Standing Up To Cancel Culture

Standing Up To Cancel Culture


Leonard Zwelling

One of the many things I do not understand is cancel culture. Why is it so important to demean another person for his or her stating an opinion, even if it vehemently disagrees with yours? I know I write a blog that tends to vilify Donald Trump, but he’s uncancellable

Bret Stephens addresses this and other issues in his op-ed in The New York Times on October 13 in which he discusses the role of the university in today’s society.

He starts with a story about a professor from the University of Chicago named Dorian Abbot who made a YouTube presentation about group identity and the harm it can cause in selection processes (e.g., for admission to a university). He was cancelled on line for his views.  The president of the university (Robert Zimmer) rushed to Dr. Abbot’s defense and his freedom of speech. The controversy died. Then Abbot wrote an op-ed in Newsweek on a similar subject. This time a cancellation campaign was successful in getting Abbot disinvited from giving a lecture at MIT. Apparently, MIT “wanted to avoid controversy.”

Stephens’ point here is contrasting the courageous stance of the University of Chicago’s leadership with that of the cowards at MIT.

Stephens then goes on to promote a new book by the president of Johns Hopkins, Ronald Daniels, about the role of the university in democracy.

Here’s the summary.

Universities provide the way for class escalation and social mobility. They are supposed to be the arbiters of truth. Daniels thinks the university is failing at its important goals.

He starts with legacy admissions being a bad idea that many elite schools are starting to eliminate. Allowing a student to matriculate simply because his grandfather made the donation that built the library is a terrible idea and certainly favors the scions of past alumni who are largely white.

Daniels mentions irreproducibility in science as producing a crisis of faith in expertise. This is obvious given the reception of Americans to the covid vaccine. It appears to be Kyrie Irving vs. Tony Fauci in a ten-round bout.

But the real threat posed by the university is dogmatism and cancellation when expressed ideas don’t align with liberal beliefs. This I fear is everywhere. People are reticent to speak their minds for fear of being ostracized and cancelled. This is the tacit inhibition of free speech about which I have written before.

I remember having this fear myself when I was a faculty member and objected vigorously to the behavior of upper management. There were more than a few rooms in which I shut up because my view was not in line with that of the leadership or for that matter the followership around me.

Stephens notes that right wing popularism and left wing illiberalism are inhibiting the role of the university in our democracy.

He also adds this. Apparently, what got Abbot riled up enough to write was a view he heard expressed by a colleague that “if you are just hiring the best people you are part of the problem.” That nullifies excellence in favor of diversity. I am unwilling to make that trade. The biggest hiring mistake I ever made was when I offered a job to a minority candidate simply because I sensed a lack of diversity in my office. The two should not be connected. You should always hire the best person and the best ought to be the ones admitted to our universities as well. That does not mean affirmative action is a bad thing. It’s not. But legacy admissions are not helpful and actually contribute to a lack of diversity.

Stephens returns to the issue of courage as exemplified by the president of the University of Chicago, but not the leadership of MIT. He finishes by extolling the virtues of Princeton’s Robert George who sponsored Professor Abbot’s talk after the MIT cancellation.

All of us in academics—past and present—need to think hard about the role of the university in society and not let the vagaries of the internet and cancel culture sway our commitment to the truth and to those with different opinions than our own.

2 thoughts on “Standing Up To Cancel Culture”

  1. Thanks for sharing this story about Professor Abbot.
    You are not the only one who has been “silenced,” and sometimes “relieved of duty (fired),” because of standing up for what you thought was right for the patient or the common good. However, in the end, each of us has to speak our own beliefs about meritocracy, diversity, and legacy. It does take a balancing act, not only in our own behavior but also in institutional integrity.
    I would love to hear Abbot’s talk. I will search for it on YouTube.

    1. Leonard Zwelling

      Jeb: Great comments as always. I have not tried to find the talk. You are right about having to make tough choices. It never stops, but is less intense in retirement. LZ

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