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Amor Mundi: Against Social Science

Against Social Science

Malcolm Gladwell is interviewed by Dave Nussbaum about his recent podcast series taking on social science. Hannah Arendt was unusually skeptical about the use of social science in policy arguments. One reason Arendt distrusts social science is its deep-seated aversion to contingency, its belief that the complexity of human life can be captured in categories. One example Gladwell emphasizes is the famous “doll experiment” by Kenneth and Mamie Clark. For Gladwell, the experiment was mistakenly, and harmfully, used to argue that segregation was harmful to the psyche’s of black children.

Ms. Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment,” is very much about that. It’s a re-examination of the Brown decision, which is formally a legal document but famously relied on social science to reach its conclusions. [In the episode,] I’m really examining the social science at the core of it and saying that the social science argument that the court made was wrong—or at least was painfully and tragically incomplete. There’re are million really important questions that arise out of the general re-examination of Brown that’s gone on, and one of them is that social science arguments are incorporated into public policy often at social science’s peril.

It’s really easy for public policy people to get it wrong, or to misunderstand what the science is telling them, or to twist the findings of researchers. To me, the great appeal of social science has always been that research is not definitive. It’s always posing a proposition to be debated. That’s not the way the rest of the world is; the rest of the world wants very definitive answers. And Brown is a really good example of this. Let’s face it: The social science that the court used in the Brown case is pretty flimsy social science—it is not psychology at its best….

The court, for its own peculiar reasons, wanted to claim that black people, as a result of segregation, had suffered a kind of grievous and catastrophic psychological injury. And I’m sorry, that’s just not true.

Were there black people harmed by segregated schools? Yes—although I’m not sure whether it was the fact of segregation or the fact of institutional racism and inadequate funding and general neglect that caused the injury. But to draw the sweeping conclusion that the court did—that unless black kids can sit next to white kids in a classroom they can’t get an education—is nonsense! It sets you down a path that, as I detail in the episode, gets really problematic really fast. They compound the problem with their inattention to the details under which integration is executed….

No one is disputing that segregation was a heinous policy with far-reaching ramifications; the question is where do you locate the harm of segregation? And the court chose to locate the harm squarely inside the hearts and psyches of black children, whereas I would locate the harm in the world. I would say that the harm is located in the structure of laws and institutions that have the effect of systematically inhibiting and disempowering African Americans.

That may sound like a minor distinction. It is not. It’s a fundamental distinction. And particularly when you understand that it is the deliberate strategy of Southern whites to try and shift the racial conversation from institutions and political structures to hearts and minds. They’re trying to do that because they understand that if we can locate the argument entirely inside black people’s psyches, then we can leave institutional structures in place that systematically disenfranchise African Americans.”


In a recent commencement speech, President Paula Johnson of Wellesley College seeks, with little success, to balance freedom of speech and the harm that words cause.

“Let’s be clear. There is no question that freedom of speech—free expression—has helped to pave the way to a better world, that it is essential to human progress and a healthy democracy. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech, delivered the day before his assassination, is widely remembered for its soaring language—“I’ve been to the mountaintop”—and its terribly prescient conclusion, as King recognized that “I may not get there with you.” But earlier, he spoke, too, of the First Amendment rights of Memphis sanitation workers and their supporters to protest injustice.

Freedom of expression has a special role for colleges and universities, institutions that strive to push forward the frontiers of knowledge. Intellectual openness is central to this endeavor. Progress happens when the clash of ideas gives rise to new insights. It happens when we turn toward new ideas and grapple with their implications.

All of this is indisputably true.

But also: There is more.

As deeply as we value free expression, we must also acknowledge its costs—costs that are often borne by the most vulnerable among us. Internet trolling, sexual harassment, hate speech, bullying—all these have a measure of First Amendment protection despite extensive evidence of the harm they cause.

Remember the old childhood saying: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me”? As a physician, I can tell you that this is simply not true. Depression, anxiety, suicide risk—these are physical health issues that we know can be caused or made worse by hostile or intemperate words.

Stress is not simply a state of mind. It’s also in our bodies. Researchers have coined the term “allostatic load” to describe the ways stress creates wear and tear on our physical selves. I’m reminded of these words from the great Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel lecture: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” There is truth in these words.”

Johnson is right that words can hurt. She echoes the argument of Lisa Feldman Barrett in a recent op-ed “When is speech violence?” Johnson and Feldman Barrett point to social science and medical research that shows how stress from racist and sexist words can cause real physical harms and conclude that such words are dangerous just like physical violence. But this conclusion goes too far. If I assign students lots of homework or if I grade them hard on an exam, I may cause them stress. This stress may lead to physical problems. But that does not mean what I have done is violent.

By medicalizing the question of speech, Johnson and Barrett replace argument with a therapeutic discourse of preventative medicine. If words cause harm, that harm decides the matter. The violence that causes the harm must be disciplined. Claims of harm and the demand for safety trump argument and the encounter with pluralism and diversity. This overlooks that in an educational context, causing stress is part of learning. Disagreement and the experience of encountering disagreeable and even offensive speech is part of what it means to learn to think, argue, and persuade others–especially those with whom you fundamentally and forcefully disagree.

—Roger Berkowitz

Against The Violence of Words

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff follow up their essay “The Coddling of The American Mind” with a new essay “Why It’s a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words Are Violence.” Haidt and Lukianoff offer a strong critique of arguments that imagine that harsh words are violent.

“Free speech, properly understood, is not violence. It is a cure for violence.

In his 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors, the author Jonathan Rauch explains that freedom of speech is part of a system he calls “Liberal Science”—an intellectual system that arose with the Enlightenment and made the movement so successful. The rules of Liberal Science include: No argument is ever truly over, anyone can participate in the debate, and no one gets to claim special authority to end a question once and for all. Central to this idea is the role of evidence, debate, discussion, and persuasion. Rauch contrasts Liberal Science with the system that dominated before it—the “Fundamentalist” system—in which kings, priests, oligarchs, and others with power decide what is true, and then get to enforce orthodoxy using violence.

Liberal Science led to the radical social invention of a strong distinction between words and actions, and though some on campus question that distinction today, it has been one of the most valuable inventions in the service of peace, progress, and innovation that human civilization ever came up with. Freedom of speech is the eternally radical idea that individuals will try to settle their differences through debate and discussion, through evidence and attempts at persuasion, rather than through the coercive power of administrative authorities—or violence.

To be clear, when we refer to “free speech,” we are not talking about things like threats, intimidation, and incitement. The First Amendment provides categorical exceptions for those because such words are linked to actual physical violence. The First Amendment also excludes harassment—when words are used in a directed pattern of discriminatory behavior.

But the extraordinary body of legal reasoning that has developed around the First Amendment also recognizes that universities are different from other settings. In a 2010 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—Rodriguez v. Maricopa County Community College District—Chief Judge Alex Kozinski noted “…the urge to censor is greatest where debate is most disquieting and orthodoxy most entrenched…” He then explained the special nature of universities, using terms that illustrate Rauch’s Liberal Science:

The right to provoke, offend, and shock lies at the core of the First Amendment. This is particularly so on college campuses. Intellectual advancement has traditionally progressed through discord and dissent, as a diversity of views ensures that ideas survive because they are correct, not because they are popular. Colleges and universities—sheltered from the currents of popular opinion by tradition, geography, tenure and monetary endowments—have historically fostered that exchange. But that role in our society will not survive if certain points of view may be declared beyond the pale.

In sum, it was a radical enlightenment idea to tolerate the existence of dissenters, and an even more radical idea to actually engage with them. Universities are—or should be—the preeminent centers of Liberal Science. They have a duty to foster an intellectual climate that separates true ideas from popular but fallacious ones.

The conflation of words with violence is not a new or progressive idea invented on college campuses in the last two years. It is an ancient and regressive idea. Americans should all be troubled that it is becoming popular again—especially on college campuses, where it least belongs.”

The Challenge of Joy

Sara Ahmed, striking a resonant Arendtian note with last year’s Arendt Center conference, reminds us that the good isn’t always easy, and that joy isn’t always for the good:

“I describe the process of becoming a feminist as a bumpy process; you bump into a world as you begin to realize that it does not accommodate you. You become conscious over time of how things are not what they seem; how stories that you are told for your own enjoyment narrow down what is possible, especially, but not only, for girls.

Once you are a feminist, once you come to identify that word as your own, it is as though you are “switched on,” such that being “on” is your default position, and all that you encounter, all that you consume, that you do, becomes something to be challenged, questioned, resisted. It can be exciting—to become attuned to how things have taken a shape in the way that a story is a shape, how things are not necessary or inevitable, how they are open to being challenged, how we can create alternative stories. But it can be tiring, always being “on,” and there is no doubt that sometimes we wish we could just switch off and watch a movie! In a way you could use permission notes—I put some in my killjoy survival kit. You can give yourself permission to turn off when being on is too hard. This does not always work, mind you. Sometimes, you might be tired, and you just want to watch a feel-good movie, when the killjoy comes up again, which is to say, you become her. You can find yourself questioning and critiquing things again.

Since sexism and racism are in the world, we need to engage with the world—know it, understand it—if we are to transform it. We cannot withdraw from sexism and racism.  And we can be engaged and even enjoy what we challenge.

Sometimes being a feminist killjoy can feel like you are getting in the way of your own happiness; and if happiness means not noticing the injustices around us, so be it. But that’s not the only way of telling a feminist story, because apprehending the world from a feminist point of view is apprehending more, not less. Living a feminist life helps to create a more complete picture because we try not to turn away from what compromises our happiness. Of course sometimes it can be tiring being unhappy about so many things! But I find joy in the fullness of living a feminist life, though not only, and not always.”

In Belarus

In an interview, the Belarusian author and artist Artur Klinau suggests an understanding of the artist living under authoritarianism today:

“If we are to speak about the role of the artist in general, this is how I see it. The word expels the artist little by little. The artist is still strong and capable of creating new meanings, but he is no longer regarded as a prophet, a guru, or a high priest. The main mysteries of our civilization happen elsewhere, without his or her participation. The artist undergoes an honorable museification; our civilization condemns him or her to retirement.

But in our country, under a picaresque dictatorship, the artist has neither an honorable museification nor a decent retirement fund. If we only had a classical dictatorship, then the artist would be very much in demand. Because every classical dictatorship strives for the creation of its own monumental style. At least this was the case with the former Soviet Empire. It recreated the grand decoration of an ideal society, and it needed an artist to carry out this task. The artist was a pivotal participant in this mystery. The postmodern dictatorship does not create its own grand style. Like any postmodern oeuvre, it cites previous styles. Therefore, it needs no original creator, just someone who knows how to manipulate the old content. You can easily substitute the artist with a political strategist. The original artist has nothing to offer.”

I Love Her, You Loved Her Not

200 years after her death, Nicholas Dames considers the legacy of Jane Austen and her polarizing books:

“The Shakespeare-Austen comparison is in fact an old one—first mooted by the academic and theologian Richard Whately, in 1821, and echoed later by Tennyson and Kipling—yet it’s inexact. Iconic as she’s become, the reasons for her status often stir up zealous dispute. Is Austen the purveyor of comforting fantasies of gentility and propriety, the nostalgist’s favorite? Or is she the female rebel, the mocking modern spirit, the writer whose wit skewers any misguided or—usually male—pompous way of reading her? (For her supremacist fans, Elizabeth Bennet would have a retort at the ready: “There are such people, but I hope I am not one of them.”) Any hint of taking Austen out of her Regency bubble brings attacks. When the literary theorist Eve Sedgwick delivered a talk in 1989 called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” some male social critics brandished the popular term politically correct to denounce Sedgwick and her profession. Six years later, when Terry Castle suggested a homoerotic dimension to the closeness between Austen and her sister, Cassandra, the letters page of the London Review of Books erupted. In other precincts, business gurus can be found online touting “what Jane Austen can teach us about risk management.” Not only is my Austen unlikely to be yours; it seems that anyone’s Austen is very likely to be hostile to everyone else’s.

Such is the nature of possessive love. Austen’s proudly defensive comment about her Emma—“a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”—has become the signature attitude of her critics, who tend to be obsessed with protecting Austen from her admirers and enumerating the bad reasons to like her. Both E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, when they reviewed the famous 1923 R. W. Chapman edition of her novels, were able to admit to their admiration only after taking swipes at a different kind of fan. “Like all regular churchgoers,” Forster said of the usual Austen reader, “he scarcely notices what is being said.” For her part, Woolf smirked at the notion of “25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.” Club, meet the members who don’t want to join.

Their asperity suggests a question, one that grows more apparent, and more profound, as we enter the third century After Austen: How modern is Austen—and are we still modern in the same way? Is it a fantasy of escape that draws readers to her fables of courtship among the precariously genteel, or is it the pleasure of recognition, the sense that she is describing our world? Other classics either have become antiques in need of explanation, or are obviously in a world—a world of technology and money and big, alien institutions—that feels familiar. Austen, with her 18th-century diction, village settings, and archaic social codes that somehow survive all manner of contemporary avatars and retellings, is strangely both.”

Living In The Museum

Jio Tolentino reads From The Mixed Up Files of Miss Basil E. Frankweiler on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication:

“Claudia and Jamie spend a week hiding in the Met, scattering their possessions among various urns and sarcophagi, crouching on top of toilets when the guards patrol at night. Their caper can’t be perfectly retraced anymore: the chapel where they say a desultory prayer was closed, in 2001, and the ornate canopy bed that Claudia slept in has been dismantled, to many a visitor’s chagrin. On Saturday, our tour guide distributed a handout comparing the museum’s floor plan in the nineteen-sixties, which appears across two pages in Konigsburg’s book, to the expanded floor plan today. Undeterred, we walked through the Greek and Roman galleries and sat down in front of the ancient sarcophagus in which Claudia hides her violin case.

We were sitting, the guide explained, in a hall that was, when Konigsburg wrote her book, a restaurant, with tables surrounding a large central pool. Inside the pool was a bronze sculpture of whimsical dancing figures—the “Fountain of the Muses,” which was sculpted by Carl Milles and now resides outdoors, in South Carolina. In the “Mixed-Up Files,” Claudia and Jamie take baths in the pool one night. Our guide read from the scene, in which Claudia and Jamie climb “under the velvet rope that meant that the restaurant was closed to the public. Of course they were not the public.” It’s a delightful scene, combining the pleasures of being naked in public, of unexpectedly profiting—as Claudia scrubs herself down with the powdered soap she’s been hoarding from the public restroom, Jamie discovers the trove of wishing coins on the floor of the pool—and, above all, of getting away with something, which remains the underlying thrill of the book.

Elaine Lobl Konigsburg was an unpublished stay-at-home mother of three when she started working on the “Mixed-Up Files.” (She would eventually write twenty-one books and win two Newbery Medals, for the “Mixed-Up Files” and for the brilliant “The View from Saturday,” published in 1996.) Back then, on Saturdays, she would take the train down from Port Chester for art lessons and drop her kids off at the Met. She’d meet them at the museum afterward. One day, as they were walking through a gallery of French furniture, she saw, behind a velvet rope, a single piece of popcorn on a blue silk chair. When Konigsburg died, in 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a private event in her remembrance, and her son Paul recalled his mother wondering aloud about that piece of popcorn. The moment was “burned into shrapnel memory” for her, he said, and it provided the kernel, so to speak, of the whole book.”

Posted on 23 July 2017 | 7:00 am

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