on questioning the sacred tenets of the left

If you’ve ever read a claim by a good liberal, and maybe you consider yourself to be a good liberal as well, perhaps a good leftist, and thought that maybe the claim seemed a bit bunk—maybe because it seemed radical for the sake of being radical, but not for the sake of being right; logically inconsistent; difficult to prove; or perhaps even unfalsifiable—but then you considered that there might be social risk associated with publicly questioning the tenets of that claim, then you’ve probably run headlong into an orthodoxy that has its foundational underpinnings in the academic left.

If one wants to find the ideas in a society that could probably use the most criticism, all one need do is uncover which ideas are the most risky to question.  It’s often the case that right wing ideas, and in particular right wing taboos, carry the least amount of risk in questioning, at least in a modern western context.  This is not to say that right wing ideas are easy for everyone to question, for example, someone living in the heart of right wing America may find it hard to question such ideas, but in general, the mainstream media, pop culture, public policy, and academia are all behind you in your questioning of, say, the norms and mores of the American minority group composed of working class white, evangelical Christians in the heart of Dixie.  In fact, I could score nothing but high fives and popularity points if I were to stand in the middle of Westlake Park here in Seattle and scream, at the top of my lunges, criticism of that group.

After all, have you not heard? “Reality has a liberal bias”.  However, to question the ideas and taboos of the left wing one must assume far greater potential professional and reputational risk, especially the higher up one goes in the social strata.  One might as well not go there, or go there less, or do so in the company of friends only.  If you have to question it in hushed tones in a public place, then chances are you’ve uncovered an idea that needs a dose of criticism; I would not be surprised if it needs a shower of criticism, or a criticism tornado.  This is not to say that left wing ideas don’t get questioned: right wing America does it all the time, but the right wing is often ignored too easily by the rest of mainstream America, primarily for justifiable reasons that they’ve brought upon themselves (see Donald Trump).  In general, there is greater risk in questioning left wing ideas and taboos, and often it’s only those who have the job security—such as those little adored shock jocks on the AM dial—and if not the job security then the least to lose, who are willing or able to tread such a line.  Unfortunately, shock jocks and those with the least to lose are often the least capable of putting up a persuasive case against some left wing ideas and taboos, and thus, there needs to be a greater number of individuals, bound by a set of universal moral and ethical principals, who are willing to stand up and put a foot down.  As one with a built in aversion to orthodoxy, I consider it my duty to be one of those people.  Taboos need to be questioned, regardless of whether they are on the left or the right, because it is through questioning and criticism that we come up with better solutions, and the result is that the most people are helped.

There are various other individuals and organizations working to undue the social risks associated with questioning some of these left wing taboos.  The Heterodox Academy is one of them, which was founded last year to combat the overwhelming left wing group think in the academy.  While it recognizes the problem is left wing group think, Heterdox itself is a diverse, bipartisan group of influential academics that includes in it’s membership folks such as the cognitive scientist and author of “The Blank Slate”, Steven Pinker; the brilliant African American linguist, John McWhorter; and the notable centrist and author of “The Righteous Mind”, Jonathan Haidt:

The word heterodox means “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards of beliefs.” We chose that word to contrast with “orthodoxy,” which refers to conforming with accepted norms and beliefs. Orthodoxy has religious connotations, but it can be applied to any view that becomes dogma or dogmatic, such as “orthodox Marxism,” “social constructionist orthodoxy,” or “progressive orthodoxy.”Sometimes (to paraphrase the evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould), ideas become accepted because there is so much evidence in support of them that it would be perverse to believe otherwise (e.g., the Earth is round; modern living species are descended from earlier ones).  Other times, however, ideas become widely accepted, even entrenched, without any real evidence.   Such entrenched beliefs often arise because they support particular political or moral agendas; if the beliefs are falsified, the moral agenda will be threatened.

Examples of entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies include:

  • Humans are a blank slate, and “human nature” does not exist.
  • All differences between human groups are caused by differential treatment of those groups, or by differential media portrayals of group members.
  • Social stereotypes do not correspond to any real differences.
  • Affirmative action is highly effective at advancing the interests, success, and status of oppressed or underrepresented groups,

However, if academics were predominantly conservative or libertarian, a very different set of equally unjustified orthodoxies would likely be prevalent. Such orthodoxies forestall scholarly inquiry.  There is a strong consensus in the academic world that diversity is important because bringing diverse viewpoints to bear on social, intellectual, philosophical, legal, and moral problems is likely to enhance the quality of the scholarship that bears on those issues.  We enthusiastically embrace this view.  The academic world must have viewpoint diversity if it is to function properly and produce reliable research.