The Massachusetts Institute of Technology deserves some sort of research prize for confirming NYU professor Jonathan Haidt’s theory that the social sciences suffer from a deficit of viewpoint diversity.
Last Monday, several social scientists from prestigious universities gathered in a state-of-the-art theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts for MIT’s conference on Israel’s 70th anniversary. While enjoying trays of free cookies and drinks, the mostly upper middle-class audience got to hear speaker after speaker complain about the Jewish state.
Of the six academic speakers who were invited to participate, not one depicted the creation of Israel as anything other than a moral calamity. Only MIT professor Stephen Van Evera dared to criticize Yasser Arafat for turning down a generous deal put together by Bill Clinton in 2000. All the rest of the panelists seemed to agree with University of Massachusetts professor Leila Farsakh’s assertion that peace negotiations failed—and continue to fail—because of “Israeli intransigence.”
The near uniformity of opinion was a powerful instantiation of Haidt’s theory that the “American Academy has–arguably–become a politically orthodox and quasi-religious institution,” where “people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.”
Participants in the conference also lent credence to Haidt’s other big idea: that two incompatible “sacred” values are currently colliding on university campuses. One sacred value goes back to John Stuart Mill’s famous maxim, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that”; the other sacred value is rooted in Karl Marx’s injunction that intellectuals shouldn’t just interpret the world but seek to change it.
These two pedagogical visions, Haidt believes, are at loggerheads on college campuses because they aim at different goals. “Marx is the patron saint of what I’ll call ‘Social Justice U,’ which is oriented around changing the world in part by overthrowing power structures and privilege,” Haidt argues. “It sees political diversity as an obstacle to action. Mill is the patron saint of what I’ll call ‘Truth U,’ which sees truth as a process in which flawed individuals challenge each other’s biased and incomplete reasoning. In the process, all become smarter. Truth U dies when it becomes intellectually uniform or politically orthodox.”
Viewpoint diversity is, nevertheless, widely valued in broader American society. So much so that even dogmatic political activists must pretend to embrace it. Before MIT’s Israel conference, for example, the organizers felt the need to market the event as if it would offer a Millsian “array of narratives” by bringing together “Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans to discuss and debate the history, the politics, and the current critical moment.”
But it was false advertising. The conference was squarely in the “Social Justice U” camp. Tellingly, one of the conference organizers, Israeli philosopher Anat Biletzki, argued fervently for the elimination of the world’s only Jewish-majority country. That might explain why her selection of voices on the panel seemed deliberately intended to convey the notion that Israel’s existence was a historical blunder and that the Arabs were wholly innocent victims of it. None of the social scientists raised any uncomfortable truths that might challenge that storyline—truths such as Palestinian Arab collaboration with the Nazis; Islamist aspects of the 1948 war to destroy Israel; historic persecution of Jews in Muslim-majority lands, culminating in the almost total ethnic cleansing of indigenous Jewish communities across the Middle East and North Africa.
Echoes of Marx’s injunction to change the world could also be heard at the conference. Activist-historian Irene Gendzier, a BDS supporter, seemed to channel the spirit of Marx when she claimed that history only matters if “in some way it paves the way for changing not only the perception of the present but the future.” Her own historical publications, presumably, therefore have an a priori political agenda. If not, her thinking suggests, why study the past?
She also said: “although we are consigned to talking about the past, it seems to me that we here [at the MIT conference] are really talking in disguise about what we would like to see for a different future.” Judging by the overall message of this conference, that future involves the Jewish state’s paying in some way for the crime of its existence.