This is the blog of tpm – The Philosophers’ Magazine. tpm was launched by Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom in 1997 to publish quality philosophy in a readable and enjoyable format for readers both within and outside academe. Fifteen years later, it is thriving, and has featured within its pages some of the world’s great philosophers.
In this essay on the dearth of conservatives in higher education, the possible oppression of conservatives will be considered. I am obviously not the first to advance this hypothesis, but it is certainly worth new consideration. The idea is a familiar one: a group is being unjustly discriminated against in an institution and this accounts for the under-representation of this group. In this case, the group is not defined by ethnicity, religion, or gender but by political ideology.
The claim that conservatives are victims of oppression/discrimination might be met with snorts of derision or even the assertion they are getting what they deserve. After all, conservatives have generally not expressed concerns about the exclusion of other groups. As such, it could be said that their concern is not based on a principle of fairness but on their lamentation that they are not dominating or at least a major force in higher education. The logical reply to this assertion is that their apparent inconsistency and their allegedly selfish motives are not relevant to whether their exclusion is just. After all, if it could be proven that feminists did not care about fairness and are motivated by selfishness, then it would not follow that they are wrong to claim that the underrepresentation of women in various fields is wrong. To believe otherwise would be to fall into a classic ad hominem, that a person’s motives or bias must discredit their claim. It is, of course, morally fine to point out inconsistencies between claimed ideals and actual behavior—but that is another matter. As such, the claim that conservatives are being unjustly excluded from higher education cannot be dismissed so quickly. The challenge is, of course, to provide evidence.
As noted in earlier essays, conservatives tend to respond to claims about oppression or exclusion by asserting low representation is due to the allegedly excluded being either uninterested or incapable. The same could obviously be done to their claim of discrimination, a matter discussed earlier in this series of essays. But the focus now is on trying to make the case for the claim of discrimination and I will set aside that counter and turn to considerations of evidence.
One obvious source of evidence is complaints from conservative faculty. This does occur and should be taken as seriously as any other claim of discrimination. Christopher Freiman, a fellow philosophy professor, has contended that a significant percentage of faculty have admitted they would discriminate against conservative applicants and he also points to claims of their being underplaced and fired at a higher rate than liberal faculty for political speech. This is the same sort of evidence that would be advanced to support a claim of discrimination against women or minorities and hence should be given the same sort of due consideration. To do otherwise would be mere prejudice and inconsistent with the moral principle that discrimination is wrong. That said, as conservatives will note when it involves others, claims about discrimination need not be actual evidence of discrimination. Ironically, the same tools and methods that conservatives have used to dismiss concerns about discrimination can be applied to their claims. However, to use them as weapons with the express intent of dismissing evidence would be a moral error—rather, the evidence should be examined neutrally with the tools of science and logic with a goal of determining the truth, whatever it might be.
Since I do not have the resources to conduct a proper large-scale investigation, I will begin with my own experiences. It must be noted that this entails a limited sample size and biasing factors. That said, I have served on or chaired numerous search committees over the years and not once was there an inquiry into the political ideology of the candidates. The job description, ranking standards and questions included nothing about political ideology and hiring decisions were made based on academic qualifications. As would be suspected, I and all the other members of the committees had to attend meetings about how to run job searches and the bulk of the meetings were spent on instructions on how to avoid discrimination (and lawsuits). Speaking with other colleagues across the country, no one has ever mentioned anything that would be evidence of discrimination against conservatives in their hiring practices. It should be noted that there was never a directive to seek ideological diversity in hiring—mainly because, as I said, ideology was never considered as a factor (positive or negative) in the hiring process.
There are a few obvious replies to my alleged evidence. One counter is to assert that I am lying—if I was discriminating against conservatives, I would surely deny it and carefully conceal all evidence. That is a fair point: as feminists and others have long pointed out, discriminators are inclined to lie about their discrimination. Those who think I am a liar will obviously not be swayed by my claims that I am not. Those would just be more lies to hide my other lies, at least in their eyes.
A second counter is that while I claim that we did not consider ideology or even inquire about it, we could surely infer a person’s ideology from their research, presentations and publications. For example, if someone gave a presentation entitled “reflections on the evils of capitalism within the context of cultural Marxism ideology” or “a stalwart defense of conservative values within the context of a biased academy”, then we could surely infer their likely ideology. This does have some merit: candidates can, of course, send signals to prospective employers via their research, presentations and publications. The influence can even be unconscious, as some claim occurs when people are biased against applicants with female or minority sounding names. The use of ideology signaling via these means is something I think is worth investigating—especially its potential for biasing (unconsciously or not) search committee members. As such, I would recommend this a research project—it would make an excellent subject for a dissertation.
A third obvious counter is that even if I am being honest, my experience is limited to one institution and a limited number of search committees. As feminists and others have long argued, the absence of evidence for discrimination in some cases is not evidence of the absence of discrimination in others. Of course, it is also the case that evidence of discrimination in some cases is not automatically evidence of broad or systematic discrimination. What is needed, then, is a proper investigation of the claim of discrimination. Fortunately, or unfortunately, discrimination against women, minorities and others has resulted in the creation of tools and methods to ferret out discrimination and these should be neutrally applied to see if there is evidence of the systematic oppression of conservatives within higher education. If it is occurring, then it can be addressed with methods analogous to those used to address discrimination against women, minorities and otehrs. For example, job descriptions might start including “we encourage conservatives to apply” and affirmative action programs might be created for avowed conservatives interested in academic careers.
As noted in previous essays, there is a diversity issue in higher education: liberals (or at least Democrats) significantly outnumber conservatives (or at least Republicans). Since the subject of diversity has long been addressed by conservatives, it makes sense to use their approach when inquiring into the lack of ideological diversity in the ivory towers.
When faced with claims about a lack of diversity in an area (such as a dearth of minorities or women), conservatives tend to have two replies. The first is one that I addressed in an earlier essay: the seemingly excluded group freely chooses not to go into that area. For example, one might try to explain the low relative numbers of minority tabletop gamers (D&D players, for example) by claiming that minorities are generally not interested in these games. The second explanation is that the seemingly excluded group is not as capable as the dominant group(s). For example, the shortage of women in top business, military and academic positions might be explained in terms of women being less capable than men in these areas. The more charitable might soften this claim by asserting that the excluded group is capable in other areas—areas in which they are more proportionally represented or dominant. For example, it might be claimed that while women are less capable than men when it comes to science or business, they are quite capable as nurses and grade school teachers. In some cases, these assertions are obviously true. For example, men dominate American football because the strongest men are far stronger than the strongest women. As another example, women are obviously vastly more capable than men as wet nurses or surrogate mothers. Since conservatives tend to find this explanation appealing, it is reasonable to advance it to explain the dearth of conservatives in the academy.
Put bluntly, it could be claimed that conservatives generally lack the ability to succeed in higher education. While there are some exceptions, the ideological distribution is fair because of the disparity in ability. This is analogous to how a conservative might claim that the lack of women in the upper levels of business, academics and the military is in accord with the distribution of ability: most women are not as capable in those roles as men, hence men justly dominate. Likewise, most conservatives are not as capable in higher education as liberals, hence liberals justly dominate.
One obvious reply is that ideology is different from sex or ethnicity. Conservatives can be of any sex or ethnicity (though they are overwhelmingly white and tend to be male) because ideology is a matter of the values a person accepts and not what they are. As such, it could be claimed, the idea that conservatives are less capable than liberals would make no sense. It would be like saying that deontologists are less capable than utilitarians, that impressionists are less capable than surrealists, or that Yankees fans are less capable than Red Sox fans. This does have some appeal, but I am reluctant to abandon the conservative explanation so quickly.
This reply can be countered by arguing that while ideology does not change a person’s capabilities, a person’s capabilities can determine their ideology. That is, people with certain non-ideological qualities would tend to be conservative while people with other qualities would tend to be liberal. While psychology is not even an inexact science, it does show some interesting claims about the differences between conservatives and liberals. For example, conservatives tend to be more afraid than liberals and hence have a greater desire for safety and security. Given these differences, it makes sense that people who tend to be conservative would be less capable than people who tend to be liberal in areas in which these differences would have a meaningful impact. Higher education, it can be argued, is just such an area: the qualities that would make a person more likely to succeed as a professor would also tend to make them liberal. In contrast, the qualities that would make a person more conservative would tend to make it less likely that they would be successful at becoming a professor.
While some liberals would be tempted to say that conservatives are stupider than liberals, this need not be the case. After all, becoming a professor is obviously not just a matter of being smart—most smart people are not professors and not all professors are smart. Conservatives can be just as intellectually capable as liberals, yet some of the other qualities that make them conservative could impair their ability to become professors. One factor is that the process of becoming a professor typically involves having one’s most cherished ideas questioned, challenged and even attacked over the course of years—something that those inclined towards being liberal might handle better. As charitable conservatives might say that women and minorities are well-suited for some areas, a charitable liberal might say that conservatives are well-suited for areas outside the academy.
If it is true that what makes people conservatives or liberals is relevant to their ability to become professors, then there are various solutions to the problem of diversity. One is to engage in a process of affirmative action for conservatives: preferential hiring and lower standard to balance out the numbers. The conservatives who oppose affirmative action would not be able to accept this approach—unless their stance on the matter is purely a matter of self-interest rather than a matter of principle.
A second approach is to see if the academy can be modified to be more inviting to conservatives without such affirmative action. For example, it might be that the way grad school classes are taught that tends to weed out conservatives from the ranks of professors. While conservatives are generally not fans of efforts of inclusion, they would presumably welcome such efforts when they are to their advantage.
At this point, some readers are no doubt thinking that the real reason conservatives are lacking in the academy is that liberals are to blame. It is to this that I will turn in my next essay.
While some have raised concerns that Marxism is a dire problem in higher education, a more realistic concern is that higher education is dominated by liberals (or at least Democrats). Conservatives (or at least Republicans) are in the minority, sometimes to an extreme degree. Such a disparity certainly invites inquiry. One motivation, at least for liberals, would be to see if there is any injustice or oppression behind this disparity. Another motivation is intellectual curiosity.
While sorting out the diversity problem of higher education might prove daunting, a strong foundation of theory and methodology has been laid by those concerned with the domination of higher education by straight, white males. That is, professors like me. These tools should prove quite useful, and beautifully ironic, in addressing the worry that conservatives are not adequate represented in the academy. But before delving into theories of oppression and unfair exclusion, I must consider that the shortage of conservatives in the ivory towers is a matter of choice. This consideration mirrors a standard explanation for the apparent exclusion of women and minorities for other areas.
One possible explanation is that conservatives have freely chosen to not be professors. This does make considerable sense. While not always the case, conservatives tend to be more interested in higher income careers than lower income careers. While the pay for full-time faculty is not bad, the pay for adjuncts is terrible. Professor salaries, with some notable exceptions for super-stars, tend to be lower than jobs with comparable educational requirements. So, someone who is interested in maximizing income would not become a professor—the same amount of education and effort would yield far more financial reward elsewhere, such as in the medical or financial fields. As such, conservatives would be more likely to become bankers rather than philosophers and accountants rather than anthropologists.
Since becoming a professor generally requires a terminal degree, the typical professor will spend six or more years in college and graduate school, noting the hostility of Republicans and the support of Democrats. As such, rational self-interest alone would tend to push professors towards being Democrats. There is also the fact that those who want to become professors, almost by definition, are intellectuals and want to be experts. As such, the attacks on experts and intellectuals would tend to drive them away from the Republican party. Those pursuing careers in the sciences would presumably also find the anti-science stances of the Republicans unappealing.
While my own case is but an anecdote, one of the reasons I vote for Democrats and against Republicans is that Democrats are more inclined to act in ways that are in my interest as a professor and in the interest of my students. In contrast, Republicans tend to make my professional life worse by lowering support for education and engaging in micromanagement. They also tend to make things harder for my students. The anti-intellectualism, rejection of truth, and anti-science stances also make the Republican party unappealing to me. As such, it is hardly surprising that the academy is dominated by liberals: Republicans would tend to not want to be professors and potential professors would tend to not want to be Republicans.
But perhaps there is a social injustice occurring and the lack of diversity is due to the unjust exclusion of conservatives from the academy. It is to this concern that I will address in a future essay.
One talking point in the culture wars is that post-modern neo-Marxist college professors are indoctrinating the youth. Some take a more moderate view of college professors, simply regarding them as excessively liberal and indoctrinating the youth in liberal dogma. While I am confident that the academy is not ruled by Marxists, there are still interesting questions about the extent of Marxism on campuses, the degree to which liberals dominate the academy and whether professors indoctrinate their students.
It is true that there are professors who are avowed Marxists. I have even met some. In some cases, they do understand Marxism and its implications. These are, not surprisingly, usually political science or philosophy professors. I have also encountered professors who seem to think they are Marxists, but do not seem to understand what that means. For example, I met one professor who claimed to be a pure Marxist, but also rambled about free will and what seemed to be metaphysical dualism. Real Marxists are metaphysical materialists and embrace economic determinism. Fortunately, Marxists are relatively rare even in the social sciences and humanities. As such, the idea that the academy is ruled by Marxists is not true. This is not to deny that there are weird Marxist professors who preach rather than teach, but to point out that that they are very rare. I do, however, have considerable sympathy for students who get caught up in that nightmare.
It is true that professors tend to be politically liberal and it has been claimed they are becoming more liberal. From my own experiences interacting with faculty from across the United States, I do agree that professors tend to be liberal. I do suspect that the claim that they are becoming more liberal might be because the political right in America has headed further to the right. To use an analogy, the distance between two cars will change even if only one moves. In any case, let it be accepted as true that professors tend to be liberal.
That professors tend to be liberal is no more surprising than the military and business tending to have more conservatives. However, there is the reasonable concern that the academy that is supposed to educate people is dominated by the left rather than representing the ideological diversity of the country. Ironically, consistent conservatives would presumably oppose affirmative action or diversity initiatives aimed at recruiting more conservative faculty. However, they could still go out and earn terminal degrees or support other conservatives in doing so and thus help increase the number of conservatives in academics. It would be a positive thing to have more conservative intellectuals in the academy (and in general). After all, ideology without opposition in the academy leads to a multitude of sins, most especially intellectual laziness.
While the liberal domination of the academy is a matter of concern, there is also the question of whether these faculty strive to indoctrinate their students in leftist ideology. There is also the question as to whether if they try, they succeed. In my own case, I am careful to teach the class content without pushing my own ideology. For example, in my ethics class I do not try to convert the students to my own ethical theory—they get the tools of moral reasoning as well as information about a range of moral theories. But, of course, I am but one professor.
As would be expected, there are those who have researched the matter and argue that the academy does not indoctrinate students and that college does not make people more liberal. It could be contended that those making these claims are biased since they are liberal academics or liberals. This is a fair point: liberal professors and liberals defending the academy must be justly regarded as biased. This does not, however, entail that they are wrong or that their arguments are flawed—to think otherwise would be to fall victim to an ad hominem. This is because while bias provides grounds for suspicion, it does not disprove a claim. After all, the same sort of bad reasoning could be applied to the conservatives who claim that the academy indoctrinates students to be liberals—as conservatives, they would tend to be biased against liberals.
This question is an empirical one—researchers can comb through a representative sample of syllabi, PowerPoint slides, course notes, and recordings of lectures to find the relevant evidence for or against the claim of indoctrination. This research would need to meet the usual standards of a proper inductive generalization: the sample would need to be large enough and representative enough to provide strong support for the conclusion. Because of this, singular tales of crazed Marxist professors or professors who teach in a fair and balanced manner would not suffice as adequate evidence. Such appeals would be examples of anecdotal evidence, which is fallacious reasoning. This fallacy involves taking an anecdote as evidence for a general claim. Samples that are too small would result in the fallacy of hasty generalization and biased samples would result in the fallacy of biased generalization.
As would be expected, both conservatives and liberals can be tempted to use anecdotes, excessively small samples and biased samples to “support” their view. I am certainly open to the results of a properly conducted, large scale study of the academy—perhaps this is something that could be conducted by a bipartisan team of researchers. I am, of course, sure that there are some professors who do try to indoctrinate their students. This would be of concern, but the real worry would be if this occurred often enough to be a significant problem. One can use the analogy to how some make the point that while there are some bad police officers, this should not be taken as condemning the police in general. Likewise, for professors.
Even if it is found that a significant number of professors try to indoctrinate their students, there is also the question of whether they succeed. Having observed many professors across numerous institutions, I would say that we are generally not likely to indoctrinate our students. As the all too true joke goes, we have a difficult time getting them to do the readings, complete the work properly and show up to class. The idea that most professors can mold the youth into liberals with their diabolical temptations seems unlikely. This is not to say that professors have no influence at all nor to deny that there are not professors like Jordan Peterson who can sway the minds of the youth. But such charismatic corrupters are obviously quite rare—and would be more likely to pursue other, more lucrative careers.
It is worth noting that even if professors fail to indoctrinate their students, they are still wasting class time trying to preach rather than teach. This is a fair point—while off-topic discussions can be some of the best learning experiences in college, having a professor spending class time pushing their ideology rather than teaching is a disservice to the students. Of course, professors rambling about fishing stories, stamp collecting, or their favorite movies also wastes students’ time.
That said, it could be argued that professing does have a legitimate role in the classroom—if it has pedagogical value. Even if it does have some value, there is also the worry that by pushing a specific ideology, the professor will mislead the students about the merits or demerits of specific views. This all ties into the classic problem of the proper role of a professor—although the ideal often advanced today is that of a neutral conveyor of information and skills designed to prepare the job fillers for their existence as workers.
On February 14th, 2018 seventeen people were murdered during a school shooting. As per the well-established script: the media focused on the weapon used, the right offered “thoughts and prayers” while insisting that this was not the time to talk about gun violence, and the left called for more gun control. As other have pointed out many times, this script will also play out in the usual way—the attention of the nation will drift away, children will be buried by their parents and nothing will really be done. This cycle will repeat with the next school shooting. And the next. As a country, we are getting it wrong in many ways.
One way we get it wrong, which is a fault of the media and the left, is to obsess on the specific weapon used in the latest school shooting. In this case, like many other cases, the weapon was an AR-15. The media always seems to ask why the weapon is used in shootings; the easy and obvious answer is that it shows up at mass shootings for the same reason that McDonald wrappers and bags end up alongside the roads I run. That is, both are very popular. There is also the fact that the AR-15 is an ideal weapon for engaging a crowd—it has a large magazine capacity, it is lethal and is easy to shoot. But, the AR-15 is not unique in those traits. There are many other assault rifles (as they are called) that are similar. For example, the AK-47 and its clones are also effective weapons of this type; but they are the Arby’s of assault weapons. That is, less popular. There is also the fact that non-assault weapons are just as lethal (or more so) than the assault rifles. They just tend to have smaller magazines. This shows one of the problems with the obsession with the AR-15—there are other weapons that would do the same.
Another problem with obsessing about the specific weapon is that it allows an easy red herring counter. A red herring is when one diverts attention from the original issue to another issue. When, for example, a reporter starts pressing a congressman about the AR-15, they can easily switch the discussion from gun violence to a discussion about the AR-15, thus getting away from the real issue. The solution is, obviously enough, is to get over the obsession with the specific weapon and focus instead on the issue of gun violence in general. Which leads to another way we get it wrong.
School shootings are horrific, but they are not the way most victims of gun violence die. In general, homicides are at record low levels (although we are still a world leader in homicides). Most gun-related deaths are suicides and the assault rifle is not the most commonly used weapon in most gun deaths. School shootings and mass shootings do get the attention of the media and the nation, but this seems to enable us to ignore the steady flow of gun-related deaths that do not grab the headlines. This is not to say that mass shootings are not a serious problem, nor that we should not act in response to them. But, the gun violence problem in America goes far beyond mass shootings. It is, ironically, a quiet problem that does not get the spotlight of the media. As such, even less is done about the broader problem than is done about mass shootings. And, to be honest, little or nothing is done about mass shootings.
While there are proposals from the left for gun control, the right usually advocates having a “good guy with a gun”, addressing mental illness, and fortifying places such as schools. There seems to be little evidence that the “good guy with a gun” will solve the problem of mass shootings; but this is largely due to the fact that there is so little good data about gun violence. While mental illness is clearly a problem and seriously addressing mental illness would be a broad social good, it seems unlikely that the vague proposals being offered would really do anything. America essentially abandoned the mentally ill during the Reagan era, an approach that has persisted to this day. The right does not seem to be serious about putting in the social services needed to address mental illness; they merely bring it up in response to mass shootings to distract people from gun control. The left, while expressing concern, also has done little—we have massive problems in this country that are simply festering away. Also, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators, so addressing mental health in a way that focuses on mass shooters would not address the much broader problem.
The proposals to create “Fortress Academia” might seem appealing, but there is the obvious problem with cost: public schools tend to be chronically underfunded and it is not clear where the money needed for such fortification would come from. There is also the fact that turning schools intro fortresses seems fundamentally wrong and is, perhaps, a red herring to distract people from the actual causes of the problem. To use an analogy, it is like addressing the opioid epidemic by telling people to get better home security to prevent addicts from breaking in to steal things to sell to buy drugs. This is not to say that school safety is a bad idea, just that turning our schools into forts does not seem to be the best approach.
I know that it will not be that long before I am writing about another mass shooting; people will move on to other things, as they always do, and the malign neglect of the problem will persist.
Plato, or so it is claimed, advanced the idea of the noble lie: an untruth knowingly propagated for the good of society. In Plato’s Republic the noble lie was a myth presented as the parable of the metals and was intended to help maintain the ideal social order of that state. Given Plato’s opposition to the sophists and his praise of virtue, the noble lie can be jarring to some readers of his work. Detractors of philosophy will, naturally enough, regard most philosophers as engaged in less-than-noble lies. But, of course, philosophy is supposed to be a search for wisdom and this presumably includes a devotion to the truth. Politicians, who are supposed to be far more pragmatic than philosophers, would seem more inclined to embrace the noble lie. Or the ignoble lie. This does raise the enduring question of whether it is morally acceptable for leaders to lie for what they think is the good of society.
The easy and obvious way to argue this issue is to approach it on utilitarian grounds. On this moral view, if telling a lie would create more good than harm for those who matter morally, then lying would be morally correct. If the lie would create more harm than good, it would be wrong. There is, as always, an important distinction between what those lying think will result and the actual outcome—as such, there is also a distinction between the ethics of intention and the ethics of the actual consequences. History shows that good intentions do not always lead to good consequences.
There are also moral views, such as the rule-based deontological ethics put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is not a matter of consequences but a matter of following the rules. As Kant saw it, his categorical imperative entailed that lying was always wrong—so Kant and his fellows would be opposed to such a lie.
There is also the notion that truth and falsity do not matter. While some might think that this notion is something that emerged on the public stage in 2016, it has a much older pedigree. The sophists of ancient Greece embraced this view and contended that what mattered was success. Jumping ahead centuries, the idea was also advanced during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson led the United States into World War I, he insisted that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” As part of this approach, he created the Committee on Public Information. He was apparently inspired by an advisor who wrote that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”
On the one hand, this approach to the truth can be regarded as hard-headed pragmatism of the sort often praised by practical folks: what matters is the effectiveness of an idea in achieving the desired goal. To use a contemporary illustration, the successful “First Social Media War” waged by the Russians against the United States in 2016 illustrated that false claims served far better than true claims in achieving their goals. Trump and his people also effectively employed this approach, even minting the term “alternative facts.” This approach can be morally justified by using a utilitarian argument of the sort presented above, with an explicit rejection of any preference for truth. It can also be justified on the grounds of ethical egoism—the moral theory that what maximizes value for the individual in question is good. For example, from Trump’s perspective what best serves his interest is what is good.
On the other hand, while lies can yield short term good or advance someone’s private advantage, they seem to prove damaging over the longer term and broader scale. Take, as an illustration, the consequences of the decisions to lie about the flu pandemic of 1918. Public officials elected to tell the public that the flu was not serious and elected to protect the lie by not taking sensible medical approaches to the flu. For example, deciding to not cancel the Liberty Loan parade helped contribute to the epidemic in Philadelphia. The easy and obvious reason that such lies tend to have bad results is that operating in a way that does not match reality tends to lead to bad decision making and this tends to lead to negative consequences.
A good contemporary example of this is the matter of climate change. While most experts believe that climate change is occurring and has been influenced by human action, there are still political figures who deny this. While it is possible that the political figures are operating in sincere ignorance rather that lying, this is a case in which it is all but certain that one side is lying. If the climate change deniers are lying, they are acting like the lying officials did in 1918 and will be complicit in worldwide suffering and countless deaths. If the climate change believers are lying, the consequences will be far less bad—more regulations, deployment of more green energy technology, and perhaps some negative impact on economic growth. Being rational, I side with the majority of qualified experts—I am confident that the climate scientists are not lying. However, I am open to compelling arguments and evidence from climate experts who deny climate change.
The Trump Presidency: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) - YouTube
Whataboutism is a variant of the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In the standard tu quoque fallacy it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:
Person A makes claim X.
Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
Therefore X is false.
The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite, but this does not prove his claims are false. For those noting the similarity to the Wikipedia entry on this fallacy, you will note that the citation for the form and example is to my work.
As would be expected, while the Russians used this tactic against the West, Americans use it against each other along political lines. For example, a Republican might “defend” Roy Moore by saying “what about Harvey Weinstein?” A Democrat might do the reverse. I mention that Democrats can use this in anticipation of comments to the effect of “what about Democrats using whataboutism?” People are, of course, free to use Bill Clinton in the example, if they prefer. To return to the subject, the “reasoning” in both cases would be fallacious as is evident when the “logic” is laid bare:
Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
Conclusion: Therefore, A did not do X.
Obviously enough, whether C did X is irrelevant to whether or not it is true that A did X.
Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
Conclusion: Therefore, it is not wrong that A did X.
Clearly, even if C did X it does not follow that A doing X was not wrong. This sort of “reasoning” can also be seen as a variant on the classic appeal to common practice fallacy. This fallacy has the following structure:
Premise 1. X is a common action.
Conlcusion. Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.
The basic idea behind the fallacy is that the fact that most people do X is used as “evidence” to support the action or practice. It is a fallacy because the mere fact that most people do something does not make it correct, moral, justified, or reasonable. In the case of whataboutism, the structure would be like this:
Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.
Premise 2. Whatabout X done by your side?
Premises 3. So, X is commonly done/we both do X.
Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.
It is also common for the tactic of false equivalency to be used in whataboutism. In the form above, the X of premise 1 would not be the moral equivalent of the X of premise 2. In fact, the form should be modified to account for the use of false equivalency:
Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.
Premise 2. Whatabout Y, which I say is just as bad as X, done by your side?
Premises 3. So, things just as bad as X are commonly done/we both do things as bad as X.
Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.
This would be a not-uncommon double fallacy. In this case not only is the comparison between X and Y a false one, even if they were equivalent the fact that both sides do things that are equally bad would still not support the conclusion. Obviously enough, you should not accept this sort of reasoning—especially when it is being used to “support” a conclusion that is appealing.
Whataboutism can also be employed as a tool for creating a red herring. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
Topic A is under discussion.
Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
Topic A is abandoned.
In the case of a whataboutism, the structure would be as follows:
Topic A, my side doing X, is under discussion.
Topic B is introduced: whatabout X done by the other side?
Topic A is abandoned.
In closing, it should be noting that if two sides are being compared, then it is obviously relevant to consider the flaws of both sides. For example, if the issue is whether to vote for candidate A or B, then it is reasonable to consider the flaws of both A and B in comparison. However, the flaws of A do not show that B does not have flaws and vice versa. Also, if the issue being discussed is the bad action of A, then bringing up B’s bad action does nothing to mitigate the badness of A’s action. Unless, of course, A had to take a seemingly bad action to protect themselves from B’s unwarranted bad action. For example, if A is accused of punching a person and it is shown that this was because B tried to kill A, then that would obviously be relevant to assessing the ethics of A’s action. But, if A assaulted women and B assaulted women, then bringing up B in a whataboutism to defend A would be an error in logic. Both would be bad.
As far as why you should be worried about whataboutism, the obvious reason is that it is a corrosive that eats at the very structure of truth and morality. While it is a tempting tool to deploy against one’s hated enemies (such as fellow Americans), it is not a precise weapon—each public use splashes the body of society with vile acid.
Lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before congress at the start of November, 2017. One of the main reasons these companies attracted the attention of congress was the cyberwarfare campaign launched by the Russians through these companies against the United States during the 2016 Presidential campaign.
One narrative is that companies like Facebook are naively focused on all the good things that are possible with social media and that they are blind to misuses of this sort. On this narrative, the creators of these companies are like the classic scientist of science fiction who just wanted to do good, but found their creation misused for terrible purposes. This narrative does have some appeal—it is easy for very focused people to be blind to what is outside of their defining vision, even extremely intelligent people. Perhaps especially in the case of intelligent people.
That said, it is difficult to imagine that companies so focused on metrics and data would be ignorant of what is occurring within their firewalls. It would also be odd that so many bright people would be blissfully unaware of what was really going on. Such ignorance is, of course, not impossible—but seems unlikely.
Another narrative is that these companies are not naïve. They are, like many other companies, focused on profits and not overly concerned with the broader social, political and moral implications of their actions. The cyberwarfare launched by the Russians was profitable for their companies—after all, the ads were paid for, the bots swelled Twitter’s user numbers, and so on.
It could be objected that it would be foolish of these companies to knowingly allow the Russians and others to engage in such destructive activity. After all, they are American companies whose leaders seem to endorse liberal political values.
One easy reply is courtesy of one of my political science professors: capitalists will happily sell the rope that will be used to hang them. While this seems silly, it does make sense: those who focus on profits can easily sacrifice long term well-being for short term profits. Companies generally strive to ensure that the harms and costs are offloaded to others. This practice is even defended and encouraged by lawmakers. For example, regulations that are intended to protect people and the environment from the harms of pollution are attacked as “job killing.” The Trump administration, in the name of profits, is busy trying to roll back many of the laws that protect consumers from harm and misdeeds. As such, the social media companies are analogous to more traditional companies, such as energy companies. While cyberwarfare and general social media misdeeds cause considerable harm, the damage is largely suffered by people other than social media management and shareholders. Because of this, I am somewhat surprised that the social media companies do not borrow the playbooks used by other companies when addressing offloading harms to make profits. For example, just as energy companies insist that they should not be restrained by “job-killing” environmental concerns, the social media companies should insist that they not be restrained by “job-killing” concerns about the harms they profit from enabling. After all, the basic principle is the same: it is okay to cause harm, provided that it is profitable to a legal business.
Of course, companies are also quite willing to take actions for short term profits that will cause their management and shareholders long term harms. There is also the fact that most people discount the future—that is, they will often take a short-term benefit even it means forgoing a greater gain in the long term or experiencing a greater harm later. As such, the idea that the social media companies are knowingly allowing such harmful activity because it is profitable in the short term is not without merit.
It is also worth considering the fact that social media companies span national boundaries. While they are nominally American companies, they make their profits globally and have offices and operations around the world. While the idea of megacorporations operating apart from nations and interested solely in their own profits is considered the stuff of science fiction, companies like Google and Facebook clearly have interests quite apart from those of the United States and its citizens. If being a vehicle for cyberwarfare against the United States and its citizens is profitable, these companies would have little reason to not sell, for example, the Russians the digital rope they will use to hang us. While a damaged United States might have some impact on the social media-companies bottom line, it might be offset by profits to be gained elsewhere. To expect patriotism and loyalty from social-media companies would be as foolish as expecting it from other companies. After all, the business of business is now shareholder and upper management profit and there is little profit in patriotism and national loyalty.
While it is tempting to see such incidents as isolated cases of powerful men using their positions to exploit and abuse women, the reality is that there is an entire system of social, political, legal and economic machinery in place to enable and defend such evil. To illustrate, I will present various examples of these machines. But first I will note that my reference to machinery is metaphorical and that I am not denying that the individuals who harassed, assaulted and even raped women are somehow not fully responsible for their misdeeds. Rather, they made conscious use of their ecosystem to engage in their predation.
One key part of the machinery is, obviously, the vast disparities in power and wealth in American society. While the United States is supposed to be classless, this is an obvious lie—the United States is highly stratified and the less powerful can be easily exploited by the more powerful. This power disparity applies across the board—it is obviously not just those at the Weinstein and O’Reilly level that harass.
While such power disparities are inherent to our political and economic system, the laws are supposed to address them and mitigate the amount of abuse and exploitation the weaker must endure at the hands of the stronger. Unfortunately, the legal system has been crafted to provide considerable protection for harassers.
One example of this is the nondisclosure agreement. While the NDA does have some value to those who sign them, they have become well known for their role in allowing serial harassers to keep on harassing. For example, some of the women Weinstein allegedly victimized had signed NDAs that forbid them from speaking out about what had happened to them. Bill O’Reilly paid $32 million to settle a sexual harassment claim, something that would have remained a secret thanks to the NDA that was part of the settlement. Because of this, the way nondisclosure works in the case of harassment should be carefully reconsidered. Otherwise, the system allows harassers to simply buy secrecy for their misdeeds and to continue to operate under the protective shadow of money. There is also the concern that employees are often compelled to sign such agreements as a condition of employment (which goes back to how the more powerful can easily coerce the less powerful) or need to sign them to get any sort of justice.
An obvious objection is to point out that the system does work: O’Reilly and Weinstein were ousted. While it is true that people do sometimes eventually face the consequences of their actions, it is rather important to remember that they were able to engage in harassment over an extended period and there are, presumably, many others out there who are getting away with it. It is surely small consolation to the victims that after a decade or three the harasser might get in trouble.
Another vital part of the machinery is the cooperation of those who are aware of the harassment and take no action against it. In the cases of Weinstein and O’Reilly, the stories indicate that their behavior was well-known, yet no one seems to have acted to stop them or protect their victims. In fact, harassers of their influence are actively protected—often at great expense. To be fair, the power disparity that enables people to victimize others enables them to silence potential critics and neutralize those who would oppose their misdeeds.
It can be objected that people have acted, that some women have gotten very lucrative settlements. Some even suggest that the women are the real villains, shaking down men for settlements. While such concerns should be addressed in proportion to the evidence, in most cases those getting the settlement are the real victims and the harassers are buying silence—so that they can keep on harassing (and making money for the company). As far as the effectiveness of the settlements; they probably have some deterrent value—presumably companies are not eager to cut checks to silence victims. However, there is a significant volume of incidents and, as such, it seems evident that the current system is not solving the problem of systematic harassment.
While it is easy to see people like O’Reilly and Weinstein as the problem; they are merely the visible part of the iceberg of harassment. Beneath them is a vast edifice that enabled them to engage in their predatory behavior for years. Simply ousting them merely leaves niches for new predators and real change requires modifying all the underlying enabling machinery and the ecosystem of the sexual predator.