Reader responses

Below is a letter from my Marxist dad, Charlie, responding to my piece on Haidt’s talk and to Haidt’s talk itself. With permission to publish. – Alice Andrews


Hi Alice — Thanks for sending me your response to Haidt and your thoughts on the ongoing flap about “trigger warnings and “safe spaces.” I certainly agree that a commitment to the expansion of knowledge is not in opposition to the struggle for social justice and a more egalitarian society. It seems ironic that many academics have so easily conceded the ground of “free speech” to the political right. And as you and I said in our pleasant walk around your campus some months ago, balance can be maintained that respects students’ experiences as a feature of an engaged and critical pedagogy. Part of the problem is that in the absence of sharp social struggle, aggrieved students too often rely on the campus administration to enforce “protective” policies.

I don’t have deep knowledge of Haidt’s work. I have read a little of The Righteous Mind and noticed references to his ideas filtered dimly through the last-book-I-read columns of David Brooks. I would say that the intellectual architecture of moral psychology is quite distant from my materialist and historical perspective and tradition. I am unfamiliar with the antinomies and jargon used by Haidt, as well as by you, in much of your critique. But I do know something about politics and I find his analysis of the basis for current conservative and liberal ideology unconvincing, ahistorical, and rather muddying. Besides the fact that these signifiers slide around in history, both share the most fundamental ideas lodged in the social relations of the capitalist society in which their adherents live. I don’t think it helps to locate current political differences in biological beginnings. As you know, I think human cooperation is an evolved trait, but in the process of historical development and social reproduction, classes and states emerge and take hold. The traits of selfishness and cooperation in capitalist societies are more convincingly explained by the historically developed structures of capitalism and its reflected ideology. For me, the Haidt thesis fails the ancient test of Occam’s razor.

That said, last night I finally got around to viewing the Haidt address at New Paltz that you sent me. I was struck by its shallowness and academic kitsch masked as boldness, and I was further disappointed by the largely enthusiastic uncritical response of the audience. When Haidt began by enunciating his “schism” premise, I thought he was kidding, employing obviously whacky hyperbole to make some incisive point. That point never came. He really does want a Social Justice U. and a Truth U. And in one of the more sleazy and manipulative gambits I have ever seen performed from a college podium (and I have seen plenty), he applied the law of the excluded middle to force a hand-raising vote for the triumph of Truth U. over Social Justice U. at New Paltz. He displays his liberal inclusiveness by allowing intellectuals who want to change the world to have their own truth-inferior universities—take my Brown…please.

His truthier-than-thou pose against the supposedly truth-deficient seekers of social justice seems to be part of a right-wing backlash against campus activism—not only women protesting against a hostile learning environment, but African Americans protesting cop terror, adjuncts protesting the conditions of their contingent labor; any protest at all risks expulsion from Haidt’s Truth U. as it indicates a failure to meet his reductionist idea of telos expressed as corporate mission statement. But the truth is that not only can one simultaneously search for better approximations of reality while engaging in the process of changing the world, it is arguable that such engagement is required to adequately approach both goals. The ivory-tower quietism advocated by Haidt is reactionary and largely mythical in any case. All education is political, and knowledge is culturally and socially situated.

Haidt appeals to the well-known evidence on confirmation bias to argue that truth seeking requires “viewpoint diversity” to break the ideologically liberal monopoly on campus. This reminds me of the “fair and balanced” mission of Fox News. Of course, politically progressive scholars have already considered opposing viewpoints. That is in part how they came to hold their viewpoints. For a Marxist revolutionary the idea that academia has become too left wing is laughable. College campuses were much more radical in the late 60’s and early 70’s before much of the existing and aspiring professoriate retreated from the living movement into their cloisters, a post-modern inflection point that Bryan Palmer has characterized as the “descent into discourse.”   

And what are Haidt’s best examples of how the right wing’s viewpoints will advance the cause of truth? He retails the junk social science of the Heritage Foundation on marriage as the cause of poverty and downward mobility—talk about correlation standing in for causality. He puts economic causes on one side and family dissolution on the other without acknowledging the ways economic life—i.e. mass unemployment, mass incarceration, hyper-segregation, etc.—constrain and shape those individual choices right-wingers are so fond of citing when explaining deep poverty in capitalist society. When Charles Murray presents this crap, it gets debunked pretty quickly, but when presented by a slick, trendy, TED-talky academic, it is greeted with fulsome applause (or maybe that is just at New Paltz). Interestingly, the only challenge from the floor came from a woman who questioned the data he used to defend Larry Summers and the idea that hormonal differences account for gender imbalance in tech fields. Although Haidt invited challenges, when she pointed out that his thesis was not supported by cross-cultural studies, he interrupted and silenced her. And then there was the bone metaphor for the supposed increasing strength of straight white men, mixing different levels of concreteness to indict helicopter parents for presumed campus coddling, and more.

I suppose that Haidt’s thesis derives somehow from his ideas about religion as an evolutionary adaptation, and the transcendent unity of “for and against,” every yin must have its yang, etc., and let’s get the secularists and religionists together, the right and left. As you know I am very much in the mode of for and against. I am for proletarian internationalism and against nationalism, for instance, and there are divisions such as social class that I would like to see sharpened in struggle rather than blurred by all-in-one-boat ideology. I think that an intellectual tradition that seeks determining biological explanations for social phenomena is always susceptible to the sort of right-wing cant displayed by Haidt in his New Paltz address. I know that it is the intellectual niche you work in, and I am always impressed that you don’t ever slip the rails of political decency into right-wing demagogy. You do not go willy-nilly from the fact that the mind is not a “blank slate” to the advocacy of Truth U. and nasty attacks on leftist political activists.

One thing did please me in the Haidt address: his identification of Marx as representing the alternative view. Last year when I was in London, I visited the old man’s gravesite for the first time in my life (See, even your atheist father in his dotage participates in a few rituals) where that famous thesis on Feuerbach about changing the world is engraved on his monument. All in all I am glad to be a cranky, unreconstructed Marxist. Viewing the Haidt address and the audience response made me glad that I am no longer part of academia. I am honored to be asked to share my political experience and observations from time to time with the wonderful young people of Hunter College’s Internationalist Clubs. Their disposition of exceptional critical intelligence and understanding includes political action in a learning loop that demonstrates how truth and the struggle for social justice are mutually reinforcing.

Alice, forgive me for writing so much. Thank you for allowing me to vent and rant, and I’ll try to be more disciplined in future. Love you and admire your thoughtful engagement in the world. dad