About “Viewpoint Diversity” and False Equivalency

February 3, 2019

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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PASSHE Students, Faculty, Staff, Alums, Managers! Please read this!

November 20, 2011

[Updated Fri 11/25 @ 8:07 am: Two things. First, I’ve made two very slight changes to the text of the letter, one of which is extending the deadline of the Chancellor to respond; that’s at the recommendation of WCU’s President Greg Weisenstein. I also added an explicit reference to free expression rights in the second paragraph, to respond to some concern that I was advocating protection for violent protests. While I certainly don’t advocate repressive police violence against anybody, neither do I advocate violent protest. Seemed like a fair way to split the difference. Second, as of now, we’re at 142 signatures and counting. That’s with my amateur canvassing effort and the goodwill of a bunch of folks who are helping spread it. However, I still need help reaching Cheyney and Mansfied (no signatures from either), ESU, Clarion, and Slippery Rock (only one from each), and from staff and managers at all campuses. Thanks!]

Folks: The letter below is adapted from a letter drafted and shared by colleague at Eastern Connecticut State U, calling on her university president to make a statement in support protest rights on their campuses. I’ve made some adaptations to it, with an eye towards making it system-wide and more inclusive for all members of the PASSHE community.

I hope people will sign onto it. If you’re willing to contribute your name, please send me a message with your name, your institution, and a department/unit you work in (or major/majored in). I intend to send the letter sometime Tuesday afternoon, so please respond quickly and share widely.

Thanx.

Dear Chancellor Cavanaugh:We write as faculty, staff, students, alums, and managers–as members of the PASSHE community–to express both our dismay at the repressive use of force against students at the University of California-Davis, and our strong request that you make a public statement expressing your support for campus community members’ right to protest in public spaces.We are saddened and outraged that students in US colleges and universities are being met with pepper spray when they choose, peacefully, to exercise their First Amendment rights, and just as importantly what we have  learned and taught in our classes and elsewhere on our campuses.  Those of us who grew up during or have studied the Sixties protests, or the anti-globalization protests in Seattle and Miami—as well as those who may have participated in them and others since—are reminded very uncomfortably of another time.  And we worry that our students, staff, faculty, and management may be watching the UC-Davis video (which has, by now, gone viral) and be worried about what may happen on our campuses if we choose to speak our minds.We ask, then, that by Monday, December 12, you write an open letter to our system-wide community (and maybe post it on the portal?) assuring us that we will be safe if we choose to protest on our campuses and that, rather than meeting any protests with violence, you will use them as an opportunity to engage in dialogue about our concerns. We trust your fundamental humanity and fairness; please share that with our community, so we know we can be thankful that we attend and work for universities that are places of peace and safety.

Extending you best wishes for a happy holiday season,

[signatures]