It has become almost trite to comment on the venomous and divisive character of debate around and within academia today, with innumerable YouTube and Twitter personalities firing salvoes of “rekt,” compilation videos, accusations of various -phobias and -isms, and the increasingly omnidirectional epithet of ‘snowflake.’ Readers of this article are likely well acquainted with these terms. Those who aren’t would do well to look them up for a quick primer on the low level of discourse in the simmering culture war. This article will leave such vagaries to the experts in favour of a brief examination of a peculiar weapon used by some of today’s culture warriors.
‘Intellectual rent-seeking’ is a devious tactic, capable of achieving aims without indicating directly what those aims might be, and it allows its practitioners to act in a way that stops short of alerting too many people to its use. Economic rent-seeking sees the leaders of one entity try to outdo their competitors, not through innovation and the delivery of a superior product, but by lobbying for changes in the playing field to tilt it against those competitors. The example of taxi licensing should suffice to illustrate the point. A city’s patricians lobby their municipal administration to require that taxi drivers acquire strictly enforced and rationed licenses. These urban worthies then buy up all of the licenses and rent them out to working class men and women as a prerequisite to employment. In the end, the license holders have a legally enforced source of passive income; one that requires nothing more than a campaign donation which represents only a fraction of the potential profit.
In the same way, intellectual rent-seeking sees the proponents of certain ideas – often those that are difficult to support with reasoned arguments – attempt to make opposing ideas unpalatable by a variety of illegitimate means. In the case of Charles Murray, an attempt has been made to disqualify his social science scholarship and destroy his reputation with allegations of racism; for Jordan Peterson, it is alleged that his ideas about innate gender differences and campus speech codes will cause irreparable harm; and as the inquisitorial interview of Lindsay Shepherd demonstrated, rent-seekers will claim that exposing students to ideas they oppose runs contrary, not only to campus policy, but to Canadian law itself. The common thread that runs through all of these cases is the instrumental use of society’s laudable opposition to racism, harm, and criminality to disparage and discredit those who espouse ideas they dislike.
A stark (and illustrative) example of this tactic comes in the form of the continuing debate over the theories laid out by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their 1994 book The Bell Curve. The book’s critics, whose passions are enflamed by a relatively short section of the book examining correlations between race and IQ scores, haunt Murray to this day (Herrnstein died in 1994, shortly before the book was released). The most recent outburst against Murray occurred at Middlebury College last year. Murray had been invited by a student group to speak about the premise of his latest book Coming Apart. Those who came out in opposition of Murray felt that his arguments didn’t bear hearing, let alone debating, and a group of protestors disrupted the event by drowning out the speakers, pulling fire alarms, and turning out the lights in the event hall. Upon leaving the building, Murray and Allison Stanger, the moderator of the talk, were swarmed by the hostile mob and Stanger was physically assaulted.
The practical upshot is that Murray’s ideas and hypotheses have been disqualified from the arena of reasonable debate, at least on Middlebury campus. So decisive was the repudiation that, a year after the fracas that attended Murray’s talk, the editor of the campus newspaper had to issue an apologetic explanation just for using a photograph of Murray to illustrate an article looking back on the controversy. Murray’s opponents have ensured that his views – on race or anything else – may not even be uttered, let alone debated or entertained as plausible. In the marketplace of ideas they have eliminated the competition so that their own ideology commands a monopoly of thought.
The use of intellectual rent-seeking is by no means confined to just one side of the political divide. It has been used to great effect by both sides of the debate surrounding abortion. Due to the intractable constellation of moral and ethical problems presented by the issue of abortion, intellectual rent-seeking has become the nuclear device with which an ideologically possessed individual can annihilate (though not defeat) any argument his opponent might offer. Those who oppose abortion must hate women; those who support it are sanctioning the murder of innocents. So, the problem becomes that neither side tries to improve their argument, opting instead to smash their opponents apart in bitter zero-sum wars of attrition. This style of debate – far from winnowing away the overwrought emotion, superstition, and magical thinking characteristic of bad ideas – instead results in a stalemate where both sides glower at one another with hostility and suspicion, confident as they are in the evil of their opponents and the virtue of their side. Consequently, progress shrivels on the vine.
The practical effect of intellectual rent-seeking is to damage public debate by ruling it inadmissible, thereby diminishing of the arena of boisterous social ferment from which true social progress springs. Surely, the gains made by the Freedom Riders, the Stonewall Rioters, or the Suffragettes were not brought about by an insistence that discussion of their issues be silenced, but by persuading the wider society of their arguments’ irrefutable logic – that black people, gay people, and women were the legal and intellectual equals to white people, straight people, and men.
A solution to this problem would need to include a number of different things. To begin with, people on all sides need to acknowledge that many of their ostensible enemies hold the same fundamental goals and ideals as they do. To recall the abortion example: advocates of both pro-life and pro-choice views have a commendable aim at their core, which is the betterment of human life. Where they differ is in their diverging definitions of that life and the life and welfare they prioritize in the process of reproduction. Debates about fraught issues such as this one demand an acknowledgement of their complexity; the case for neither side is as straightforward as its proponents prefer to believe.
Most importantly, sparring partners must always remember to extend the same compassion and charity to their foes as they do to their allies and friends. One of the most destructive aspects of the modern culture war is the habit of dehumanizing opponents. Honest actors on every side of debate in our society must commit themselves to heeding Bret Weinstein’s call to shift from debate to dialectic; that is the use of discussion in pursuit of greater understanding rather than victory. The Trump era has produced deep splits on both the Left and the Right, but this has had the encouraging effect of producing some convergence in the political centre. People who hold traditionally right- and left-wing views are now being brought together by their shared interest in freedom of expression and opposition to authoritarianism and radical populism.
This convergence provides grounds for cautious optimism, and a number of writer and public intellectuals – most notably the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt – have become preoccupied with figuring out how we overcome our tribal biases and polarizing hatreds. A quick scan of the traditional media in Canada, meanwhile, yields evidence of calm and balanced views of the recent culture war clashes there, hopefully signaling that the extreme polarization present elsewhere in the Anglosphere can eventually be turned back. There is a long way to go, however, and it would be naive to expect everyone to immediately abandon the expedient and convenient tactic of intellectual rent-seeking in favor of the more laborious task of honest and candid public debate. But every journey begins with a single step.
Kevin Leach is, a freelance writer based in Toronto. He doesn’t tweet, but you can find him on Twitter at @RealKevinLeach.