Friday, August 05, 2011

The Orwellian Bias of Freedom from Bias

Robert Martin hates bias. In this Inside Higher Ed column, he hates it so much that he demands it by endorsing a call for affirmative action in hiring conservative professors. This is the Orwellian nature of his call for freedom from bias. It's really just a demand to suppress political speech he doesn't like (i.e., bias) and favor the speech he likes. The "post-partisan" university is really a "post-academic freedom" institution, one where repression in the name of public opinion is welcomed.


Jason Fletcher said...

What a silly comment. First of all, Martin does not endorse the call. Haidt does. Martin describes Haidt (accurately) as someone who goes against the grain and is thereby to be respected. Since the rest of Martin's piece is about the university's ability to ask the hard questions of itself, it is poor reading on your part to ascribe a policy objective to him in this essay.

Second, he makes no remarks about content in this piece. It's all about process. Even the Summers example is presented as something that should be tested, not affirmed.

There's nothing Orwellian about his essay. There is a great deal of scaremongering in your short comment, however. You're part of the problem, Mr. Wilson.

John K. Wilson said...

In response to Mr. Fletcher's comment: It appears to me that Martin praises Haidt at every moment. If Martin disagree with Haidt on this sole point, he ought to say so. I simply point out a contradiction: if you want to stop political bias, then you should be opposed to biased hiring preferences for conservatives. That's part of what I consider Orwellian.

Martin certainly makes remarks about content. He wants political content gone from the university. That is the clear meaning of a "post-partisan" campus with an "ideology free zone." You can't have a zone without ideology unless you ban the expression of political content.

Actually, Martin is very, very vague about his exact process for implementing an "ideology free zone" on campus, but I think scaremongering is appropriate whenever someone suggests that intellectual debate should be "free from" ideology.

Jason Fletcher said...

That was odd. I responded to the comment, it showed up on the left, and then it disappeared. Peculiar.

To restate: you said that Martin was "endorsing" a call for affirmative action. I noted that Haidt actually endorses it. Now, if I were endorsing it, I would say afterwards, "I agree! I think that's a great idea!" Martin moves on, though. Saying that since Martin does not explicitly disagree with Haidt here that he's "endorsing" Haidt's position is sloppy thinking.

Second, a post-partisan environment in the manner Martin speaks about happens all the time in business. It doesn't require explicit bans, merely a focus on the core mission. Unless you wish to argue that the university's core mission of education is explicitly partisan, I don't see the difficulty here. I think in most circles it's referred to as being "fair."

Third, Martin's vagueness actually counts in his favor. He's not trying to shove an indoctrination program down people's throats. He's inviting them to develop and test the ideas on their own campus. That's hardly a case of stifling dissent.

I do find it noteworthy that you admitted to "scaremongering", though. Apparently it's okay, though, because you're right and we're wrong. So bring out that Orwell hammer to keep people from taking this seriously. And pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Noted.

John K. Wilson said...

Thanks again for the comments, but I still disagree. In an opinion column, if you praise a thinker repeatedly and without any criticism, and use some of the very same “post-partisan” terms, it's reasonable to assume that if you mention one of that thinker's related ideas (affirmative action for conservatives), you almost certainly agree with it, unless you state otherwise. Why would Martin mention this idea if he didn't agree with it? I will certainly invite Martin to clarify this.

You're right that a post-partisan environment exists in business, and it doesn't require an explicit ban on politics. All you need to do is get rid of academic freedom, and protections such as tenure. And Martin seems to want to destroy any meaningful concept of academic freedom. The core mission of a university isn't partisanship, it's freedom. But that freedom must include the right to express political ideologies. And an “ideology free” zone seems clearly antithetical to academic freedom.

Jason Fletcher said...

Final response on this: I still think your linkage between Haidt and Martin on this issue is far too tenuous for the "endorsing" term you used. Thus, your use of the term "Orwellian" is rhetorically irresponsible. "Demanding affirmative action for conservatives to kill bias" is a catchy phrase, but it's unjustified. Your comment was an unfair characterization of his piece; you presented it as an advocacy piece when it wasn't. Sleep on it tonight and then decide whether you played fair or whether you pressed an agenda.

Further, suppose Martin decides he does support some sort of affirmative action for conservatives. (For what it's worth, I would disagree with him, but that wouldn't invalidate his view of the university's current environment and needs.) If so, then he's proposing adding voices to the university mix, not taking them away. The entire charge right now is that academic freedom only exists for one political ideology. Disagree with that analysis if you wish, but its proponents certainly believe it. Thus, it is again irresponsible to lay the mark of Orwell on them when there's no deliberate lying going on.

What I definitely get from Martin's piece is that he thinks the issue of bias, along with quality and cost, are problems the university must deal with if it would survive. I think a fair image to be drawn from this piece is that of an ostrich with its head in the sand. I submit to you that your language and analysis only encourage such deliberately oblivious behavior. It's hardly freeing to keep yourself in the darkness.

John K. Wilson said...

Okay, a final reply: Martin's essay was an advocacy piece, in the “views” section of Inside Higher Ed. I have an agenda. Martin has an agenda. We've all got agendas. I am simply using Orwellian in the sense of using a term to call for its opposite. In this case, it's using bias against progressives as a tool to fight for an unbiased university. Something can be Orwellian without deliberate lying. Intentions are not in question here. I'm sure Prof. Martin has quite good intentions. Many people who offer bad ideas, left and right, have good intentions.

The charge that academic freedom “only exists” for the left on campus strikes me as so absurd that I can't believe anyone can sustain it.

Yes, universities must deal with the charge of bias, and it does hurt them—as the charge of liberal bias has hurt colleges for centuries around the world. But universities must deal with the accusation of bias (true or false) by standing firm for academic freedom, and not submitting to public opinion on the questions of free speech on campus or the need for unbiased hiring.

It's true that my very short commentary doesn't go into any detail about how I think universities should deal with these issues. But I think it's sufficient to say that affirmative action for conservatives and “ideology free zones” are very bad ideas and antithetical to fundamental academic values.

Thanks again for this interesting debate.