My desire is twofold: First, to stimulate a broader disciplinary discussion about matters of intellectual diversity, academic freedom, and biases in the social sciences. A national conversation is going on about higher education generally and the social sciences specifically. We should be involved in that conversation, if for no other reason to better our scholarship.
My second desire, however, is to demonstrate to readers my commitment to intellectual diversity--that is, exploring ideas and patterns in data from several viewpoints.
If you are interested in writing a post or a longer essay, shoot me an email.
Let me thank Dr. Michael Rocque for agreeing to be the first to contribute to CCBlog. Dr. Rocque is a committed scholar with a serious mind.
In his essay, Rocque responds to Jonathan Haidt's recent argument that universities should choose to either support social justice or scientific truth. The two, argues Haidt, are incompatible.
Rocque questions Haidt's position in the essay below:
In late October, Heterodox Academician Jonathan Haidt published an essay arguing that truth and social justice are apparently so much in opposition that universities need to choose which they will pursue.
The basic thrust of the essay is that institutions of higher learning must either accept uncomfortable truths, or ignore them and pretend they don’t exist, all in the name of social justice. The essay is based on a talk Haidt has given which can be viewed in the link above.
As an assistant professor of sociology in a small liberal arts college (SLAC), I’d like to (respectfully) challenge Haidt’s premise a bit. In sociology, the discipline’s founders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries viewed sociology’s main goal to be using science for the purpose of social reform and justice. It was only later in the 20th century that some tried to steer the discipline away from justice and toward pure science whose only goal is knowledge (see any good intro to Sociology textbook). The idea was that sociological science could not be objective if it had a rooting interest for a particular side (e.g., the disadvantaged). This appears to be where some social scientists (like Haidt) remain firmly situated, likening the social to the physical sciences whose only goal should be truth.
I’ve come sort of full circle in my brief career as a criminologist/sociologist. I was trained in graduate schools in research oriented programs and generally believed in the pure science approach. But as I want to argue here, my experience at a SLAC the last two plus years has broadened my horizons a bit. I’ve come to question whether any social science—which by definition studies the world in which we participate—can be truly objective. I’ve also come to realize that social research, if it is not for understanding some social problem in order to better understand how to address it, is not very exciting. In the end, social research can be aimed at justice and also the truth.
Let me tackle Haidt’s primary arguments to illustrate my view.
First, what he really seems to be critiquing is the safe space culture in which free speech is viewed as secondary to comfort. In other words, truth loses out to feelings of equity—or social justice. While trigger warnings, safe spaces, and coddling of liberal students has been all the rage for 1st Amendment academic patriots, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about what these things are meant to do. Haidt and others assume safe spaces are about shutting down the conversation, removing any uncomfortable ideas from the ivory tower, and thus infringing on academic freedom that we all cherish so much.
From my perspective, when ideas or unpopular thinkers are shut out of the academy in the spirit of safe spaces, that is an unintended, unfortunate consequence of a well-intentioned measure, not its primary goal. Shane Windmeyer, who created Campus Pride, says it well: “We don’t want to shelter our students from the real world, nor do students want to be sheltered. They know what the real world is like; they just want to know that their campus is going to be a place where they don’t have to worry about being harmed or discriminated against or have any type of violence in their community targeted to them” (quoted in The Advocate). Who could be opposed to offering students a place where they feel comfortable to discuss uncomfortable ideas? After all, this is precisely what conservatives argue safe spaces are destroying. And of trigger warnings—only a severely cold blooded prof would want to purposefully upset a student who has experienced trauma by forcing them to participate in a discussion that triggers that trauma. What harm is offering a warning in that possible scenario?
The trouble is when things get taken too far—past their intended meaning. With any well-intentioned, useful, and meaningful policy or program, there is the potential for misuse or abuse. Just as is the case with welfare (both individual and corporate), some misuse the resources. And clearly some have tried to shut down free speech in the name of safe spaces (see the Melissa Glick controversy). Does that mean the idea of safe spaces is naturally contra free speech? Of course not.
Second, Haidt claims that “Social Justice Universities (SJU)” are more concerned with protecting groups than truth. I’m not sure what these means, other than a claim that in fact, racism/sexism/ do not exist and are not truths to be examined by the university. If they actually are real and problems, then studying them (and even wishing—gasp—to eradicate them) is a form of truth-seeking. Again, if a university denies reality and claims discrimination is occurring when it really isn’t, that’s a problem but has nothing to do with the goal of social justice. It is not social justice to invent problems where they do not exist.
In many ways, I agree with the points Haidt makes in the essay/talk, but disagree that they are fundamental tenets of universities or colleges seeking social justice outcomes. In my own work, I am often interested in inequality and the sources of disparities. If that research shows disparities continue to persist beyond all feasible and legitimate explanations, I would hope that work would be used to try to rectify the situation. What is the point of social science research if it is useful but not used? Chris Uggen summed up this perspective well in his author bio to the recent book Global Perspectives on Desistance. There, he stated that he is “firm in the belief that good science can light the way to a more just and peaceful world.”
The key phrase there is “good science.” Good science, which seeks truth, can focus on social justice in just this way. Good science does not ignore outcomes contrary to preconceived notions. There is nothing inherently contradictory to the marriage of good science and social justice, from that perspective.
Perhaps the rub is what definition of “justice” one is operating from. If one assumes social justice means everyone is treated fairly, equitably, then there is no conflict between truth and justice. If one assumes justice means shielding students from unpopular perspectives or knowledge, then clearly there is a disconnect between social justice and truth. I simply do not see the latter as a universally accepted definition of social justice. Do some seek to shut down conversations in the name of social justice? Very likely—it is these instances, not social justice itself, that should be the enemy of truthers.