Phi Beta Cons

Academic Crimethink

When I began my professorial career in the late 1960s, social scientists were wildly optimistic. University-based brainpower would soon banish poverty and eliminate crime; assist former African colonies to create peaceful, thriving democracies; virtually abolish war; and, with just a little extra effort, put an end to racial injustice and then help women achieve self-fulfillment by freeing them from employment discrimination and male chauvinism. And this was only the beginning.

Needless to say, conspicuous failure is everywhere, but rather than confess their social-engineering ineptitude, academics have gravitated to what George Orwell called Crimethink: “The faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc [English Socialism], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. In short . . . protective stupidity.”

As one who has repeatedly witnessed Crimethink up close, let me elucidate an academic version of this protective stupidity, mechanisms by which bien pensant professors can conveniently sweep away an unwanted, plain-to-see, in-your-face reality. We’ll start with those that reflect a bit of fudging and conclude with bald-faced lies.

While the research is mixed, it is nevertheless clear that [some patent falsehood] is correct.” This should be construed as, “With a herculean effort, it is possible to cherry-pick one or two confirming studies from a sea of noxious disconfirming ones.” The all-time winner here is, of course, “diversity is our strength.” Yogi Berra once said you can see a lot by looking around, and Yogi, being bluntly honest, would absolutely conclude the opposite: Diversity brings trouble. Nevertheless, somewhere in the known universe there must exist a study that challenges Yogi’s perceptive observation, so our bien pensant professor can “honestly” say that evidence on the benefits of diversity are “mixed,” so his upbeat claim regarding its benefits might, plausibly, be true.

The research is controversial.” Here, reality clearly contradicts what is going to be insisted upon, but rather than admit that one is about to embrace a known falsehood, one may just cast doubts on the veracity of everything as if nothing were settled. A familiar illustration is when liberal academics confront the power of IQ tests to predict accurately everything from income to criminality. The indisputable evidence is that genetically determined IQ matters greatly, but since many liberals abhor this politically incorrect conclusion, they insist that the entire issue is “controversial,” so why trust disputatious research? In other words, so long as experts differ over minor details, nothing is settled, and so all the bad news can be safely ignored.

#more#That is merely a stereotype.” This is said in reference to a deplored reality generally confirmed by solid research and everyday observation but, again, antithetical to the liberal cosmology. Larry Summers used a “stereotype” in his now famous speculation about how biology might explain male success in math and science. The implicit argument offered by his antagonists is that if exceptions exist to a loathsome factual statement, everything top to bottom must be false. Madame Curie to the rescue. And, as Larry found out, it makes no difference if exceptions are acknowledged or hypotheses cast as probabilities. So, if an undesirable relationship is true only 99 percent of the time, it is just “a stereotype,” and therefore false. Needless to say, this no exceptions rule easily invalidates almost any factual proposition.

That is a dangerous stereotype.” The ultimate pathway to protective stupidity. Here the most repugnant but absolutely correct assertion becomes so horrific that merely acknowledging its existence invites catastrophe. Try announcing at the faculty colloquium that in every racially mixed nation on the planet, no exceptions, certain ethnic or racial groups have a higher crime rate and lower incomes than others. Don’t expect a fact-based refutation. Instead, the rejoinder will not be that this statement is incorrect; rather, the truth-teller will be told that this is a “dangerous stereotype” and should be unspeakable given the unnecessary hurt it will cause. Morally wrong replaces factually wrong. Recall how some primitive societies make it taboo to utter the ruling deity’s name lest the world will end.

These inquiry-killing catchphrases are more than efforts to deter outsider attacks on liberal dogma, though they are certainly that. More important is how they promote academic self-censorship. Step by step, academic novices learn the boundaries of permissible inquiry. Imagine a fledging assistant professor circulating a meticulously researched, fact-laden article to colleagues concluding that European colonialism cannot explain the contemporary economic mess in Africa, a statement that clearly violates today’s academic orthodoxy. Faced with a possible heresy in the making, a “helpful” more senior faculty would mentor him with, “I see your point, Smith, and I admire all your carefully assembled data, but let me advise you that this research on the impact of colonialism is very unsettled, is often controversial, and can easily promote stereotypes — perhaps even dangerous ones.” Unless the fledging Professor Smith is a blockhead, he’ll get the message — don’t even think of going in there, and stick to the prevailing Marxist-favored pieties about the colonial legacy.

In a few short years the young Professor Smith will intuitively know the boundaries and, for good measure, not even think about venturing into taboo terrain. No need for commissars. If asked about the imposition of ideological orthodoxy in the academy, he will honestly deny any pressure to conform. In fact, he might explain that such talk of imposed ideological uniformity is just a stereotype and cite a study or two to define his position. Such are the benefits of Crimethink.


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