By Graham Peterson
One thing I learned when running around sociology accusing everyone of being a bunch of leftist ideologues, is how quick left academics are to distinguish themselves from activists in the street. The story goes that left academics are motivated by evidence (which is true), and that they’re engaged in a dispassionate discourse in a way that activists are not.
But in my experience left academics are much, much further to the left than their social justice counterparts in the street. Left academics are much more willing to make casual accusations of their colleagues as racists and sexists; their policy preferences seem much further left (I have never in ten years heard a social justice activist call for the nationalization of our banks or of the internet); and their positions on left theories are much stronger.
I have never known anyone, in the thriving social justice community here in Chicago, who believed that there was no such thing as an individual personality, and that all individual traits were a product of social structures. I have never met anyone in the gay community here, of which I’m not unfamiliar, who believes that biology does not influence gendered expressions. I know a myriad of youth counselors, all of them black and brown, and precisely zero of them believe that the value commitments and aspirations of youth do not affect their outcomes.
How, if left academics are so much more cautious in their beliefs because of their evidential standards (which again, are high), could this situation emerge? It’s simple. Activists in the street have to regularly contend with opposing views at work, at home, and over drinks at night, and do not enjoy the shelter from criticism that academics have, shelter that allows academics to take their views to extraordinary conclusions.
Academics surely debate more often than activists or other people in the street. But debate is not just a function of frequency — it’s a function of how far your opposition sits from your beliefs as well. So it might look like academics are doing a lot more debating than others, but are they, really?
Note that this implies that the problem with political ideology in the academy has almost nothing to do with the ethics of the individuals participating. Left academics do set incredibly high evidential standards for one another, within their similarly held range of priors they’d like to confirm. Hypothesis testing and thorough ethnographic documentation are meaningless without substantial criticism from people who want to believe substantially different things.
In my experience, the great majority of these people are disproportionately honest and thoughtful. And they’re open to debate, more than willing to have sharp arguments over whether poor people getting jobs is an example of their being ruthlessly exploited by capitalists or just short changed by institutional discriminators. Small range. Collectively, then, those debates can move further and further to one side of range of beliefs that the wider population has.
We need to think seriously about how to change things when some of the most radical political counterparts of ours in the street hold what look like centrist or contrary beliefs compared to ours. It’s not just that we’re smarter or more advanced than these people, and they need to catch up. Social scientists have a responsibility to wrestle with the human conversation outside the academy, and that is one we are abdicating.