Saturday, September 22, 2007

That Which Must Not Be Spoken

Larry Summers has been disinvited from speaking at the University of California at Davis, having offended the sensibilities of that faculty who don't want to provide a forum for someone who has said something Unspeakable. A leader of the petition drive to disinvite Summers, Professor Maureen Stanton, is quoted to say "I was appalled that someone articulating that point of view would be invited by the regents. This is a symbolic invitation and a symbolic measure that I believe sends the wrong message about the University of California and its cultural principles."

Eric Rauchway believes that it is the disinvitation itself that sends the wrong message. He frets that banning Summers makes it just that much more difficult to promote the free exploration of ideas on our campuses. He writes, "Casting someone as utterly outside the university's conversation is the severest penalty we as scholars can impose--appropriate perhaps to Holocaust deniers and such ilk as exhibit a chronic impenetrability to reason."

I beg to differ. It's pretty evident that Summers stated the one unspeakable thing; it's evidently more acceptable on today's campuses to raise questions about the Holocaust than over the equality of the genders. If only Summers had denied the Holocaust, chances are he might at least be invited to speak at Columbia University. After all, that's where Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be speaking on Monday. Columbia's President, Lee Bollinger, defends the decision on the following grounds: "Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the powers of dialogue and reason.... It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas." Why didn't anyone defend Larry Summer's presence at UC Davis on these same grounds? Didn't the Regents "trust their community" to be "fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the power of dialogue and reason"?

Lee Bollinger will introduce the Iranian President and then has said he will ask him a series of questions, expressing his skepticism about Ahmadinejad's views (I'm sure the President of Iran is quaking in his boots). Why didn't any of UC Davis's faculty suggest asking Summers some "tough questions" rather than calling for his outright ban from campus? Doesn't Ahmadinejad's presence constitute "a symbolic invitation and a symbolic measure" that sends the "wrong message" about Columbia University's "cultural principles"?

Where is the petition by the Columbia faculty protesting the appearance of a man who has repeatedly stated what Rauchway regards as "unspeakable"? Denying the Holocaust and calling for the extinction of Israel is one thing; calling for research on why fewer women are in the sciences is another. Thank goodness our Universities today know where to draw the line between those subjects which are permitted to be "discussed" and those which are unspeakable. It seems to me that it's many of our own faculty who exhibit a "chronic impenetrability to reason," and maybe they should be the ones to be barred from campus. Anyone want to start a petition?

4 comments:

Black Sea said...

The speech which originally landed Summers in such trouble, and which is available in full on the internet, was in subsequent media coverage often sloppily summarized, probably through a combination of moral outrage, sheer laziness, and journalistic incompetence (i.e. difficulty in following Summers' argument).

If I could quote one paraphraph from the text, Summers said:

"There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the . . . high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described."

One can read the Summers' text in full to find his explinations of and justifications for these claims.

My point is that Summers observations on that day do in fact pose a far greater threat to contemporary orthodoxies than do the opinions of Ahmadinejad.

Note that of the three factors which might explain the disparity between men and women in the sciences, Summers gave greatest weight to the obstacle of family obligations. And yet this was not the point which drew fire against him.

The greater female commitment to child-rearing might of course be explained by social conditioning, and even if it is biological, this in a sense speaks to greater communal responsiblity on the part of women. Thus, this wasn't really the hot point.

It was Summers' analyses of the second and third causes that led to his downfall. In effect, he was arguing that biological differences play a greater role than patterns of discrimination in explaining this disparity. A mighty dangerous thing to say.

The most disturbing aspect of this claim - from the orthodox point of view - is the growing body of scientific evidence which supports it.

The Pope was not pleased to hear that the Earth was in orbit around the sun. The fact that there was rational evidence to support this claim made it more, not less, problematic.

Ahmadinejad only poses a threat equal to that of Summers if he possesses persuasive evidence that the Holocaust is a Jewish fraud, and very few academics believe that. Summers, on the other hand, had to be silenced beacuse his opponents knew how dangerous it was to allow this conversation to continue.

Investigation into the role of brain physiology and its effect on identity, behavior, and apptitude is going to do to the 21st century what the theory of evolution did to the 20th. The results will rock a great many boats, and not everyone will handle these results humanely, wisely, or well.

The Summers affair is, more or less, our era's Scopes Monkey Trial. Only in this case, the academics are supporting the biblical version of creation.

Anonymous said...

Summer's fall was only peripherally related to the speech. It provided ammunition for a long list of grievances. Always helpful to keep that in mind when speculating on the implications of his defeat at Harvard. Now, the UC Board of Regents seems to be another kettle of fish entirely.

Black Sea said...

From what I've read, there were people at Harvard who didn't like Summers style and were looking for reasons to take him down.

A fair enough point, but this hardly explains the vitriolic attempt, national rather than local in scope, to discredit Summers as a public intellectual. Nor does it explain why Summers comments would so quickly be taken up by his intra-Harvard opponents as effective ammunition in their battle against him.

These people understood immediately that such comments were the weapon they had been waiting for, because they understood the broader intellectual and cultural climate. Not surprising, since they're the ones who help shape it.

That Summers comments not only undid him at Harvard but triggered more widespread condemnation says something about contemporary culture that we should not lightly dismiss.

Futhermore, the recent events at UC Davis only confirm that it is his comments, rather than his allegedly abrasive personal style, that continue to cause Summers trouble. People want to censure the guy because they are deeply disturbed by what he said. He said something that educated, right-thinking people are taught from childhood neither to think nor to say. That empirical evidence may confirm his comments only makes them that much more more disturbing.

Summers may have lacked the necessary political instincts and social grace to be a well-liked, or even an effective, university president. Maybe he's all the obnoxious things that his critics claim. But in an atmosphere of timid conformity to the pieties or our time, he said something worth saying and stimulated a little thought, not a bad thing for a university president to do.

Sorry to have gone on at such length, but I think the issues surrounding the Summers controversy are worthy of serious consideration.

Unknown said...

But the truth is that Summers is part of the problem. Rather than responding to his (often hysterical and histrionic) critics by saying, in effect, "show me evidence and reasons," he immediately, abjectly, and repeatedly apologized, even forking over $50 million to some of his most vociferous critics. His spinelessness (I don't really know what else to call it) worked powerfully to legitimate the claim that he *was* wrong to ask those sorts of questions and, more broadly, that there are some quite reasonable questions that are by definition out of bounds in the modern university. The UC Regents acted with some cowardice and the faculty who protested are little more than ignorant know-nothings, but Summers is being hoisted on his own petard and really doesn't deserve our sympathy at all. He's made his own bed - let him lie in it.