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Sundry Musings on Political Correctness in Academia
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2010-05-03 08:49:07
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At Barry University I have repeatedly taught a course in Biomedical Ethics. The title of its textbook is Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Bioethical issues, edited by Carol Levine. It deals with 21 issues grouped under 5 units; namely, medical decisions making, end of life dilemmas, choices in reproduction, children adolescents and bioethics, genetics, human experimentation, bioethics and public policy. Each issue is divided into a pro and a con. For example, to the question in issue 2 “Should Truth Telling Depend on the Patient’s Culture?” there is a yes and a no, respectively defended by some ethicist, or doctor or lawyer or professor, or nurse, and mostly lifted from journals or books with the author’s permission.

There is a problem with the very title of the textbook, as I see it; and it is that right at the outset of the course the student gets the distinct impression that it is the nature of an issue to have two sides, two points of view so to speak at odds with each other; it is all black and white with no ambiguity and gray in between. Since in our democratic egalitarian society we all feel entitled to our opinion, and any opinion is as good as any other, the student feels entitled to choose and pick the pro or the con  according to his/her leanings and preferences. It does not help much to tell the student that in their term papers they need to show an understanding of the position they disagree with, or to debate the issue in class forcing them to take the position they disagree with.  Invariably, when asked, very few if any will admit to having changed their mind on their initial position based on the reading or the debate they have conducted. The initial opinion is held on almost as if it were something they possess as part of their identity.  And so, it never occurs to them that theirs may be a biased, misguided and a philosophically flawed position to boot. This is especially so when the student has an exalted opinion of his/her intellectual acumen and thinks of him/herself as “brilliant” vis a vis his peers and even the professor.

And so in many places in and out of academia, within democratic societies, we have ended up with ideological fanaticism; with an unshakeable conviction that one’s belief system and that of other in-group members is always right and righteous, and that others’ belief systems are always wrong and wrongheaded. Religion is often blamed for this mind-set. If only religion could be liquidated, everything would be just fine. But one does not need religion to arrive at ideological fanaticism. As many historians have observed, the four most deadly political movements of the 20th century - Hitler’s Nazism, Stalin’s Communism, Mao Tse-Tung’s cultural revolution, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge - were largely secular movements. What those movements  hold in common is the deeply entrenched belief that one’s intellectual enemies are  so profoundly misguided that for the greater good of society they simply must be liquidated; if that is impossible, they must be insulted, ridiculed, embarrassed and treated as less than human.

Ideological fanaticism springs directly from biased thinking. In turn biased thinking is supported by three phenomena: 1) Naïve realism: the erroneous belief that the world is precisely as one sees it with the assumption that because I perceive reality “objectively”, others who disagree with me must be foolish, irrational, or downright evil,  2) a blind spot (the “not me” bias): the erroneous belief that we are not biased, ever, although others are, 3) Information bias: the tendency to selectively seek out information consistent with one’s beliefs and to ignore, minimize, or distort information  that is not. What is not consistent with one’s belief system will often be dubbed mere “gossip.” Usually these belief systems are wrapped in very abstract and mystifying notions to better fool the adoring fans. Religion can be tolerated only when it serves that purpose and allows the secret atheists in academia (one thinks of Leo Strauss whom several disciples of his have identified as a secret atheist) to better dwell undisturbed in the Ivory Tower, the Mount Olympus of academia.

Unfortunately, these malignant biases in thinking are rarely addressed in educational curricula. This is quite disconcerting, given that so much of everyday life nowadays, left-wing political blogs, right-wing political radio talks (one thinks of Limbaugh and Glenn), political and ideological book buying habits, reinforce them. This spills over even in the selection of friends and guests to our forums which can generate not only communal reinforcement for our biases, but the erroneous belief that our views are shared by most or all other reasonable people, the so called false consensus effect. The symbols and icons at some of those sites are revealing. There was one which was surely a Straussian site whose name escapes me, where you saw two men in toga conducting a philosophical conversation a la Cicero in ancient Roman times. When one perused the site, one soon realized that the whole ideology and raison d’etre behind the site was that of pitting the ancients against the moderns. When somebody dared to contradict the gems of wisdom being exchanged there he was promptly rebuked or told to shut up with a Shhhhhhhhh. Eventually the site also attracted the oi polloi who felt left out and condescended to, those who deal in obscenities and pornographic material and arguments at hominem and it was shut down, probably by the academic authorities at Boston College where the site was headquartered. So much for free speech and objectivity. Regrettably, sometimes the abuse does away with the use of free speech.

While we are critical in the West, and justifiably so, of the biased indoctrination that goes on regularly in Islamic countries, some social critics in the United States have charged that the higher educational system here typically engenders an insidious indoctrination into left-wing ideology as well as in right wing ideology; one is the other side of the other. All of this is considered “politically correct” and even “enlightened,” as long as both sides are presented. But where is the truth? Can we even hope to reach it? The sad reality is that the two sides attitude left hanging there without an ultimate resolution ultimately contributes to what may become the greatest threat to a fair academic system and a society that honors free speech; that is to say it contributes to ideological fanaticism as examined above, parading as love of truth and objectivity but often ending up in insidious personality cults. The Straussian School comes to mind: some of its devotees pass “the master’s” unpublished manuscripts around as if they were religions relics with a stamp on it: for your eyes only. This will surely be denied as mere “gossip” by some Straussians reading the article, but is well documented by Professor Shadia Drury in her various books on the intriguing and bizarre philosophical  academic phenomenon known as Straussianism.

It seems to me that ultimately we need to tolerate the abuses of free speech in order to safeguard its use; that is better than taking away the use because of the abuses; for the abuse does not take away the use as Thomas Aquinas well teaches and to do so is to compound the evil. So, what are we left with? The only effective antidote to ideological fanaticism that I know of, in and out of academia, is that of critical thinking. Without it any issue, no matter how existentially relevant, even when treated within a university, runs the real and present danger and risk of ending up in ideological fanaticism and biased thinking.

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A-Gonzaga2010-05-03 14:53:02
A rewarding piece as always, Prof.

Marco Andreacchio2010-05-03 17:45:46
The article leaves open one possibility whereby the demonization of someone disagreeing with us WOULD do justice to critical thinking--namely, where the objection raised is to the reduction of differences to ambiguity and shadows of Gray.

Presumably Carol Levine would not disagree, insofar as her strategy points directly to the conclusion that Gray is the "objective" reality underlying all "subjective" opposed values ("black" and "white").

But is Gray the fundamental datum of experience, or the ultimate reality of things?

Best regards.

Emanuel Paparella2010-05-04 07:18:15
Thanks for the kind comment Aloysius.

Mr. Andreacchio, there is no problem in Ethics distinguishing a St. Francis or a Mother Theresa from a sociopath or serial killer. That's easy. The difficulty arises with more ambiguous and less black and white situation; what we call the grey areas. That's when Ethics is needed. Of course absolutists of various stripes and schools do not see gray areas very easily; they tend to scale the mountain of abstractions and then kick the ladder away and remove themselves from truly existential situations. For example, we all know that lying is dishonorable and should not be engaged in. We don't need Kant to tell us that. But how would Kant answer were he living in the 20th century and the Gestapo came to his home and asked if he were hiding Jews? Would he answer truthfully as his ethical philosophy demands, or would he lie, or woudl he simply refuse to answer?

May I respectfully suggest, if I may, that you give an attentive reading to Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. He has much to say about the dread that comes on men who are connected to their ethical existential situation. It is not as easy as dwelling with the gods and the ancients on Mount Olympus but it is more real and humane. Idem with Emanuel Levinas's ethical philosophy. Best regards.

Prof. Bob Gtiffim, PH.D.2010-05-04 22:57:25
"Issues"are formally phrased in debate terms, pro and con.Issues as pro and con and rebuttals aimed at "victory" are quite common, even expected in political discourse. Novices, unfortunately, do tend to generalize political opposition into ideological absolutes, as per your examples. Discussion, by comparison, usually encoourages inquiry, not debate for "victory," into the multiple variables of a problem. Here, problem is better not presented as an "issue" which implies two contrasting alternatives.
Modern reasoning and logic, we should remember, can be multiple relational and multiple valued as to its systems.
Carol Levine's title is perfectly find for classes designed for debate. For discussional inquiry, additional resources need to be added. Finally, the problem here appears to be one, not of Ms. Levine's book, but one of rhetorical and pedagogical approach and method.

Marco Andreacchio2010-05-05 02:07:38
Mr. Paparella,

The Carol Levine you introduce is in fundamental agreement with you.

We follow in the footsteps of the ancient sophists opposed by Plato when we see only degrees or quantities of "REAL" Gray between "IDEAL" extremes. The problem we are then occupied with consists of measuring degrees of Gray, rather than ascending to one Good independent of Gray--so that we are expected to take sides (and to be "committed" to our respective positions), not on rational grounds, but on the basis of a private will rooted in the motion of matter (Hobbes). Students are supposed to "JUSTIFY" their respective positions, NOT seek their RATIONAL FOUNDATION; reasoning is merely or necessarily instrumental. There can be no rational ground justifying one's position; Nature (the Is) cannot disprove any one position (the Ought); there can be no Right in Nature (hence the typically modern alienation of Ethics from Nature).

Here, dialogue is not understood as the attempt to DISCOVER its common, natural, or inherent ground, insofar as this ground is assumed to be essentially unintelligible ("matter" in the sense of RES EXTENSA): dialogue is supposed to entail, NOT the ascent to One underlying Good (cf. Kant's denial of "synthetic a priori" knowledge), but the progressive or dialectical "determination" of the Good as the ("historical") synthesis of (subjective) "Ideals." Again: Gray is Real; White and Black are Ideal; rather than being originally intelligible, the Good is MADE "intelligible" via the synthesis of subjective standpoints, i.e., AS the Spiritual Collectivization of private "purposes."

In this context, dialogue is understood as a battlefield of mutually incommensurate wills that agree to join in dialogue on the basis of "enlightened selfishness"; they agree to sacrifice their "subjectivity" for the sake of bringing about their "objective" "Kingdom of Ends"--a Society in which all of our "Ideals" finally find Objective Realization.

Machiavelli and Hegel--not Aristotle and Dante--are at home with this position.

Best regards,

Emanuel Paparella2010-05-05 13:23:41
Ideological fanaticism, sophistry and absolutism arrogantly parading as the objective truth is the core of the above analysis. The three most pernicious ideological fanatical movements of the 20th century were mentioned. Neither of the two interlocutors above deals with the phenomenon itself; so I trust that they are not denying that it is alive and well in and out of academia. Regrettably, the students end up being the naïve victims of such a mind-set. As pointed out at the end of the piece, the teaching and practice of critical thinking even of what the professor himself presents in class is the only solution I know for what Vico dubs "la boria dei dotti" [the arrogance of the learned.

Marco Andreacchio2010-05-10 03:27:01
Mr. Paparella,
I was assuming that you were not merely out to demonize those who disagree with you.

Andreacchio2010-05-10 03:28:10
Allow me to rearticulate the problem I addressed in previous comments; for I do not believe you have been in any way fair to their subject.

I have endeavored to point out that the World we live in is not really whatever it may appear as to our sense of (un)certainty. It is not a desert in which all is "Gray" (and in which "critical thinking" is the axe of Inquisitors); a surface devoid of its own "colors" or true forms. This human world is not a landscape in which White cannot be told apart from Black, or where Right and Wrong are necessarily mixed, i.e. where judgment must remain confused between right and wrong.

Andreacchio2010-05-10 03:29:03
Insofar as nothing in nature is devoid of its own White or "true end," we are not lost in gray uncertainty where it comes to discerning right from wrong (so that human reason is not merely an "instrument"--pace Machiavellians--but the Light of Nature, a Path/ODOS rooted in the fullness of things). Nor does the difficulty of the task prove the ambiguity of its object (pace conformists).

Whether we see it or not, true "White"--i.e., the "end-for-the-sake-of-which" or The Good--is the common reality of this Civil World, this world of nations, this world of human wills. Why, where else could the Good be and be spoken of if not at the heart of this world of ours? To profess that we are lost in Gray (at the mercy of "critical thinking" as instrument uprooted from nature) is to deny the presence and providence of the Good in this world; it is to verbally cut off the human will from its proper form.

Andreacchio2010-05-10 03:29:58
Insofar as we are not really lost in Gray or in shades thereof, fair judgment IS available to us IN THIS LIFE. We CAN discern the true END of things (i.e. Right in Nature) where it is inalienable constitutive form of everything in which our experience of life partakes.

In all fairness the genuine or Socratic Platonist invokes "another world" where he finds it as essential constituent of physical motion, thereby indicating to us that our experience of things is not inherently or originally Gray: Gray is not the Real we flee in our Ideals. For, our world is Gray, not in reality, but in the seemingly hapless eyes of "bad/pseudo-Platonists" who cast the Good out into "another world," leaving our own human world with nothing better than "constructed" or imaginary "goods"--playthings of the merchants of Darknesse.

Best regards,
Marco Andreacchio

Emanuel Paparella2010-05-14 21:21:55
To follow-up briefly on the duality of black and white vs. gray cavalierly paraded and defended in this forum to better insinuate that some teach bad ethics to the students in their charge or at the very least are incapable of grasping what ethics is all about, it seems to me that all ideological fanatics of any stripe and flag, especially those dwelling in Ivory towers, real or imagined, are almost ipso facto puritans who see the world as black and white and will at times pass from the realm of abstract theory to that praxis, when circumstances permit it, in the liquidation of what they, from their Olympian heights, consider evil and not worthy of existence. History abundantly confirms this.

The practical results are, more often than not a bigger evil. Thomas Aquinas would certainly have not approved of Prohibition in the USA for he believed that the abuse does not take away the use and that at times a state has no business legislating morality and needs to tolerate certain practices even though it is universally known that they are sinful, to prevent a bigger evil. That, to my mind, is wisdom of the highest order.

It would appear in fact that not even God is in a great hurry to pass instant judgment on what is ultimately good and what is ultimately evil and to immediately proceed to the separation of one from the other. She is able in fact to bring good out of evil and to transform what men mean for evil into good, which of course does not mean one approves and condones evil or refuses to separate it rationally and in theory from the good, but it seems that God is patient enough to leave the final judgment till the end times, and He made time and lots of it. Not so the ideological fanatic who is in a great hurry and goes around as an intellectual bully hitting people over the head with Truth and Philosophy and Objectivity (all with a capital letter) as the sophists and the inquisitors of old, all in the name of love of the good.

Consider on the other hand, this passage from Matthew 13:30: “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'" Plenty of food for thought there. I’d be grateful for some feedback from any of you, especially those who have taught or are currently teaching philosophical ethics. All the best.

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