All posts filed under: Free Speech

‘More Weight’: An Academic’s Guide to Surviving Campus Witch Hunts

In the fall of 2020, I became the target of a cancellation campaign after I’d suggested that the best policy for a university seeking to support underrepresented groups, while staying true to its mission of producing knowledge, is to ensure that hiring and admissions decisions are based on merit. It’s an idea that directly reflects bedrock principles advanced during the Civil Rights movement, and which are still supported by a large majority of Americans. But to the mob, I was just an irredeemable enemy of progress and social justice. As part of the now-standard playbook, my attackers formed a Twitter mob and wrote a denunciatory public letter, cynically misrepresenting my views, demanding that my research and teaching at the University of Chicago be restricted, and urging that my department formally denounce me. Fortunately, at a crucial juncture in the proceedings, the Free Speech Union launched a change.org petition in my support, which was signed by more than 13,000 people. (The list probably includes many readers of this essay. Thank you so much for your support!) …

Beating Back Cancel Culture: A Case Study from the Field of Artificial Intelligence

It’s easy to decry cancel culture, but hard to turn it back. Thankfully, recent developments in my area of academic specialty—artificial intelligence (AI)—show that fighting cancel culture isn’t impossible. And as I explain below, the lessons that members of the AI community have learned in this regard can be generalized to other professional subcultures. To understand the flash point at issue, it’s necessary to delve briefly into how AI functions. In many cases, AI algorithms have partly replaced both formal and informal human decision-making systems that pick who gets hired or promoted within organizations. Financial institutions use AI to determine who gets a loan. And some police agencies use AI to anticipate which neighborhoods will be afflicted by crime. As such, there has been a great focus on ensuring that algorithms won’t replicate their coders’ implicit biases against, say, women or visible minorities. Citing evidence that, for instance, “commercial face recognition systems have much higher error rates for dark-skinned women while having minimal errors on light skinned men,” computer scientist Timnit Gebru, formerly the co-lead …

Big Tech and Regulation—A Response to the Quillette Editors

Donald Trump has been permanently suspended from Twitter. And Facebook, Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Snap, Stripe, Discord, and—most crushingly of all—Pinterest. This was swiftly followed by a swathe of account purges across various platforms, ostensibly on the grounds that terms of service had been violated. Bizarrely, conservatives reacted to this development by lamenting the lack of arbitrary government intervention in private enterprise, while their liberal opponents celebrated corporate squashing of individual expression. If you don’t like it, build your own app. Arguably more important, if less sensational, has been the coordinated nuking of the efforts of those Trump fans who did, in fact, build their own app. Google and Apple banned conservative social media aspirant Parler from their app stores, effectively throttling its only viable distribution channels. Amazon then went a step further and revoked Parler’s right to host its site on its web service, AWS. For good measure, authentication service Okta and internet-to-telecoms interface platform Twilio withdrew their infrastructure too. If you don’t like it, build your own internet. The fallout has been intense and …

Philosophers Smear One of Their Own for Gender Heresy

The appointing of Kathleen Stock—who advocates some pre-2015 views on gender identity—as an Officer of the Order British Empire last month mobilized woke philosophy Twitter like a five-alarm fire. The philosophers drew up a petition, now with more than 700 signatories, condemning Stock for her “transphobia.” The open letter regarding transphobia in philosophy that some of us organized this week has now stopped taking new requests to be added. Over 700 philosophers signed. I haven't been tweeting a lot about the controversy, but here are a few closing thoughtshttps://t.co/lLjrSFe3t6 — Jonathan Ichikawa (@jichikawa) January 9, 2021 They describe her as “best-known in recent years for her trans-exclusionary public and academic discourse on sex and gender, especially for opposition to the UK Gender Recognition Act.” Critics pointed out that this is wrong: Stock supports the UK Gender Recognition Act. One prominent signatory—a professor emeritus at the University of Bristol—complained about people who are “fussy about whether particular details are right.” The petition now has an erratum acknowledging the error, but explaining that “[s]ince it is the …

To Expower the People

“Reckoning” is a new word in food-media vocabulary. For decades, food journalism flourished as a safe, G-rated corner of publishing, an agreeable refuge from the strife of politics and the passions of fiction. In the extended family of literature, gastro-journalism blossomed as the approachable younger sibling to the fiery op-ed and the moody novel. Slick journals like Gourmet or Bon Appétit projected a dinner-table fantasy ideal for suburban daydreams. Recipes, travelogues, and restaurant reviews allowed readers to escape their world without leaving their living room. The field’s rare ventures into the political usually took the form of culinary cheerleading: “Tacos are My Resistance” or “The Vietnamese Sandwich Shop Teaching Dallas how to Hire Differently.” Then George Floyd died. The residual anger from the protests hit the sheltered cradle of food media with blistering volley of accusations about racial inequity. And the reckoning was immediate. In the course of one month, the top editors of both Bon Appétit and the LA Times Food Section (Adam Rapoport and Peter Meehan respectively) were forced to resign, and culinary …

The Death of Political Cartooning—And Why It Matters

Six years ago, on January 7th, 2015, two brothers armed with Kalashnikov rifles assaulted a building on Rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris, where they killed a maintenance man named Frédéric Boisseau and forced their way into the second-floor offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They asked for four cartoonists, by name, and executed each of them. They also killed four other journalists, a bodyguard assigned to protect one of the cartoonists in the event of just such an attack, police officer Ahmed Merabet, and a friend of one of the cartoonists. Following a nihilistic two-day crime spree, the brothers were killed in a hail of police bullets outside a printworks north-east of Paris. The ghastly murders at Charlie Hebdo shocked the world. Yet while the scale and violence of the incident were unprecedented, such attacks against cartoonists are hardly unknown. Throughout history, cartoonists have been jailed, kidnapped, tortured, exiled, and murdered. Ostensibly, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed for drawing pictures of the prophet Muhammad. (Two days after the murders, an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen …

An ‘Anti-Racist’ Mob Set Its Sights on Humble ‘Squampton.’ Here’s How the Town Fought Back

This is the sorry tale of how a confluence of unrelated developments—including the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the excesses of real-estate developers, an outdoor-sports boom, and the death of George Floyd—transformed what was once a small, gritty western Canadian logging town into a hub of woke lunacy. It’s also the story of a “racist” cream-filled donut, a slander campaign against an Indigenous single mother waged in the name of social justice, and an existential debate about whether a local basalt dyke may be a source of homophobic microaggression. But all in due course. The British Columbia town of Squamish is situated at the tip of island-dotted Howe Sound, nestled between Vancouver to the south and the famous ski-resort community of Whistler to the north. It gets its name from the Squamish Nation, a Coast Salish First Nations community that, as with other Indigenous peoples across Canada, suffered mightily from colonialism—an appalling chapter in Canadian history that the country has taken laudable steps to address in recent years. Though the population is largely white, Squamish has steadily …

On Activist Scholarship: An Interview with Helen Pluckrose

In recent years, free speech and inquiry have come under attack on college campuses, ethical relativism has spread, and demands to decolonize syllabi and rid them of canonical white male texts and thinkers have become increasingly common. Hostility to reason, objectivity, and Enlightenment universalism now disfigures some social science and humanities departments, and these alarming ideological trends have trickled down into mainstream culture where they affect the lives of ordinary people. In their book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay look at how postmodern theory and activism have come to replace traditional scholarship, and the threats these anti-Enlightenment beliefs pose to liberal democracy. I caught up with Pluckrose, an essayist and editor of Areo magazine to discuss her book. She lives in England. *     *     * Jason D. Hill: Helen, Thanks for speaking to me and congratulations on the huge success of the book. The book covers a lot of territory from postcolonial studies, to critical race …

Black and White in the Classroom

My palms were sweating, my heart was racing, and I avoided eye contact with everyone in that room, praying hard that my teacher would not call on me. And then, “Lola, what are your thoughts?” was said out loud. I had many thoughts and ideas I knew needed to be spoken, stories I could share to change the narrative. The last 90 minutes in math class that day were spent discussing and arguing topics of sexuality, education, race, and white privilege. My classmates are made up of Hispanic, white, Hawaiian, and bi-racial students, with the majority being white. I fall in the bi-racial category, my mom is white, my dad is black and I represented the only black “voice” in that room. I listened as my classmates argued about what it’s like to live in a household that’s poor, or what happens to people who don’t have as many opportunities as a white person might have, or how a white person is so lucky that they don’t know the difference between fireworks and gunshots. The …

Enlightenment Literature as Foreign Aid

“If God were to humiliate a human being,” wrote Imam Ali bin abi Talib in the sixth century, “He would deny him knowledge.” If the woeful state of knowledge in lands beset by authoritarian regimes is any indication, a great number of human beings in our world have been lavishly humiliated, albeit by natural rather than supernatural forces. Nearly 20 years ago, a clique of Arab intellectuals sounded the alarm about this widespread denial of knowledge in their realm, and its many malign effects. The Arab Development Report of 2002, published by the United Nations Development Program, vividly illustrated the miserable condition to which Arab societies had been reduced at the dawn of the new millennium. It called attention to the “closed circle” that had long held sway across the region. In the past 1,000 years, the authors declared, Arabs collectively have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year. This is a breathtaking fact, notwithstanding a thriving black market for prohibited books that escaped the official tally as well as the habit of …