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Thursday, May 22, 2008

The paradox of academic intolerance?

Brian Leiter's anger at Phyllis Schlafly's getting an honorary degree  from Washington University, her alma mater, perplexes me.  At first glance, I am inclined to believe that Leiter's position is a product of academic intolerance for viewpoints not prevalent in the academy but widespread in the population at large.  There is a certain delicious irony about such intolerance, given the academic conceit that profs stand above parochial prejudice.

But I could be mistaken on this score:  Maybe Schlafly's views are really beyond the pale, even if one adopted a stance of tolerance for matters about which reasonable people can disagree. 

The difficulty in resolving the question is that Leiter's invective against Schlafly is too general to be helpful on this score:  He calls her a "bigot," "parochial," "ignoramus," etc -- but those are epithets, not arguments.  They are, of course, applicable to all of us, in some measure.  (For instance, I am (a) an ignoramus about theoretical physics, (b) a bigot in my inveterate hostility towards any musical by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, and (c) parochial compared to many of my colleagues who are polylingual (alas, I speak only English fluently) and are always walzing off to some conference or teaching junket at Bellagio or Dubai or Singapore).

To my knowledge, Schlafly's specific positions and activities are that Schlafly (a) was adamantly anti-Communist and "anti-global" (whatever that means) during the 1950s, running for Congress on that platform; (b) opposed the ERA in the late 1970s; (c) believes that life as a full-time mother who accepts her husband's leadership in marriage is more socially responsible and fulfilling for women than life as a woman working outside the home (making her own choices to act as an author and activist and perennial candidate for Congress obviously ironic); and (d) has conservative views on sexuality and marriage -- being against premarital sex, abortion; etc. 

Which of these views places Schlafly beyond the academic pale?

I suppose that (c) comes close to an unacceptably subordinating position, at least to the extent that she recommends that wives obey their husbands. But even this view has a consent-based justification: To my knowledge, she urges that wives voluntarily accept their husband's leadership, not that the State impose such leadership on them. I certainly would not want my two daughters to accept such a marital bargain, and I have struck exactly the opposite deal in my own marriage where my spouse most definitely calls the shots. But I guess that this view of marriage still falls within a version of consent-based liberalism; It does not call for the subordination of one group to another as does, say, white supremacy, anti-semitism, etc. So I guess that I do not see how it is bigoted in any specific (i.e., non-epithet) sense of the term.

Schlafly's sexual conservatism -- (d) above -- has led her to condemn same-sex intercourse as immoral. That comes closest in my mind to a bigoted position, because it could be part of a larger belief that gay and lesbian people belong to an inferior caste or class. Such sexual conservatism is also consistent, however, with a less subordinating belief that everyone has, but should restrain, their homoerotic inclinations out of some notion that only reproductive sex is morally worthy or acceptable -- a view that is not inherently subordinating (although it strikes me as silly). Is Schlafly's rejection of same-sex sexual-romantic relationships the key belief that disqualifies her? Apparently 41% of the population share this view (see Gallup poll results) It seems odd to me to brand almost half of one's fellow citizens as ignorant bigots, even if one believes (as I do) that they are mistaken in their beliefs.

In short, without using epithets, can anyone explain to me precisely which view disqualifies Schlafly for an honorary degree from her alma mater?

Posted by Rick Hills on May 22, 2008 at 12:04 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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Comments

There's a burden of proof issue here, I think. There should be a presumption towards free speech and tolerance if the university wants to prevent an individual from speaking at an event (for example, if invited by a student group). In such cases, tolerance would counsel letting the person speak, and arguments about the person's politics may not be enough. If the university wants to give an honorary degree, however, it seems completely justifiable to argue that the university should not honor the person based on the merits. Using words such as "disqualifies," "intolerance," and "beyond the academic pale" misses the point. If you disagree with the critics, don't you have the burden of saying why Wash U was right to honor her?

Posted by: Matt Bodie | May 22, 2008 12:37:24 PM

Rick, it's hard no where to begin, but here goes:

1. This is not an issue about tolerance. I did not propose that she, or anyone, holding her views be pilloried, sanctioned, or punished. I objected, like most members of the academic community at Washington University, to her being "honored." What exactly is your conception of tolerance such that saying, "X should not be honored" is the same as intolerance of X? I am happy to see universities tolerate Phyllis Schlarflys, whether it is speaking or teaching. They should not, however, be singled out and honored.

2. "Bigot" and "parochial" are not epithets, they are words with descriptive and referential content. Look them up in a dictionary. "Ignoramus" is closer to an epithet, though it too has a meaning.

3. From your post, my guess is that you simply know very little about Schlafly--your benign presentation of a few of her views is not the reason I objected to her being honored. The Crooked Timber post to which I linked early on has a pretty good round-up of some of her views; I would refer you to it. That she calls Mexican immigrants "invaders," ridicules the idea of marital rape, and has been borderline openly racist ever since her opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at least part of the worry about a university honoring her; that she ridicules the foundation of modern biological science, the theory of evolution, shows her to be extremely ignorant and makes it especially shocking that a university, whose reputation largely rests on its strength in the biological sciences, would honor her. Her comments on homosexuals over a long period of time surely also qualify as "bigoted." When I have a moment, I'll find you a link to a sampling, but maybe someone else will do so.

Posted by: Brian | May 22, 2008 12:42:48 PM

Sorry for the typo in the first line: "hard to know where to begin." My post and Matt Bodie's crossed paths in cyberspace, but I certainly agree with what he says, and he puts it better than I did.

Posted by: Brian | May 22, 2008 12:44:23 PM

I agree with Matt and that was precisely the point in my original post: If her ideas are such that she should not be honored, then people should come right out and say so. My problem that the objections were couched (at least by some) in neutral-sounding terms.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 22, 2008 12:50:03 PM

Matt, I think confuses two issues: (1) Whether x ought, on the merits, receive an honorary degree and (2) Whether faculty and students ought to protest, demonstrate, write letters, etc, to stop x from getting an academic degree.

As for (1), I am utterly indifferent as to how a university not my alma mater hands out degrees. I assume, in many instances, that such degrees are awarded to honor famous or rich alumni, and so forth. So what? That the honoree is a knucklehead is hardly much ground for a passionate protest.

As for (2), I would be reluctant to support a protest against an honoree merely because she was extremely conservative on immigration, sexuality, the theory of natural selection, etc. Nothing in the faculty's protest letter to which Brian had linked reduced my reluctance very much.

So Schlafly has goofy theories about creationism: So what? George Bernard Shaw was a Bergsonian; The late Vine DeLoria, advocate for native American rights, loathed the theory of evolution, as he thought that it disparaged Indian creation myths; retired Berkeley law prof Phillip Johnson pressed the notion of intelligent design. Should we vote them all off the honorary degree island for these offenses?

Much depends, I think, on the precise formulation of her views: Style properly is important here. Gay-bashing, racism, immigrant-baiting are distinct from sexual conservatism, libertarian hostility towards civil rights laws, and a desire for reduced immigration. So a list of specific offensive statements by Schlafly would more valuable than what has been proffered so far -- general statements about views none of which strike me as disqualifying.

In short, I still have not seen a persuasive bill of particulars.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 22, 2008 1:06:38 PM

Offending sentences in her writings, per the letter. (Whether context matters--e.g., an opinion piece, a speech, congressional testimony, etc.--I don't know.)

1. "force-feeding public schoolchildren with the theory of evolution"

2. She has referred to those who believe in evolution as "atheists."

3. "Liberals see the political value to teaching evolution in school, as it makes teachers and children think they are no more special than animals. Childhood joy and ambition can turn into depression as children learn to reject that they were created in the image of God."

4. Justice Ginsburg's "writings betray her as a radical, doctrinaire feminist, far out of the mainstream. All evidence indicates that she shares the chip-on-the-shoulder radical feminist view that American women have endured centuries of oppression and mistreatment from men."

5. VAWA funding "is used by anti-male feminists to train judges, prosecutors and the police in the feminist myths that domestic violence is a contagious epidemic, and that men are batterers and women are victims."

6. "the gay and lesbian agenda"

7. "Surely the right of parents to control the education of their children is a right of a higher order than any alleged right of, say, the two college-educated lesbian members of the Symbionese Liberation Army to teach our young people."

8. Homosexuality is "like prostitution. Nobody can stop you if you want to be a prostitute or to patronize a prostitute, but you are not going to force us to say that it is morally acceptable."

9. (quotation from letter): "[S]he regularly uses the label 'activist' to decry judges and decisions with which she happens to disagree."

10. Justice Kennedy's opinion in Roper v. Simmons is "good ground for impeachment."

Posted by: anon | May 22, 2008 1:37:03 PM

Justice Kennedy's opinion in Roper v. Simmons is good grounds for impeachment.

Posted by: anon2 | May 22, 2008 1:47:58 PM

"But I guess that this view of marriage still falls within a version of consent-based liberalism; It does not call for the subordination of one group to another as does, say, white supremacy, anti-semitism, etc."

Contrary to your assertion, while the subordination she argues for is within individual marraiges it nonetheless does call for the subordination of one group (married women) to another (their husbands) and therefore is equally pernicious. The entire notion that wives should obey their husbands is based on an assumption that wives are inferior to their husbands. The notion of consent between husband and wife in such a situation cannot be divorced from its assumption of the superiority of one group over the other.

Posted by: j0lt | May 22, 2008 2:30:46 PM

1. "force-feeding public schoolchildren with the theory of evolution"

If she means that evolution isn't the dominant way of explaining biology, her thinking is deeply flawed. If she means by "force-feeding" that the teaching of evolution shouldn't be in the service of normative arguments and politics, she's got a point. If she meant essentially what William Jennings Bryan meant when he opposed evolution, she's got a point.


2. She has referred to those who believe in evolution as "atheists."

We know that you can be a first rate scholar and toss around epithets and near-epithets. So her language easily passes for a public figure.

3. "Liberals see the political value to teaching evolution in school, as it makes teachers and children think they are no more special than animals. Childhood joy and ambition can turn into depression as children learn to reject that they were created in the image of God."

I may not agree, but there's nothing absurd about that view. And by the way if that's what she meant by paragrapgh 1 above, then it means she had a point.

4. Justice Ginsburg's "writings betray her as a radical, doctrinaire feminist, far out of the mainstream. All evidence indicates that she shares the chip-on-the-shoulder radical feminist view that American women have endured centuries of oppression and mistreatment from men."

This is on a par from what we see many law profs say about Scalia. (Interesting, isn't it, that despite this kind of rhetoric Ginsburg and Scalia deeply enjoy each other's company.)

5. VAWA funding "is used by anti-male feminists to train judges, prosecutors and the police in the feminist myths that domestic violence is a contagious epidemic, and that men are batterers and women are victims."

Not my views, but well within the mainstream of culture war polemics. You'll find nearly mirror image language from many (including law profs) if you read the rhetoric about comping judges to those conferences on environmental law.

6. "the gay and lesbian agenda"

Hey, who doubts that? In the wake of the California decision (which I applaud), the news accoutns were chock full of gay and lesbian lawyers proudly laying out their agenda.

7. "Surely the right of parents to control the education of their children is a right of a higher order than any alleged right of, say, the two college-educated lesbian members of the Symbionese Liberation Army to teach our young people."

This is hardly exceptional. We often read that kind of polemic, "war mongering bestiary of criminal madmen," and that sort of thing.

8. Homosexuality is "like prostitution. Nobody can stop you if you want to be a prostitute or to patronize a prostitute, but you are not going to force us to say that it is morally acceptable."

You're not.

9. (quotation from letter): "[S]he regularly uses the label 'activist' to decry judges and decisions with which she happens to disagree."

10. Justice Kennedy's opinion in Roper v. Simmons is "good ground for impeachment."

Ho-hum stuff.

Posted by: my reaction | May 22, 2008 2:30:50 PM

Rick:

As to G.B. Shaw being a Bergosian, etc., the distinction, I think, is this: the folks you list, and comparable ones (e.g., great artists with hard-to-defend political beliefs) had significant accomplishments completely or largely independent of their anti-scientific and/or bigoted beliefs. T.S. Elliot was an anti-semite, but he could rightly be honored for his great poetry.

Schafly, in contrast, made her name pretty much for the opinions (and acts consistent with such opinions) such as the 10 which "anon" lists.

Of course, it is sometimes hard to tell if a person disapproves of a speaker's opinion simply because the person don't share the same politics of the speaker, or whether it's because the person defensibly finds the speaker's opinion anti-scientific and/or bigoted. But were I a gay or lesbian student (or a friend or family member of one), a woman fighting for career opportunities, or even somebody that just believed in evolution, I would be pretty disappointed about my school choosing to honor Schafly.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 22, 2008 2:40:14 PM

As a doctrinaire and radical supporter of the gay and lesbian agenda, I second the last comment's assessment of the submitted list of Schlafly quotes. (I have my own assessment in response to Paul's post above). The statements are utterly banal and completely within the bounds of ordinary American political activist discourse. If they were directed against G.W. Bush, multinational corporations, or the Iraq invasion, they would not raise a hackle from any academics.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 22, 2008 2:45:59 PM

By "the last comment's assessment," of course, I meant the assessment by "my reaction," not the one by Joseph Slater.

But, to respond to Joseph, it is true that Washington University's decision will be disheartening to gay and lesbian students. The decision will be heartening to conservative students with religious or traditionalist views. Depending on the campus, the latter can often feel just as marginalized on campus as the former.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 22, 2008 2:52:52 PM

Rick:

To pick just one of the quotes, you aren't troubled by a school honoring somebody who says -- and acts consistently with the belief -- that simply being gay or lesbian is not morally acceptable? Yes, that is within the range of opinions expressed on cable news shout-fests, and yes, a not-entirely-insignificant part of the U.S. population might agree with that claim. But I don't think we should be surprised or disapproving when gays, lesbians and their friends and families feel offended that their school is honoring an activist dedicated to the cause of opposing their social and political equality. The obvious next question is whether it would be defensible for black students to protest their school honoring a speaker who made his name claiming blacks were intellectually or morally inferior to whites.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 22, 2008 2:59:45 PM

Rick:

I personally would find it disheartening to think that religious folks would inevitably be disheartened by disapproval of bigotry. And those statements about gays and lesbians are bigotry.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | May 22, 2008 3:01:30 PM

I'm personally more offended by the fact that Ward Churchill is teaching somewhere. Where is the outrage from Brian Leiter over that fact? Doesn't referring to Americans as "Little Eichmanns" merit some sort of disapproval? Under Leitner's views, why can he teach with tenure somewhere, yet someone like Schlafly is hounded as being "unacceptable" enough to not even get an honorary degree and give a speech?

But you'll happily let Churchill TEACH?

Posted by: Vanceone | May 22, 2008 4:03:10 PM

First of all, almost every argument brought forward, at least by the student body, was related to her ideas that should not be honored, nor her anti-intellectual approach to public life, which is antithesis to the goals and ideals of any legitimate university, especially one so focused on scientific research as WashU.

But taking a bit of a segue, I have a different perspective on whether or not she should have been honored. Whether or not WashU's Chancellor Wrighton decided that he was okay with conferring an honorary degree on her, perhaps he should have considered the seniors' reaction to it, seeing as the ceremony is ostensibly for THEM, with only a minor portion of the whole production devoted to the honorary degrees. Whether it was a figure on the left or the right, if the individual in question was likely to hijack the entire commencement (as Ms. Schlafly did, ideology notwithstanding), it seems inappropriate to confer any honor upon her in that medium. Schlafly being anti-intellectual or not, he erred badly in even thinking that it was a good idea to confer the honor, especially after the enormous uproar among the student body.

Consider it something analogous to a religious institution (Calvin College, Notre Dame, BYU, etc.) conferring an honorary degree on Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or just a very loud outspoken atheist. I don't care HOW qualified and/or intelligent they may be, the student body will likely NOT appreciate the gesture and it will thoroughly ruin the ceremony.

Since WashU's commencement appears to be devolving into partisan idiocy (Chris Matthews was the commencement speaker), perhaps next year the degree could go to Pastor Hagee, with Howard Dean as the speaker...

Posted by: Brian J | May 22, 2008 9:10:29 PM

And seeing as Ward Churchill isn't a professor at washU, nor has anyone in this thread attempted to defend his idiocy, I don't feel like jumping in that direction has any point whatsoever...

Posted by: Brian J | May 22, 2008 9:12:08 PM

A respondent called "j0lt" asserts the following (in reply to Rick Hills' view that "[Schlafly's] view of marriage still falls within a version of consent-based liberalism; It does not call for the subordination of one group to another as does, say, white supremacy, anti-semitism, etc."):

----------------
"Contrary to your assertion, while the subordination she argues for is within individual marriages it nonetheless does call for the subordination of one group (married women) to another (their husbands) and therefore is equally pernicious. The entire notion that wives should obey their husbands is based on an assumption that wives are inferior to their husbands."
----------------

WRONG!

Schlafly's view references Judeo-Christian tradition/morality. In that worldview, a repeated meme appears in various ways:

"We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that this power is from God, and not from us."

"The first shall be last, the last shall be first."

"You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."

"[Moses said] 'O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.' The LORD said to him, 'Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.' But Moses said, 'O Lord, please send someone else to do it.' Then the LORD's anger burned against Moses. [God answered Moses]: 'I have appointed you to be like God to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet. You will speak to him all that I command thee; and he will speak to Pharaoh.'"

"Jesus called his disciples and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers among the gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors act like tyrants over them. That's not the way it should be among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to everyone...."

"Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..."

The point, and common thread, of all of the above is this:
- In Christian morality, the person appointed to lead or teach or preach is not assumed to be better than those who serve. Normally, the opposite is true.
- It's is God's decision who leads, and he often picks the outwardly less-qualified person.
- That person cannot turn down the leadership role for that reason without irritating God.
- And the leadership role will be characterized not by arrogance but by humble service and self-sacrifice.

J0lt's ignorance of Christianity is innocent and understandable: Many Christians don't live it out!

But the fact remains that NO conclusion of superiority to women can be drawn from God's appointing men to "lead" in the home, if He has in fact done so.

Instead, the following conclusions are to be drawn, if one understands the Christian worldview:

(1.) God probably picked the less-competent spouse for home leadership, so that if the man succeeds, it is by God's and his spouse's help, not by his own ability;

(2.) The term "lead" should be interpreted as a call to extraordinary and humble service of wife and family;

(3.) A husband's love for his wife is to be modeled after Christ's self-sacrifice for the well-being of the Church: He must give himself up for her sake, in service initially, and if needed, sacrifice his life for her safety and well-being.

If, then, Schlafly's views are related to Judeo-Christian morality, she can NOT be classified a bigot or anti-female just for saying she thinks God has appointed men to "lead" in the home.

Schlafly can only be accused of advocating that the rights/needs of men be SUBORDINATED to the needs of women to an extraordinary degree...and that the reason men are "appointed" to lead the home is specifically because they aren't up to the job!

(Sorry for the Sunday-School lesson. But I grew up Baptist, and heard this lesson repeated a zillion times in my youth. Catholic and Presbyterian friends say the same about their church's teachings on marriage. I conclude it's pretty universal to Christianity, even if it's more honored in the breach than observance!)

Posted by: R.C. | May 24, 2008 1:56:08 PM

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