Political correctness and universities

Haha. 5 years ago I’d argue with you to the death. But now I’m happy to be a West Alabama Tiger.

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@Herman_Mays may want to correct me, but it was/is almost a tradition at the university I work at that creationists would disrupt biology classes when they began their units on evolution. Of course these activities don’t find their way onto Fox News, and I am pretty sure that Jay Sekulow “would defend to the death your right” to disrupt classes and harm the learning experience of students.

The idea that conservative Christians are unique, or even disproportionately burdened, in their “suffering” is laughable.


So my recent experience is that for many of my students our work in the classroom is undermined by various conservative Christian student organizations on campus led mostly by local preachers and wannabe apologists. They will go to biology class hear about evolution and in their weekly meetings of the campus student apologetic group have everything they have learned undermined by someone who knows literally nothing about biology.

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Oh, good old Jay Sekulow. I remember the bizarre alternative-world constitutional law lessons he used to give on Pat Robertson’s show. The hilarious thing always was, of course, that his views were entirely anti-constitutional. If you take the “free exercise” clause and construe it to allow majoritarian imposition of religious practice upon others, you destroy the establishment clause.

And that – destruction or evisceration of the establishment clause – is the near-term goal of what, without the slightest hint of irony, such people call “religious liberty.” What they do not seem to understand, however, is that destroying the establishment clause’s protections in this way ALSO destroys the protections of the free exercise clause, by making conformity to majority views in religion mandatory.

I think that Sekulow must realize that, as must most of the people in that particular strange anti-constitutional movement. And they imagine that this is all right, because they think they will always be the majority religion. What I think they fail to grasp is that if the majority may make the community affirm Christian belief, the majority may do other things as well. Assemble a Catholic majority, and the community may be forced to affirm Catholic belief. Assemble a Protestant majority, likewise. And no Talibangelical wants even to think about what Sekulow’s work might bring to a community with a Muslim majority. The hilarious bit, of course, is that the people behind this obscenity also are prone to wailing that we are all going to fall under Sharia law. I don’t know any Muslims who would like the US to adopt Sharia (indeed, I’m not sure any such people actually exist), but if I did, I think they’d look at Sekulow the way the Communists were said to look at capitalists: we will hang them, and they will sell us the rope.

I don’t think that’s right.

I have not seen a lot of change in the views of the faculty that I have known.

Let me suggest an alternative. In the last couple of decades, conservatives has moved toward very extreme positions.


Another alternative, different from yours by a shade, is my favored one: that there no longer are any “conservatives” in what is conventionally known as conservative politics, and that the anti-constitutional, illiberal sorts of culture warriors who now call themselves “conservatives” would hang Edmund Burke from the highest tree if he were not long dead.


I think you are on to something there. The meaning of “liberal” and “conservative” is going through some rapid changes, and likely mean very different things to different groups. Intellectual conservatives, also, commonly report feeling exiled from Republicanism as we currently find it.

Personally, I’m not sure there is much value in granting much legitimacy to the political dimension, and in fact there might be serious danger.

I think that we all have some tendency to be a bit blinded by what I call “constellationism”: just as we look at the sky and judge stars to form a group when they may be at dramatically different distances and not closely associated with one another at all, we tend to accept the political groupings which are conventional within our culture as though they are natural, real entities.

So, for example, there ought to be very little linkage, or so one would think, between whether someone thinks that health and safety regulations in industry have become too burdensome and whether that same person thinks the earth is 6,000 years old. That there IS such a linkage, at this moment in our culture, does not reflect some real underlying grouping called “conservatism” any more than William Jennings Bryan being a creationist had anything naturally to do with his extreme views on monetary policy.

Consequently I find the terms “liberal” and “conservative” as conventionally used to be nearly meaningless. When I use them I tend to mean them generically and without reference to current politics: liberalism being the idea that liberty is a primary objective in deciding what sort of government and laws to have, and conservatism being something like Burke’s views: that recklessly discarding or altering existing institutions, practices and understandings may have unintended consequences. But Burke’s conservatism is liberal, and most liberalism in the original sense is – in our society, at least – conservative. The so-called “conservative” culture warriors have neither the merits of liberalism nor the merits of conservatism to lean upon.


Frankly, elevation of the “free exercise” clause to some sort of primacy endangers most other constitutional and other legal protections enjoyed by people whose very existence in an insult to the religious and theological sensibilities of Christians.


It certainly can. There has always been a wee bit of tension between the free exercise and establishment clauses. You see it in such things as the Hobby Lobby case – surely it’s within the rights of the owners of Hobby Lobby not to use contraception themselves, but at what point did use of contraception by their employees become a violation of their free exercise of their religion? Nuts like Sekulow, aided by bad Supreme Court appointments, have driven us to a bizarre point there. We need a lot of pushback just to restore the integrity of secular government.


OK. So why then argue that universities have shifted to become liberal if indeed you think labeling people as liberal or conservative has no value, or is even dangerous?

It’s not clear from this sentence who paid for the infrastructure. Is the building housing the students paid for by taxpayer money, and the private funding only for the student activities there? Or was the building itself paid for by private donors? If the latter, then I see no problem, as long as university policy allows donors of other religious persuasions (Islam, Judaism, etc.) to put up buildings on campus at their own expense for the use of religious students. If the former, then there is a problem, because the state should not be subsidizing buildings used exclusively by Christians in a secular university.

First of all, I have not defended racist, sexist, homophobic nonsense. I have defended the right of scholars and scientists to report what they consider to be scholarly and scientific conclusions, along with the evidence and reasoning that led to those conclusions, within a university setting where those conclusions and the methods that led to them can be subjected to criticism. That right extends to visiting speakers who have been invited by the university authorities to come and present their ideas. Such speakers should not be disinvited merely because a partisan section of the student body doesn’t like the ideas of these speakers.

Second, you are not asked to give your life in the defense of any particular idea you find offensive. You are asked to give your life only to maintaining the kind of society in which ideas you find offensive can be presented without fear of violence or job loss to those who present them. Nothing obliges you to go hear speakers you find offensive, or agree with them. Nothing prevents you from writing scathing denunciations of ideas you find offensive. Nothing prevents you from calling out racists and sexists wherever you find them. But exactly the society that protects your right not to go and hear a speaker, and your right to stridently denounce that speaker in any and all media, has the obligation to protect the rights of that speaker to present his or her sincerely held beliefs. If you think society should only protect the views and theories and philosophies that you happen to like, and should ban or punish the views and theories and philosophies that you don’t happen to like, you aren’t a friend of a full-blooded, democratic, open society.

The open society has a price. It means that people have no right “not to be made uncomfortable” by views contrary to their own. If you want a society in which some body chooses what views are allowed to be expressed and what views are not allowed to be expressed, there are plenty of present-day and historical examples you can look to. You would not be allowed to criticize Christianity in medieval Paris and you would not be allowed to criticize Reformed Christianity in Calvin’s Geneva. You would not be allowed to write an editorial calling for the legalization of drinking in Saudi Arabia. You would not be allowed to promote laissez-faire capitalism in Communist Russia. You would not be able to watch a film containing nudity in Victorian England (if we pretend that they had films then). You would not be allowed to question racial doctrine in the Germany of the Third Reich. The majority of human beings have lived in societies which were in many ways unfree regarding the expression of dissident ideas, minority ideas, etc.

The greatness of America is that it was willing to pay the price – that some citizens would hear ideas they don’t like – in order to guarantee maximal freedom of expression in scientific, moral, religious, political, social, and cultural matters. Sadly, many Americans, including many educated Americans who are leaders of thought and opinion, no longer think this price is worth paying. They would rather see a society with less freedom of expression than a society in which anyone is made “uncomfortable” by ideas they don’t like. That’s a failure of civilizational nerve, and without its original resolve regarding freedom, America has no unique reason for existing.

And it’s worse than this: the modern left/liberal principle, “No one has the right to use speech that makes any individual or group uncomfortable”, even if valid, is not applied evenly. It is not uncommon nowadays to hear university professors employing vulgar language which make some of their students uncomfortable, but who is restraining these professors’ speech? It is not uncommon for professors in many subjects, including philosophy and religious studies, to use their classrooms as platforms of attack upon students with religious beliefs, making those students uncomfortable. This has been reported to me by many Christian students, that some of their professors create a “hostile environment” in the classroom for traditional believers. If a woman or Puerto Rican or homosexual reported a “hostile environment” in a classroom, the university administration would be all over the professor; an inquiry would be launched. But when have you heard of the administration at a secular university launching an investigation into professors who bash religion in the manner that, say, Dawkins does? Yet such tone and contents would surely create a hostile environment for many a Christian (and for other religious people as well).

It’s private. The point is there are no protests over this and there is enough of a sympathetic population to support it.

No one should ask me to “give my life” for anything. I don’t want any violence against anyone but I do want to live in a society where people do lose jobs in education for espousing bigoted, sexist, homophobic, racist, and otherwise intolerant views. Why would I “give my life” so a bigoted teacher can keep their job?

Eddie. You are wildly exaggerating the situation. I can promise you that had I at any university I’ve been employed started off on some diatribe against Christians there would be enormous repercussions.

I think you’ve bought into D’Souza’s propaganda about victimization a little too much.

If by “disrupt biology classes” you mean the intrusion of students who are not registered in the course, purely for the purpose of throwing a monkey wrench into the teacher’s lessons, then that is wrong and should not be allowed. Such students should be disciplined by university authorities.

If by “disrupt biology classes” you mean only that Christian students registered in the classes ask reasonable questions about the level of certainty of evolutionary conclusions, in a polite and respectful tone, and listen carefully to the professor’s answers, then I don’t see any problem.

My general principle of freedom of expression is one that I consistently follow. If a professor thinks there is evidence for evolution, he has the right to present it in his classroom, without interruption or harassment or threat of bodily or economic harm or job dismissal. Students who doubt the professor’s account should express their doubt through normal channels: during question period, seeing the professor by appointment in his office, presenting articulate arguments based on research in formal classroom presentations, etc. They have no right to silence the professor or prevent his free expression, no matter how strong their religious feelings are.

But this works both ways. If a visiting speaker is invited to come to the university to talk about, say, intelligent design, it is not appropriate for science faculty to lobby the university to retract the invitation once it has been issued through proper channels. (The place to raise objections in on the invitations committee, before the invitation goes out.) The science faculty who object are free to ignore the event and not attend it, or tell their students that ID is silly and the speaker is not worth hearing, or go to the event and put hard technical questions to the ID advocate in hopes of exposing his putative errors. Any or all of those reactions, and many others, are consistent with a free academy and a free society. Inhibiting others from hearing what people have to say is not.


Danesh D’Souza was fired from an academic job Eddie. Do you know why? He showed up at a Christian values conference with a woman he introduced as his fiancé. Both were married at the time to other people and days later when asked about this from a Christian reporter only then did he immediately file for divorce. So maybe you want to “give your life” to protect people like D’Souza but you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t see D’Souza as a role model for doing the right thing much less one worth me dying for.

The problem is Eddie more often than not their questions aren’t remotely reasonable and are little more than sectarian fundamentalist talking-points and have no place in a science classroom. If they have concerns and want to talk to me about this stuff during my office hours or if campus Christian groups want to invite me to their meetings to ask me about evolution I’m fine with that (both these things I’ve done). However there simply is not enough time in the classroom to deal with this tangential stuff so yes in the classroom it can be disruptive.

I have first-hand knowledge of the situation in Arts subjects. You do not. And it doesn’t have to be an outright diatribe to make Christian students feel uncomfortable. It can be a number of tiny, subtle, constant “digs” delivered over an entire course, where no single remark in itself constitutes a violation, but the overall effect is to make Christian students feel backwards, stupid, believers in a cruel and immoral God, etc. It would be hard to catch the professor in any single act, but the discrimination would still be real. In one case, after a number of students reported this prejudice of a particular professor, I by coincidence was interviewed for a job by the faculty where this professor was. It was clear from the edge of his questioning that the student reports were correct; he had a king-sized, Dawkins-like chip on his shoulder against Christianity and against traditional religion in general. My own presentation wasn’t a particularly Christian one, and indeed, by fundamentalist Christian standards I’m a wild liberal and many fundamentalists would doubt that I was “saved”. But I smelled enough of near-Christianity that he wanted no part of me – even though none of my research specifically promoted Christian theology above any other. I didn’t get the job. But I know what those undergrad students were enduring under this guy. He taught for years at the place and retired with a fat pension, never having to seriously adjust his hostile attitude. Had that same hostility been directed against homosexuals, women, etc., he would have been toast, almost immediately.

Actually I do. I’ve interacted sometimes extensively with my colleagues in the humanities and yours is not my experience. In fact my experience is quite the opposite.