This new article in The Atlantic by John McWhorter (who will never be allowed to write for any organ with “New York” in the title) also deals with cancel culture, as did an earlier post today, but concentrates on the chilling effect it has on academics. Although I no longer teach, I’d be very careful what I said were I to lecture in the classroom. Click the screenshot to read.
McWhorter mentions two “anecdotal” (or at least “self-selecting”) sets of data suggesting that academics are plenty scared about making missteps in the classroom. One is a survey by the Heterodox Academy. Since they surveyed their own members, this is not a random sample of academics, of course:
For example, in July I tweeted that I (as well as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury) have been receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook. Then various people insisted that I was, essentially, lying; they simply do not believe that anyone remotely reasonable has anything to worry about.
However, hard evidence points to a different reality. This year, the Heterodox Academy conducted an internal member survey of 445 academics. “Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work, at a time when faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues were present. To what extent would you worry about the following consequences?” To the hypothetical “My reputation would be tarnished,” 32.68 percent answered “very concerned” and 27.27 percent answered “extremely concerned.” To the hypothetical “My career would be hurt,” 24.75 percent answered “very concerned” and 28.68 percent answered “extremely concerned.” In other words, more than half the respondents consider expressing views beyond a certain consensus in an academic setting quite dangerous to their career trajectory.
So no one should feign surprise or disbelief that academics write to me with great frequency to share their anxieties. In a three-week period early this summer, I counted some 150 of these messages. And what they reveal is a very rational culture of fear among those who dissent, even slightly, with the tenets of the woke left.
McWhorter admits that these data are hardly scientific, suggesting that a random sample of 3,000 professors would be needed for that. But he adds, “But let’s face it: Half a dozen reports of teachers grading Black students more harshly than white students would be accepted by many as demonstrating a stain on our entire national fabric. These 150 missives stand as an articulate demonstration of something general—and deeply disturbing—as well.” He would never, ever be allowed to say something like that, even though it’s true, in the New York Times. And I’ve detected the same fear in colleagues, manifested in other ways that I won’t bother to describe. Let’s just say that McWhorter is on to something.
Here’s an example of the kind of incident that’s made professors leery of teaching and also self-censoring. The words are McWhorter’s or his correspondents’:
- A statistics professor says:
I routinely discuss the fallacy of assuming that disparity implies discrimination, which is just a specific way of confusing correlation for causality. Frankly, I’m now somewhat afraid to broach these topics … since according to the new faith, disparity actually is conclusive evidence of discrimination.
- A white professor read a passage from an interview with a well-known Black public intellectual who mentions the rap group NWA, and because few of the students knew of the group’s work at this late date, the professor parenthetically noted what the initials stand for. None of the Black students batted an eye, according to my correspondent, but a few white students demanded a humiliating public apology.
- Overall I found it alarming how many of the letters sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. A history professor reports that at his school, the administration is seriously considering setting up an anonymous reporting system for students and professors to report “bias” that they have perceived. One professor committed the sin of “privileging the white male perspective” in giving a lecture on the philosophy of one of the Founding Fathers, even though Frederick Douglass sang that Founder’s praises. The administration tried to make him sit in a “listening circle,” in which his job was to stay silent while students explained how he had hurt them—in other words, a 21st-century-American version of a struggle session straight out of the Cultural Revolution.
- One professor has stopped teaching James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” after Black students claimed that it forced them to “re-live intergenerational trauma.”
What struck McWhorter, which shouldn’t be all that surprising given what we know, is that most of his correspondents were on the Left side of center. As he says, “Thus the issue is not the age-old one of left against right, but what one letter writer calls the ‘circular firing squad’ of the left: It is now no longer ‘Why aren’t you on the left?’ but ‘How dare you not be as left as we are.'”
This trends of increasing fragility of students (real or pretended), and their increasing willingness to damage professors who don’t hew to the preferred narrative, seem unstoppable. For every Leftist and liberal fears above all being called a racist, and yet that’s what you can be called by someone who’s more to the Left than you. This causes those closer to the center to simply keep quiet, creating a ratchet effect that makes the vocal moiety of the Left sound more and more extreme. I can only imagine what this will do to not only American academics, but to American politics.