All posts filed under: Features

Kevin Williamson, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Victimhood Culture

The circumstances of The Atlantic’s recent firing of columnist Kevin Williamson make clear that victimhood culture is rapidly spreading beyond university campuses. Williamson was fired for comments about abortion — comments made in tweets and a podcast before The Atlantic ever hired him. His position, that abortion is murder, is certainly a mainstream position shared by millions of Americans. What is not mainstream is his view that women who have abortions should be subject to the same legal penalties as other murderers — possibly including the death penalty. This is an unpopular opinion that even many pro-lifers find offensive.  Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, in explaining why he fired Williamson, called it “callous and violent.” But to focus too much on the statement itself, and whether or not it’s extreme or offensive, is to miss the point of what’s happening. Williamson isn’t the first columnist to be targeted in this way. Bari Weiss at the New York Times and Megan McArdle at the Washington Post have also faced the wrath of online social justice mobs. And the abortion comments weren’t the only thing of Williamson’s that the mobs were objecting …

Lost Down Social Constructionism’s Epistemic Rabbit-Hole

The popularisation of ‘social constructionism’ is widely agreed to be traceable to the publication of The Social Construction of Reality by the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in 1966. In subsequent years, this concept attracted a large number of young, mostly left-leaning academics to the humanities departments of French universities, where social construction became an ideological tool useful to those engaged in the Parisian youth rebellion of 1968. From there, it spread rapidly though humanities departments in Europe and America, and into the social sciences. The changes in intellectual thinking that this development catalysed reverberate across the West’s academic institutions to this day. What transpired in the late sixties was nothing short of a cultural revolution, riding a wave of academic trends referred to as ‘social constructionism,’  ‘postmodernism,’ and ‘poststructuralism,’ although it never became entirely clear if or how these concepts differ from one another. While foreign to some, social constructionist jargon is now routinely invoked by the young academics who successfully conquered the humanities over the ensuing 40 years. These developments have not gone unnoticed …

In Social Research Fields, Conservatives Are the Most Underrepresented Group

There is general social agreement that discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality or race is wrong – and that increasing diversity along these lines is good. Ideological diversity? Not so much. In fact, while noteworthy progress has been made since the 90s in terms of representation for women and ethnic or racial minority groups, the ideological underrepresentation problem is actually growing worse. These trends have had significant negative impacts on the quality and impact of social research. Yet, even for those who recognize that the lack of ideological diversity is a problem – many are unsure how the scale of this challenge compares to, say, (under)representation of racial, sexual or gender minorities. This is both an empirical question and a normative question. Here, I will address the former dimension by comparing rates of faculty identification across different identity measures (for interested readers, my thoughts on the moral and practical aspects of the question are available in a new essay for the Times Higher Education). Overrepresented Groups With regards to race, research has shown that …

The Philosophical Case Against Scientism

Scientism is the claim that science is the only source of knowledge. This claim has been the subject of intense controversy for years, and it has recently re-emerged in public debate following the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Admittedly, Pinker does not make this claim himself, but those who do are (mis)using his work in support of their claims, and the renewed controversy over the term provides us with an opportunity to revisit its validity. Representatives of the humanities, in particular, have had their feathers ruffled by the notion that empirical observation and hypothesis testing have a monopoly on rational inquiry as tight as that enjoyed by Andrew Carnegie on the steel industry in the 19th century; liberal arts need not apply. Much of the criticism of scientism has focused on the aesthetic poverty of abandoning the contemplation of Shakespeare for the study of synapses in humanity’s quest for knowledge of the world and of ourselves. These criticisms have some merit, but a stronger case against …

Does Religion Impede Economic Development?

In the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses that propelled the Protestant Reformation, it is timely to recall that the shockwaves were not just confined to Christian doctrinal matters but were central to the rise of industrial capitalism that transformed the whole world. This thesis was set out in the most famous link between religion/ethics and economic development by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1904. I should like to make the claim that it has relevance in the present day in regard to the development of the Global South. In the introductory chapter, Weber makes some forceful observations that are of considerable importance to the goal of global development: “Only in the West does science exist at a stage of development which we recognize today as valid … A rational chemistry has been absent from all areas of culture except the West … [A] rational, systematic, and specialized pursuit of science, with trained and specialized personnel, has only existed in the West in a sense at all approaching its …

Harris, Lilla, and the Politics of Identity

What exactly is the problem with identity politics? Is it an unequivocal negative in our political and intellectual discourse? Or is it a mode of engagement that serves a positive purpose when kept within its proper bounds? My conversation with Mark Lilla is now available: "What Happened to Liberalism?"https://t.co/ixRtrav2OL pic.twitter.com/rvMWsNnb6P — Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) September 28, 2017 These questions cropped up during a podcast exchange last September between neuroscientist Sam Harris and Professor Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal. Both men are concerned by the intellectual and political decline of American liberalism, and were in general agreement about its many and various recent failings. Liberalism has ceased to be relevant to many of the voters who once empowered its philosophical platform; it has ceased to offer a coherent intellectual message capable of galvanizing the American mainstream; and its decline has opened the door to uniquely regressive forces on the Right. Harris and Lilla further agreed that much of the responsibility for liberalism’s decline lay with the steady advance of identity politics. However, in the midst of …

A Plea To Trans Activists: We Can Protect Trans Rights Without Denying Biology

International Transgender Day of Visibility falls annually on March 31, though even the most casual observer must wonder if we still need a day to mark it. In the three years since Caitlin Jenner transitioned there has been an explosion of transgender visibility. What might be lacking is an International Day of Transgender Understanding. Western society has been keen to affirm trans people, and that is to be welcomed, but it has been slower to think critically about the wider impact of legislative change, and particularly the effect on women and their right to organise and associate as a biological sex. Muddled thinking about sex and gender, and what it means to be male or female, also threatens the credibility of transsexual people who transition to escape the chronic and debilitating effects of gender dysphoria. I know that struggle first hand. I can recount the standard trans narrative of discomfort with my sex from a very early age. Throughout childhood I yearned to be female but concrete reality displaced my wishful thinking, and instead I …