Epistemic Closure-Left and Right

Wendy Kaminer

Have facts ever been less relevant in political debates? Have fictions ever been harder to disprove? Contempt for what an aide to George W. Bush famously called the “reality-based community” is an old story by now, although, thanks partly to Fox News and leading propagandists on the Right (Palin and Limbaugh, among others), it’s a story that retains the capacity to shock, if not surprise, us. We’re regaled regularly with demonstrably false statements-about death panels, President Barack Obama’s citizenship, or the absence of any terror attacks during the Bush-Cheney years; we’re asked to take seriously implausible, unsubstantiated claims-like disgraced former Federal Emergency Management Association head Michael Brown’s assertion that the Obama administration welcomed and prolonged the catastrophic oil gusher in the Gulf. Add to these myths some dangerous misconceptions about criminal procedure, constitutional rights, and the usefulness (never mind the morality) of torture in obtaining information, or the effectiveness of military commissions in prosecuting suspected terrorists, and it’s hard not to despair about the irrelevance of reason to essential policy debates.

A few conservative intellectuals-as well as many liberals-have lamented the prevalence of irrationalism on the Right, or the “closing of the conservative mind.” But it would be a great mistake to ignore “epistemic closure” on the Left, especially in the academy, where epistemic openness should reign. For the past decade, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been battling campus speech and harassment codes that greatly limit Free Inquiry by punishing students for expressing ideas that are presumptively hurtful to presumptively disadvantaged groups. (See the article by Greg Lukianoff and Will Creeley in this issue.) Merely reading a book about an “offensive” subject can lead to trouble: in one notorious but not entirely atypical case, Keith Sampson, a student employee at an Indiana university, was found guilty of racial harassment after he was spotted reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan. The book was highly critical of the Klan, but its cover pictured burning crosses, and Sampson was found guilty of “openly reading [a] book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of (his) Black coworkers.” He was eventually cleared, but only through FIRE’s advocacy and extensive bad publicity.

FIRE is often successful in exposing and reversing censorship in individual cases (as Justice Louis D. Brandeis remarked, sunlight is the best disinfectant), but it has not succeeded in reversing anti-libertarian trends on campus that are anathema to reason. Consider a recent fracas at Harvard Law School. In May of this year, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow publicly chastised third-year student Stephanie Grace for expressing a willingness to consider a possible relationship between race and intelligence. In a private e-mail, following up on a private dinner conversation with friends, Grace said, “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances…. I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position, and it is often hard given difficult to quantify cultural aspects.”

Grace’s private e-mail was published without her knowledge; she was branded on the Web as a racist and publicly shamed by Dean Minow (even after she issued a groveling apology). The message to Harvard Law students was clear: watch what you say, even in private; don’t express even an academic interest in delicate or taboo subjects, much less openness to a taboo idea; if you are somehow overheard, you will be called out by the dean, vilified on the Web, and effectively forced to apologize for being a bad person and thinking bad thoughts.

It’s hard to know what’s most appalling about this case-the mob rule that prevailed when Grace’s remarks were circulated, Minow’s assumption of authority over the private conversations of her students, or Minow’s pretended respect for free speech. “We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility,” she asserted in her public statement, engaging in a familiar word game: liberal censors frequently use responsibility as a club with which to bludgeon rights.

Dean Minow claimed that she seeks to encourage free speech, but, in fact, she strongly discouraged it by shaming a student for speaking freely. It’s clear that at Harvard Law (among other schools) the responsibility not to give offense trumps the right to speak, even in private. As Minow stated, “Here at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility. The particular comment in question unfortunately resonates with old and hurtful misconceptions.

“We are especially dedicated to exposing to the light of inquiry false views about individuals or groups,” she added, somewhat disingenuously. The purpose and effect of Minow’s statement, and her intrusion into this controversy, was to shut down inquiry into a “hurtful subject.”

I shouldn’t have to stress (but probably do) that defending a student’s right to express an interest in theories about race and intelligence is not an endorsement of such theories. Nor should I have to point out that while private universities, unlike the government, have no constitutional obligation to respect student speech rights, they should respect them nonetheless; they should be devoted to promoting free speech and inquiry, as Dean Minow implicitly acknowledged. She wouldn’t dare admit that Harvard does not, in fact, value or “encourage” free speech and that her administration elevates faith and solicitude for “hurt feelings” over “insensitive” Free Inquiry and the prospect of unlocking the liberal mind.

Wendy Kaminer

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU (Beacon Press, 2009).


Have facts ever been less relevant in political debates? Have fictions ever been harder to disprove? Contempt for what an aide to George W. Bush famously called the “reality-based community” is an old story by now, although, thanks partly to Fox News and leading propagandists on the Right (Palin and Limbaugh, among others), it’s a …

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