Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Phyllis Schlafly Has a Friend in Rick Hills!

In any case, Professor Hills of NYU has seen the need to not only come to her defense against those who objected to her being honored by Washington University in St. Louis, but to do so without apparently knowing very much about her and also seizing the opportunity to voice his own silly prejudices about his colleagues in the academic profession.  Here's how this sorry display begins, under the disingenuous heading "The Paradox of Academic Intolerance"

Brian Leiter's anger at Phyllis Schlafly's getting an honorary degree  from Washington University, her alma mater, perplexes me.  At first glance, I am inclined to believe that Leiter's position is a product of academic intolerance for viewpoints not prevalent in the academy but widespread in the population at large.  There is a certain delicious irony about such intolerance, given the academic conceit that profs stand above parochial prejudice.

Of course, my several postings on the subject (and the links contained therein) nowhere made any mention of the prevalence (or lack thereof) of Ms. Schlafly's opinions in "the population at large," but rather referred to her bigotry against immigrants and gays, ridicule of science, ridicule of "marital rape," opposition to the rights and professional aspirations of many women, and so on.  I am not sure whether her views are "widespread"--I do not believe they are any longer--but their popularity should play no role in anyone's objections to Ms. Schlafly, and they certainly did not in mine.

But quite apart from this pointless display of solidarity with the putative masses by Professor Hills against those scary academic elites, it is astonishing to see him mischaracterize the issue as one of "tolerance."  Indeed, the first commenter on his post, Professor Matt Bodie, called him on this quite effectively:

There's a burden of proof issue here, I think. There should be a presumption towards free speech and tolerance if the university wants to prevent an individual from speaking at an event (for example, if invited by a student group). In such cases, tolerance would counsel letting the person speak, and arguments about the person's politics may not be enough. If the university wants to give an honorary degree, however, it seems completely justifiable to argue that the university should not honor the person based on the merits. Using words such as "disqualifies," "intolerance," and "beyond the academic pale" misses the point. If you disagree with the critics, don't you have the burden of saying why Wash U was right to honor her?

I posted in the comments a version of the same question, though less elegantly than Professor Brodie.  Tolerance is called for precisely when one deems someone's views or practices to be dishonorable and objectionable, but nonetheless thinks they have a moral right to hold those view and engage in those practices.  The question about whether to honor someone for those views is, quite obviously, independent of the question whether they ought to be tolerated, the latter question not even being on the table until Professor Hills muddied the waters.

In any case, Professor Hills answered neither me nor Professor Bodie on this point, adopting, instead, the debater's trick of confusing the issues by accusing his sparring partner of confusion!

Matt, I think confuses two issues: (1) Whether x ought, on the merits, receive an honorary degree and (2) Whether faculty and students ought to protest, demonstrate, write letters, etc, to stop x from getting an academic degree. 

Actually there was nothing in Professor Bodie's post that confused those issues, rather he objected to Professor Hills confusing the issue of objecting to honoring Schlafly with a question of tolerance.  By his silence, we may, perhaps, infer a tacit admission by Professor Hills of the soundness of Professor Bodie's actual point.

Back now to Hills's original post:

The difficulty in resolving the question [of why I and other objected to her receiving an honorary degree] is that Leiter's invective against Schlafly is too general to be helpful on this score:  He calls her a "bigot," "parochial," "ignoramus," etc -- but those are epithets, not arguments.  They are, of course, applicable to all of us, in some measure.  (For instance, I am (a) an ignoramus about theoretical physics, (b) a bigot in my inveterate hostility towards any musical by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, and (c) parochial compared to many of my colleagues who are polylingual (alas, I speak only English fluently) and are always walzing off to some conference or teaching junket at Bellagio or Dubai or Singapore).

"Bigot" and "parochial" are actually words with fairly clear descriptive and referential content; one can even look them up in the dictionary--"ignoramus," too, though that's a bit closer to an epithet, though in context quite obviously referred to her ignorance about the theory of evolution by natural selection, the foundation of modern biological science, which she regularly claims is not well-supported by evidence and is just a "liberal" dogma.  In any case, my various posts gave links supporting the various charges, though Professor Hills, besides telling us he was unpersuaded by the letter of the Wash U law faculty, apparently could not be bothered to investigate the matter before pronouncing those on the other side "intolerant."

It is hard to know whether Professor Hills is being serious with his (mistaken) observation that we are all "in some measure" bigots, parochial, and ignoramuses.  I will confine myself here to the question whether Professor Hills is, indeed, an ignoramus or a bigot, such that he would not be worthy of a university honor ("parochial" is the least of the charges against Ms. Schlafly).  I accept at face value Professor Hills's admission that he is "an ignoramus about theoretical physics," but I will go out on a limb and suppose that he does not advocate for the elimination of physics from the curriculum, does not claim that physics is unsupported by evidence, and does not believe equal time should be given in physics classes to religious cosmologies.  Ms. Schlafly, and the organization she founded, the Eagle Forum, share with Professor Hills a certain ignorance--in their case, about biology (though I wouldn't turn to them for guidance on physics either, but maybe I'm wrong!)--but differ in advocating and lobbying for their ignorance to shape school curricula.  I would have thought it obvious that there was a difference between culpbable and non-culpable ignorance, or between malicious and harmless ignorance, but apparently it was not obvious to Professor Hills.

Is it "bigotry" to be consistently hostile to the music of Schonberg, or any other composer?    It certainly evinces obstinate commitment to one's opinion (though in questions of taste, it is less clear what room there is for criticism of such commitment as obstinate or unreasonable), but ordinarily (and, again, obviously in this context), the word connotes "one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance," which I am sure does not fairly describe Professor Hills and his attitudes.  But it equally clearly describes Ms. Schlafly's career, dating from her long association with the John Birch Society and opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and reflected in numerous positions she has taken since, some of which are described in this illuminating essay about her career by Alan Wolfe (Boston College), and which are helpfully summarized in the various letters by concerned Washington University faculty collected on the site to which I had linked early on, but which it appears Professor Hills could not be troubled to peruse before weighing in on the issue.  As the Association of Women Faculty at Washington University in St. Louis note in their letter to Chancellor Wrighton, "Ms. Schlafly's core convictions" include "that women are intellectually inferior, that American Indians are heathens, that homosexuals are ill, [and] that biological evolution is untrue," which is a fine litany of bigotry and ignorance.  Even more informative is the letter to Chancellor Wrighton from female faculty at the Medical School:

While we find Ms. Schlafly's hyper-conservative view of women's roles offensive and an antithesis to the supposedly enlightened culture of an institution of higher learning, we could support honoring someone who advocated respect for choosing traditional roles or someone who provided leadership in the Republican party.  However, Ms. Schlafly's call to arms against the real existence of marital rape or her challenge to funding of shelters by linking domestic violence to a feminist plot against men, or her encourage of parents to resist the government encroachment into the family by not immunizing their children, or her position that American Indians are hurting our children by talking about their culture, or even her approach to rallying against illegal immigration by writing articles filled with stories of illegal immigrants who have killed, or raped or otherwise committed crimes--all these things are not just opinions, they are rallying cries to fear each other, to believe that others who are different are plotting against us or are less worthy than are we.

Bigotry is one of several words that seems descriptively apt in this context, in a way that it does not for severe distaste for Schonberg.

In comments to the original post, Professor Hills responded to my pointing our Ms. Schlafly's record on the theory of evolution by natural selection as follows: 

So Schlafly has goofy theories about creationism: So what? George Bernard Shaw was a Bergsonian; The late Vine DeLoria, advocate for native American rights, loathed the theory of evolution, as he thought that it disparaged Indian creation myths; retired Berkeley law prof Phillip Johnson pressed the notion of intelligent design. Should we vote them all off the honorary degree island for these offenses?

Again, it is hard to know whether Professor Hills is really being serious, or just relishing the role of being a contrarian, even at some cost to his own reputation.   The theory of evolution by natural selection is as well-confirmed a theory as any in modern science, and creationism is not; to claim otherwise, as Ms. Schlafly has done for years, and to advocate teaching creationism (or its new surrogates, like Intelligent Design) is to align oneself with ignorance.  That seems to me quite sufficient for thinking someone does not deserve an honorary degree from a serious research university (let alone one whose reputation depends on excellence in biology!).  (The same, of course, goes for Professor Johnson on this point.)  I have never heard of Vine DeLoria, but the question is not whether he held an ignorant view, but whether he championed for his ignorance to have a place in the school curricula, as do Ms. Schlafly and Professor Johnson.  Even weirder is the reference to Shaw's affection (about which I did not know) for the ideas of the French philosopher Henri Bergson.  Professor Hills perhaps has an unduly optimistic view of the capacity for philosophers to establish that certain views are false, but whatever one's opinion of Bergson, there is no sense in which accepting his philosophy is epistemically on a par with accepting creationism.

So the good news is that Professor Hills, despite his brave admissions of ignorance and "bigotry," is still eligible for an honorary degree!  The bad news is that Schlafly should not be.  It's not a hard case.  All Professor Hills needs to do is a little more reading.

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