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Standing Up for Dissent

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Standing Up for Dissent

A plea for liberal norms in higher education September 3, 2021
The Social Order

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly edited version of an October 6, 2020, open letter from Daniel B. Klein, professor of economics and JIN chair at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, to Gregory Washington, who became GMU’s president in July 2020.

Dear President Washington,

I am a faculty member at GMU, and I address you—at great length, I know—about the plans you have announced under the terms Anti-Racism and Inclusiveness Excellence (ARIE).

But let me first say: Welcome to GMU! My, what a time to arrive. Thank you for serving the institution, especially under the remarkable difficulties of this year.

I write to express my worries about the new plans. I realize that the length of the letter might preclude a thorough reading. I wrote out this letter to work out my thoughts on the matter and figured the result was worth sharing.

The plans “to remake [GMU] into an exemplar of anti-racism and inclusive excellence” are far-reaching. One officer speaks of “transforming our campus, surrounding community, the Commonwealth of Virginia and potentially the nation.” Many measures have been sketched out.

My apprehension is that the measures will reduce dissent from leftist ways of thinking. It is well known that college and university campuses lean overwhelmingly left, and GMU is no exception. Decades ago, leftist intellectuals planned, advocated, and embarked on what they called “a long march” through the cultural institutions, and I am concerned that the effect of your plans will be to reduce dissent from leftism and, in effect, epitomize that long march, consciously or otherwise.

A lot goes on in the mind that is not conscious. One scholar reports that less than 5 percent of brain activity is conscious, and probably even less than 1 percent. Much in the subconscious mind could be driving behavior, like Jonathan Haidt’s elephant in the brain. Reducing dissent from leftism may not be a conscious goal, but it may be a subconscious impetus.

Why do I suggest subconscious impetus? One reason is that we’ve seen much from the Left that fits that description, and what you announce from your office seems similar. I have reviewed the videos and announcements. The overtones sound like what I fear. I hope that everyone associated with GMU, including all residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia, listen carefully to your videos. Some leading universities, such as Chicago, are issuing declarations of their commitment to free speech and diversity of thought. The announcements coming from your office seem, rather, to represent the trends that have prompted such reaffirmations of liberal values. There is little in your discourse that I have seen that affirms free speech and academic freedom, and thus far I find just a single remark concerning ideological diversity. I urge you to speak out in favor of free speech, academic freedom, and ideological diversity. There is another reason I raise the issue of subconscious impetus. When one examines your public statements, it is hard to see the justice in what is planned. The justifications offered do not add up, and it is appropriate to wonder what’s beneath the surface, what it’s really all about.

You say, “we have a looming budget crisis.” You announce an initial $5 million commitment over three years for the ARIE agenda (Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence). The dollars are only one kind of resource to be expended; the efforts will entail large dedications of time and trouble of regular staff and faculty, and most likely fear and emotional costs. The resources involved could be put to other important uses.

The ARIE agenda presupposes a serious problem of racial bias on campus. You say in a video: “I want to know where our systems, practices, and traditions of racial bias exist at George Mason so that we may eradicate them.” The agenda items include so-called implicit-bias training, so-called implicit-bias recognition in faculty promotion and tenure, so-called equity advisors in every academic department, new course requirements in so-called diversity and inclusion, required ARIE-speak statements on syllabi, and so on.

Such measures are predicated on the existence of a widespread misconduct. But what is the evidence of widespread misconduct? Where is probable cause? Are there credible accounts of misconduct?

The announcements do not indicate any evidence that could predicate the ARIE agenda. If one does not see predication for the actions, one naturally wonders what their underlying, perhaps subconscious impetus is. Again, I am concerned that the underlying impetus is reducing dissent from leftism.

In fact, some of your own words would seem to undercut the presupposition that systems, practices, and traditions of racial bias exist at George Mason, when you say: “Mason is entering this national dialogue with an impressive record of anti-racism and inclusive excellence.”

So, one wonders about the dedication of the resources.

I should also note that your administration promotes declarations of so-called diversity, social justice, and so on in hiring and promotion. Required leftism avowals announce “Non-leftists need not apply.” If such people do apply, they will have to do so under the cover of disingenuous leftism avowals.

The fiscal health of the institution is not only about expenditures. Fiscal health also depends on income. GMU’s income stream comes principally from taxpayers, tuition, and grants. If GMU becomes increasingly laden with administrative bureaucracy and more ideologically uniform, that will turn off a lot of people, reduce affection for our institution, and may lead to calls to defund the university. Taxpayer diversity of opinion is being ignored.

Tuition and grants come from parents, students, and donors choosing GMU.

Why should they choose GMU?

Academia is dominated by faculty and administrators on the political left. There are practically no Republicans in most fields, especially in the humanities and social sciences. The professoriate is becoming a Republican-free zone.

Meantime, at least half of the United States is not on the political left. Americans are becoming more careful in their choices of which universities to attend or donate to.

GMU is a standout in non-left scholarship. I’m sure there are outstanding non-left scholars scattered here and there around the university, but the most prominent units in this regard are the law school and the economics department (which I belong to). If new policies and agendas make it difficult for those units to maintain that prominence, GMU will lose that academic distinction—and parents, students, and donors will choose accordingly.

When an organization or social structure becomes an ideological monoculture, ideas stop being tested and challenged. Only weak stereotypes stand in for differing points of view. Thinking then becomes fragile in the face of genuine stress. Dissidents refrain from speaking up. Groupthink sets in. That is one reason why the next step is reducing dissent: dissenting voices can expose any shallowness and wrongheadedness that has crept into the dominant political mindset. Cancel culture reflects such fragility in the face of stress.

In my view, groupthink exists not only within a particular university but in whole academic networks, which are like pyramids, with elite institutions at the apex. When the apex of the pyramid goes leftward—and they all have—left-leaners are swept into faculty positions throughout the pyramid.

The importance of GMU’s intellectual and ideological diversity, then, extends beyond campus. Having maverick units like GMU Law and GMU Econ is crucial not only to the ideological diversity of GMU but also to keeping non-Left scholarly dissent alive.

GMU’s leadership in classical liberal, conservative, and libertarian perspectives draws many to the university. It is a reason that students from all over the country and the world come to GMU. I should think that the university would wish to build on that leadership and proven excellence.

Perhaps the policies you are planning are not intended to reduce dissent from leftism. But policies are being created, with an apparatus dedicated to enforcing them—an apparatus over which no single person has control. One can imagine how, either out of zealousness or from just wanting to feel relevant, dissent would be greeted. Dissident teaching, course material, and speakers might be encroached upon; policies or technicalities might be used to reduce effectiveness of dissident scholars and teachers; dissidents might be pressed into early retirement; dissident units might be unable to hire and promote as they think best.

Again, I’ve noted that no evidence has been given of misconduct. It’s as though people need to prove their innocence, which would be an inversion of the presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of liberal civilization. But there are other reasons why I wonder about subconscious impetus.

One is the words that are used, and the way they are used. If words are being used in odd ways and without coherent definitions, we again wonder what it’s really all about.

First, diversity. I see no emphasis on the most important kind of diversity, namely diversity in beliefs and sentiments. People like people who are like them, but the most important likeness is in sentiment. Nobody cares that Lassie is a dog or Shrek is an ogre or even that the Terminator is a machine, provided she or he is a good guy, or that her or his sentiments concord with our own. Our affinity for likeness in sacred beliefs and sentiments is what concerns me: the urge is to get everyone’s sentiment in line. Diversity in demographics is not diversity in beliefs and sentiments. In speaking of the Task Force, you say: “Task force and committee members represent Mason’s full diversity along racial, ethnic, gender, sexual and religious identities.” What about diversity along intellectual and ideological lines? Shall we conclude that the most important kind of diversity doesn’t count for much among the Task Force? What’s it really all about?

Next, inclusiveness. I’ve not seen guidance on what is to be included in what. If the suggestion is that demographic groups are not currently included in hiring or promotion, I again wonder about the empirical basis of this concern. The premise that faculty members need training or instruction in such inclusiveness is insulting. I trust we all affirm the ethical inclusiveness that inheres in liberal education. From the medieval university, our arc of liberal education proceeds from benevolent monotheism, the idea that a benevolent God looks on all of humankind and regards every soul as equal in worth and dignity.

Liberalism follows the same ethical pattern, as is clear in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. I see no warrant for telling our faculty that they need remedial instruction in demographic inclusiveness.

The next word is bias. The word bias is pejorative and implies defectiveness. (We would not say that someone has a bias toward goodness or a bias toward truth.) So when Bill says that Klara is biased, Bill draws on his own beliefs. “Klara’s bias,” as reported by Bill, necessarily involves Bill’s judgment. We all ponder what it is, in the eyes of the impartial spectator, that constitutes the good of the whole, and we all ponder what actions here on Earth serve that goodness. We develop different beliefs about those sublime questions. Bill could be wrong when he says Klara is biased. We disagree.

We disagree in our figurings of what is right or just or equitable.

Who decides what ideas or sources or statements are biased? Accusations of bias could reflect the biases of the accuser.

Next, the words coupled with bias: namely, unconscious and implicit. I’m guessing that “unconscious bias” means that Klara has a tendency or proclivity that she is not conscious of, and that that tendency or proclivity is regarded as a bias by Bill, who accuses Klara of unconscious bias. As for “implicit bias,” I think of implicit as opposed to explicit communication. “Implicit bias” could mean that Klara’s tendency is only implied (or implicit) in Klara’s communication, not explicit; such implicit communication might be conscious. On this reading, implicit bias is not necessarily unconscious bias. Terms are being used without clear definitions, which again makes one wonder what it’s really all about.

Sometimes words are used in ways that conflict with conventional definitions.

Consider anti-racism. This one, too, is not defined in the materials I have seen. One might think that it means opposition to racial discrimination, as expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke of the content of one’s character being what’s important, not the color of one’s skin. If that is the definition, then again I ask: what is the evidence of racial discrimination at GMU?

Finally, social justice. The expression is used principally by the Left. I follow Adam Smith in seeing three senses of justice, none of which are “social.” The administration should not presuppose shared acceptance of expressions such as “social justice.”

Related to issues of word-meaning are issues of presupposition. In the discourse I have observed on campus, including sessions required for committee assignments, I am appalled by the “leaning-in” of highly controversial presuppositions and the disregard of dissent from them. The idea of liberal education is to acknowledge our deep disagreements about the good of the whole and how it is best served; we disagree—and “leaning in” with such presuppositions squashes that liberal ethic. One way that a dissenter might deal with a leaning-in presupposition is to surface it for discussion—something that is not possible in such required sessions. Another way for a dissenter to deal with leaning in is by leaning out—or abstaining from such discourse. But the only way to do that in the case of a required session is to withdraw from the committee assignment.

Let me give an example from your campus email message of September 25, 2020, in which you urge everyone to get out and vote.

I confess that I generally oppose the war on drugs, and in a broad sense I would count Breonna Taylor as another victim of that war. Also, even though an officer took a bullet to the leg, I do not understand, though my knowledge of the case is superficial, why law enforcement would have had to do what I understand them to have done. You and I probably agree on these matters. But I see no call for you to lean in with any controversial presuppositions about the matter. You speak of ending the week “without justice” and of the “murder” of Taylor. I have grieved for her, her family and loved ones, the country, and humankind. Yet I find it outlandish for a university president to lean in with all the presuppositions behind such public statements—even though I agree with some of them. You might disagree with the grand jury system, which places ordinary citizens, as jurors, between the power of the state and those accused of crimes. In my opinion, your message was irresponsible in that it reproved the jurors, who learned a great deal more than you or I know about the matter and departed from due deference to the highly imperfect institutions we live under.

I’ve long wondered why many people embrace sensibilities that conduce, in my opinion, too much to the governmentalization of social affairs.

Why isn’t there more widespread support, for example, for school choice? Support for school choice runs high among African-Americans, maybe because the government school system poorly equips many black students for success in higher education. Will the ARIE Task Force sponsor lectures and events on school choice? I repeat my concern: is ARIE about reducing dissent from leftism? Will ARIE bring in leading exponents of school choice to speak on issues of African-American advancement?

Political discourse thrives when we candidly meet to engage each other’s beliefs about the good of the whole and how that good is best served. Different patterns tend to emerge and get labels, or identities. Identities compete in a marketplace for identity.

For my own part, I identify as classical liberal. But deeper than the political identity, I identify as a liberal in an older sense (as in “liberal arts, liberal sciences”), cherishing the virtues of engaging others’ beliefs respectfully, tolerantly, and peacefully. These virtues exclude leaning in. They exclude the imposition of ideological conformity. I trust that we are all on board with that broader identity, and that we all tell ourselves that we proceed along liberal lines.

I would be pleased to meet and converse about these matters. Good luck in your important work in dealing with Covid and other challenges. I hope that we can all feel a return to normalcy soon.

Thank you for your attention.

Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

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