About “Viewpoint Diversity” and False Equivalency

I’ve been reading the current thread on the WPA-l, about a new discussion group called Heterodox Rhetoric and Composition (HxR/C), and I’ve been thinking about why some of the language the Heterodox Academy uses seems more dangerous to me than it appears to people joining the group.

The term “viewpoint diversity” is the heart of it. This 2017 piece in Vox traces the history of the concept as part of an explicitly conservative project. HxR/C’s language rings a bell similar to that of David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom–because it’s a clear outgrowth of it. In the early 2000s, the preferred term was “intellectual diversity,” and the Vox piece documents the morphing between the two. The Students for Academic Freedom website hasn’t been maintained actively for a while,  but both the language and the chains of reasoning they used were similar to the Heterodox Academy’s (which hosts HxR/C).

When the SAF version of this movement defused, its descendants seems to have moved in two directions. One of them has turned into Turning Point USA, which looks/feels more like Horowitz as an individual (i.e., confrontational and partisan) in its style, and the other is the Heterodox Academy, which looks and feels more like a direct descendant of FIRE. [A note about FIRE: I first learned of them during the Horowitz SAF campaign. They’ve always struck me as an almost perfect mirror image of the ACLU–an organization the politics of which lean in one direction, but are occasionally complicated by the organization’s willingness to take stands on behalf of people they disagree with.]

The folks involved in HxR/C may not buy that history or may want to debate details of it; at the same time, I hope this makes clear why that history–in which some of us oldsters were pretty deeply implicated–is making us (at least me) respond to this initiative with concern. The Hx R/C members may not (and I believe them when they say so) mean the same things, but the overlaps in the language and logic are hard to ignore.

Along with all that, this morning I read a post from a physicist named Adam Becker at Undark (which, I’ll confess, I haven’t vetted carefully as a source). The post, called “Junk Science or the Real Thing: ‘Inference’ Publishes Both,” is about a periodical called Inference that practices viewpoint diversity. They don’t use the phrase, exactly, but their About page says [bold added, italics in the original], in part:

Founded in 2014, Inference: International Review of Science is an independent quarterly review of the sciences. Inference is dedicated to publishing reasoned, informed, and insightful critical essays that reflect the true diversity of thought across the fields that comprise the journal’s remit, from Anthropology to Zoology….

We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever.

The language should look familiar. Also, to be clear–Becker directly asserts a political agenda and motives in his argument that I am NOT asserting here.

To be fair, Inference replied to Becker’s essay on their site, responding point-by-point to some of the details, but not squarely addressing his major argument: that putting bad arguments alongside better arguments doesn’t lead to “dialogue” but instead to legitimizing the bad arguments by making them look like they belong. The editors of Inference do say that anyone who wants to respond to what they think is bad science can write letters to the editor. As somebody who’s been an avid letter-to-editor writer for many years, I can assure you that a letter in the opinion section has a lot less power than the multi-thousand-word ostensibly-professionally-vetted piece it’s responding to. C’mon.

The position of the Inference editors, which seems similar if not identical to the position the Heterodox Academy takes, strikes me as false-equivalence. Not all statements have equal force, and to assert that those difference in force are purely logical/critical/rational is to enable (at least) even the most irresponsible utterances as viable.

Accusations of false equivalence vary in terms of their willingness to declare (or presume) motives. I often accuse Fox News of superficially including an occasional “liberal side” of a story only to create straw arguments serving their right-wing agenda. On the other hand, while I don’t think the New York Times or CNN are particularly right-wing (or left), both organizations willingly give space to viewpoints that are demonstrably dishonest (see: entire history of the US occupation of Iraq) in the name of “fairness.”

I’m not addressing the motives of the HxR/C members, partly because I have lengthy personal relationships with some of them and I don’t want those to confuse the issue; partly because Trish Roberts-Miller’s point about motivism is right (it’s more of a tool for reinforcing group in/out-ness than it is an analytical tool); and partly because I want to acknowledge their own explanations for what they’re doing.

In return, I hope members of the group will take the discomfort some of us are expressing not as an effort to shut them down, but as a legitimate expression of concern about their group’s resonances with projects that have, in fact, been aimed explicitly at silencing “radical leftist indoctrinators.”

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3 Responses to About “Viewpoint Diversity” and False Equivalency

  1. fp says:

    The characterization of the Heteredox Academy in this piece is revelatory to me: https://quillette.com/2018/06/29/heterodoxy-is-hard-even-at-heterodox-academy/; the comments are scary. The idea that Title IX did irreparable harm to academia and society in general is embraced by the author (though not by the HA itself, yet–the implication is that they are getting there) and several commenters. I am… flabbergasted.

    • sethkahn says:

      Given the people involved the discussion that got me to write this in the first place, I suspect there’s a range of politics even within the HA membership. It does sound like not all the positions in that range are equally vocal, which would be kind of ironic but not necessarily hypocritical.

  2. Steve Krause says:

    All good points and informative. I gave up on WPA-L, though I do look at the archives once in a while and I did skim through all this a bit. I hadn’t heard anything about this Heterodox Academy stuff, and even if the people who are starting this comp/rhet version of this were/are unaware of this background of the group (and it’s hard to believe that they weren’t aware), it sounds sketchy to say the least.

    But I do understand the motivation for some kind of more “reasonable” discussion space entirely.

    There’s no Google form to fill out, but WPA-L has become a space where participants are also expected to take an unspoken “loyalty oath.” Somewhere along the line– I don’t know exactly when, though the breaking point for me was in the fall– that community got taken over/dominated by folks who are anxious to “call out” anything seen as the absolute smallest transgression or anything that doesn’t fit into a very particular and in my view extreme version of identity politics. Someone we both know called the group “Maoist” in a Facebook group, and I think that’s pretty accurate.

    I’m a middle-aged white dude who is relatively empowered as a tenured professor albeit at a minor/regional university. I’m also a card-carrying Democrat, I’ve been a member of a union of one sort or another for over 20 years, and I support all sorts of liberal causes with actual dollars, things like public radio, Southern Poverty Law Center, pro-choice groups, liberal candidates for office, etc. The institution where I’ve spent most of my academic career is an “opportunity granting” one where we enroll a lot of students from working poor backgrounds, many of whom are also people of color, and I take that mission very seriously. I could go on, but I think you get the idea: I consider myself a liberal. Oh, and I was on that mailing list (or one like it) for like 25 or so years.

    Now I feel like I’m not really welcome and just to make matters worse, sometimes the WPA-L loyalty test/”social justice warrior” attitude spills over to Facebook. Just the other day, I was commenting on a post from Drew Loewe about that infamous WPA-L discussion and how I thought Roxanne Gay’s comment there was counter-productive because she’s not really active in the community at all, and if it weren’t for the fact that she’s a quite famous writer and commentator at this point (and btw, good for her– and I think she’s a great writer and thinker), no one would have paid much attention to that. Cheryl Ball of all people– someone I’ve known for 20 years at least, and someone who I know isn’t on that mailing list– commented “white guy comes in and undercuts black woman’s expertise.” I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?

    There’s another person in that discussion (someone I don’t really know so I’ll leave his name out of this) commented there will be “a reckoning” for the likes of those who don’t acknowledge that we have reached a “moment of accountability,” and we’re in the midst of a “revolution” where those who have had an “outsized influence” will not be able to “dictate the terms of their decline.” Good lord, all this over a mailing list previously most useful for announcements, sharing teaching ideas/readings, and an infamously hilarious discussion about bed bugs.

    These extreme efforts– at “calling out,” at trying to demonstrate how much more “woke” one is, at assuming that a white and tenured guy is a power-hungry racist, etc. –are dangerous. I’ll set aside for now how this attitude might well play out in the 2020 election and usher Trump back into office as the Democrats cannibalize themselves. I’m more directly worried about the field. Besides the WPA-L mailing list, I’ve seen this wave basically cancel (though it’s been rescheduled) the Computers and Writing Conference. Given what I think was/is a problematic CFP and theme, get ready for this year’s CCCCs to be a wall-to-wall call out fest. Sooner than later, I’m sure this movement is going to start shaping (controlling?) the scholarship that appears

    It seems to me an academic discourse community depends on a certain level of tolerance for different views and a willingness to trust us each other a bit, to give the benefit of the doubt, to move beyond simple assumptions about what someone thinks/believes based only on apparent identity, and so forth. When that tolerance and trust erodes, so does the discipline. And as I recall from my political science classes years ago, the “right/left” division is a circle rather than a line.

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