At Today’s Universities, Philosophy Is The Handmaid Of Political Correctness

At Today’s Universities, Philosophy Is The Handmaid Of Political Correctness

University philosophy departments are supposed to be centers of open inquiry and rigorous analysis. What happens when that comes up against political correctness?
Robert Tracinski

“Political Correctness Enforced on College Campus” is pretty much a “Dog Bites Man” story these days, but I just came across a new entry in the genre that is particularly interesting because it happened in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Philosophy departments are, in theory, supposed to be centers of open inquiry and rigorous analysis, where received opinions are logically examined before being accepted. In theory.

So what happens when that theory comes in contact with the requirements of political correctness?

You don’t have to imagine it, because UTSA graduate student Alfred MacDonald made a helpful recording that spells it all out for us. Here’s the basic rundown. After class one day, MacDonald got into a conversation with some other grad students in which the topic of Islam came up, and he expressed, as he later put it, that “I was bothered that I could be killed in ten Muslim countries.” MacDonald is bisexual, and there are in fact Muslim countries in which homosexuality is punishable by death.

Notice that, as stated, MacDonald isn’t making an argument against Islam, he is merely pointing to a verifiable fact that implies something negative about Islam. If you’ve been following what’s going on in the universities, you can venture a guess at what happened next. In the Intersectionality Olympics, the constant struggle to determine which group’s “oppression” gives it power over everybody else, the top spot is closely contested between transsexuals and Islam, but Islam usually wins—even if that means downgrading such longstanding “progressive” causes as tolerance for homosexuals.

So MacDonald was summoned to a meeting with the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Eve Browning. When she refused to tell him by e-mail what the meeting was about, he became suspicious, so he decided to record it.

The transcript makes for some interesting reading. It’s not just that Browning brings down the hammer of political correctness, though she does. She tells MacDonald, “that kind of thing is not going to be tolerated in our department,” and if it happens again he will be referred to a “Behavior Intervention Team,” which could ultimately recommend “that you be academically dismissed.” I wrote recently about the “young adult dystopia” we’re living in, and how this includes “Bias Response Teams” to enforce Political Correctness. Here we can see their function.

More interesting than that, though, is the fact that MacDonald is being trained in the intellectual discipline of philosophy, and he puts some of that training to use, raising various philosophical objections—and Browning doesn’t exactly acquit herself well.

When she follows up a question by saying, “No one has threatened you with dismissal from the program,” he goes back and parses exactly what she said: “there’s an implied sequence of things that happens, for example: if I don’t do some of these things, eventually it’ll be taken up with the behavioral intervention team…and the student conduct board, and then that will lead to one of the possible options which is my dismissal. It’s not directly ‘yes, do this or be dismissed,’ but if I were to say—continue to say something about Islam, you would probably do that, and then I would be expelled.”

At this point she deflects by saying, “Doesn’t it trouble you at all that three faculty members now have talked to you about these issues and…you’re responding in an extremely resistant and negative manner to all of this?… Three faculty members and a number of graduate students. That should concern you.” To which he responds, “That would be ad populum reasoning.”

This is a reference to the argumentum ad populum, the logical fallacy of asserting that something must be true because many people believe it. Confronted with this, Browning falls back on the argumentum ad verecundiam, the appeal to authority: “No. It’s [an] appeal to experts who are experienced in their field. Which you are not.” (So I don’t get into trouble with Tom Nichols, I should explain that the Appeal to Authority is not wrong because it cites experts. It’s wrong because it cites their conclusions alone, not their evidence and reasoning.)

MacDonald also points out the fact that UTSA is “a public university with First Amendment protections.” Browning brushes this aside in favor of a kind of appeal to conformity (a variation of the argumentum ad populum). He must not mention any facts that might tend toward critical views of Islam, because this is what is required to get along with others in the university. “Confrontational interaction with other graduate students is objectionable and unprofessional,” she tells him, and later on says, “my assumption is that you would like not to be found objectionable.”

Wasn’t that Socrates’ motto: “Don’t be found objectionable”? No, wait, it was the opposite. His motto was: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He proceeded to examine life so thoroughly that a lot of other people found it objectionable. It ended badly for him, but he is generally credited with founding the field of philosophy.

That’s not the motto of today’s politically correct universities. Browning spells it out for us: “Professional courtesy and respectful behavior to all faculty and fellow students—that makes the learning environment work. In its absence, students are intimidated; they don’t learn well, they aren’t happy, they don’t flourish, they leave the program.” She repeats several times that everyone needs to be made to feel comfortable—except for the student who dares to cite inconvenient facts or ask bold questions.

There’s a certain element of careerism here, of academic philosophy as a bureaucracy, and Browning definitely radiates that attitude. She ends the meeting with a classic paper-pusher’s line. “So we’re going to end this right now. And take those two sheets of paper and do whatever you want with them. We’ve met. I’ve expressed the concerns. You’ve expressed your response. We’ve both done our jobs for today.”

But there’s something more sinister behind it. She emphasizes that, “assuming you succeed academically and you head into an academic job track, things like this will get you not hired.” And: “Those are things that would get you fired if you were working in my office. The Islam comment would get you fired.” Elsewhere she says, “We have not designed our program to tolerate these behaviors.” And: “We’re not going to let you damage the program.”

Now we’re getting down to the real motive. Browning isn’t concerned about whether MacDonald gets hired or fired. She’s concerned about whether she is going to get fired. She is clearly terrified that if someone in her program is found to be violating the unspoken strictures of political correctness, which includes never mentioning any unpleasant facts about Islam, there will be a witch hunt against the entire philosophy department, and she will get in trouble for having tolerated open discussion.

Notice that this obliterates that actual practice of rational inquiry. In one exchange, Browning is very blunt about this.

MACDONALD: I’m just trying to understand the reasoning.

BROWNING: You don’t have to.

MACDONALD: Well, this is a truthseeking discipline!

BROWNING: In your hypothetical situation where you’re going to get fired for that comment you can sit and talk to the human relations officer until you’re blue in the face. [laugh] It would not do any good. So let’s just cut that line of argument short. You don’t need to defend yourself. You just need to meet appropriate standards of behavior.

There you have it, the predominant culture of the contemporary university: don’t think, don’t argue, don’t try to understand, don’t seek to defend or justify yourself. Just conform.

That’s why the head of a philosophy department is so bad at arguing, even against the simple questions of a young man who seems to be a somewhat indifferent student. This might be attributable to simple professional incompetence, and as someone who has been in the bowels of academia, I’m not ruling it out. But I think it’s something more. Browning is bad at arguing because argument is irrelevant. It has no bearing on the predetermined dogmas of the university system.

During the Middle Ages, it was said that philosophy was “the handmaiden of theology,” that philosophical discussion was useful only so long as it supported the predetermined dogmas of the church. The Renaissance didn’t really take off until philosophy moved beyond this idea and viewed rational inquiry as an independently valid source of truth that was not bound by obedience to dogma.

Today, we’ve gone full circle back to a new Secular Scholasticism in which philosophy is the handmaiden of political correctness. We’re going to need another Renaissance.

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Robert Tracinski is a senior writer for The Federalist. His work can also be found at The Tracinski Letter.

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