of their ideology. We’re tribal. Tribes form around shared values and common interests. We develop irrational commitments to those values and interests. We’re very good at seeing the tiniest of flaws in our opponents’ arguments, while blind to the gaping holes in our own. The first victims that usually fall when we rise to the defense of our own tribe are reason and evidence. We’re hypocrites by nature.

But I disagree with the message, implicit in Paresky’s paragraph, that the phenomenon is symmetrical; that left and right are equally guilty of creating the hostile environment of today’s Western culture in which people are afraid to speak their mind. As I also said in Areo:

But the cliche that there are two kinds of people in the world is also true. The political left and the political left are fundamentally different from each other. The trick, therefore, is to ease out the essential differences between the two sides from all of the ways in which we’re the same.

The fact is, even though it is not simply a left-wing or campus phenomenon, it is mostly a left-wing phenomenon. The asymmetry of the ideological divide is THE takeaway message of the life’s work of NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt, notably summarized in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In brief, Haidt finds that ideologies are constructed from a common set of evolved psychological mechanisms he calls moral foundations. He says that there are many of them, but he concentrated on finding the most influential ones; the “low hanging fruit” that have the strongest effect in determining how each of us thinks about social issues. He identifies six, and finds that leftist Righteous Mind tends to employ three of them, and of those three mostly just one, but the conservative Righteous Mind uses all of them equally. There’s no leftist foundation that is not also a conservative foundation, but half of the conservative foundations are for all practical intents and purposes absent from leftist thought.

This asymmetry is an important but mostly overlooked part of the problems Jussim has been highlighting. Paresky’s essay is an example. At first blush, her essay seems even-handed and fair.  But what I hope to show in this blog post is that it contains multiple instances of precisely the sorts of subtle biases Jussim has identified.

Continuing Paresky’s essay…

Writer David French recently remarked that he frequently hears from other Republicans who privately disagree with Trump’s “take-no-prisoners” style of politics, but are afraid to let that be known. French himself recently became an “ism,” an emblem of what some on the far- and alt-right see as an inability to properly grasp three things: the validity of the concept of politics-as-war, the futility of valuing civility and decency, and the failure of classical liberalism itself.

I understand what Paresky is getting at here. She’s showing that the impulse to berate and belittle people who don’t think the right thoughts is not unique to the left. She’s right, of course, but the way she states it demonstrates a leftist bias.

Note the use of “some on the far- and alt-right.” These terms are typically used as pejoratives; stand-ins for hardcore extremists beyond the pale of civil thought. There’s no need for those terms here. Paresky could have written “an emblem of what some see as…” But no. She had to throw in the implication of extremist viewpoints on the part of those who criticize French. This is not unlike the tendency of the news media to introduce members of Congress who are on the right as “Republican Senator so and so” but members who are on the left as “Senator so and so,” as if being a Democrat is the norm and need not be mentioned, but being a Republican is a deviation from the norm that must be pointed out. 

And also note the implication through the use of the typically-pejorative “far- and alt-right” that the criticisms of French are unfounded, and that the concepts of politics-as-war, the futility of civility, and the failure of classical liberalism are extremist, and wrong,  in themselves.

What has failed, however, is not liberalism, but the ability to curb the illiberal tendencies of each party’s most ardent members.

For the sake of argument let’s assume that Parisky is right; We’ve failed as a culture to curb the tendencies of each party’s most ardent members. There’s a lot here to unpack.

First, there’s the implication that “ardent” = bad. Ardent means enthusiastic or passionate. Martin Luther King was ardent. Mahatma Ghandi was ardent. Nelson Mandella was ardent. The women’s suffragettes from the mid 1800s to until the passage of the 19th Amendment were ardent. The civil rights protesters of the 1960s were ardent. Ardent doesn’t mean bad.

Next, if the culture does fail at constraining its illiberal tendencies then whose fault is that? The answer is clear, and twofold.

Curbing illiberal tendencies is a working definition of the “constrained vision” of conservatism. Conversely, the “unconstrained vision” of the leftist righteous mind is wont to let those illiberal tendencies run free in the name of inclusiveness and tolerance. [Mayor of Portland, I’m talking to you.]

As Heterodox Academy and others have highlighted, the education system suffers from left-wing hegemony. From kindergarten through post-doc it is owned and operated almost entirely by the left – by people who lean strongly toward the unconstrained vision – and therefore suffers from many of the same types of problems from which Jussim shows the discipline of psychology suffers, and all of those problems tend to work in favor of the unconstrained vision – effectively inculcating it into all students – and against the constrained vision. The cumulative effect of this sort of “education” over the entire academic careers of our youth can’t NOT have a deleterious effect of unfettering illiberal tendencies.

At its core, illiberalism is a tribal and apocalyptic impulse. On the right, it is expressed as an ethno-nationalist reign of terror.

This is some interesting ideological spin-doctoring going on right here.

The original Reign of Terror happened during the French Revolution, and followed from the unconstrained vision of the leftist righteous mine. Since then it has appeared again and again, always on the left, from Russian, Chinese, Cambodian, and Cuban communism, and yes, even German Nazism, to today’s Antifa. Consistent among all of these movements has been the sometimes-stated, always present, notion that in order to make an omelet (or the “Good Society”) one must break a few eggs (or heads.)

As Haidt explain in a lecture to the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University:

The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas. This is a terrible and really dangerous idea, quite frankly. Um, in the French Revolution I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution.

Twentieth century communism, fascism, any movement that tried to create a new man ends up committing atrocities, ends up committing mass murder. Um, if any, if there are any historians here, but as far as I understand it most left wing revolutions have ended with mass murder, because, you have this utopia, people don’t go along, because you got human nature incorrectly, they don’t go along, but you know you’re right because you have reason on your side, so you use force, and you use more force, and you use more force, and you end up like Cuba, or North Korea, or the other communist revolutions. It doesn’t work.

The unconstrained vision in the sciences and social sciences has denied that there’s human nature. They’re just wrong about that, it’s a really terrible idea scientifically. They’ve denied evolutionary psych. Evolutionary psych has some problems which I think are being fixed, but the idea that our behavior is not influenced by evolutionary history is bizarre.

Through her use of “Reign of Terror” in this way Paresky has reassigned a nearly uniquely leftist trait to the right.

On the left, it manifests in what political columnist Melanie Sturm calls the Kindergarchy: an intersectional reign of tantrums.

Here again we find another rhetorical trick of the leftist Righteous Mind. Having first inaccurately reassigned the Reign of Terror from its rightful home on the left and moving it to the right, Paresky then continues the trend by minimizing leftism to mere “tantrums.”

The aim of this apocalyptic impulse is to denigrate, defame, and destroy. But civil society relies on the impulse to redeem, improve, and perfect.

This is true as far as it goes, and I agree that people on the left and the right can succumb to the thrall of the apocalyptic impulse. But again, it’s not symmetrical.

The inconvenient fact that’s left out of Paresky’s statement is that, as Haidt shows, in the aggregate, the apocalyptic impulse is not merely far more prevalent on the left, but in fact practically defines it. .As Haidt shows, it practically defines the left.

And what’s more, the impulse to redeem, improve, and perfect practically defines the right. That impulse, rightly understood, is what “conservative” means.

It rests on a philosophy of freedom of expression that, irrespective of First Amendment Law, expects us to draw a bright line between words and violence. It necessitates a set of social norms that allow the articulation of unpopular opinions without fear of retribution. And it requires us to use the principle of charity when encountering views we don’t hold and people we don’t like. Embodying these principles today is too rare and requires too much courage.

New York Times conservative opinion journalist Bret Stephens recently wrote a column advising Democrats to stop alienating the persuadable Trump voters they need in order to win. For the crime of imagining and articulating the views of those voters, a vocal band of left-wing ideologues publicly cast Stephens as a “white nationalist” and “full-on bigot.” Unsurprising, perhaps, when more than half of Democrats say that defending freedom of speech for people with racist ideas is as bad as being a racist.

This phenomenon, too, is a product of the leftist righteous mind. As I wrote in Areo:

When half of the evolved psychological mechanisms of social cognition are for all practical purposes unavailable to one’s judgments of others, one is left with no cognitive alternative but to conclude that those others must be dysfunctional, broken, sick. And when one knows in this way that others are malformed, one may even feel not merely intellectually justified, but worse, morally obligated, to prevent them from participating in public discourse or controlling the reins of power.

As Haidt says in The Righteous Mind, if your ideology is limited to just one or two moral foundations, “what else could you think?”  

You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm)

One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own. Morality binds and blinds.

And again, it is a problem that the education could, and should, work to ameliorate, but instead works to exacerbate.

Politics, higher education, and social media all operate as types of markets in which status is the coin of the realm. In such prestige economies, harshly punitive and even deviant social behaviors develop when there is a climate of heightened sensitivity to moral pollution, a kind of metaphorical contamination that results from proximity to something morally abhorrent. Guilt by association is an example; stigmatizing someone because of their association with (or “adjacency” to) “bad” people.

Cruel retribution is more likely and more inhumane when a community is also plagued by pluralistic ignorance; when a large proportion of the community incorrectly assumes that the majority subscribe to an orthodox view. And when, as a result, many people engage in preference falsification; pretending to prefer the orthodox view themselves.

In the West that community consists of the professions and institutions of education, media, and entertainment; the very people ones that have near-monopolistic control of the mechanisms that define, control, and set the direction of the culture.

Sociologist Kai Erikson observed that deviant, retributive moral phenomena (such as witch hunts) arise as a method of restoring moral order. This plays out today when the act of holding in one’s mind a “problematic” idea, such as something a Trump voter might think about immigration, renders the thinker morally impure even if he does not subscribe to the view himself. To the ideological purist, anyone willing to faithfully recreate a morally impure view, even in order to defeat it, is indistinguishable from a moral transgressor whose perspective he describes.

To her credit, in a rare departure from form for most analyses of current social trends that I read, Paresky’s example is from the left.

As with bullying and other kinds of moral deviance, in a prestige economy, it is the behavior of bystanders that is determinative. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Coddling of the American Mind, whether online or in person, “mobs can rob good people of their conscience.”

When the social consequences of revealing one’s heterodox views are harsh enough, people protect themselves by self-censoring. As a result, most people are ignorant of how many people are opposed to the enforced view, and many will engage in performative solidarity; attempts to signal to members of their “tribe” that they, too, subscribe to the majority view, even if I reality they do not. Some of those opposed to the orthodoxy will even become enforcers in order to maintain the security of their membership in their tribe.

The recent Antifa attack on Portland journalist Andy Ngo and the reaction of his detractors is emblematic of the profoundly uncivil state of our society. Ngo, who has written for the Wall Street Journal and is an editor for Quillette, has regularly reported on Portland’s Antifa and is deeply unpopular among the left. While covering an Antifa protest, he was chased, beaten, and doused with “milkshakes” (which police say might have contained injurious chemicals) leaving him bloodied and reportedly hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage and nearly blinded in one eye.

I agree. But note that the incivility is mostly on the left, and it is caused mostly by the moral myopia of the left, which limits its ability to even imagine how someone might see the world differently unless they are somehow sick, broken, malformed.

Inconvenient facts like these are continually swept under the rug of analyses like Paresky’s.

Problems are likely to continue unless and until we face these facts directly and find effective ways to correct the problems.

On social media, various people with progressive political views, some of them journalists, made light of or even defended the violence. These Antifa apologists mocked the “violence” of throwing milkshakes. This is, of course, a perverse feat of irony. Antifa and its supporters are famous for decrying the “violence” of words, ideas, and people’s (literally nonviolent) presence.

More credit to Paresky here, for calling out the real source of the problem, Antifa, and its coddled thinking.

But at the same time, the elephant in the room still goes unmentioned.  

Antifa are domestic terrorists, and the coddled thinking they exhibit is far more characteristic of, and prevalent on, on the ideological left than it is on the right.  There’s that asymmetry again.  Politicians who fail to call out Antifa for their hateful ways might rightfully be characterized with the McCarthy era term “fellow travelers.”  

The mayor of Portland is a modern-day George Wallace, metaphorically standing in the doorway of the school (in this case the city), defending the mob of racists goons (in this case Antifa bigots), and preventing law abiding citizens from going about their business, and exercising their constitutionally protected rights. 

What’s needed is for law enforcement to do its job, and if it can’t then the President must call in the National Guard.  How much worse do things have to get before the country wakes up to the fact that it’s in the midst of a crisis of Civil Rights? 

The sooner we acknowledge this essential fact the better. We’re kidding only ourselves if we think persuasion, evidence, logic. civility, demeanor, and University of Chicago style statements of intent ever will, or even can, have any effect whatsoever. The more of this sort of underestimation I read the more it seems as if the West is like the proverbial frog in the pot, saying everything’s fine, right up to the point that he’s boiled alive, or Fort Sumter is fired upon. 

It is no coincidence that this year, the Aspen Institute has launched a new Civil Society Initiative. Bret Stephens participated in a Civil Society panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Thankfully, there is at least one thoughtful journalist who continues to have the courage to consider views he opposes — and help the rest of us grapple with them. ♦

That’s nice, but will they talk about the elephant in the room, or will they continue to think and act as if it doesn’t exist? If they do talk about it, will they try to figure out why it acts the way it does, not just in terms of the social pressures that lit the fuse, but also in terms of the psychological mechanisms that are the explosive to which the fuse is connected; mechanisms that in combination arguably are Pathological Altruism?  Will they recommend concrete measures – sticks to go with the carrots – or will they recommend still more diversity statements and calls for more studies. meetings, dialog, and civility?

Pamela Paresky’s opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated.

References

Cato Institute (2017). The State of Free Speech and Tolerance in America.

Erikson, K. (1966). Wayward Puritans: A study in the sociology of deviance. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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