Jonathan Haidt on Diversity

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

The Dartmouth Review sat down for a second time with renowned proponent of ideological diversity in high education Jonathan Haidt.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Identity politics are a fact of life on the college campus today, but what role should they really play?

Jonathan Haidt (JH): Identity politics makes sense in the world of politics, you can have politics based on industry, you can have it based on values, you can have it based on identity. That’s all fine in the world of politics.  But in the university, I believe our “telos,” as Aristotle put it, should be the pursuit of truth, and the extent that anything gets in the way of that to the extent that people see battles not as over what is true, but what is helpful or harmful to a group, that is a direct violation to our “telos” as scholars. So I think that the general effect of identity politics has been to take certain fields of study away from the study of truth and to turn them into forms of activism. I believe that has no place on a college campus.

TDR: What is the value of student activism, particularly in its current form? What is it really accomplishing, whether intentional or unintentional?

JH: Student activism serves many functions. Young people do things to display their virtues and traits, and this is one of the reasons why people get involved in activism. There are real problems in society and on campus, and students are often motivated to fix them. But when we talk about changing complex systems, I think the history of activism reform is that interventions in complex systems almost always have unintended consequences. This I believe is the greatest conservative insight, this what I love about Edmund Burke, and conservatives have always understood that one should not intervene haphazardly or thoughtlessly. In the academy we are all in the business of praising student activism, but in fact activism that is not based on a good understanding of reality is at risk of doing more harm than good.

TDR: Last winter, there was an article in the Brown student newspaper about how activism was a burden on the academic lives of student activists. It called on universities to compensate student activists with grades or actual money. Do you have any comments on that?

JH: An important feature of adulthood is learning to make tradeoffs and choices. You can’t have everything you want. Since the 60s students have made choices about their priorities and the idea of not fulfilling your academic duties in order to fulfill your political duties is a perfectly reasonable choice to make, but the idea that some adult should then compensate for it or otherwise make up for it is a great example of the kind of moral dependency that victimhood fosters.

TDR: What sort of a role do you think humor plays in intellectual discussion?

JH: There are two aspects to humor here. I’m an intuitionist. IN my research I study the ways that intuition drives reasoning. And so persuasion and explanation and communication are not just a matter of laying out your ideas. A good presenter, a good speaker a good businessperson understands what it takes to get ideas across. Humor, warmth, self-deprecation, appreciation of the other, these are all parts of communication. I don’t know if these were all included in Ancient Greece when they studied rhetoric but the ancient Greeks understood that rhetoric is a human art form that people need to learn. So humor plays important roles in communication. As for sacred values, what I see happening on campus is a moral revolution, a new morality of victimhood culture that treats victims as sacred. There’s a play by some students to make this the official morality of the university. There’s resistance by other students. Certainly conservative students are not accepting of that as the mission of the university. There is a long tradition of an individual or group that is weaker or outgunned using humor as a weapon. If you can’t be physically stronger than your opponents, you can at least make fun of them. What I know of it, the Dartmouth Review is provocative, it tries to use humor, and you’re certainly outgunned on campus. Humor is a powerful tool, but it’s tricky because you have to be careful about committing real blasphemy. You can do things that are truly offensive as opposed to simply mocking or what the English call “taking the piss out of someone.” And there’s no clear line, it’s negotiable.

TDR: The Review’s historical strategy was to be incredibly provocative in order to drive the conversation, which was primarily centered far to the left, more towards the center. Some current figures, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, use similar tactics. What do you think this model effects?

JH: I think we have to distinguish between the context and the institution in which this is occurring. In the university we have a shared culture around the truth. If you listen to academics talk, they generally shy away from terms like always and never. If you have a strategy of saying extreme things that are not true, I don’t see how that can help you in an academic context. It just discredits you. Milo Yiannopoulos is actually quite smart and perceptive and well read, so I think he has a lot to contribute in terms of being a critic of political correctness. But if the style of provoking by making extreme statements, if it might be effective in certain situations, I don’t think that’s the appropriate role in a university setting.

TDR: Is there a connection in the philosophies between capitalism as an economic system and the free market of ideas?

JH: The human mind is very good at certain things. We are very good at thinking about people being nice to each other or being mean to each other, were very good at thinking about people interacting. A lot of systems have emergent properties that are hard for us to understand. This was Adam Smith’s great insight about the economy. People that are pursuing self-interested motives can end up creating enormous social benefit. It’s not that intuitive, but it’s true. The same thing happens in intellectual life. People criticize cherished notions, people saying things that the majority find offensive, can force the majority to be explicit about its defenses, to think through whether it really can defend something, and sometimes to even change its mind. I think the metaphor “A Marketplace of Ideas” is a wonderful metaphor. It helps us understand how truth can emerge from individuals who are biased and flawed and often kind of stupid. I’m very fond of the metaphor of the university as a marketplace of ideas, and this is why I’m so concerned about the loss of viewpoint diversity. Up until the 1990s the university leaned left by two or three to one, and since the 1990s it’s switched to now being anywhere from five to one overall, to more like twenty or thirty to one in the humanities or social sciences. There is no marketplace of ideas in many of the humanities or social sciences, there’s a complete monopoly. One school of thought has a complete monopoly on what can be said and what cannot be said. This is a market failure. This is what we’re trying to fight at Heterodox Academy, because even many people on the left recognize that you can’t have scholarship if you don’t allow dissent.

TDR: Obviously not all people share this ability to tolerate [intellectual] diversity, or have the desire to. What in your upbringing inclined you towards this love of intellectual diversity?

JH: I never thought of myself as someone who loves intellectual diversity, I love arguing, discussing, learning. I think the transformative event for me was when I decided to shift my research from studying cultural differences in morality to studying political differences in morality. This was in 2004 after John Kerry lost the presidential election. I was on the left and I was so upset that the second time a candidate was smarter than George W. Bush, he lost to George W. Bush. I wanted to do research that would help the left understand the right and speak more intelligently to American values. To do that, I started watching shows on Fox News, like Glenn Beck. And I started reading the National Review. And what I discovered was that there were a whole bunch of ideas I had never encountered before. I always like new ideas. So that to me was actually really thrilling. I was, at the time, 41 years old. I had never been exposed to conservative ideas. So I think I’m someone who’s always enjoyed learning new things. At the age of 41, I discovered that there was a big repository of interesting ideas about society I had never encountered. That made me more sympathetic to conservatives. As the academy began to lean more and more to the left, and as the culture got more and more intense I began to notice some weak reasoning among social scientists. I started getting concerned that the lack of viewpoint diversity was harming our science, our research and our scholarship. I first began talking about that in 2011 and since then its gotten worse and worse and I’ve gotten more and more passionate about it. So that’s the story about how I’ve become active in the movement for viewpoint diversity.

TDR: At The Review, we like to consider ourselves one of the more diverse organizations on campus, and in many ways we are, but in many ways we aren’t. The Review is mostly male. Why do you think the push for intellectual diversity is coming from such a narrow demographic and how can we change that?

JH: The left-right divide in America has become increasingly gendered. Since the 1970s the Democratic Party began to embrace gender equality as an issue. The Democratic has become more gendered – the female party. Most women are Democrats because most women are on the left. That’s part of it, and that’s just normal politics. That doesn’t mean that either side is right or wrong, it’s just the nature of political evolution in this country. There’s another factor here, which is that libertarians are overwhelmingly male. My colleagues and I have done some research showing that people high on systemizing and low on empathizing – psychologically – are more attracted to libertarian ideology… For libertarians, I think there are actually good psychological reasons that they’re mostly male. For social conservatives, it’s not as clear that there would be a gender mix. The politics on campus tend to radiate out. Activist politics tends to come from the “studies” departments. So that would be gender studies, African American studies. Because these departments tend to be activist departments, they teach ideas about privilege and oppression. These political and academic debates tend to have a racial and gender aspect to them. Again, that’s the nature of political disagreements. There are different groups that have different interests that are exposed to different ideas.

TDR: If the movement for intellectual diversity is truly a diverse movement, why do many of its advocates tend to be conservative and how can we fix that?

JH: Well at Heterodox academy, our membership is roughly 28% conservative and 28% libertarian, 28% moderate and 15% progressive. So we’re not mostly conservative. There aren’t that many conservatives in the academy but there are a lot of libertarians and moderates and even they are often in the closet. So we tend to find the best pickup from libertarians and moderates who are really well placed to see the restrictions on ideas and speech. I think a key term that we need to use more and more is “illiberal.” So you can be on the left and be liberal or illiberal. Liberal means that you believe in freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, that you think, as Adam Smith said, “people should be free to live lives on their own plan.” So you can be on the left and be liberal, and you can be on the left and be illiberal. The illiberal one wants to tell others how to live their lives: what words they can use, what clothes they’re allowed to wear, what they must believe, what they must think. We’ve had an illiberal left for a long time in the academy. But what’s really scaring me as an American is that just in the past few years is that we’ve seen a new form of illiberalism on the right, which is the alt-right, which is often overtly racist. So I think we have a national emergency in which the traditions and institutions that have made America great and have led the West to levels of prosperity and equality and openness, are threatened by an illiberalism on the left and on the right. This is happening in Europe just as much as it is happening in America.

TDR: A lot of what you say reminds recalls the classic William F. Buckley preference for being governed by “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,00 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” So if we’re drifting away from that tendency in American democracy, does that mean what American democracy has stood for is threatened?

JH: I think the events of the past year or two need to make us all go back and read the Federalist Papers and the reasons why the founding fathers didn’t want a democracy. They read Plato carefully. Plato believed that democracy is the second worst form of government. Tyranny is worse, but democracy inevitably descends into tyranny. So, the most important idea in politics is that people need to have veto power. People need to be able to say “the leadership is bad and we want to throw them out.” That’s essential. But, the idea that the people should make policy by popular consent opens thing up to demagoguery. There are certainly problems with democracy and the founding fathers understood that. There are also problems with elitism. The elites think they know better. The elites as a community are often biased by a particular ideology that blinds them to the truth. This is what I think we’re seeing, Europe in particular, where the people are often opposed to mass immigration but the elites are unable to criticize it and its only when immigration levels get extremely high and social problems get undeniable that the elites catch up to people. We saw this very clearly in Sweden when only last December that the elites finally what the people had been saying for a while, that they can’t take in as many immigrants. So each has their problems – the elites and the masses – both have very predictable problems that they fall into.

TDR: If you were a college student again, what would you be doing to bring about these changes?

JH: I have no idea because, as a college student, I was very concerned about what women would think of me and I wouldn’t want to do anything that would make me unattractive. So I didn’t have much in the way of guts when I was a college student. Now that I have tenure, I’m older and I’m happily married, I can go out on a limb much more easily.                                    

  • Kennon Gilson

    OP, Haidt (or this article) uses tenure to ‘go out on a limb’ to make up data or poorly research it, so we have to doubt his expertise.
    Libertarians are mostly women. It takes 2 seconds to websearch and go to to find this out, and no wonder: they organize by households. They’re also extremely diverse organizing in every country with minority emphasis.
    This applies for Libertarian-direction parties as well. According to Libertarian Poll Data workgroup, the most frequent LP voter this election was a young Hispanic woman.