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I recently received the following question from a journalist (paraphrased): "Universities host many Islamist extremists as speakers, but they order comedians performing on campus to not offend transgender sensibilities. Could you comment on this double standard in light of your own experience?"
Here is what I wrote in response. I don't have precise research or data to back up every claim here, to be clear, but this is how I currently see the matter.
People imagine there is some sophisticated explanation for all of this, but the best explanation is probably the most simple and classic one, to be honest. I think it's almost all about money, specifically liability. Right-wingers criticize academic administrators for being “cultural Marxists,” but this gives administrators way too much credit. Academic administrators have no principles, they are just untrained business people trying to keep government money flowing into their glorified real estate businesses (which happen to have some classrooms tacked on). Islamic extremists are allowed to talk because they’re afraid of the financial implications of getting labeled racist; comedians are not allowed to joke about gender because they’re afraid of getting labeled sexist. Meanwhile, academics have to focus on customer satisfaction — that is, placating students — because results on the National Student Survey affect the university’s income in the following year.
To be perfectly frank, right now higher education in the UK is suffering from multiple, severe crises: Appallingly low morale across academic staff (too nervous to express it publicly); criminally overpaid and outright incompetent Vice-Chancellors; the suffocation of intellectual
life by extraordinary quantities of meaningless paperwork and performance metrics; increasing awareness that teaching does not actually work; Soviet-Union-levels of collective delusion in the form of polite euphemisms to describe every obviously unsustainable problem. And all of this at a time when digital technologies are replacing nearly all traditional institutions with sleek, cheap, easy-to-use platforms? There is an unspeakable but widespread sense that the higher education system cannot last much longer, but people want to keep their jobs. So many administrators will just say and do whatever is going to keep the money flowing until tomorrow.
People get confused about the weird academic politics of who is, or is not, allowed to speak, but that’s because people assume there is some social or political principle at work. If you think there is any principle other than money, you’re going to be really confused for a long time, because the reality is that academic administrators are just straws in the wind. They’ll allow today what they’ll ban tomorrow, and vice versa, depending on whatever they think will protect their financial interests.
On that note, are you a current or former academic with a personal story on this front? I have a new little experiment called AcademiaLeaks, where anyone can anonymously submit their craziest stories from the ivory tower. You might not be able to tell them, but I can! Submit a story here.
In a recent post, I encountered an interesting empirical fact about the college wage premium accruing to low-ability college grads over the period 1979-1994. Looking at a 2003 article by Tobias, I wrote: "There is a lot of temporal volatility for the class of low-ability individuals. In fact, for low-ability individuals there is not even a consistent wage premium enjoyed by the college-educated until 1990."
I have begun to wonder if this pattern has anything to do with the non-linear relationship between GPA and PC. If the low-ability college entrants feel they are much less certain to enjoy a wage premium over the "townie losers" they left behind, what better strategy than to invest their college-specific word games with extreme moral significance? That way, even the dumbest college grad can be confident that they will remaindistinguished from the more able among the non-college-grads.
[Hat tip to a few high-quality comments on this blog recently, I don't recall exactly but I think someone may have made a point similar to this; the seed of this post might have been planted there, thank you.]
Although this last point is only conjecture, it is curious that right when the wage premium for low-ability college grads arrives is right when the first wave of campus political correctness kicks off — the early 1990s. Especially if you buy Caplan's signaling theory of education, it's not at all implausible that for low-ability college grads their wage-premium is secured primarily through a specialization in moral signaling.
In my current book project, one of my goals is to provide the fullest possible empirical accounting of the strange new persona sometimes derisively called the "social justice warrior."
Although the main contours of my argument are pretty well developed, there are various sub-hypotheses that I've had for a while — but no data to test them.
Just last week, I was offered access to a goldmine of data collected by College Pulse. They told me I'm allowed to share my analyses, but not the data. They have an app that gives students various rewards in exchange for taking surveys. They've taken dozens and dozens of surveys including the widest variety of questions, with consistent respondent IDs for each survey. This means all of their surveys can be merged for all the individuals who took each survey.
The major drawback of these surveys is that they are not representative samples — so we can't really know the degree to which patterns identified in them generalize to university students as a whole. But the lack of representativeness is somewhat offset by the sheer size of the sample. Think about it this way: If you could survey 100% of the people in some population, you wouldn't much care how the sample was drawn, right? Many of the College Pulse surveys have quite impressive sample sizes, with quite a lot of them including 20,000 or more students. While this hardly approaches 100% of university students, it's more than enough to be quite interested in what these data reveal. All datasets are partial and limited, and need to be checked against other datasets with different virtues.
The wide variety of fascinating questions, and the large samples, make this an ideal, first-stab testing ground for any number of hypotheses.
The GPA of the SJW
I've long wondered if there is a relationship between attitudes toward political correctness and academic performance in the student body. In other words, are "SJWs" more or less likely to be high-performing or low-performing students? Or perhaps there is some curvilinear relationship? One could generate a few different hypotheses on this question, but for this post I will simply introduce the data (check) and share some basic descriptive statistics approaching this question. This is likely just the first of many hypotheses I hope to explore with this data over the coming weeks and months.
First, the univariate distributions require some comment. First, students in the sample seem to report questionably high GPAs. Or perhaps students are disproportionately drawn from schools with rampant grade inflation. Either way, there's something going on, because Figure 1 shows that the sample has a lot of students claiming to be nearly perfect students.
Figure 2 shows that students in this sample are quite strongly opposed to the idea of physical no-platforming. The survey item says: "A student group opposed to a controversial speaker uses physical force to prevent the speaker from speaking. In your view, the students group's actions are…" Most find it very unacceptable. Note that this is just one particular way of tapping what we might very roughly call, for shorthand, SJWism. What's great about the College Pulse survey data is that they ask a variety of different questions revolving around moralistic, speech-focused political activism, so we'll be able to triangulate with multiple variables.
Aside: One thing I'd like to do soon is a factor analysis of a few of these SJW attitudes. It would be good if we could extract the latent variable underlying, for instance, opinions toward physical no-platforming, "call outs," disinvitations, and the other related but different tendencies associated with SJWism.
One of the arguments in my book is that the hyper-moralistic political activity of the "SJW" is, in many cases, a kind of thinly veiled economic activity. But there are a few different ways this might manifest, so we need to delineate different observable implications to make specific hypotheses falsifiable.
The omni-directionality of the following hypotheses merely reflects how little we understand the SJW phenomenon.
The angry runner-up hypothesis. Because today's political economy is increasingly a "winner take all" situation, individuals who once upon a time could enjoy relatively high income and status from a "second place" finish in the capitalist game, are now looking at prospects quite beneath their relative expectations. But the types of people who land in "second place" positions are still smarter and more capable than average — so they're not just going to accept outcomes beneath their expectations, rather some of them will seek to alter the rules of the game. "If you can't beat 'em, turn over the table!" If this is the logic behind SJWism, then perhaps we would expect SJWism to be most likely in the middle of the academic performance distribution.
The shrewd winner hypothesis. Another possibility is that SJWism is a new kind of game, with emergent rules related to novel and complex socio-economic factors. Seen from this angle, SJWism might be more likely among the most intelligent and the best academic performers. If SJWism is the way to win cultural games today, and higher education is largely about signaling one's ability to win games, the best students might be most likely to become SJWs.
The brute force hypothesis. It might be the case that SJWism represents the vengeance of the intellectually dominated against the more intelligent. Seen from this angle, SJWism might be a way for the dumbest or most disorganized students to promote themselves through a kind of morally glorified brute force.
Figure 3 below shows a curvilinear relationship in which the lowest and highest levels of academic performance are associated with a slightly greater acceptance of physical no-platforming, and students in the middle of the range are least accepting. So it's not second-place students adopting SJWism to claw their way into top jobs or some such model as that (hypothesis 1). [By the way, I spoke too soon in one of my livestreams the other night; I reported this based on a too-quick look at this data, which I accidentally had backward — that will be the last time I foreshadow data-analytic findings live on Youtube before I'm actually done, sorry!] The differences here are pretty tiny, but that's in part because most students are strongly opposed to physical no-platforming, with the average level of acceptance quite low.
I was curious if Figure 3 might be a fluke related to that particular question, so I took another item tapping political correctness/SJWism to see if the same pattern holds. Figure 2 below shows that, yes, it does. The inflection point is lower on the GPA scale and the students on the bottom are not quite as PC as the best students, but again it's clearly non-linear: the best and worst students are less likely to think there's any problem with sensitivity, while the middling students are more likely to think students are too sensitive.
These could maybe represent evidence for H2 and H3, in a kind of mixed effects model: Maybe the best students adopt SJWism out of their shrewd awareness that that's indeed how to win the game of institutionalized culture, and maybe the worst students adopt SJWism to turn over the table in a game they are unlikely to succeed in. Or none of these interpretations is accurate, which is very possible.
I was also curious if the curvilinear relationship is conditional on major. In retrospect there's probably a better way to do Figure 4, but it does the trick. I restricted the data to majors that had at least 200 observations. You have to be careful to not go fishing for patterns here, because of the multiple comparisons problem. Here's one thing that seems true, though: Most of the major/gpa-level combos that contain big outliers toward SJWism are on the lower half of the GPA scale (Nursing, Law/Crim, Econ, Education, Poli Sci, Chemistry). Whereas the positive gradient toward SJWism on the high-end of the GPA scale in Figures 3 and 4 appears to reflect a slight but more steady pattern in a number of majors (Comm, CS, Econ, Engineering, Pre-Med).
I wouldn't make too much of this but it's perhaps consistent with the "mixed effects" idea above. Better students veer toward SJWism because better students perceive that PC is part of winning in education and beyond, and so they slightly and gradually report higher levels of PC moving from 3.0 to 4.0. Then the really zealous SJWs are rare occurrences drawn mostly from the lower end of academic performers, perhaps as a kind of brute force strategy. But like I said, this was just a cursory exploration to dig into some new data. Let's see what else I find in future posts before I make any big claims.
Angela Nagle makes the case that open borders are not consistent with leftist politics. The wonderful thing about the intensity of the culture wars right now is that, with a little bit of courage, you can make quite a splash with ideas that were conventional wisdom for hundreds of years. This isn't a back-handed compliment, so as to belittle Nagle's taste for controversial arguments by calling them conventional. No, this is great — there are so many patently true observations lying around, which have been buried over the past few decades, that a little bit of courage right now goes farther than intelligence by itself. Today, time-honored insights are some of the most interesting and radical around.
Anyway, her article runs into a question that hides underneath most discussions of leftist politics today. Namely, whether radical leftists of the hyper-moralistic variety (sometimes called "social justice warriors") adopt their seemingly illogical positions for consciously strategic personal reasons, or because of non-conscious, automatic psychological mechanisms. (I have defended the term "SJW" in part because it's a lot quicker and easier than "radical leftists of the hyper-moralistic variety"). In the terms of academic psychology, this question can be restated, roughly, as asking about the relative involvement of System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (conscious reflection) in the SJW phenomenon. This is a little misleading because for many people even System 2 is most of the time a kind of repetition compulsion, but we'll set that aside for now.
Much criticism of the left implicitly suggests that the SJW is a conscious, sinister manipulator whose outrageously silly positions reflect ulterior motives. In some sense, I think people often invoke this model (implicitly, usually) just because it makes for better writing. I've done it before, for sure. When confronted with persistently non-sensical behavior, the mind naturally looks for larger motives that might lend more coherence to the befuddling automata under consideration. Here is the section in Nagle's article that got me thinking today.
I’m always amazed at the arrogance and the strangely imperial mentality of British and American pro–open borders progressives who believe that they are performing an act of enlightened charity when they “welcome” PhDs from eastern Europe or Central America driving them around and serving them food. In the wealthiest nations, open borders advocacy seems to function as a fanatical cult among true believers—a product of big business and free market lobbying is carried along by a larger group of the urban creative, tech, media, and knowledge economy class, who are serving their own objective class interests by keeping their transient lifestyles cheap and their careers intact as they parrot the institutional ideology of their industries. The truth is that mass migration is a tragedy, and upper-middle-class moralizing about it is a farce.
She's certainly correct in that last line, the moralizing is a farce. But most likely, the moralizing is simply ad hoc rationalization of essentially pre-conscious mechanisms. In the moment that a radical leftist states their belief in purely open borders, they are primarily expressing an emotion or intuition of Care. This is basically just Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. They imagine a poor migrant or refugee dying of thirst at the Mexico-U.S. border and they feel a deep, categorical obligation to Care for any such person. Only then System 2 kicks in, and they will make some arguments about why open borders are good. I believe there is almost zero conscious reflection on personal interests, though. Emotion/intuition followed by post-hoc rationalization is what most people do most of the time, so this is no big attack on SJWs. What's unique and new and puzzling about the current situation is: How did the Left, which has always been characterized by these moral foundations (as well as personality Openness), suddenly become dominated in the public sphere by Compassion/Equity rationalization over Openness (once the presumable basis of phenomena such as the historic Berkeley Free Speech movement and my own analyses of the left wing's persistent free speech advantage.
In my book, I am considering the idea that SJWism (and also other shards of the macro Left-Right fragmentation) can be understood as a particular psychological component of the traditional Left (or Right) branching off into its own preferred interpretation of Leftism (or Rightism) and then getting selected by system-level factors as the dominant representative of their tradition. Haidt shows that the moral foundations of Leftism are Care and Fairness (as equity). Economic acceleration and digital media do not shift anyone's intuitions or beliefs, I don't think — they rather cause intensified sorting and specialization, and particular variants emerge as most adapative. SJWism is what happens when a particular variant of leftism— leftists who are lower on Openness and higher on Compassion/Care/Equity—can afford to kick out the other kinds of leftists, and it gets rewarded by institutional structures for doing so (the most visible and egregious examples of this right now are generally coming from academia).
SJWs are generally not fishing for the ideas and positions that promote their personal interests; they are only rationalizing emotions as most people do, but contemporary economic and technological factors have catapulted this type of person into hyper-drive as the face of Leftism. At least that's an informal description of one of my current views, but the book is still just a work in progress... Of course, as it becomes clear that SJWism has certain benefits in certain institutions, there is likely to be some semi-conscious strategy behind the adoption of certain politically correct positions. But this would be a second-order effect and here I have been referring to the initial, primary core of true-believer SJWs.
Sean Trainor (@ess_trainor) is an historian, educator, writer, and podcaster. Sean has written for The Atlantic, TIME,Salon, and many other venues popular and academic. He is a professor at the University of Florida, where he is currently writing a book about beards in the nineteenth century. Sean co-hosts his own podcast, Impolitic. You can find more about Sean's work at his website, seantrainor.org.
Sean is a socialist activist so we had some interesting debates about the prospects for activism today, and we covered just about all of the hot-button, culture-war topics of the moment: campus politics, trigger warnings, free speech, etc., including many observations from our personal experiences moving through left-wing circles and academia. We also talked about some more obscure topics such as Catholic anti-capitalism, the pleasures and pains of our respective podcasts, and why beards became so fashionable among men in the nineteenth century.
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