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“Liberal Intolerance” and other misnomers

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Today, Nicholas Kristof had a piece in the New York Times ‘admitting’ to ‘liberal intolerance’ in academia. In relevant part, he says:

I’ve been thinking about this because on Facebook recently I wondered aloud whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity. The scornful reaction from my fellow liberals proved the point. … To me, the conversation illuminated primarily liberal arrogance — the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion. My Facebook followers have incredible compassion for war victims in South Sudan, for kids who have been trafficked, even for abused chickens, but no obvious empathy for conservative scholars facing discrimination.

He goes on to identify that less than ten percent of social scientists are Republicans, and that there are many disciplines in which it is more likely that you will find a Marxist than a Republican. The piece ends with a hopeful plea for inclusion of conservatives:

So maybe we progressives could take a brief break from attacking the other side and more broadly incorporate values that we supposedly cherish — like diversity — in our own dominions.

Ok, so I’m one of those Marxists, I guess. That’s not the right word, but it will do as political shorthand. And I don’t have a lot of empathy for Republicans who face ‘discrimination’ in political science. But it doesn’t make me into Kristof’s anti-diversity bad guy, and I think his post just misses the actual dynamics of what’s going on.

Being conservative is not like being a woman, or being queer, or being a person of color. Being a woman, or being queer, or being a person of color do not carry with them essential characteristics. While there is no one mold for ‘conservative,’ it is my hunch that what academics really ‘mock’ or ‘exclude’ (both terms, I think, are extreme, and will discuss that below) are not people as conservatives but conservative viewpoints. And that’s not intolerance, bigotry, or anti-diversity.

There are some who would say that its just the facts. That conservatives are just wrong. That if 90% of chemists or biologists or physicists thought something, lay people would just think it was right. That the reason conservatives have no place in social science academia is because the science proves them wrong. That some people go to grad school as conservatives, then they learn things, and then they’re not conservative anymore. And that’s tempting to me – in part because many of the assumptions that conservatives make about the constitution of the United States, its position in the world, and what it is okay to do to other countries seem so viscerally problematic to me. If I’m sure of anything in the world, its finding US hegemonic positioning morally reprehensible. And while that’s not unique to ‘conservatives,’ it is often a mainstay of conservativism.

But saying that conservatives are ‘out’ because they are wrong would require me to make a number of political commitments that I find problematic – a commitment to the existence of a universal right and wrong, a commitment to strong ontologies, a commitment to objective knowledge, a commitment to scientific positivism, etc. And I’m a post-positivist, post-structuralist leftist, certainly, but that’s a weak ontology – I am sure enough to act on it, but not sure enough to exclude other possibilities.

So my argument is different.

I argue that the logic of saying that conservatives are ‘discriminated’ against in academia requires a number of problematic assumptions which are not sustainable upon examination. First, as I mentioned above, it is not people as conservatives that get any pushback that exists – it is ideas. Ideas losing is different than types of people being excluded. Making fun of, or discarding, beliefs, is different than making fun of, or discarding, people for who they are. The former is not apolitical, but Kristof implies that it is the same thing as excluding gays, lesbians, women, or minorities. That implication is deeply, deeply problematic. I will resist the easy out of making a mockery of someone’s religious or political beliefs – but it is different than treating people as inferior because of who they are.

In fact, sometimes its antithetical. Kristof avoids naming the sort of conservative beliefs that he thinks should be included in the intellectual diversity that he proposes. Perhaps he is looking to include something that sounds somewhat palatable, like fiscal conservativism or evangelical Christianity. Would Kristof argue that the intellectual diversity of the social sciences should be broadened to include white supremacists? Social Darwinists? Probably not. But those are varieties of ‘ideological diversity’ – if it is ideological diversity that Kristof is defending. Which is why he shouldn’t.

Those extreme variants of ideological diversity also show the logical untenability of Kristof’s point. He argues that liberals are all over including people who don’t look like them, as long as they think like them. But there are people who think that people who look different should be excluded – at the very least, their beliefs cannot by definition be included in this big, intellectually diverse, ‘A to Z’ melting pot intellectually, because those beliefs’ inclusion would promote the exclusion of some people.

Not all conservative ideas are bigoted and necessarily exclusionary. But the simple premise of ideological inclusiveness promulgated in Kristof’s throw-away anger at his friends’ liberal arrogance is logically untenable because some are.

Many in the social sciences would exclude my ideas because they are different – anti-science, explicitly political, and feminist. I’m not suggesting the exclusion of conservative ideas because they are different. I’m suggesting that those who do exclude conservative ideas because they are different are more like those who exclude my ideas because they are different than those who would engage in discrimination against people who are different.

I’m not looking to run the less-than-ten-percent of social scientists who are conservative out of the business, even though I disagree at almost every turn. But I think advocating for ‘diversity’ concerns about conservatives in fields that remain rampantly sexist, heterosexist, racist, and classist is prima facie ridiculous. I want 50% (or more) of faculty (particularly full professors) to be women. I want to see many, many more faces of color – particularly women of color – represented in social science scholarship. I want to combat heteronormative assumptions in scholarship and in the function of disciplinary institutions. I want to see the class politics of faculty life and research requirements be heeded. I’m of the belief that a social science faculty cohort that is 50% ‘conservative’ is both a low priority and potentially counterproductive to those other goals. But even if that wasn’t the case, the logic behind Kristof’s case is weak at best. Homologizing location on the political spectrum with race, class, and gender doesn’t make them the same thing – or even the same sort of thing. And they shouldn’t be treated that way.

Author: Laura Sjoberg

Laura Sjoberg (Ph.D., University of Southern California, 2004; J.D., Boston College, 2007) is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her main research interests focus on gender in international security: feminist war theorizing, women's violence in global politics, gendered significations of militarism, and queer theorizing of security. She recently published Gendering Global Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2013) and is just finishing work on a book called Rape Among Women (New York University Press).

  • Uhu_Maineiac

    “Not all conservative ideas are bigoted and necessarily exclusionary.” No, but all liberal ideas are.

  • Douglas Miller

    From the article: “Being conservative is not like being a woman, or being queer, or being a person of color. Being a woman, or being queer, or being a person of color do not carry with them essential characteristics.”
    ===========================================
    The first rights of the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution are “freedom of religion / conscience” and “freedom of speech / expression.” Without these, the other rights are meaningless. They allow diversity of thought and ideas. To our founding fathers, this was the true diversity that needed to be protected.

    It is indeed ironic then that the liberalism that demanded diversity of thought in the Free Speech Movement as they sought to be heard on university campuses then; but once in control of academia, they learned to use political correctness, protest, slander words, privilege and trigger warnings to silence any opposition / heresy to the dogma of the secular progressive agenda. After all, you can’t be given the title of a “free thinker” in academia until you learn to think exactly like the ones that taught you.