A Philosopher's Blog

The Liberal Academy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 19, 2016

While the high cost of college and the woes of student loans tend to be the main focuses of media coverage of universities, there has also been some attention paid to such things as trigger warnings and safe spaces. A trigger warning, in the context of a university class, is an explicit notification that the content a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or even cause a post-traumatic stress disorder response. In an academic context, a safe space is supposed to be a place free of harassment, intolerance and hate speech. As might be suspected, some consider trigger warnings and safe spaces potential threats to free speech.

The existence of trigger warnings and safe spaces is also taken by some as a sign that the liberal masters of the academy have gotten out of hand and are imposing their agenda upon students and a few unwilling faculty. There are also concerns that the liberal dominance has marginalized conservative academics. There is some merit to these concerns. There is apparently a roughly 5 to 1 ratio of liberal faculty to conservative faculty and there are certainly examples of how the academy can be hostile towards conservative ideas. And even liberal ideas that do not match the proper ideology.

Given that the stereotypical liberal accuses the stereotypical conservative of marginalizing others and opposing free expression, there is a certain irony in the claim that the liberal is the alleged oppressor and the conservative is the alleged victim. It is also ironic that some of the defenses offered for the marginalization of conservatives in the academy mirror the defenses offered for the marginalization of minorities by some conservatives. This should not, however, be surprising: those with the upper hand tend to use the same basic playbook—although the vocabulary does change.

While I certainly accept liberal concerns regarding the marginalization of minorities and women in the broader society, consistency requires me to also give due consideration to the marginalization of conservatives in the academy. After all, marginalization anywhere is a threat to inclusion everywhere.

I have considered elsewhere the causal factors behind the general liberal dominance of the academy, but it is certainly worth considering this matter again. One concern is that while conservatives might complain about liberal dominance of the academy, there simply might not be enough conservatives interested in becoming professors. This does make some sense—becoming a professor requires spending years getting a terminal degree, grinding through a brutal job search process that is likely to result in part time employment as an adjunct without any benefits. The same amount of effort applied to other fields, such as business endeavors, law or medicine would result in a vastly better chance of getting a much better paying job with greater benefits. Given that conservatives are often cast as interested in being practical and focused on financial success, it would actually seem odd for them to want to go into academics. The stereotypical liberal character seems to better match this career path. This is not to say that an academic job cannot be financially rewarding; but faculty positions yield far less financially than other positions that require analogous education and effort.

Administrative posts can, however, be gold mines—while they do not quite match the financial rewards of the big corporations, the upper echelons do come close in terms of pay, bonuses and perks. But, of course, conservatives taking administrative posts would still leave the actual teaching in liberal hands. But, back to the main subject.

The above reasoning is, of course, is analogous to a stock reply to claims that other areas are lacking in minorities or women: there is no oppression, it is simply the case that minorities and women are not very interested in those areas. So, while conservatives could become professors just as easily as liberals, they wisely elect to pursue more financially lucrative careers. Likewise, liberals tend to pursue less lucrative careers. For example, while there are liberals in the top echelons of the financial firms and corporations (Apple, which does its best to utilize cheap foreign labor and evade taxes is often presented as ruled by liberals), these positions tend to be dominated by conservative white men.

Conservatives can borrow a stock liberal argument here. Liberals typically argue that women and minorities want to be in the fields where they are marginalized, but there are systematic means of keeping them at the margins. For example, liberals often point to how women are treated to explain the small numbers of women in various fields. These methods include the usual suspects: discouraging women from taking classes relevant to the field, steering women away from careers in those fields, hiring biases against women, and hostility towards women who make it into the field.

Conservatives can use this approach and contend that there are many conservatives who want to be professors, but there are systematic means of keeping them marginalized. These means would include the usual suspects: the discouraging of conservative ideas in the classroom, steering conservatives away from careers in academics, hiring biases against those with known conservative views, and hostility towards conservatives who make it into the academy.

While it might be tempting for liberals to respond using analogies to the arguments employed by some conservatives in the face of claims that women and minorities are marginalized, that would be unjust. If being a liberal involves being opposed to marginalization, then moral consistency would require addressing all warranted concerns about the marginalization of conservatives in academics. As noted above, marginalization anywhere is a threat to diversity everywhere.

Making the academy more diverse would thus require approaches analogous to making other fields more diverse. These methods would include tolerance of conservative ideas in the classroom, encouraging conservatives to pursue careers in academics, addressing hiring biases against conservatives (perhaps with some affirmative action hires), and sensitivity training to mitigate hostility against conservatives in the academy.


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GOP “Victimology”

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 6, 2009

I recently saw some clips from CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) that seemed to show signs of what is sometimes called “victimology.”

To be more specific, some of the conservative speakers seem to have joined the “culture of victim hood.” This involves reveling in one’s status as an (alleged) victim and using this status to gain sympathy and explain failures.

The most common occurrence of conservative victim hood is when it is claimed that conservative are victims of the liberal media. This ranges from the general claim that the media is biased against conservatives to explicit claims that the media somehow stole the election from McCain and Palin.

This sort of explanation strikes me as victim hood. After all, the media is presented as the cause of the conservatives’ problems and failures (that is, the media has been used as a scapegoat) and the role of the conservatives themselves is conveniently ignored. Blaming others for one’s own failures is, of course, a classic sign of embracing victim hood.

Naturally, it might be objected that the conservatives are not embracing victim hood. Rather, they are merely pointing out the facts that the media is against them and stole the election from McCain and Palin.  If these charges are true, then the conservatives would be real victims and merely saying how things are. The question is, of course, are these charges true?

The best evidence seems to be that these charges are not true. While it could be argued that the media influenced the outcome of the election, it seems unlikely that it was the most important determining factor. To claim this is to ignore such facts as the incredible unpopularity of the Bush administration, the way the McCain campaign was run and the way the Obama campaign was run. Further, even if some people in the media are biased in favor of Obama and the liberals, clearly Fox News and conservative talk radio are not. As such, the idea that the conservatives are helpless victims of the liberal media is implausible.

To be fair, some of the speeches did note how the conservative movement did contribute to its own failure. The main theme seemed to have been that the Bush administration strayed from the true principles of conservatism and this cost the GOP Congress and the White House. Interestingly, such criticism was lacking during the eight years of the Bush administration. In fact, Bush was an honored guest at the 2008 CPAC (people even chanted “four more years”).

While it is true that the Bush administration strayed far from conservative ideals (they abandoned fiscal responsibility, seemed to have little respect for the rule of law, and so on), blaming the Bush Administration seems to also be embracing the culture of victim hood. After all, this seems to be placing the blame on others when, in fact, those placing the blame were willing participants.

Mitt Romney also tapped into the idea that conservatives are being persecuted. He remarked, jokingly, that he was worried about being arrested for practicing capitalism. Obviously, this is rhetorical hyperbole designed to appeal to the fears and prejudices of the audience. However, it does send the message that capitalists are now victims of an administration that is out to get them. This, obviously enough, ignores the facts.While the economy has been wrecked by capitalists, they seem to be in little danger of being arrested-even those who had  a direct hand in wrecking the economy. In fact, the government has been dumping billions into companies to help these capitalists. To express fear towards the government in this context is like being afraid of someone who is throwing you a lifeline as you are drowning.

There was also the usual claim that people want to take away our guns. While there are some people who are anti-gun, this fear that the liberals are going to strip Americans of their guns is far out of proportion to the facts.

While it is reasonable to be concerned about infringements of the second amendment, raising up the specter of the liberal anti-gun threat and casting gun owners as victims is one more example of embracing the culture of victim hood. For those who think I’m an anti-gun liberal, I am not. I’ve been shooting since I was old enough to hold a gun (started with a Marlin .22 rifle and a single shot .410 shotgun) and I’m still pro-gun today. I just don’t see myself as a victim or potential victim of the anti-gun folks. After all, anti-gun liberals are  unarmed.

Given that the conservatives have long attacked the “culture of victim hood”, it is beautifully ironic that they are now card carrying members of that culture. With any luck, the ACLU will be helping them out soon.

Will the Media be Too Easy on Obama?

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2009

While some might think that the notion that the media has a liberal bias is a new thing, it actually dates back to Spiro Agnew. This notion continued under the Reagan administration and is still around today. For example, it has been claimed that the media was too easy on Obama during the primaries and general election. Some even have gone so far as to claim that the biased media contributed to his victory. Naturally enough, some wonder whether the media will be too easy on Obama now that he is President.

Of course, there is the question of whether the media has a liberal bias or not. Some critics point to the surveys showing that journalists tend to be politically liberal as evidence for a liberal bias. While this does provide grounds for concern, the mere potential for bias does not entail actual bias. To use an analogy, I have definite moral views. However, when I grade student papers in my ethics classes, I do not grade them based on whether they match my view or not. Presumably other professionals can exert the same restraint as I and keep their bias in check.

In the face of such a question, the natural thing to do is to turn to the experts. Unfortunately, the experts disagree. For example, Eric Alterman argues that the liberal bias is a myth (What Liberal Bias?) while Bernard Goldberg contends that the bias is a fact (Bias). One problem with reports and books on the media is that they generally come from media folks. As such, this does raise a bit of a problem: can the media folks be trusted to objectively assess their own bias (or lack thereof)?

Laying aside experts, one way to address the matter of liberal bias is to observe what the media says about Obama. Clearly, not all the media folks are liberals who will take it easy on him. After all, the fine folks at Fox News tend to be very critical of Obama. Rush Limbaugh and other such media folks are also clearly not taking it easy on Obama.Of course, they can be accused of having a conservative bias-something that should be criticized as severely as having a liberal bias.

Other news companies might be seen as being biased in Obama’s favor. For example, some folks think that CNN is a bit too liberal leaning (with some notable exceptions) and will take it too easy on Obama. While CNN claims it will “keep them honest”, that remains to be seen.

In general, the media is often easily manipulated by the government. A few recent examples: first, the federal government  created a fake “news report” praising airport security. This “news report” was then distributed to stations along with a prepared introduction for local anchors to read.

Second, during its first four years the Bush administration spent a quarter of a billion dollars on fake “news” about Medicare, Iraq, Social Security, and No Child Left Behind. It should be noted that the Clinton Administration was also active in manipulating the media.

Third, between 2004 and 2005 three editorialists were exposed for taking money directly or indirectly from the Bush Administration to promote its policies and programs. Armstrong Williams received $200,000.

Fourth, in 2007 FEMA held a “press conference” in which FEMA staff members asked the questions. The White House spokesperson replied by saying that the practice was not employed by the White House and was not something that was condoned. This reply was reported uncritically by the White House Reporters, despite the fact that the White House has done the same in the past.

While more examples could be given, these should suffice to show that the media has a long tradition of being manipulated by the government and taking it easy on the President. True, the media did get tougher on the Bush Administration. However, that was when Bush’s approval ratings began to plummet. In light of the past, it seems reasonable to expect that the media will be fairly easy on Obama-provided that he remains popular. After all, shouldn’t he get the same easy ride that Bush got?

While Fox will be critical of Obama, someone should just play them tapes of what they said about the “liberal media” attacking Bush. After all, if the President should be treated a certain way by the media, that should hold whether the President is a liberal or a conservative.

My view is, of course, that the media folks should strive to be objective. When the Obama Adminstration is in error or up to something shady (wait for it…), then the media should call them on this. When the Obama Administration does well, then that should be noted as well.

Should the Government Bail Out Businesses?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 20, 2008

There is a great deal of debate about what the government should be doing about the economic crisis. Coincidentally, in my ethics class we’ve been discussing the legitimate role of the state.

Most thinkers take the minimal obligations of the state to be protecting the citizens and enforcing the laws. Most states take on a multitude of other tasks, but those are the most basic. Naturally, people disagree about what else the state should be doing.

Classic Conservatives hold that the state should be minimally involved in the free market. This includes both regulating it and bailing out businesses that get into trouble. The purest form of this approach is that laid out by Adam Smith. Of course, experience shows what happens in such “pure” economies (the Great Depression, for example). Hence, even conservative thinkers tend to see a role for the state in regulating and perhaps even bailing out businesses.

The “new” conservatives (aka “Bush Conservatives”) hold that the state should be minimally involved in regulation but should support business financially and bail them out. This can be seen as a form of socialism in which the state funnels tax revenue (and loans) to certain businesses. As the economic disaster of today indicates, this approach does not work that well.

The liberal view has been that the state should regulate business but should not be significantly involved in supporting businesses (except certain ones-such as those owned by women or minorities). This is the sort of view often atributed to Democrats. In reality, they seem happy to support businesses that donate to their campaigns, that they have a stake in, and those that are owned by friends.

I believe that government should regulate business for the same reason that I believe that government should regulate other aspects of our behavior: regulation is needed to prevent people from doing harm to others. While most people would probably still behave decently without being compelled, the fact that a significant number of people are willing to behave very badly even in the face of compulsion indicates that a lack of regulation would be bad. If this is true of human behavior outside of business, then it would certainly seem to apply within business as well. After all, why would a selfish and evil person stop being that way simply because he became a businessman?

As far as bailing out companies, I have mixed thoughts. On one hand, this could be justified in terms of the protective role of the state. For example, it could be argued that by bailing out failing banks, the state is protecting the citizens from the harm of financial disaster. Of course, this certainly opens the door to a rather broad interpretation of this role and this might prove problematic. For example, every failing business harms someone-does that mean the state should try to bail them all out?

On the other hand, I consider responsibility to be rather important. If I make a bad choice and suffer because of it, that is my own doing and hence it is not the duty of the state to save me. The evidence is that the economic mess is largely a product of greed, poor decision making, failure in leadership, and various moral failures. Hence, the failed companies should accept responsibility for the failures and expect to be allowed to die semi-honorable deaths.

That said, it could be argued that the companies should be bailed out because their failure would hurt those not responsible for their failure. To use an analogy, if the parents make bad choices and a family is destitute, then the state should help the young children. After all, they were not at fault and are in such straights due to bad luck and not bad judgment.

In reply to this, perhaps it is the people who should be helped out directly. The failing companies could be allowed to fail (or survive) and then new ones could arise-hopefully lead by better people who will make better choices. Realistically, I think we can (sadly enough) expect the same scoundrels back at the helm again, ready to steer onto the rocks in search

Happiness & Politics

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2008

Happiness is a matter of great concern to most people, hence it is hardly surprising that the Pew Research Center conducted an extensive study of the matter in 2006.

The study had some obvious results, such as the fact that rich people claim to be happier than poor people. There were also some surprising results, such as the fact that more conservatives claim to be happy than do liberals.

In the case of conservatives versus liberals, 47% of conservatives claimed to be very happy while only 28% of liberals did so. This fact has been used by some to argue that liberalism is an unhappy world view and thus people should avoid it in favor of conservatism. This, naturally enough, raises the question of why more American conservatives report being happy than American liberals.

One possibility is that it is the nature of liberal ideology to create more unhappiness in people. For example, while the phrase “liberal guilt” is commonly used, one almost never hears the phrase “conservative guilt” (although one does often hear of conservatives being guilty). Perhaps this indicates that liberal ideology leads people to be unhappy.

Another possible factor is that the people who are conservative tend to be married, older, and more religious than liberals. In many cases they are also more wealthy than liberals. Marriage, age, religion and wealth are all factors that are connected with people claiming to be happy. So, it might not be the political ideology that causes the disparity in happiness but rather the other qualities. It should, of course, also be considered that the ideology has a causal role in these other factors as well. A person who is conservative might be more inclined to get married and be religious because s/he is conservative. Alternatively, a person might be more inclined to be conservative because of those factors. And, of course, there might be a two way causal connection. For example, a person might be inclined towards being conservative because she is religious and then find that her religious views get reinforced by her political views.

Another possible factor is that how a person views the world affects his or hear happiness. On this view, it is not the ideology itself that causes happiness or unhappiness, but rather how that ideology affects how one sees the world. Alternatively, it might be that how one sees the world and how one feels about it defines one’s ideology. Or, as discussed above, there can be feedback between the ideology and the feelings.

To be a bit more specific in this matter, liberals tend to feel bad about such things as inequality and social injustice. Conservatives tend to feel less bad about such things. Since there is so much injustice and inequality in the world, it makes sense that those who feel worse about such things would be less happy than those who care less about them. To use an analogy, if I care about Nancy and Tom does not, then if something bad happens to Nancy, I will be rather unhappy while Tom will not be so unhappy.

This hypothesis is born out by how liberals and conservatives tend to view the world. For example, take unemployment. In general, a liberal will tend to see unemployment as the result of poor government policies, corporate downsizing and so forth. In short, a liberal will tend to see unemployment as something inflicted on people. Hence, they will tend to have sympathy and feel badly about rising unemployment. In general, a conservative will tend to see unemployment as the result of bad decision making, laziness or other such factors. In short, a conservative will tend to see unemployment as something self-inflicted and hence they will tend to have less sympathy.

It is tempting to say that liberals are less happy because they care more about other people and, to use Clinton’s phrase, “feel their pain.” It is also tempting to say that conservatives are more happy because they care less and hence that their happiness rests, in part, on indifference to the suffering of others. This is, of course, a possibility.

It is also tempting to say that liberal are less happy because they are weak and unrealistic. This makes them feel badly about things needlessly and thus they are foolishly hurting themselves by being the way they area. In contrast, the conservatives can be seen as smarter-they focus on themselves and do not worry so much about others. Hence, they are happier (or at least say they are).

One final matter to consider is the fact that the survey is base on what people claim. Obviously, there is no machine that measures happiness. Further, the nature of happiness is a matter of considerable philosophical debate. People who say they are happy most likely have no true conception of happiness and are perhaps merely expressing satisfaction or a lack of discontent.

Perhaps liberals say they are less happy because they think that is what they should say. After all, how can someone be happy in a world that has so much inequality and injustice? Perhaps more conservatives say they are very happy because they mistake material success with happiness. They think they are doing well, so they think they are happy. Or perhaps they think they should be happy, so they say they are.

Happiness is, after all, a tricky thing.

As You Sow…

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on March 21, 2008

My conservative friends, such as Magus71, have been watching the infighting between the Democrats with both joy and disgust. The joy is, of course, because they would prefer that the Democrats once again pull defeat from the jaws of victory. The disgust is because they regard the Democrats’ behavior and words as pathetic and hateful.

One interesting point that has come up in our discussions is that some of the fighting involves the very weapons “the left” forged for their past battles with their external foes. One prime example is the use of race and gender in attacks.

Over the years, I have seen (both in academics and in politics) a standard attack made against whites and males. The basic idea is that male success and white success arise because of special privileges that stem from being white or male. If you happen to be a white male, you get to enjoy a double bonus (this is presumably how white males are able to oppress white women).

It is evident that males and whites do have certain advantages (or perhaps another way to put it is that they are free of the shackles of discrimination that all too often hold back women and non-whites). However, it does seem unreasonable to claim that, in most cases, white males succeed primarily because they are white males. This matter is obviously controversial, so it is fortunate that I can simply bypass this dispute in the discussion at hand. What it important is that this attack was (consciously or not) honed and deployed as a standard means of attack and criticism. It has been, for example, used to explain the allegedly unjust success of white males as well as the failures of those who are not white males.

What is rather interesting is that recently Geraldine Ferraro wielded this sort of weapon against a fellow liberal-namely Barrack Obama. She claimed that, in essence, the cause of Obama’s success was due to his being a black male.

The “attack” on Obama being male was, obviously enough, “old school.” Being a man, obviously his success could be attributed to his maleness-as opposed to his ability and his efforts. After all, success and failure are presumably determined primarily by race and gender-or so we have so often been told.

What was new was that Ferraro made an attack based on race against a minority target: Obama’s success was being attributed, in part, to his blackness. This, then, was something new in the liberal camp-attributing unjustified success to blackness.

While the target was new, the method was, of course an old one. Magus71 has put forth the hypothesis that the liberals just cannot help themselves-they are so focused on race and gender that they simply think of the world primarily in these terms. Hence, when they go into a political battle, they break out race and gender based weapons and fire them at their foe. In the past, the foes had typically been white men. But now, Hillary’s foe is a black male and Obama’s foe is a white woman.

Naturally, Hillary and Obama have been careful not to attack each other based on race and gender. As the Ferraro case shows, their supporters have not been so restrained. In Obama’s case, some of his supporters have attacked Hillary for being white and for being a woman.

These attacks have shown that race and gender are still very serious problems in America. Hateful remarks based on race and gender are merely the surface manifestations of what is no doubt a much deeper and serious problem. What is rather ironic is that so many of these remarks are arising from the ranks of those who most profess to be dedicated to justice and equality.

This certainly raises an interesting question about why there is this tension between their professed values and their actual behavior.

One possible answer, as noted above, is that “the left” is so obsessed with race and gender that it is simply a reflex to define things in that manner. So, Ferraro strikes at Obama being a black man. Wright strikes at Clinton based on race.

Another possible answer is that “the left” knows that race and gender are powerful tools and hence chose to deploy them. Such is the concern for power, that they are willing to attack each other.

A third possible answer is that they are pushed to such behavior by their emotions. When people are moved by strong emotions, their powers of reasoning are diminished. Hence, the most ardent supporters of Hillary and Obama might be overcome by emotions and hence lash out in a hateful manner.

A fourth possibility is that the individuals in question actually are racists and sexists who are acting in accord with these beliefs. This has some plausibility. Attacks on people because they are white are just as racist as attacks on people because they are black or Hispanic or Asian, or whatever. Attacks on people because they are men are just as sexist as attacks on people because they are women. Given the way whites and males are often regarded by “the left” it should be no shock that there are racist and sexist elements in the left. They probably do not think of themselves as such-after all, their anger is directed at whites and men (and mostly white men). But, an addiction to prejudice is hard to control and tends to spread. It is but a small step from being critical of white males to being critical of black males. It is also but a small step from being critical to white males to being critical of white females. Hence, the hateful attacks being shot back and forth among the troops supporting Hillary and Obama should not be unexpected. There have long been racists and sexists in the ranks-but now they are shooting at each other.