ALL MINUS ONE
In this beautifully illustrated abridged version of John Stuart Mills ‘On Liberty,’ Johnathan Haidt and the Heterodox Academy update the classic text from the British liberal tradition. Johnathan Haidt is an American social psychologist, professor at New York university and author of the books ‘The Righteous Mind, why good people are divided by politics and religion’ and ‘The Coddling of the American Mind, how good Intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.’ In 2015 Haidt released a paper detailing the lack of political diversity found amongst teaching staff and the administration across American universities and later that year he set up the Heterodox Academy to act as a counter to political hegemony by “prompting open enquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.”
‘All minus one’ edits Mills original text, concentrating on his eloquent defence of freedom of speech. Although written in Victorian England it is amazing how precedent Mill’s observations are and the relevance they hold in contemporary society. Mills offers a masterclass in clear and concise language and sound reasoning. As a feature of texts from the British liberal tradition, as opposed to the continental philosophy of mainland Europe, which is often dense, impenetrable and jargon heavy this book is a swift read. The book is presented in the format size of a graphic novel with illustrations from Dave Cicrelli, it is highly assessable and along with Mills masterful writing style can be polished off within the hour.
As described by Haidt in the introduction, we as humans are all arrogant and overconfident in the belief that our ideas and worldview are the right and the morally correct ones. We all suffer from ‘confirmation bias’ which is the tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our existing beliefs and prejudices. The only counter to this is to engage in dialogue with other people who themselves hold their own ‘confirmation bias’ and who will challenge and question or own beliefs and ideas. Although often derided in postmodern thought, Mill not only belived in the pursuit of truth but in the contemporarily unfashionable notion that truth actually exists. In this timeless defence Mills sets out a clear argument for why freedom of speech is so vital in this pursuit.
I FIND THAT OFFENSIVE
Claire Fox is a writer and founder of the ‘Academy of Ideas,’ an organisation she founded to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint This is another book that offers another staunch of defence of freedom of speech and expression. Her main concern and target is the 'offence culture' she believes has arisen within universities and on social media; highlighting the dangers of this censorious mindset as an attack on free thought and democratic ideals. In the first part of book she offers numerous examples which range from the wince inducing to the frivolous to the deadly serious (by citing the Charlie Hebdo attacks).
In the second part she diagnoses the problem as an inability to accept views or thoughts that fall outside a person’s own worldview, the adoption of victimhood as a state of being, a lack of mental robustness to confront anything challenging "and of course the perfectly laudable aim of securing social justice for marginalised groups.” She offers a blistering attack on the small section of the younger generation she calls the ‘snowflakes.’ The text is polemic and confrontational and veers towards the rant. I personally like this style of writing for its humour, but it will not be to everyone’s taste.
The third part appears as a couple of open letters to each side of the divide to offer advice and ends as a call for tolerance and open dialogue through universalist values. Her subject matter is dangerous territory. As such a strong defence of freedom of speech involves making an argument for hateful speech and offensive cultural material but as the book suggests, the answer is not to remove this aspect from the public sphere but instead to encourage it. A generosity of spirit is required when confronting views or beliefs that are diametrically opposed to your own and ultimately the answer to hate speech is never no speech but more speech.
THE GRIEVANCE STUDY AFFAIR
The grievance study affair was an expose’ conducted by Helen Pluckrose (a magazine editor), James A Lindsay (a mathematician) and Peter Boghossian (a philosophy professor) who authored a series of peer to peer assessed papers in 2018. Their aim was to highlight the academic deficiencies of certain disciplines within the humanities which including but not limited to queer theory, critical race studies and feminism.
Although they recognise that important academic research needs to occur within these topics, interesting questions are being ignored by narrow discourse and zealotry within the fields that adhere to critical theory of the Frankfurt School. The reason the authors have chosen to group these disciplines together along with all other related fields under the umbrella term grievance studies is that they believe these areas of research are activist driven and hindered by the ideological presumption of privilege and oppression. This is the belief that all social interactions and structures are underpinned by systems of power, which has led to the historical and current victimisation of certain groups.
The authors had become aware during conversations that certain ideas were propagated and when the other person was asked to substantiate their claims, they often referred back to research conducted within these fields. They decided to familiarise themselves with the text but found the evidence to be flimsy, not adhering to the scientific method and often using circular arguments to make claims by only citing other papers within the canon.
Their idea was to see if they could learn the jargon, write ridiculous papers with outlandish ideas and submit them to the leading academic journals to see if they would be taken seriously. This included papers proposing that men should be trained like dogs, reproducing a chapter of ‘Mein Kampf’, rewritten using the language of intersectionality and the use of sex toys by men to reduce homophobia…
- “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon" was published in Gender, Place & Culture
- "Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism" was accepted by Affilia
- "Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use" was published in Sexuality & Culture
The Grievance Study Affair offers a clear and concrete example of academia not fulfilling its basic function within society – the pursuit of truth and the expansion of knowledge. Although the authors concentrate on particular disciplines, they are quick to point out the type of thinking that has developed within them has spread throughout universities into the humanities, through the administration into the wider society. I believe this ideology is dangerous and its theories have become mainstream with real world consequences on policy and procedure. The humanities may already be lost but the hardliners and their acolytes have their sights set on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and it has become the next battlefield. With scientific facts being challenged; gender as a purely social construct and having no link to biological sex, rather than having a basis in physical anatomy and roots in evolutionary psychology? But has started to affect the other subjects, the misguided attempt to achieve gender disparity in the fields of technology and engineering (as a disclaimer I would like to state that I am certainly not suggesting that women should not be free to pursue them, rather, that a large percentage simply have no desire to) and the recent report of calls to lower the test scores in mathematics exams so more women achieve first class honour degrees.
A STANLEY BLACK POLEMIC
THE ROAD TO SOMEWHERE
Whether David Goodhart’s title is a riff on Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ or not, he achieves a similar journalistic goal by offering a succinct analysis of Britain’s political landscape. His thesis is a simple one; that the old poles of left and right are out dated and no longer as useful a model as they once were. In this clearly written book backed up by evidence by various attitude surveys and other empirical data he sets out a new paradigm and a new way of describing society and its structure. He sees the new divide as no longer based around a question of economics (with the left favouring more centralised state control against the rights more laissez faire free market approach) with a board consensus on liberal social policies and instead claims the new divide is one of values
Although Goodhart articulates this shift from the socio-economic to the socio-cultural he is keen to point out that both value systems are valid and are just ways of viewing and being in the world. The first (which he says accounts for around 25% of the population) he names the 'anywheres' who are typically highly educated (essentially graduates) and as their biographies include moving away to university and creating new networks they are open, liberal minded, comfortable with the world and generally happy with social change. Highly mobile, this group feels comfortable in any major metropolitan city and in this sense, they are globalists. The second (around 50% of the population) he names the 'somewheres' are in contrast, local. They value security and familiarity and their social value is intrinsically linked to group attachment, including the more abstract group concept like nationality. This link of location and community forms a large part of their identity and in turn means they are warier of social change.
This, in part, explains the key differences in attitudes towards various policy decisions like immigration and offers a clear analysis on the Brexit vote. As stated, he doesn’t invalidate either view but highlights a problem of understanding. Because the anywheres worldview is propagated by themselves through politics and the media they often fail to consider the impact on the somewheres. He clearly states, he is, himself, an anywhere and is often surprised that when talking to his peers that they are unaware of the power they hold and points out the dangers of this blindside - viewing the genuine concerns of the somewheres through a moral lens and labelling them as somehow racist, bigoted or xenophobic when essentially their opposition to large scale social change it is a matter of identity and a question of belonging.
In the final chapter Goodhart concludes a new political settlement is needed. The anywheres due to their educational status will always hold positions of power but in the near past have only forwarded policies that essentially serve themselves and their own world view. Politics had just become a choice between two tribes of anywheres, with minor policy differences and neither addressing the genuine and valid concerns of the somewheres. His argument is simply that the somewheres need some sort of political representation within the democratic system.