A Cure for Academic Bullying

Portrait caricatureWorkplace bullying is an increasing problem. Books are being written about it, and there is even a Workplace Bullying Institute. The problem isn’t restricted to the business world. Books such as Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, and Workplace Bullying in Higher Education suggest that bullying is a particular problem among academics.

Unfortunately, academic bullying is often allowed to go on unchecked. That’s just how academics are, people think. What can you expect? It’s hard to control tenured faculty, administrators argue, because there is little you can do to discipline them.

Rot starts from the top, though. The failure of administrators to curb academic bullying and other forms of professional misconduct on the part of faculty is the reason academic departments become dysfunctional. Faculty harass and bully one another with impunity. Distressed administrators have even been known to reward trouble makers in a misguided attempt to win their goodwill, not realizing that the trouble makers see such gestures as a sign of weakness and a green light to cause even more trouble.

Bullying can sometimes take such unequivocal forms as yelling at and or publicly disparaging the victim, but micro-aggressions are the bully’s trademark because there are innumerable opportunities for them and because no single micro-aggression ever appears sufficiently heinous to warrant disciplinary action. Micro-aggressions include such things as a consistently condescending tone of voice on the part of the bully toward her target, repeatedly interrupting the target when she attempts to make a point in a department or committee meeting, laughing or making faces or whispering to colleagues when the target speaks and failing to respect the target’s authority as a committee chair, program director, or academic advisor. (More examples of bullying are listed in an article entitled “Tackling the Menace of Workplace Bullying” on the website Law Crossing.)

People usually try to ignore micro-aggressions. Sometimes they even worry they’ve imagined them. People don’t expect to be relentlessly taunted and goaded. Human beings are social creatures and evidence suggest that their default position relative to others is trust (see, for example, Louis Quéré, “The Cognitive and Normative Structure of Trust,” and Guido Möllering, “The Nature of Trust: From Georg Simmel to a Theory of Expectation, Interpretation and Suspension”).

That people are social creatures and, all other things being equal, generally decent, kind, sympathetic and empathetic toward those with whom their lives bring them into contact holds, I believe, the key to controlling academic bullies, and any other kind of bully for that matter. People don’t like bullies. Since all human beings, as social creatures, want to be liked, bullies can be controlled, to a large extent anyway, if not entirely, by simple public condemnation of their behavior. Someone in a position of authority has to make it clear that the offending behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Academic departments, like other professional communities, become toxic when people in positions of authority are reluctant to do this.

The absence of an open condemnation of unacceptable behavior makes people fearful that if they express disapproval of such behavior, they’ll draw the attention of the bully and become her next victim. Worse, rather than expressing disapproval, many people will try to ingratiate themselves with the bully in order to insulate themselves from attack, hence rewarding the bully socially for her bullying behavior.

A bully whose behavior is positively reinforced by frightened colleagues quickly becomes out of control. There are ways, however, to discipline faculty, even tenured ones. They can be denied authority on committees, excluded from departmental social functions and given teaching schedules that effectively isolate them from the rest of the faculty. In extreme cases they can be excluded from serving on committees, assigned undesirable courses, have their teaching loads increased and be denied promotion and sabbatical leave.

Ideally, a code of professional conduct that clearly indicates what sorts of behavior are considered unacceptable would become part of the bylaws of the department, college, and or university. This code can then be referred to when taking disciplinary action. Such a code isn’t necessary, however, for disciplining academics for bullying and other forms of professional misconduct. There are myriad ways chairs and other upper-level administrators can make clear to faculty that they will not tolerate unacceptable behavior.

The safest and most effective way to discipline faculty, however, is simply to openly condemn bad behavior. A statement by the chair at a department meeting that harassing and badgering colleagues, raising one’s voice at a colleague, rolling one’s eyes, or making a face when a colleague is speaking, are all unacceptable, can have a dramatic effect because everyone will know at precisely whom these remarks are aimed. Few things are so humiliating for an adult as to have it pointed out publicly that she is behaving chronically like an ill-mannered child. It’s humiliating, and human beings, being social creatures, are sensitive to public humiliation.

A subtle wave of relief will ripple through those present at the meeting because they will feel that finally, there is something they can do when they are the victims of bullying by colleagues: they can complain to the chair. A wave of relief will ripple through the faculty and people will begin, gradually, to band together against the bully or bullies.

I’ve spoken so far only about the general harassment and bullying of colleagues. Everything I have said about that, however, is equally true of other forms of unacceptable professional behavior, such as sexual harassment. There have been several highly publicized cases of sexual harassment among academics in recent years. Emphasis has tended to be placed on the harassers themselves. The problem I believe, however, is less the individuals than what would appear to be a lack of moral leadership in the environments that have allowed the harassment to take place. It isn’t difficult to communicate to a colleague that that sort of behavior is unacceptable. It it continues over a period of weeks, months, or even years, it’s because those in authority have decided to look the other way.

A department chair needs to have the courage to publicly condemn unacceptable behavior and upper-level administrators such as the dean of the relevant college need to support the chair in such condemnations. I have seen firsthand the effect that strong moral leadership can have on a department and the effect that the absence of such leadership can have.

Few people, it seems to me, understand the nature of moral authority. A moral leader is not a “nice” person in the sense in which people generally understand that term. A moral leader is not someone who tries to look the other way when people behave badly, or endeavors always to interpret malevolent behavior in a way that makes it appear benign. Sometimes people’s behavior is conspicuously ill intentioned and interpreting it in any other way can have disastrous consequences.

Plato addresses this problem in an early examination of what constitutes just behavior in his Republic. “[E]veryone would surely say,” observes Socrates, “that if a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just” (Republic, 331 c-d). Giving back the weapons wouldn’t be just, of course, because the the “mad” man is going to use them for malevolent purposes and may do things that he will likely later regret himself when he has recovered his sanity.

People are sometimes ill intentioned and it is not a kindness toward anyone to fail to acknowledge that. Certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, however, quite independently of the intentions behind them. The reluctance to recognize unacceptable behavior as such is not equivalent to being “nice.” It is cowardice and people in positions of authority who suffer from this conflation of decency and cowardice can wreak untold damage on those over whom they have authority.

A moral leader is not necessarily perfect. No human being, after all, is perfect. A moral leader is not necessarily a warm, effusive person, not necessarily outgoing or gregarious. A moral leader may lack a sense of humor. There are numerous other personal flaws from which they may suffer. What makes a moral leader, or what gives a person moral authority, is that they exhibit an unwavering commitment to decency and fairness, that they openly and unequivocally condemn unacceptable behavior while at the same time, continuing to evince respect for those who engage in it.

That is, unacceptable behavior must be quickly an unequivocally condemned. It is important to appreciate, however, that only the behavior should be condemned, not the people who engage in it. Anyone can behave badly, at least occasionally, and an environment where harassment and bullying have become the rule rather than the exception encourages people who would not otherwise behave in such a way, to do so as a form of self defense.

A moral leader is someone who can make clear, both that certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, and that they expect even those who engage in them habitually are capable of reforming themselves. People need to feel that they can redeem themselves when they’ve behaved badly. A moral leader is someone who makes clear that they believe everyone under their authority is perfectly capable of behaving properly and that only such behavior is acceptable.

A moral leader has to have the courage to condemn unacceptable behavior, knowing that doing so will expose their own behavior to closer scrutiny than most people are comfortable with. It takes a lot of courage to throw the first stone, so to speak, particularly since none of us is without sin. A moral leader has to have that courage, however, or we are all lost.

(This piece originally appeared in May 2, 2017 issue of Counterpunch under the title “Academic Bullying and the Vacuum of Moral Leadership in the Academy.”)

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Charles Murray?

Portrait caricatureCharles Murray, author (with Richard J. Herrnstein) of the notoriously racist The Bell Curve was invited by a student chapter of the American Enterprise Institute to speak at Middelbury College last Thursday. Unfortunately for Murray, the American Enterprise Institute club appears not to have been representative of the Middlebury student body more generally, hence Murray’s appearance was not well received. In fact, the audience for Murray’s talk appeared to be comprised mainly of protestors who turned their backs on Murray when he tried to speak and began chanting such slogans as: “Who is the enemy? White supremacy!” and “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Charles Murray has got to go!”

So go he did, finally, to the safety of a video studio from which the talk was live streamed to the campus. The video on YouTube of the aborted talk is mesmerizing. At least it mesmerized me. It’s not easy to keep chanting for about half an hour without stopping. There was something heart warming about the spectacle of a group of young people so united and determined in their rejection of racism and economic elitism. That Middlebury is itself an elite institution wasn’t the only irony of the protest, however. A crowd that chanted repeatedly: “Your message is hatred. We cannot tolerate it!” also held up signs that read: “Fuck Eugenics,” and “Fuck White Supremacy.” A crowd that was professing to champion the rights of everyone was refusing to allow Murray to speak.

I have enormous sympathy with those students, and yet I am deeply uncomfortable with their tactics. Murray should be allowed to voice his views, no matter how offensive some people find them. The question is whether it is appropriate for him to voice them as an invited speaker on a college campus. I think Middlebury’s student protestors correctly intuited that there was something wrong with Murray’s appearing as an invited speaker at Middlebury, or on any college campus. The problem, I believe, is not so much that Murray’s views are morally offensive. There is, after all, a certain subjective element in moral offense. Some people are offended by things that others find inoffensive. The problem is that they are not based in sound science and scholarship.

IQ tests are widely recognized by psychologists and social scientists to be extremely unreliable indicators of intelligence. In fact, long before The Bell Curve, IQ tests were criticized for implicit social and economic bias and recent research suggests they are virtually meaningless. “[I]f you are not good at them,” explains Dr. Adrian Owen, a British neuroscientist at Western University in Canada, “all it proves is that you are not good at IQ tests. It does not say anything about your general intelligence.

Intelligence is such a complex and ill understood phenomenon, and social and economic influences, not so much on the quality of thought as on its character, are so unimaginably difficult to calculate that it would seem impossible even in principle to devise a test to measure intelligence. And yet Murray constructed an argument that involved claims about the relation between race and intelligence based on IQ tests that was taken seriously by at least some intellectuals.

When I teach critical reasoning, I sometimes use as an example of poor reasoning an article by Murray from The Wall Street Journal entitle “Prole Models” in which Murray argues that proletarian moral values are ruining our country. What he identifies as proletarian moral values, however, are not, in fact, proletarian moral values, but criminal, or as Murray says himself “thug” values. Any sociologist worth his salt will tell you that working-class moral values are solidly traditional: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, do unto others, etc. It’s the social and economic elites who set the poor moral examples by conspicuously excepting themselves from these rules. It’s the social and economic elites who are unraveling the moral fabric of this country by repeatedly sending the message to those less fortunate that cheaters do prosper.

Murray’s argument in “Prole Models” is not merely based on obviously erroneous premises. It isn’t even coherent because while he’s railing against the working classes for their supposed “promiscuity” he acknowledges explicitly that promiscuity has always been accepted “in a few sophisticated circles.” If that isn’t enough, he actually praises the hypocrisy of women of the “social elites,” whose circles were presumably less sophisticated, for endeavoring to hide that they were sexually active.

Murray includes no references to research that would support the parade of contentious claims he presents in “Prole Models” and yet he presents those claims as if they are authoritative and he is able to publish such “fake scholarship” (okay, somebody had to coin that phrase) in no lesser paper than The Wall Street Journal! He keeps cranking it out, too. He published the equally morally and intellectually offensive Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 in 2012 (see “Debunking Charles Murray Again”), and he has a new book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, which presumably, was why he was invited to speak at Middlebury.

In a properly functioning democracy with a good system of public education and a vital intellectual culture, Murray wouldn’t receive the attention he has. That Murray’s views have been taken seriously by people who purport to be intellectuals reveals that many people in this country with advanced degrees aren’t really all that well educated.

Murray should be allowed to speak, of course, but it is entirely inappropriate, in my opinion, for him to be an invited speaker on a college campus. It is no more appropriate for Murray to speak on a college campus than it would be for the host of the Arts and Entertainment series “Ancient Aliens” to do so. Murray’s views are the sociological equivalent of Holocaust denial in their departure from accepted standards of science and scholarship. He should not be speaking at an institution of higher education. Middlebury’s student protestors were right about that.

So what do you do with a problem like Charles Murray coming and speaking on your campus? ––You don’t go. And what do we, as a culture do about that problem? We labor mightily to improve the general quality of education in our nation so that Murray’s theories will be conspicuous as the clap-trap they are. Then, maybe, he would no longer receive invitations to speak on college campuses. THAT would be heartwarming!

 

(This article appeared originally in the March 7, 2017 edition of Counterpunch.)

“Fake News” and the Responsibility of Philosophers

”Fake news” is not actually a new phenomenon. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber document in their book Trust Us, We’re Experts, that it is an invention of the public relations industry that is as old as the industry itself. The First Amendment makes it pretty hard to prevent such efforts to manipulate public opinion. That’s the price it appears we have to pay to live in a free society. It wouldn’t be so serious a problem as it is if people in the field of higher education didn’t fall down on their responsibility to alert alert the public to it.

A recent case in point is an article entitled Study: For-Profits Match Similar Nonprofits in Learning Results,” that ran in the January 11th issue of Inside Higher Education. The third paragraph cites the study as claiming that “[i]n all six comparisons, students at proprietary institutions actually outperformed the students at the nonproprietary comparison institutions.”

Who would have thought that? I mean, really, aren’t the for-profits infamous for having poor learning outcomes? One doesn’t actually even have to look at the original study, however, to realize that something is fishy with it. The first red flag is the fact that the study uses the euphemism “proprietary” institutions rather than the straightforwardly descriptive “for-profits.”

The study is described as measuring “learning outcomes in six areas for 624 students from four for-profit higher education systems, which the study does not name, and then compar[ing] the scores with those of a matched group of students from 20 unnamed public and private institutions that were selected because they were similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance” (emphasis added).

The second red flag is the “matched group of students.” Matched in what sense? That isn’t explained.

The third red flag is that neither the traditional nonprofit institutions nor the for-profit ones are named.

The fourth red flag is that the nonprofit institutions were selected because they were “similar to the for-profits on key measures related to academic performance.” Really? Since for-profits are reputed to have abysmal results in terms of academic performance, they must have searched long and hard to find nonprofits that had similarly abysmal results, if indeed they really did find such institutions, which cannot be verified since they are “unnamed.”

The whole thing reminds me of an old television commercial for Rolaids. Someone dumps a white powder into a beaker of what appears to be water with red food coloring in it, then stirs the powder, which gradually becomes clear again, while a voiceover announces “In this test with Rolaids’ active ingredient, laboratory acid changes color to PROVE Rolaids consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid.”

There was no way, however, to prove that the beaker had actually contained acid, or that what had been dumped into it was really Rolaids’ “active ingredient,” or indeed even that the change in color represented Rolaids’ “absorbing” anything let alone acid, not to mention how much acid. I credit that commercial with starting me on the road to becoming a philosophy professor because even as a child I found it outrageous that someone should expect I would take it as proving anything.

One of the chief duties of philosophers, I believe, is to expose errors in reasoning and man were there errors of reasoning in that commercial. I learned very early that commercials were not to be trusted. Most people know that, I think. Most people know to be skeptical when, for example, a commercial claims that some detergent removes stains better than any other detergent ever invented and presents what it purports is proof.

Most people know to be skeptical about claims made in commercials. Unfortunately, most people do not know to be skeptical about claims made in what is presented to them as “news.” That’s why I use Rampton and Stauber’s book when I teach critical reasoning. I feel it is part of my responsibility as a philosopher to alert my students to the pervasiveness of the practice of dressing up propaganda as news.

Back to the education “study.” Even if the study were genuine, the results are pretty much useless because the whole study is circular. That is, the study admittedly sought out “matched” students at “similar” institutions. It thus isn’t surprising that the for-profits come out looking better than one would expect if the selection of students and institutions had been random.

The study was conducted by a group called the Council for Aid to Education, or CAE. The “Executive Summary” (p. 2) of the study makes it very clear where the CAE stand on the for-profits. “The proprietary education sector stands at a crossroads,” it begins.

Proprietary colleges and universities are key providers of postsecondary education in the United States, enrolling over 1.7 million students. However, the sector has seen its enrollment decline since its peak in 2010 due to the growing employment opportunities following the Great Recession, the heavy regulatory burdens imposed during the last six years, and the perception that education at proprietary institutions is not on par with that offered by their non-proprietary peers.

The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) believes this junction presents a critical time to explore the efficacy of proprietary institutions and to document the student learning they support.

If there were doubt in anyone’s mind concerning the study’s objectivity, the opening of the “Executive Summary” should remove it. The CAE set out to show that the for-profits were doing as good a job of educating students as are traditional nonprofit institutions of higher education.

Of course the CAE is within its rights to do this. The problem is not so much the the CAE’s clear bias in favor of the “proprietary education sector,” but Inside Higher Education’s failure to expose that bias. Inside Higher Education purports to be “an independent journalism organization.” This “journalistic independence is critical,” IHE asserts in its “Ownership Statement,” “in ensuring fairness and thoroughness” of its “higher education coverage.”

The thing is, Quad Partners, “a private equity firm that invests in the education space,” purchased a controlling share of IHE in 2014. That is, Inside Higher Education is now an arm of the “proprietary education sector.” So the purported “independence,” “fairness,” and “thoroughness” of its reporting on issues in higher education appears now to be only so much more propaganda in the service of the for-profits.

Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Education protested to me in an email, after he saw an earlier version of this article that appeared in Counterpunch, that he and the people over at IHE had had their own suspicions about that piece and that that was why they had given is only a “barebones Quick Take.”

“What confuses me,” he said,

is why you viewed our minimalist and questioning treatment of the CAE research as evidence that we are in the tank for the for-profits because our lead investor has also invested in for-profit higher education––rather than as proof that our ownership situation has changed us not at all.

I fear Lederman may be right in protesting that IHE had not been willingly shilling for the for-profits. It apparently didn’t even occur to him that the suspicions he and others had had about the study should have led them to do a full-scale investigation of it (an investigation that would have involved actually reading at least the “Executive Summary” of the study to which they included a link in their article) and to publish an exposé on the study as a piece of propaganda for the for-profits rather than a “barebones” article that presented it as “news.”

What concerns me is not so much that the for-profits are trying to manipulate public opinion to make it more favorable toward them. What concerns me is that the editors of a leading publication that reports on issues in higher don’t have the critical acumen to identify what ought to have been readily identifiable as a piece of “fake news,” or the journalistic experience and expertise to know what to do with it once they have identified it as such.

That’s disturbing.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

 

The Land of Smiling Children

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“Komm ins Land der lachelnden Kinder,” “Come to the land of smiling children,” intones a voiceover to the tune of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” at the beginning of a popular German YouTube video. The video is a montage of some of the most grotesque elements of American culture: a smiling JonBenét Ramsey in full beauty-queen regalia, children using firearms, police beatings and shootings of unarmed citizens, celebrations of conspicuous consumption and contempt for the environment juxtaposed with videos of street people combing trash cans, an execution chamber, a row of Klansmen, and, finally, a man accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

“Alles Spitze in Amerika!” “Everything’s great in America,” the refrain announces over and over again as one horrific scene after another assaults the viewer. The video, “Ein Lied für die USA,” or “A Song for the USA” begins and ends with someone accidentally shooting himself. One could argue that it’s heavy handed, but it makes a devastating point: We are destroying ourselves.

We have arguably always lacked the veneer of civility that typically characterizes older cultures, and yet it seems that public discourse has recently taken a particularly savage turn. The left is as responsible for that as the right. Trump didn’t become “evil” until he ran for office. Before that, he was merely a buffoon. Now, suddenly, he’s “Hitler” and his supporters are uniformly denounced as “racists” and “fascists.” Don’t get me wrong, Trump was not my candidate. He’s not who I want to see in the White House, but he’s not Hitler. Obama said himself that Trump’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Democrats dismissed well-reasoned arguments against Clinton’s candidacy, or her positions on various issues, not with similarly well-reasoned counter arguments, but with charges of “mansplaining.” Nothing shuts down dialogue so quickly as hurling invectives at your opponents. British comedian Tom Walker makes this point brilliantly in the viral video of his alter ego U.K. newsman Jonathan Pie’s commentary on the election.

A recent case in point is the infamous Christmas-Eve tweet of academic George Ciccariello-Maher: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” The tweet was characterized by Mike King in “George Ciccariello-Maher vs. the White Power Alt-Right” as “inflammatory.” The point, Ciccariello-Maher explained in The Huffington Post, was to “mock” people who believe in the concept of “white genocide.”

King writes that “the anti-racist message and satirical intent [of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet] is clear to anyone familiar with the term [white genocide] and its longstanding usage within the political culture of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the U.S.” Fair enough, but was it reasonable of Ciccariello-Maher to assume that all of his 10,000 plus Twitter followers would understand the term in this way? Was it reasonable of him to assume that everyone to whom his tweet would be retweeted would have a similarly sophisticated understanding of the term and hence grasp the satire?

King calls Ciccariello-Maher a “vibrant anti-racist voice.” Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet was apparently not his only inflammatory one, at least not according to the conservative websites that have expressed outrage over it. Unfortunately, I can’t check that because only confirmed followers now have access to Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter feed.

Inflammatory rhetoric goes over well with many college students. It gets them excited about “scholarship” because it makes it seem “sexy” in this culture where sex and violence are inexorably intertwined. It goes over well with young people who are already sympathetic to the cause it purportedly serves. Unfortunately, it tends not to go over well with anyone else.

Demonizing people who disagree with you isn’t very effective at persuading them that you’re correct. It can, in fact, even push people who are on the fence over to the other side because it is ugly. It evinces the same lack of respect for the basic humanity of one’s opponent no matter which side in an argument does it. It’s a kind of bullying and engaging in it further erodes what semblance of civility we have left in this country.

King refers to the “outrage” of “white victim politics” as “contrived.” No doubt some of it is. But, sadly, there are legions of white people in this country for whom the outrage, even if misguided, is genuine. The situation of working-class white people is not so different from the situation of working-class men described so well in Susan Faludi’s books Backlash and Stiffed. Nearly everyone is losing ground economically. There is no rising tide now to float all boats. Nearly everyone is sinking, but instead of banding together to effect positive economic change, we have begun drowning one another in savage efforts to stay afloat.

The line at the beginning of “Ein Lied für die USA,” “Come to the land of smiling children” is an allusion to “Das Land der Lächelns,” or “The Land of Smiles,” a romantic operetta by Franz Lehár. The title is an ironical reference to the purported Chinese custom of smiling even when one is unhappy. One doesn’t need to know that, however, in order to recognize the irony in the video.

We are a nation of desperately unhappy people. Though racism still exists, most working white people have little direct experience of it. They look around even as they are sinking and see affirmative action for everyone but themselves. Compounding their sense of injustice is what sometimes appears to be contempt on the part of the liberal elite for their plight.

Enter George Ciccariello-Maher. I don’t mean to suggest that Ciccariello-Maher is really indifferent to the plight of white working class people. It is not so hard to see, however, why many might think he was. Ciccariello-Maher is righteously angry about racism, so he lashes out at those he views as racist. But is that going to reduce racism? He purports to be a socialist, but his is not the rhetoric of Tolstoy or Gandhi. Rather than serving to make clear to all working people that their interests are in fact allied, messages such as the one delivered by Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet drive deep divisions among them––which ultimately serves the interests of the wealthy few who control this country.

I agree with Ciccariello-Maher and his supporters who argue that that a commitment to free speech is more important now than ever. There is another commitment, however, that is also important: the commitment to decency and civility. Without that, free speech will simply fan flames of anger and outrage that will end up consuming us all.

The problem is, you can’t legislate a commitment to decency and civility. Drexel is right to stand by Ciccariello-Maher’s right to express his views in whatever way he sees fit. There’s no formula for determining what’s offensive and what isn’t. That’s why we need vigorous defenses of free speech. I’m offended, for example, when Richard Dawkins makes public pronouncements that effectively associate religious belief with feeblemindedness. The prospect of censorship based on taste is even more frightening to me, however, than is the specter of inflammatory rhetoric and the damage it can do.

I’m not comfortable giving anyone the right to curtail speech based on his or her subjective conception of what is offensive. Neither am I comfortable, however, with granting the unrestricted right of free speech to people who are not only indifferent to whether their speech gives offense, but whose rhetoric is deliberately designed to inflame. Rights, philosophers tell us, bring obligations. The right to free speech brings with it the obligation not to abuse it. The right to free speech is believed to rest on the foundation of the inherent rationality and dignity of all human beings. It is necessary to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard. But when it is abused, it creates a din that drowns out many of the voices it was designed to protect.

Plato thought the freedoms associated with democracy would ultimately destroy it. I explain to my students, however, that that is because there are no other values in Plato’s democracy than freedom. Democracy, I argue, combined with a commitment to humanistic values, with respect for the dignity of individuals, of all individuals, can work.

No progress will be made by spewing venom at one another in the name of free speech. On the contrary. When we use speech as a weapon rather rather than as an appeal to reason it is all too easy to injure ourselves with it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch. The illustration is by Marie Schubert. It comes from a book by S. Weir Newmayer and Edwin C. Broome entitled Health Habits (American Book Company, 1928) from The Health and Happiness Series .  I am indebted to Gui Rochat for the reference to Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles,” and to Catherine Goetze for correcting the errors in the German.)

Something to be Thankful For

I didn’t know that Trump had won the election until I woke up on the following Wednesday morning. I had neither the heart nor the stomach to watch the election returns Tuesday night. This was the worst election in my memory, in my lifetime, possibly in this country’s history. I knew watching the returns would be depressing. I wanted to watch something uplifting, something edifying, so I watched the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson. 42 may not achieve the same level of cinematic greatness as To Kill a Mockingbird, or In the Heat of the Night, but the story of Robinson’s integration of baseball is a great story and it makes the film deeply moving despite its shortcomings. Watching it reaffirmed my faith in the average American, the average human being.

There have been a lot of apocalyptic predictions about what would happen if Donald Trump were elected president. There’s no question that he will be able to do a lot of damage, but he will not, as so many people seem to think, be able to turn back the clock to the bad old days of a virulently racist, sexist, and generally intolerant past. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t racist, sexist, or intolerant anymore. We are. We are not so bad as we used to be, though, not by a long shot, and nobody is going to be able to turn the clock back on that, not even Donald Trump.

An election-night guest on Democracy Now said that if Trump were elected, all bets would be off. “These young black people,” she said, “who have been lying down in the streets as part of the many Black Lives Matter protests have been able to count on motorists not running them over. Well, if Trump gets elected, she asserted, they won’t be able to count on that anymore.” I’m paraphrasing her, of course, because my memory is not so good that I am able to repeat verbatim what she said. That’s pretty close, though.

The thing is, I believe she’s wrong. Motorists are not going to start running over protestors. It’s not like they’ve had to be forcibly restrained from doing this by liberal law-enforcement officers. As I explain to the students in my applied ethics classes, fear of arrest is not the reason most people obey the law. You couldn’t have enough law-enforcement officials on the street if fear of arrest were the only thing ensuring order in society. Respect for law, for social order, is the reason most people obey the law. People understand its importance for ensuring social order. They want to live in an orderly society and most people, in my experience, feel their fellow citizens, their fellow human beings, similarly deserve to live in an orderly society.

Motorists are not going to start running over protestors because human beings generally abhor homicide. Most people, the overwhelming majority of people, wouldn’t run over their worst enemy, even if they felt confident that they could do this without any negative repercussions to themselves. People are not the monsters that those who try to shape public opinion would often have us believe.

One of the things I love about teaching is that it keeps me in touch with basic truths about human nature. The overwhelming majority of my students are conspicuously good, decent people. Even the ones who occasionally cheat, clearly do so out of fear. Inter-cultural, and even inter-racial couples are a common sight on campus. No one seems disturbed by their presence. I’ll never forget an experience I had a few years ago when somehow the conversation in one of my classes had turned to the subject of romantic relationships and one of my male students, when discussing his current relationship casually referred to his love interest as “he.” I hadn’t realized that this student was gay. Everyone else seemed to know this, however. At least they exhibited no surprise whatever at what was to me the revelation of this student’s sexual orientation. There was not the slightest pause in the conversation, no raised eyebrow, no suppressed giggles –– nothing!

Racism, sexism, and homophobia among college students consistently make headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. I don’t mean to suggest that these things don’t exist among college students. They make headlines, however, because it is increasingly clear that they are the exception among college students rather than the rule.

Something analogous explains the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Police have always been killing young black men. Black Lives Matter is not a response to a recent spate of such killings. It is an expression of a growing intolerance of this perennial problem, especially in the face of video proof.

Televisions shows such as The Cosby Show and Will and Grace, not to mention decades of civil-rights activism, have humanized groups that were earlier demonized. Trump’s presidency wasn’t the only significant political change to come out of the recent election, more states legalized marijuana. The growth of the internet and the increasing ease of global communication more generally means many, if not most, Americans now know that a living minimum wage, universal healthcare, and free higher education are not impossible dreams but tangible realities in countries far less wealthy than the U.S. If some Americans think Obamacare went too far, polls suggest many, if not most, Americans think it didn’t go far enough.

We’re not perfect yet and likely never will be. Americans are getting progressively better, though, and we are going to continue to get better even if Trump’s election means the next few years will be ones of fits and starts.

This country has changed. It has changed irrevocably since the days of Bull Connor and death threats to those who would integrate baseball. We are a different country now than we were in our more ignorant and intolerant past. That’s something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Waking Up to Change” in the 10 November 2016 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

Election 2016

This election, Clinton supporters argued, was about stopping Trump. In fact, it is now clear that it was about stopping the growing movement in this country in the direction of genuine populism. Speaker after speaker who took the stage on the first night of the Democratic National Convention had to fight to be heard over chants of “Bernie, Bernie.” There was little applause for most of the speakers, but Sanders’ reception, when he finally got to speak, made it clear that he was the real popular choice for the Democratic nomination.

What the party apparently didn’t realize, however, was that Sanders’ popularity was not a product of his extraordinary charisma (almost anyone would seem charismatic compared to Clinton). It was a product of his populism. No one in the mainstream media got that that was what this election was really about. That’s what Trump and Sanders had in common. Independently of whether Trump’s populist rhetoric is sincere, it was the source of his appeal.

Liberals are considered to have won the culture war. Gay marriage is finally legal, state after state is legalizing marijuana, and for the last eight years, we have had what not so long ago was actually unthinkable –– a black president!

Some of Trump’s rhetoric may be racist, but his racism is not why he’s popular. There’s always some racist or other vying for the Republican nomination. Yes, racism still exists in this country, but it’s on the wane. Yes, police are murdering innocent black people, but they have always been doing that. The existence of the Black Lives Matter Movement shows that increasing numbers of Americans will no longer tolerate it.

What’s important, Sanders asserted when he conceded the Democratic nomination to Clinton, is keeping the revolution he started alive. Hillary Clinton, he announced, must be the next president of the United States! Did Sanders receive death threats from the DNC, or was he just not very smart? Sanders didn’t start the “revolution.” He simply rode a wave of populism that had been building long before he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president, and nothing was more antithetical to that movement than the Clinton campaign.

An anthropologist from Mars, to use a phrase of the late Oliver Sacks, would have a hard time making sense of the DNC’s support of Clinton in the face of Sanders’ clear majority of popular support. Both Sanders and Trump tapped a vein in this country. The party that won the election was the party whose candidate did that most effectively. Clinton clearly did not do that. Polls suggested that if she were nominated, she would lose.

So why did the party push her candidacy so relentlessly? Because her nomination would halt the progress in the direction of genuine populism. Halting that progress was more important to the party than was winning the election. Big business controls politics in this country and it is not about to surrender that control to a population that has had enough of it. Trump’s populist rhetoric is likely empty, so the possibility of his election is not so threatening to the forces that control this country as is the specter of Sanders’ election.

“Trump must be stopped!” Democrats chanted over and over. But this anti-Trump rhetoric was simply smoke and mirrors designed to conceal the real agenda of the party, which was to stave off the revolution in the direction of genuine populism. Democrats, the party bigwigs, that is, would rather lose with Clinton than win with Sanders. They are the people who benefit from the status quo. They are not about to see that change.

It is changing, though, whether they like it or not, and no amount of smoke and mirrors will stop it.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Smoke and Mirrors in Philadelphia,” in the 27 July 2016 issue of Counterpunch. Yes, that’s right, I called this election before it happened, so not everyone in the media got it wrong.)

The Lily of the Field and the Snake in the Grass

Arts and Letters is a great website that publishes blurbs about interesting articles that are available online and posts links to those articles at the end of the blurb. I have made it the homepage of my browser so that I can stay up to date concerning what is being published in the humanities. I haven’t been keeping up with it recently, however, because I’ve had so much work to do. I’m home sick today, though, and when I opened my browser to get to Blackboard (the online learning platform Drexel uses) to email my students that I was cancelling class, I was surprised to see a blurb about an article on Kierkegaard.

As it turns out, the article is a review in the Times Literary Supplement of two new books on Kierkegaard, and a new translation of some of his religious discourses. The books are Mark Bernier’s The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard (Oxford, 2015), Sheridan Hough’s Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector (Oxford, 2015). The translation, is of the discourses published under the title The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Princeton, 2016). It isn’t a particularly good review. The titles of the books are intriguing, but there is little indication of their content in the review. In fact, the “review” is basically a very short summary of Kierkegaard’s life and works that isn’t always even correct. Will Rees, the author of the review, identifies Either-Or (1843) as Kierkegaard’s “first book.” Either-Or was preceded, however, by first Af en endu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of One Still Living) (1838), and Om Begrebet Ironi (On the Concept of Irony) (1841).

As a child, observes Rees,

Kierkegaard was sensitive, sulky, ironical and precocious. In other words, he had precisely that youthful temperament which, while not a sufficient condition, is nonetheless a necessary condition for the later burgeoning of genius.

Really, I’m not kidding you. He actually says that. He says that all geniuses are necessarily “sensitive, sulky, ironical, and precocious” as children. It may well be that such traits are more pervasive among people who later prove to be “geniuses” (whatever it is, exactly, that that means). It strains credulity, however, to assert without qualification that all geniuses have such traits as children.

Rees also repeats the trope that Kierkegaard renounced the joys of “earthly life” in order to pursue his vocation as an author. Kierkegaard does occasionally speak this way himself. It is clear, however, that what Kierkegaard actually renounced was the not the joys of “earthly” life, but of a conventional life. That is, he renounced the joys of marriage and a family for those of a literary life. Kierkegaard was no ascetic. He ate well and dressed well. He relied on the services of a personal secretary and lived in relative luxury. In fact, he occasionally justified the expenditures associated with this lifestyle as necessary to sustain his creative productivity.

Rees explains that Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity” is often misunderstood, yet his own explanation of the meaning of this assertion is confusing. It doesn’t mean, he explains, that “something becomes true by virtue of my saying or believing it to be true.” What it means, he continues, is that “beliefs acquire truth only in relation to the individual’s lived orientation toward them.” What’s the difference? Isn’t my believing something to be true more or less equivalent to my having a “lived orientation” toward it? I suppose that depends, at least in part, on what one means by “believing” and “lived orientation.” What is missing from Rees’ explanation is the very thing the omission of which has led to the pervasive erroneous understanding of this statement. Only what Kierkegaard refers to as “subjective truth” requires an individual’s lived orientation toward it. There’s a whole host of objective truths, according to Kierkegaard, as I explain in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, that require no such orientation.

Rees fails to comment on the quality of the new translation of Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. The strangest part of Rees’ review, however, is that it fails to indicate the translator. Rees mentions the translation is “new,” but not who did it. This is a clear departure from the normal editorial practice of the TLS (see, for example, “They do the war in different voices,” “Storm and stress,” and “Orphaned solemnity,” September 30, 2016). That departure was less puzzling to me after I looked up the book on PUP’s website. The translator is none other than Bruce H. Kirmmse.

Princeton’s website describes Kirmmse as “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars.” If that’s true, it’s an odd fact to omit in a review of a translation by him. Could it be that the TLS actually wanted to avoid calling attention to the identity of the translator? Readers of my blog on Kierkegaard are likely aware that there would be a good reason for this. Kirmmse effectively bought the title of “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” with the surrender of his ethics.

As I explained in an article in Counterpunch back in 2005, there is reason to believe that Kirmmse deliberately tried to obscure in his translation of a Danish biography of Kierkegaard, that the author of that controversial biography had plagiarized some of the book from earlier biographies. If he didn’t do this, then the anomalies described in the Counterpunch piece in Kirmmse’s translation suggest he’s not a particularly good translator.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography. Let’s assume he just isn’t all that good a translator. Being a mediocre translator isn’t a crime. But even if we assume Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography, he’s still guilty of failing to support the scholar who exposed the plagiarisms in the Danish media.

Of course failing to act in a way one ought to have done is not so bad as actually doing something one ought not to do. Unfortunately, Kirmmse is guilty of the latter as well as the former crime. He defamed me in an article entitled “M.G. Pietys skam” (M.G. Piety’s shame) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, when I discovered that the plagiarized passages remained in his English translation of the Kierkegaard biography Kirmmse had translated and began to write about this. The article is a straightforward piece of character assassination designed to divert the attention of Danish readers from the issue of the problems with the biography and the promise of the author to fix those problems before the work was translated. The piece appeared only in Danish, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who reads my English translation of the article in an earlier post to Piety on Kierkegaard:Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame.”

I don’t know whether Princeton knew of the controversy surrounding the book in Denmark when they agreed to publish an English translation of it. They should have, of course, but that doesn’t mean they did. They had learned of the problems with the book, however, by 2006 because Peter Dougherty, the head of PUP sent me a letter in which he explained that the then forthcoming paperback included “some 58 pages of corrections.” That’s a lot of “corrections.” You will search in vain, however, for any indication that the paperback is actually a new, or “corrected,” edition.

So there you have it. There’s good reason why the TLS might prefer that the name of the translator not be mentioned in the review of the translation. Perhaps Kirmmse ought to take a leaf from Kierkegaard’s book and start using a pseudonym.