Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kant and condescension

The Washington Post recently published a rather remarkable op-ed piece under the title, Why are Liberals so Condescending? The author, Gerard Alexander, took it as a given that liberals are condescending to average voters while conservatives are not (well, OK, maybe they are sometimes). Within three days the online version received nearly 3000 comments, most of them aiming more vituperation at each other than argument toward the original article. Alexander’s piece itself was notable not only for its forest of unexamined assumptions and specious claims, but also for its failure to explain two basic things, namely, what is condescension and what is so wrong with it? But of course it’s futile to scan the editorial page of the Post for answers on this, or anything else, for that matter. Immanuel Kant, underappreciated as a philosopher of liberalism, got this one right more than 200 years ago.

Kant was what in German is called an Aufklärer, or ‘Enlightener.’ He was an intellectual-- a university professor, even— who saw it as his task to help common people clear away their ignorance, exercise their reason, and change the world accordingly. He was thus a ripe target for charges of condescension, and if he were alive today he’d no doubt be squarely in the sights of Prof. Alexander. In a famous short essay Kant considered the question, What is Enlightenment? His answer was that enlightment is “man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and immaturity, in turn, is “the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.”

The key word here is ‘self-incurred’: The unenlightened are responsible for their own ignorance. What could be more ‘condescending’ than this? In fact, this charge was soon leveled at Kant, by his acquaintance and intellectual sparring partner, J.G. Hamann. In a private letter Hamann mocked Kant’s definition, accusing him of putting himself and other self-important Enlighteners in the role of schoolteachers to the common person. But Kant, unlike Mr. Alexander, is clear about the difference between condescending to someone and saying that they have a false belief. The former can be justified as an attitude toward someone only if they are incapable of thinking rationally, and thus is incompatible with the calling of the ‘enlightener.’ The latter, however, is the very essence of respect between reasonable people.

Though Kant doesn’t explain his decision to say that ignorance is self-incurred, the logic behind it is pretty clear: The essay as a whole is about the obstacles to the free use of human reason, and how to overcome those barriers. The unenlightened have to be responsible for their own ignorance, because enlightenment requires that they be responsible for their own enlightenment. The goal is that people will reason on their own, and reason well, and this requires that they are capable of reasoning. If they are not reasoning well, then whatever external problems might make rational thought more difficult, the failure to think is the fault of the thinker, too.

This means that when a liberal (or anyone) says that the American voters are wrong about something, this is neither arrogant nor condescending. As long as the assumption is that they are capable of correcting their false beliefs, ordinary respect requires that we give people some responsibility for their own ignorance. This touches on one area where Alexander has a valid point. The left has often devoted too much intellectual energy to theories of the mass deception of the public. Alexander cites Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but he might also have mentioned many others, such as Noam Chomsky. I don’t want to say that anything these people say is mistaken—sadly, too often they are right on target. But the obsession with this sort of thinking can lead progressives to forget that their goals for a just and peaceful society depend on the ability of people to think for themselves despite all the deception that admittedly is all around us.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why American professors are so darn liberal: Take #873,231

The seemingly intermittent but seemingly unending debate about the “liberal bias” of American university professors is one that, despite my better judgment, I just can’t get enough of. The debate about professorial leftism interests me not only because it hits so close to home but also because views on this subject reflect important assumptions about the place of universities in American society, and also about that society itself. Consider the phrase in scare quotes above: The word ‘bias’ is obviously loaded, and it implicitly frames the question in terms of why the views of professors diverge from those of other Americans. But I submit that the question ought to be turned around: Why do the views of Americans diverge so widely from the rest of the world? For the views of American professors (surveys on this often focus more narrowly on faculty in the humanities and social sciences, and so will I) are really not extreme in comparison with the opinions of educated people in the larger world. If left-wingers are concentrated in academia, it is because repression, both violent and implicit, has made this the only corner of our extremely right-wing society where otherwise unremarkable views can be uttered freely.

Consider, as an example, your humble blogger. I truly am The Liberal Professor. I am an atheist and a democratic socialist. I believe that the death penalty is immoral, that U.S. foreign policy is aggressive and militaristic, and that American abhorrence of sex underlies many of our social problems. I’m embarrassed to see people sleeping in boxes within sight of the White House, and to hear our President launch a war with the words “God bless America.” In short, I’m everything your conservative dad warned you about when you left for college.
These views of mine make it impossible (in case there were any question about this!) for me to run for national political office. In only a few isolated pockets of the country could a candidate with views like mine have a chance at elective office— and most of those pockets contain large universities. In Germany, on the other hand, where I have lived and whose culture I have studied, my views make me the most boring sort of centrist. And Germany, it should be noted, is a solidly capitalist, democratic Western country.
The comparison with world opinion is the relevant one, because in addition to having advanced degrees and tolerant attitudes toward controversial ideas, university faculty are generally like me in having studied practices and ideas of distant places and times. More simply, they know about the whole world, or at least not just the small sliver of it in North America. It is thus not surprising that their opinions correspond most closely to those of the whole world, or, more precisely, to the opinions of other educated people in the industrialized world.

Belief in God is a good illustration of this. Statistics on belief in God are not very reliable, because much depends on what questions are asked (for example, whether agnosticism and belief in a ‘higher power’ are offered as options); on how terms are understood (such as the meaning of ‘belief in God’); and on social pressures that can distort responses (in a highly religious society, for example, it might be embarrassing to confess to doubts about God). Still, there seems to be strong evidence that on the whole the religious views of American college professors resemble those of their colleagues in other Western nations but not those of their pious countrymen. If, as I suspect, college professors are also more likely than other Americans to favor a significant role for government in the economy, in that respect too their views are extreme only in relation to other Americans, who are themselves, from a global perspective, “outside the mainstream.”

This post was inspired by a recent article in the New York Times, which in turn reported the findings of a sociological study of the American professoriate, and I cannot refrain from making one remark about both the Times piece and its source. The chief finding of the study is that American professors are liberal because they are perceived as being liberal, and thus the profession attracts young people who identify themselves as liberal. More specifically, professors are more liberal than other Americans “because a higher proportion possess advanced educational credentials, exhibit a disparity between their levels of education and income, identify as Jewish, non-religious, or non-theologically conservative Protestant, and express greater tolerance for controversial ideas.”

My only quarrel is with the first word: ‘because.’ It comes as no great surprise that professors and liberals tend to share these traits, but pointing this out surely doesn’t tell anyone why professors are liberal, only that they are so, with some instructive detail added. Even if it is true that students choose academic careers in large part because of their political views and their perceptions of the profession, we still need an explanation why this particular part of our society has proven so attractive to people with left-of-center views.

Though I do not have rigorous empirical data to back this up, it seems to me that part of the answer has to have something to do with the inhospitability of most of America toward anything remotely tainted with ‘socialism.’ Of course, a river of ink has been spilled on the topic of why socialism never succeeded in America. But the story on that subject, as on the one at issue here, has to make mention of the history of straightforward repression of left-wing views in this country. Since at least 1919 the specter of Communism has been used to drive leftists out many of the niches they occupy in other industrialized countries, chiefly the labor movement but also journalism and the entertainment industry. In the process, careers have been ruined and innocent people imprisoned and even killed. In short, one main reason why even moderate leftists (like yours truly) are drawn to academia is because it is one of the few roles in American society from which their views do not disqualify them.