The (Oh Too) Common Assumption

Jack Burton: You know what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this?
Thunder: Who?
Jack Burton: Jack Burton. ME!

We refer to it as “the common assumption”. Strictly speaking, it is this: the assumption that within the hallowed halls of Academia the default political position is – because it ought to be – far left. Over a decade ago, Mark Bauerlein referred to it as follows: “The assumption is that all the strangers in the room at professional gatherings are liberals.

The result is that we conservatives quite often find ourselves bombarded with inflammatory, polemical rhetoric with which we are expected to agree…And for those of us who prefer the privacy of the vast right-wing conspiracy to being openly quarantined with the lepers, well, we might not agree but we normally damned well don’t openly dissent. [Replace “normally” with “never” for those untenured and even those who’re (gulp) graduate students…]

I mean, how awkward is it, conversationally, to be forced to interrupt one of your colleagues mid-self-righteous-leftwing-diatribe with an uncomfortable, “Well, not only is that false, Pedro, but I find your effrontery downright disgusting…”? No, we stand and take it. Perhaps we nod, faces mute, serious. And then we turn around, wipe our forehead (“Whew! That was close…I almost told Pedro he was a (blanking) moron!”), and carry on. In good Stoic fashion.

Whatever happened to civil, well-mannered prefaces like, “Well, I don’t know what you think about ______, but…” or even “This might seem controversial, but…”? Such prefaces might make it appear as though a genuine discussion or conversation is in the offing…Alas, dialogue is seldom the goal. More like professional posturing. After all, it’s a priori that any invective aimed at those not all in favor of homosexual “rights,” those not convinced of the obviousness of the “institutional” oppression of minorities, those not skeptical of the inherent sexism of the academy (and the world at large), and those refusing to fly the flag of [insert popular left-wing whining du jour here], is well-deserved, morally certain, and conversationally appropriate. Such is the common assumption.

A couple of real world experiences, from this (still young) semester alone:

  • While serving on the curriculum committee for my college, one department in the social sciences had proposed a “social justice major,” complete with a program justification that, first of all, never actually explained (either broadly or narrowly) what “social justice” is supposed to be. [Jack Burton, admittedly, remains clueless.] What it did include, however, were several notable “facts”: the “fact” that gender is a social construct, the “fact” that gendered (and racial) minorities on campus are oppressed/marginalized in various ways, the “fact” that all disciplines are complicit in said oppression/marginalization, and the “fact” that the job of the university is to push forward liberationist agendas. These, mind you, were “the facts” buttressing the proposal. [I’ll not bother the readership with the proposed courses, which included a litany of the proverbial Marxist/Critical Theory nonsense.] The chair of the committee read the proposal aloud – like a fiery sermon by an oratorical master, the words had my 25 colleagues vigorously nodding their collective head in lock-step – and then immediately called for discussion. [As if any were necessary…] One professor called for “solidarity” with the proposal. Another voiced concern that this sort of major was “only just now” being considered. A third responded that the current administration was full of right-wing-sympathetic “white males” who “probably watch Fox News every night” [giggling ensued]. Enter Jack: When I questioned the so-called “fact” that the job of the university was to inspire activism of any sort at all, I was met with looks of absolute incredulity…I immediately changed tactics, noting how it was typically not a matter for the social SCIENCES to be concerned with justice of any sort, that perhaps such a major would best be housed elsewhere (if housed at all)…Blank stares. In hindsight I’m just thankful that I was spared a rendition of the Two-Minutes Hate. In any case, the measure passed. Spectacularly.
  • A group of students knocked on my office door one day. “Hi Dr. _____, we have a petition to change the language of the student handbook. The basic idea is that we think it ought to include gender-respectful language for those who do not identify as either male or female…” I politely demurred with the (truthful) proviso: “I do not sign petitions. On principle. But thank you for asking.” Over the course of the next three days, I had visits from at least four colleagues throughout the college, aghast that I had refused to sign the petition, and requesting “an explanation” for why I would refuse to champion “the cause of The Good (sic)”. I deflected the attention good-naturedly. Though I am most happy to report that the petition has not (yet) received the required number of signatures in order to guarantee a hand-wringing bureaucratfest amongst Deans, Deanlings, and Deanlets, collectively falling over themselves to appease calls for “diversity” in whatever fashion is required, lest the Leftosphere break out the PR machine.

Notice: I am not complaining. I am not raging against “the leftist establishment” [though “established” it most certainly is]. Nor am I taking cover under the ever-expanding umbrella of victimhood. I’m simply stating a fact. Over the years I’ve gotten used to it.

Oh it’s definitely annoying. And I’m certainly mindful of the likelihood that such exuberant expressions of Leftard-jackassery are not limited to the hallways and faculty offices…far too many stories, from substantial numbers of right-thinking students, provide overwhelming evidential support that conservative faculty members are probably the least affected by such heavy-handed displays…ah, those students, the poor bastards.

Jack Burton

This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’ out there. When not doing historical philosophy, he’s fighting the forces of evil (i.e., Lo Pan, his minions, and leftists). To those who fear university bureaucrats, “social justice” activists, and anyone with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker, just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

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  1. I heard that one of the biggest financial firms on the planet recently hosted “group talks” (in the US only, queerly enough), to facilitate their employees having “safe spaces” to discuss their “feelings” about “workplace diversity and inclusivity” (or the perceived lack thereof) while on the clock no less.

    Apparently upper management had gotten word that the leftist SJW’s had trained a PR Gatling gun on them, and hence they were to comply forthwith or else have the righteous fire of holy contempt rained upon them.

    Oh, and top mgt. at each branch was informed that their attendance, participation and leadership were *compulsory*. The intolerance of leftist tolerance: “You can express any opinion you like so long as it agrees with mine”.

    • Thanks for the comment. I certainly can believe chicanery such as this has made its way into the corporate field. Hell, most of those who make up the workforce nowadays were “educated” by PC-infested universities (like my own). It’s standard stuff, nowadays. I could fill up this blog with stories of my own “university requirements” vis a vis “diversity” workshops and the like. It’d be laugh-worthy were it not so bloody sad.

  2. Jack Burton’s article seems to express as matter of fact that Right-leaning grad students remain quiet. It doesn’t say whether that course of action is advocated or not. I recently finished an MA at a private secular school in a very liberal part of the country. The students and faculty were relatively open to other ideas (especially religious ones, but even political ones to a certain extent) even though the leftward lean was present. I am now a PhD student in a very conservative part of the country and the department is, with a small bit of exception, rabidly leftist, even if somewhat open to “religion”. I’m relatively timid by nature, but I don’t feel particularly good about being too quiet. A small number of people in the department have a general idea about my views, but no one really knows too much specifically. The odd thing is, all the right of center academics that I have talked to for advice have suggested playing things close to the vest and keeping coy for now. And I’m not sure why that is. I’ve been mostly following that advice, but I’m not really sure why, other than that I am deferring to their ostensible wisdom in the matter. Does anyone on here have any advice as to this issue?

    • Whether graduate students should remain quiet…Hmmm…Well, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, given the state of the discipline, it certainly appears within one’s self-interest to keep one’s thoughts to oneself. Why? Well, by and large because of the matters/topics of discussion (thus far) on this very blog. Lots of lefties just happen to be the sort of assholes who _would_ torpedo your career for not toeing the party-line on certain “non-negotiable” political positions. I’ve heard of more than one graduate student who had his letters of recommendation revoked for just such circumstances. Furthermore, given the open society which academics now inhabit (blogosphere, Facebook, and the internet generally), it’s not hard for the wider world to find out more about you than, perhaps, you might like.

      On the other hand, I reckon outing yourself publicly would depend largely upon your surroundings (are there other conservatives within the department? Even if not, are the progressives (gasp!) into genuinely open inquiry?). If the surroundings are amenable to truly open discussion, then by all means, enter into the fray.

      This is not an idle query. Indeed, it’s a fantastic one. And I’m not sure I know how to answer it appropriately. After all, what you’re asking is primarily a matter of personal integrity. Can you (in a satisfying, conscientious way) live with yourself should you remain quiet concerning matters near and dear to your heart? Or, is your attitude such that, at the end of the day, you’re profoundly indifferent to the political nonsense that surrounds you in the workplace?

      I’ll put it this way: as a graduate student, I didn’t necessarily _hide_ my political leanings. But neither did I advertise them to all and sundry. “Keeping it close to the vest” would be a good way of describing me.

    • Thanks, Jack.

      I don’t have Facebook or any of that. All I have is this google plus account which I use under the name of Pooh Bear on a few sites which I comment on. I used to have more stuff but got rid of it to sort of cover my tracks… plus I’ve found I’m happier without all that internet footprint anyway.

      I’m certainly not comfortable keeping quiet forever. But that of course isn’t the issue. Eventually I plan to be the bane of many progressives’ existence(s) but I’m just trying to figure out how long to bite my tongue and how hard to bite it.

      I do think a good number of liberals are open to honest inquiry, even more than we often let on. But of course all it takes is the loudmouths to ruin it for everyone.

      As far as the history of the blog so far, I can say that such activity doesn’t seem representative of my experiences. While I’ve seen a lot of ridicule directed at Conservatives when they think none of them are there to hear it, most of my experiences suggest that lefties get “nicer” about Conservative ideas when they know that some conservatives are around to hear what they’re saying. Does that experience track with yours at all?

      Regarding RC’s history, the claim the other side makes is that they’re primarily fired up about the dissemination of Facebook posts. Do you think that their anger would be so pointed even in the absence of the “privacy” debate?

      I definitely agree that some people have this “assumption.” I’ve already had two other students assume I was a liberal and it’s only my first semester in the program! (I’ve also been asked if I eat meat, which is honestly like the 2nd time in my whole life anyone’s asked me that)

      I guess I’m just so unsure about the proper attitude, and so far neither option seems particularly right when considered from all sides.

    • Research universities are more likely than teaching colleges to have faculty who respect other people’s intellectual positions, even if they are extreme themselves. They’re more likely to encounter those who disagree with them at conferences and as referees and they are always wanting to hire the smartest people, even though ideology has weight too. A college faculty is more like a private club, where you don’t want people who will upset you even if, especially if, they are brilliant.

      I’m worrying about this now as my daughter is thinking about colleges. My pastor strongly disrecommends the best known Christian colleges in favor of obscure ones or secular research universities since students may wrongly believe that Christian college faculty (especially theology faculty) actually are Christians.

    • That’s an interesting claim. The literature I’ve read has suggested that the more highly respected a school is, the more biased it is against Conservatives. You seem to be challenging this claim, or am I missing something?

  3. Excellent post Jack Burton.

    Another particularly interesting sort of social dynamic is when everyone *knows* you, X, are conservative, but this is not an “open” matter, a part of the publicly accessible “common ground,” so to speak. Hence, it is still permissible and expected that one at least *act* as if everyone in the room agrees about, say, “those stupid Republicans,” “that horrific senator,” and so on. This goes on, and is treated as normal, even though *everyone knows* in the back of his mind that X probably strongly disagrees with the sentiment. (And in a way this is to be expected; humans are social animals after all, and so conventions and norms are extremely powerful.)

    This state of affairs comes about in various ways. For instance, maybe a select few people, who you are closer to, know that you are conservative, and so it spreads quietly. Or maybe people reasonably infer it from your positions on other matters (libertarianism about free will, reasons externalism, deontologism, dualism about the mind, theism, Christianity, etc.). Or maybe they see your Twitter. Or something like that.

    Now, this strange situation can be avoided (and, usually, not even be awkward) if you are outspoken, flamboyant, but also humorous and light-hearted, about your deviant beliefs. This has the effect of making it part of the “public common ground” that you are conservative (even though everyone knew it before!), and so it becomes a piece of information that is calculated into the norms governing the social context and the discourse (whereas, before, the knowledge that X is conservative was entirely ignored — it was treated *as if* it wasn’t even true, even though known by everyone to be true!). Then we can chuckle about it, have a little back and forth, etc., which is much more pleasant than having to be closeted.

    It also creates a healthier environment insofar as public pearl clutching has some costs: It could backfire, in case X decides to lightly joke about it and it makes you look overly-serious; it also means you have to be willing to face some confrontation and (publicly acknowledged) social pressure from the conservative(s); and, most of all, you don’t know if someone in your audience will actually side with the conservative in this particular case and even disagree with you! Attaching these social costs to virtue signalling helps prevent the group from descending into an ideologically homogeneous echo chamber and the conversation from descending into a quasi-religious anathematization ritual.

    So I actually think this is the ideal really. Be open, outspoken, and light-hearted about one’s views. Be a likable person (though not a milksop). And don’t be afraid to be a bit bold about it. Once one has tenure I think this is generally the way to go; it makes life much easier, and much more fun.

    The only problem with this is that, in the early stages of one’s career, or if one happens to be at a *particularly* fervent and hostile institution, the people who have power over important decisions in one’s career will either not have this knowledge (that even though you are conservative you are still a likable and talented colleague), or they will still not be amused (because they are zealots). So, for instance, when your name comes up among the hundreds of job applicants, and it is simply known (one way or another, say by word of mouth) that you are conservative, and the decision-maker does not have the personal experience with you that was built over many years wherever you were before, that’s enough to immediately disqualify you in favor of someone else who doesn’t have that particular negative trait (of not conforming to liberal dogma). So even though a certain openness can (sometimes) make existence at one’s *present* institution more pleasant, it is not worth it for people who are not already established where they want to be, since that pleasantness will not have been experienced by, say, the person vetting your job application (leaving only their immediate strong bias against conservatives, plus their knowledge that you are a conservative).

    So it is rational early in one’s career to just remain closeted, since even if it makes one happier in one’s present environment, simply having a reputation as a conservative can ruin your job prospects in the blink of an eye. And so I suspect it is harder for conservative graduate students than for, say, established tenured faculty — I suspect that conservative graduate students remain closeted more frequently, that groups of graduate students are probably more likely to resemble the ideological echo chamber described, and their group conversations are far more likely to resemble the quasi-religious ritual model mentioned above. Hence, the graduate student atmosphere is probably more liberal and radical, and more close-minded, than the (already liberal) faculty atmosphere. (This would be an interesting empirical prediction to test — say, by interviewing conservative graduate students and not only faculty, as was done here:

    And so the group behavior of the human herd holds sway: You remain closeted, in conversation people pretend that you are not conservative, liberals sustain each other through costless virtue signaling, and the convention of the Common Assumption is reinforced and maintained — all the while it being known by virtually everyone that you are conservative.

    Humans are fascinating creatures.

  4. I’ll tell you that I am against third-trimester abortions, and I have been in the room with critical theorist anti-capitalists similar to myself, but I ground my contextualized anti-abortion stance on my Catholicism. I still think that my Catholicism is a way to rethink private property in terms of more Aristotelian communitarianism, and I’ll fight you on this philosophically. I’ll never not make arguments or listen to what you have to say. I just wish you wrote openly and without the anonymity.

    • “I just wish you wrote openly and without the anonymity.” And I just wish the Cardinals would win the World Series annually…and that George Martin would finish the Game of Thrones series…and that Egg Shen would market that secret potion of his. Alas, what I wish is by and large irrelevant. As is your wish that I (we) write non-anonymously. And if you can’t understand why we use internet handles, then either (a) you’re a fool, or (b) you don’t have much of an understanding of academia.

  5. I’m so happy this blog exists. You are getting some good publicity from MaverickPhilosopher and that is what tipped me off to your existence. Keep doing what you are doing; you are certainly ruffling the right feathers so far!

  6. Here’s a twist on the topic. I was once in a room at a Yale Law School conference having drinks with a group of critical race theory people, Mari Matsuda and others. Everybody was moaning about how awful the Supreme Court was, but without specifics. I quite agreed about how awful the Justices are. But I felt awkward, because I realized that my grounds were diametrically opposite from theirs. What should I have done?

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