Intimidation, Conformity, and Cowardice in American Academia

I have previously mentioned an incident described in the memoirs of Tom Watson Jr, longtime CEO of IBM.

There was a moment when I truly thought IBM was going to lose its shot at defense work because of the kind of window blinds I had in my office.

These were vertical blinds, which were not common at the time. An engineer who was in Watson’s office for a meeting made a sketch of the blinds, and inadvertently left it in his shirt pocket when he took the shirt to the dry cleaner. The laundry man thought the paper looked suspicious, and sent it to Senator McCarthy. Pretty soon, a group of investigators came and said to the engineer, “We’ve identified this as a plan for a radar antenna, and want to hear about it. We want to be perfectly fair. But we know it is a radar antenna and the shirt it was found in belongs to you.”

The engineer explained about the vertical blinds, and the investigation team then asked to see Watson. The chief executive officer of IBM showed them the blinds and demonstrated the way they worked.

They looked them over very carefully and then left. I thought I had contained it, but I wasn’t sure, and I was scared. We were working on SAGE (the computerized air defense system–ed) and it would have been a hell of a way to lose our security clearance.

Shortly after the incident with the vertical blinds, Watson was invited to a lunch at Lehman Brothers, along with about 20 other high-ranking businesspeople. During the lunch, he mentioned his concerns about McCarthyism:

Of the twenty-odd people present, I was the only one who took that position. That didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that the following week I got letters from several people who had been there, and they all had a similar message: “I didn’t want to commit myself in public, but I certainly agreed with everything you said.”

I was reminded of this story once again by the current academic ragestorm involving the work of Professor Rebecca Tuvel.  And, just as with Watson’s experience during the McCarthy era, what is particularly disturbing is that there are apparently a lot of people who don’t like what has been happening…but are afraid to say so.

And who is Professor Tuvel and what is the ragestorm about, you may ask?  Tuvel is an assistant professor of philosophy at Memphis College; you can see her teaching and research interests at the link.  Recently she published an article entitled “In Defense of Transracialism” in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy.  A writer at Inside Higher Ed summarizes:

The article explores whether there might be parallels between being transgender and being transracial, focusing specifically on the well-known case of Rachel Dolezal, who is white but presented herself as black for many years.

Tuvel’s argument is that the very same reasons that might justify an individual’s decision to change sexes could also be used to justify an individual’s decision to change races — so if one is committed to the acceptability of the former (as Tuvel herself is), then one would be committed to the acceptability of the latter.

And then the ragestorm broke:

Shortly after the paper was published in the spring 2017 edition of Hypatia, an open letter with signatures but no author appeared on the internet soliciting further signatures. The letter called for Tuvel’s paper to be retracted by the journal, stating that “its continued availability causes further harm.”

This open letter is now closed to further signatures and has been sent to the editor of Hypatia. While the open letter was still circulating, a statement appeared on the Hypatia website repudiating the article and making multiple references to the harms caused by the article’s publication. The statement has no signatures but is credited to “A majority of the Hypatia board of associate editors.”

“The harms caused by the article’s publication” sounds like an argument that would have been made by the Inquisition in support of burning someone at the stake for unauthorized theological writing, or the arguments that were frequently made by Nazi and Soviet courts when calling for the execution of those who had disseminated forbidden political and social views.

A recent New York Magazine article, This is what a modern-day witch hunt looks like,  argues that many of the assertions by Tuvel’s ‘critics’ (way too mild a word in this context) are based on a mischaracterization of what she actually wrote.  And this piece asserts that the over-the-top reaction has caused serious damage to Tuvel’s career…”How can Prof. Tuvel, for example, now use this repudiated but allegedly peer-reviewed article as part of her tenure process?   Indeed, how can her department or college support her for tenure when she has been so vilified as a scholar and professional by people who work in her fields?”…and suggests that these attacks may rise to the level of defamation in the legal sense.

My main concern here is not whether Tuvel’s work is good or bad (read it for yourself here, if you’re so inclined, not sure how much longer it will stay up before the bit-burners get it)…indeed, I question the value of the whole subdiscipline encompassing this work and that of many of its critics), but the vitriolic tone of the attacks which in my view clearly inhibit intellectual exploration and and the ability to freely and (individually or collectively) play with ideas…which things are supposed to be primary reasons for the existence of academia…in favor of the dead hand of conformity.  And what is particularly disturbing…and closely echoes Tom Watson’s experiences during the McCarthy era…is this:

The split between what people wrote to both Rebecca Tuvel and to me in private, and what they felt compelled to say in public is one indication that the explosion of personal insults and vicious attacks on social media is symptomatic of something much bigger than the actual issues discussed in Tuvel’s article. In private messages, some people commiserated, expressed support, and apologized for what was happening and for not going public with their support. As one academic wrote to me in a private message, “sorry I’m not saying this publicly (I have no interest in battling the mean girls on Facebook) but fwiw it’s totally obvious to me that you haven’t been committing acts of violence against marginalized scholars.


Others went further and supported Tuvel in private while actually attacking her in public. In private messages, these people apologized for what she must be going through, while in public they fanned the flames of hatred and bile on social media.

(link for the above)

This behavior also echoes what Sarah Hoyt encountered when on an email list for writers she:

…dared question the insanity of a well-respected pro who said that George Bush (personally) had raised the price of stamps to ruin her (personally) in her efforts to sell used books through Amazon.  There are levels of insanity I can’t tolerate and couldn’t even while in the political closet.  So I pointed out the sheer insanity of this, the inefficiencies of the post office and probable causes for it.

The list went silent.  I figured tons of people were cussing me behind my back (this was when GB’s name was after all like invoking the devil.)

So, I shrugged, figured I’d be kicked out of the list and went for a walk.  When I came back my email was full of “Oh, thank you, for saying…”  ALL OF IT IN PRIVATE MESSAGES.   The senders ranged from raw beginners to established pros, but no one would challenge this lady’s illusions to her face.  Only me.

That experience of Sarah’s wasn’t in academia per se, of course, but there has long been a close connection between the world of academia and the worlds of writing and publishing, and toxic behavior patterns in one surely tend to spread to the other. And much of American academia today seems to be acting as a repressive force.  Students exposed to this environment will often learn to shut up and conform, dissenting professors will be driven out, and the whole thing will become (has largely already become, it seems) self-perpetuating.

Glenn Reynolds:

Academia is increasingly like middle school, and academics increasingly like middle-schoolers. Question for taxpayers: Why subsidize middle-school behavior? Especially when it’s a middle school in East Germany. . . .

It’s somewhat encouraging that within academia there does seem to be some push-back emerging against the witch-hunters, and indeed, Hypatia’s editor in chief and the president of its board of directors, have stated that the people calling themselves “majority of the board of associate editors” were speaking for themselves and not for editor-in-chief, the editorial advisers or the editorial board. (See the Wikipedia article on the affair.)  It would be nice to believe that this matter marks a high-water mark in the recent history of American academic insanity and repression, but I’m doubtful that is really the case.

28 thoughts on “Intimidation, Conformity, and Cowardice in American Academia”

  1. I used to be on a self publishing usegroup list but quit in 2004 when the Bush Derangement got too wild.

    Then, we have the Duke Divinity School fracas.

    A string of emails, first published by The American Conservative website, revealed a chain of events that began with a February invitation to all divinity school faculty to participate in two full days of racial equity training in March.

    “Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing,” wrote Anathea Portier-Young, an associate professor of Old Testament. “We recognize that it is a significant commitment of time; we also believe it will have great dividends for our community.”

    Griffiths responded the same day to Portier-Young, Feb. 6, copying all faculty on the email and calling the training a waste of time.

    It’s interesting that the two day “training session” included a Sunday all day period. At a Divinity School !

    Alan Bloom should be alive to see how he was so right back in 1987.

  2. The University of Arizona is hiring students to be ‘social-justice activists’…sounds like a big part of the job description is ‘snitch on your fellow students.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if that expands to include snitching on professors as well:

    And in Canada, the editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine published an article that said:

    “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”

    “I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

    He has paid for his thoughtcrime by resigning.

    On Wednesday, the Writer’s Union of Canada issued an apology for the piece, announcing Niedzviecki’s resignation and pledging to review the magazine’s policies.

    “The Writer’s Prompt piece offended and hurt readers, contributors to the magazine and members of the editorial board,” said the statement. “We apologize unequivocally. We are in the process of contacting all contributors individually.”

  3. The goal of the American Left has long been to acquire the ability to make anyone who commits “thoughtcrime” by whatever the current definition of it is a “non-person” in real life and eventually to remove them from society and life completely. The current uproar over the firing of James Comey as director of the FBI is a perfect example of the need to include the concept of “the current definition”.

    Up until the moment of firing, James Comey was being held up as a modern day Beelzebub by the Left in general and Democrats in particular because while he protected Hillary from prosecution for her many crimes on both sides of the border of espionage, he did not bury the crimes deep enough to keep their existence from coming out. The very nicest version of what the Left and Democrats wanted to do was fire him instantly. The less nice versions included threats of bodily harm.

    The exact moment he was fired, every one of those Democrats declared Comey a Saint, because somehow he was going to get Trump [and in their dreams] and install Hillary as president. Those non- Inner Party members of the proletarian workers and peasants who have not gotten the word and changed their public statements within say 48 hours and denied any other belief are themselves now traitors to the Revolution.

    This is the kind of idiocy that is not going to be corrected by rational discussion, because they are not and will not be rational. And they already reject electoral politics unless they win. Which leaves limited alternatives.

  4. Grim has a post and discussion re the substantive aspects of Tuvel’s paper:

    “The thing is, as everyone knows, sex is a huge biological fact that impacts everything about us. Race is, at most, a heuristic way of talking about genetic differences in groups; more likely, it’s a fiction largely created to sell early Modern Europeans on being OK with re-introducing slavery. It has a big social reality, but refers to nothing that is biologically real. Thus, if one can ‘trans’it sex, one could surely ‘trans’it race. To say otherwise is to hold that this social fiction has more impact on us than what is probably the single most important biological characteristic.”

  5. Oh please spare me .. Mcarthyism ???? you’ve got to be kidding me … she’s an idiot … she deserves every bit of scorn she’s gotten … she is advocating for leaving people with mental disorders not only untreated but encouraged …

  6. All these crapstorms are facilitated by social media, which seems to encourage impulsive commenting. And God knows the millennials have no impulse control.

    Social media is for children, not grown-ups. Kill it all off.

  7. Anon…”Social media is for children, not grown-ups. Kill it all off.”

    But WHO would kill it off? Companies making money from it aren’t going to kill it off. And surely you don’t want to give the government the power to kill it off…what else might they kill off, given such power?

    Social media definitely has shown some dark aspects…see my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet

    I don’t think the high level of political unpleasantness on FB is doing that company any favors, long-term, it is going to drive people away.

  8. Ahh, the good old days when people were afraid to speak up in any way that might make them seem sympathetic to communism.

  9. ”Social media is for children, not grown-ups. Kill it all off.”

    It’s been interesting to watch the veneer of common courtesy and social manners dissolve, or perhaps just get peeled back, by the immediacy and anonymity (in many cases–although some obviously don’t care if their identity is known) of social media. Remember how discourtesy used to be called “flaming” and was so unexpected and/or infrequent that the commenter would be called out for doing it? Now it’s routine to see a comment thread where each successive entry seems designed to further dive into a fetid swamp of obscenity, insult, ad hominem, etc.

    But, is it not a reflection of the loosening of cultural mores overall? We’ve seen a progression: from the earliest rap songs that glorify ho’s and killing cops, to near-nakedness “dresses” for women at Hollywood award shows, to full nudity & explicit sex scenes in open-access film/video/TV of the type that used to be restricted to “adult” movie houses and porn flicks.

    It’s quite frightening [to me at least] to see how quickly the social constraints of “civilized” and mannerly behavior are tossed aside when there is no opprobrium or shame applied to those who transgress what used to be generally acceptable social behavior and intercourse. Indeed, as Anon says, the current wide-open state of social media encourages escalation. And we are now seeing it extending to public utterances and tweets, etc., of public figures like news, government and entertainment personalities, that adds additional layers of social acceptance over rudeness and insult — to where anonymity is no longer necessary or desired, even, for camouflage because it’s now admired as…, I don’t know what…, being “real”? Courageous? Speaking truth….?

    I dunno. …just random thoughts. I’m probably just betraying my age as being in the upper decades of my life expectancy. ;-)

  10. “It’s quite frightening [to me at least] to see how quickly the social constraints of “civilized” and mannerly behavior are tossed aside when there is no opprobrium or shame applied to those who transgress what used to be generally acceptable social behavior and intercourse.”

    You’re not the only one, ColoComment – it worries the hell out of me, too. As I pointed out in my post earlier- Stephen Colbert’s anti-Trump rant would have been more fitting to one of those XXX-rated comedy clubs, back in the day – not on the flagship CBS-Tiffany-Network late night show. Once you have nuked good manners and civility in everyday discourse – what then?

  11. Me too, SgtMom. It’s also worrisome to see how the left is winking at violence perpetrated to shut down speakers whose opinions they dislike. Smashing windows, setting fires, beating people is, if not yet acceptable social behavior, damned close to it – as long as it’s done in the name of “resisting fascism.” Even though the leftist mob is the side behaving like Brownshirts. Even though their immediate victims are often franchisees of a super-liberal corporation like Starbucks.

    I can envision two ways this lynch-mob mentality might play out. One is that the Left turns in an ever tightening spiral, constantly attacking its own and raising standards for goodthink, until the movement is down to one transgender differently abled Black dwarf. That seems to be what’s happening in Rebecca Tuvel’s case.

    The other… leads us down a road to speech and thought control beyond even Orwell’s imagining.

  12. “But WHO would kill it off?”
    Remember the end of “Escape from LA”? You can find it on YouTube if not. It seemed extreme at the time, but seems like the only safe option now…

  13. “Ahh, the good old days when people were afraid to speak up in any way that might make them seem sympathetic to communism.”

    I have this time machine, I could let you have it pretty cheap.

  14. “I have this time machine, I could let you have it pretty cheap.”

    don’t need no time machine. commie simpletons are timeless.

  15. I dunno, you lot crack me up. Commie, WTF is a commie? It’s like time has left you in this backwater, where things look real strange to you.

    “Because something is happening
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones ?”

  16. It has a big social reality, but refers to nothing that is biologically real.

    Race has real biological effects but no one is supposed to talk about them. Hypertension and prostate cancer rates are only examples.

    A book I have read about ten times to try to get all the information it contains is “The 10,000 Year Explosion,” which has lots of information about the evolutionary changes that have occurred.

    One example is why there are whites and blacks. As humans emerged from Africa, skin pigment changed. Dark skin protected from sunburn. As humans moved north, they encountered seasons and cold weather. Sun light makes vitamin D in skin. Less sunlight in cooler seasons means less vitamin D and an influence toward developing lighter skin to allow for more vitamin D. The same effect would be seen with the wearing of clothing. In Asia, the same phenomenon is seen with the lighter skin in those living farther north.

    Hot climates may affect salt conservation as sweat loses salt. Blacks are much more affected by hypertension and it may be related to salt conservation.

    Hawaii is now suing the makers of Plavix because of racial differences in drug effect.

    “It has been reported that 38-79 percent of Pacific-Islanders and 40-50 percent of East Asians may respond poorly to Plavix due to a genetic predisposition to poorly metabolize the drug,” the state said in a statement.

    The lawsuit also alleges that Plavix unfairly marketed messages to consumers about the drug being just as effective and safe for the elderly as in younger patients, and that it is more effective and safer than aspirin.

    Louie is seeking civil penalties and disgorgement of profits.

    As genetic testing gets better, expect many more such cases.

  17. This is where my godson’s older brother is going to school. Read it and weep.

    He went there straight out of high school. No grad car, no driver’s permit, no apartment, no running around with friends; just straight into the postmodern meatgrinder. It costs his parents $38K a year. They have no parking lot, just walkways and local mass transit. Instead of learning to hold down a job, drive a car, learn to cook meals, enjoy his freedom — all the things his parents and I did — the boy I babysat and virtually helped raise for awhile is living in a cubicle, working in a cubicle, eating in a cubicle, and being marinated in this vile crap. And his tenured-public-schoolteacher parents are apparently content. It’s a very pretty campus, his mother assures me.

    In a similar idiom, I had a happily hetero lasy friend go to Wellesley and come back with a confirmed carpet munching habit. Many years later, I learnt via an article in PLAYBOY magazine that the place operates more like a woman’s prison. You *will* be a f*ckbuddy for other girls or you will be harassed and slapped around until you cave in or leave. Apparently, between embarrassment and peer pressure and nobody to appeal to, most quietly cave. (But it’s not a lifestyle choice or a sick fetish! We swear!).

    I think we can agree that next to altering a massive biological and cultural bias in sexual behavior, changing one’s political orientation is easy-peasy. This is what whole immersion plus peer pressure can accomplish, and in a short time. We used to teach the English language and honest patriotism. Now we teach bile and perversion.

    I think I need to have a talk with my godson before he gets devoured as well.

  18. My grandson is 12 and I am already concerned about college for boys. My other grandchildren are girls.

    I have no way to influence his parents’ decision but I would encourage a military enlistment to grow up. He is a good kid and his father hopes (I’m sure) that he will be good enough to get a baseball scholarship but I am very leery of college for 18 year old boys right now.

    Phil, I have heard the same thing about Smith College which is supposed to be Lesbian U.

    My middle daughter, while at UCLA, thought she would go out for some sort of intramural sport and made the mistake of going to a women’s rugby session. They were all lesbians and she had some trouble getting rid of them, even after a single practice she attended. She was pursued and harassed for almost a year.

  19. Mike K Says:
    May 13th, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    I agree with the military option, and even avoiding college. Of my kids, my son followed the family restaurant history and became chef of his own kitchen [and was complimented by Gordon Ramsay for a dish he invented]. He then followed his muse into brewing, and is now the master brewer at a fairly well known craft brewery and is a consultant in the design of other breweries.

    And he ended up financially far better off than his college educated sisters. In fact, with college being a toxic area for males, and with practical skills being more remunerative than college degrees [oversupply of degrees, undersupply of jobs in degree fields]; real life jobs may be a better way to aim them after a term in the military to knock the societal idiocy out of them.

  20. “And he ended up financially far better off than his college educated sisters.”

    I’m starting to think this may be true. My son who is the father of the one grandson is a firefighter who is the only one of my kids without a degree.

    He and his wife are also the only ones of my kids who own a single family home in California.

    My wife’s oldest son builds custom homes in Oregon. No college.

    Here is a home he built.

    This is it finished.

    He built a B&B in Oregon that we may stay at when we go up in August.

    He has three sons. Two work for him and one works for the Porsche restorer I have linked to before.

    I think outside of STEM majors, college has lost most of its value.

  21. Who knew that Sokol’s Hoax would become the standard for academic papers ?

    What do these people major in ?

  22. “I have no way to influence his parents’ decision but I would encourage a military enlistment to grow up.”

    That might not work out so well. They sent me off to a military affiliated private school when I was 8. I learned to deal with the situation and left, firmly the Christian religion, because of the crap in the back of the Book of Common Prayer.

    I developed a hate for most of what they believed and have not looked back on that.

  23. “They sent me off to a military affiliated private school when I was 8.”

    No wonder you are such a crabby misanthrope.

  24. Mike, bear in mind that Canada is gets it’s culture from Britian, where the upper and middle class attitude is mostly “What, raise my own children? I’d just as soon send them off for strangers to abuse.”
    The school in the Harry Potter stories is made up in specifics but not theme, but few of them are as far out as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. There’s less of it now, but Eton and Winchester are real places.
    For Pen: a friend of mine in junior high got into extensive trouble and his well to do parents packed him off to the “Boy’s marine school” in Brownsville; think Virginia Military Institute, only affiliated with the Marine Corps.

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