Today’s Wall Street Journal contains another tale of university censorship, in this case involving Amy Wax, the Mundlein Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia. The screenshot links to the essay, but it’s mostly paywalled, though judicious inquiry might yield you a copy. The article also notes that “This essay, adapted from a speech that she delivered in December, is reprinted by permission of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”
Wax recounts one of those authoritarian horror stories that makes me glad that, when I was teaching, I was at the University of Chicago, which would never pull a stunt like Penn did on Wax.
It started when Wax and Larry Alexander (a professor at the University of San Diego law school, a private Catholic-affiliated university) wrote a joint op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last August. Click on the screenshot to see it (it’s free). The title and photo of John Wayne alone tell you that Wax and Alexander were in for trouble.
It’s a conservative editorial decrying the breakdown of bourgeois values that America had in the 1950’s, and here’s some of the stuff that angered Wax’s liberal colleagues and many students:
That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.
Did everyone abide by those precepts? Of course not. There are always rebels — and hypocrites, those who publicly endorse the norms but transgress them. But as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Even the deviants rarely disavowed or openly disparaged the prevailing expectations.
Was everything perfect during the period of bourgeois cultural hegemony? Of course not. There was racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism. However, steady improvements for women and minorities were underway even when bourgeois norms reigned. Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture. Quite the opposite: The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.
All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.
You can judge for yourself whether this is racist or bigoted. It does criticize practices of different cultures, holding up the non working-class white culture as an implicit “model culture”, but it also makes empirically testable statements (e.g., working-class whites have a higher frequency of single-parent families and “anti-social habits”); and it also makes some value judgments that can be questioned (e.g. patriotism is good; “anti-assimilation” culture, a slippery notion, is bad for the U.S.) The essay doesn’t really strike me as particularly thoughtful, but may have some useful points, though they’ve been made many times before. For example, perhaps we should strive to somehow reduce the incidence of single-parent families, though I don’t know how to do that.
At any rate, Wax and Alexander’s (W&A’s) essay deserves discussion, not banning, and those who take issue with W&A’s claims should have attacked those claims, not Wax. One person who responded properly was Wax’s Penn law colleague Jonathan Click, in an essay at Heterodox Academy called “I don’t care if Amy Wax is politically incorrect; I do care that she’s empirically incorrect.” Click addresses and attempts to rebut some of W&A’s assertions, such as the statement that “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” Have a look at Click’s essay as well as the comments.
That’s the way to deal with speech you find either incorrect or offensive: argue the facts, point out which claims are based on preferences, and so on. But do not call the writers names or try to shut them down or get them fired.
But the latter is what Wax experienced at Penn. As she states in the WSJ:
So what happened after our op-ed was published last August? A raft of letters, statements and petitions from students and professors at my university and elsewhere condemned the piece as hate speech—racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, “heteropatriarchial,” etc. There were demands that I be removed from the classroom and from academic committees. None of these demands even purported to address our arguments in any serious or systematic way.
A response published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, our school newspaper, and signed by five of my Penn Law School colleagues, charged us with the sin of praising the 1950s—a decade when racial discrimination was openly practiced and opportunities for women were limited. I do not agree with the contention that because a past era is marked by benighted attitudes and practices—attitudes and practices we had acknowledged in our op-ed—it has nothing to teach us. But at least this response attempted to make an argument.
. . . Not so an open letter published in the Daily Pennsylvanian and signed by 33 of my colleagues. This letter quoted random passages from the op-ed and from a subsequent interview I gave to the school newspaper, condemned both and categorically rejected all of my views. It then invited students, in effect, to monitor me and to report any “stereotyping and bias” they might experience or perceive. This letter contained no argument, no substance, no reasoning, no explanation whatsoever as to how our op-ed was in error.
Do read that short open letter. It rejects W&A’s claims without giving reasons, and does implicitly urge students to report any further “transgressions”.
Wax reports that another colleague accused her of using “code words for Nazism”. She also quotes Jon Haidt who, in defending some of her claims and her right to speak without bullying, wrote this at the Heterodox Academy:
I said earlier that I think it is important for the academic community to reflect on this case. In the coming academic year, many of us will receive multiple emails from students and friends asking us to sign open letters and petitions denouncing each other. My advice is to delete them all. We already have bureaucratic procedures for investigating charges of professional misconduct. If you think that a professor has said or done something wrong then write an article or blog post explaining your reasons. But every open letter you sign to condemn a colleague for his or her words brings us closer to a world in which academic disagreements are resolved by social force and political power, not by argumentation and persuasion.
Finally, two of the most odious attempts to shut Wax up. First, a deputy dean told her that the open letter was “needed” to get her attention so that she “would rethink what [she] had written and understand the hurt [she] had inflicted and the damage she had done, so that [she] wouldn’t do it again.”
Second, and worse, her own dean at the Penn Law School asked her to take a year’s leave of absence and stop teaching her required first-year course so that the controversy would die down. In response to Wax’s counterargument that he shouldn’t be caving in to the protestors, the dean said that he was a “pluralistic dean” who had to listen and satisfy “all sides.”
No, deans don’t need to be pluralistic in that way. W&A’s editorial in the Inquirer was free speech. It was not “hate” speech, but conservative speech that decried intra-American cultural relativism. If it hurt people, it hurt only their feelings, and, as we know, nobody has a right to not have their feeling hurt by speech. The way to answer Wax was to write counterarticles and take issue with her arguments, not to shut her up and ask her to leave the law school till the dust clears.
She will be a pariah forever now, and that’s a shame. Her message needs to be heard, and her opponents need to muster their arguments. If they can’t do that, they better start thinking hard, for hard thinking and not name-calling is the response that we need, and is what our democracy is supposed to rest on.
Addendum: Above the Law, a law-school news site, reports that University of San Diego law students have asked their school to ban Alexander from teaching first-year students. (It apparently doesn’t matter what he says in the classroom; he’s been permanently declared an Unperson for that editorial). The Dean of the Law school has issued a statement that, while meekly admitting that Alexander had a right to write the op-ed, genuflects obsequiously to those who objected. The proper response would be like the one my University issued in response to calls to ban Steve Bannon’s upcoming talk. Short and sweet, it basically said that “Every faculty has the right to invite anyone to speak, and we defend that right.”
This all depresses me deeply. Are we really living in this kind of Orwellian world now: a world in which you’re no longer supposed to teach first-year students if you write an op-ed they don’t like? I urge you to read the W&A piece and judge if its authors deserve that fate.
Here’s Wax talking about the controversy. This is not the speech she delivered in December, but it must be pretty similar. This one was given in October of last year at Penn’s Federalist Society.