On January 11, John Leo, editor of “Minding the Campus,” interviewed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, one of the editors of the five-month-old site, “Heterodox Academy,” and perhaps the most prominent academic pushing hard for more intellectual diversity on our campuses. Haidt, 52, who specializes in the psychology of morality and the moral emotions, is Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author, most recently, of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012).
JOHN LEO: You set off a national conversation in San Antonio five years ago by asking psychologists at an academic convention to raise their hands to show whether they self-identified as conservatives or liberals.
JONATHAN HAIDT: I was invited by the president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to give a talk on the future of Social Psychology. As I was finishing writing The Righteous Mind, I was getting more and more concerned about how moral communities bind themselves together in ways that block open-minded thinking. I began to see the social sciences as tribal moral communities, becoming ever more committed to social justice, and ever less hospitable to dissenting views. I wanted to know if there was any political diversity in social psychology. So I asked for a show of hands. I knew it would be very lopsided. But I had no idea how much so. Roughly 80% of the thousand or so in the room self-identified as “liberal or left of center,” 2% (I counted exactly 20 hands) identified as “centrist or moderate,” 1% (12 hands) identified as libertarian, and, rounding to the nearest integer, zero percent (3 hands) identified as “conservative.”
JOHN LEO: You and your colleagues at your new site, Heterodox Academy, have made a lot of progress in alerting people to the problem that the campuses are pretty much bastions of the left. What kind of research did that prompt?
JONATHAN HAIDT: There have been a few studies since my talk to measure the degree of ideological diversity. My request for a show of hands was partly a rhetorical trick. We know that there were people in the audience who didn’t dare or didn’t want to raise their hands. Two social psychologists – Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers short did a more formal survey. And they found that while there is some diversity if you look at economic conservatism, there’s none if you look at views on social issues. But all that matters is the social. That’s where all the persecution happens. They found just 3-5 percent said they were right of center on social issues. .
JOHN LEO: Have you gone into the reasons why?
JONATHAN HAIDT: Oh, yes. After the talk, I was contacted by a few social psychologists who were interested in the topic. None of them is actually conservative. We looked into a bunch of the reasons. And the biggest single reason is probably self-selection. We know that liberals and conservatives have slightly different personalities on average. We know that people with a left-leaning brain are attracted to the arts, to foreign travel, to variety and diversity. So we acknowledge that if there was no discrimination at all, the field would still lean left. And that’s perfectly fine with us. We don’t give a damn about exact proportional representation. What we care about is institutionalized disconfirmation – that is, when someone says something, other people should be out there saying, “Is that really true? Let me try to disprove it.” That is now much less likely to happen if the thing said is politically pleasing to the left.
JOHN LEO: But what about the argument that things are really tough for conservatives in academe now? After they get through college, they have to find a mentor in graduate school, keep swimming upstream and try to get hired somewhere by a department head who’s looking for another leftist. And conservatives can run into cruel and aggressive people in academe.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. That’s correct.
JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.
JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?
JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism. Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.
JOHN LEO: Oh, that shows up on your site, “Heterodox Academy.” It’s had a big impact in the small time you’ve been open. Why is that, and how did you do it?
JONATHAN HAIDT: We started the site back when we knew that our big review paper would be coming out. Five of my colleagues and I worked to write this review paper, beginning after my talk in 2011. It took us a while to get it published. Paul Bloom at Yale was the editor at Behavioral and Brain Sciences. He thought that it was an important paper. So we knew that it was coming out in September. And we thought, we don’t just want a little bit of attention and then it’ll go away. We want to keep up the pressure. And, along the way, we were contacted by people in other fields — a grad student in Sociology, Chris Martin, who now runs the blog, a professor of law at Georgetown, Nick Rosenkranz – both these guys had written about the absence of diversity in their own fields. And one day last summer, I was having lunch with Nick here in New York. And we thought why don’t we get people together who are concerned about this and make a site? And Nick thought of the name, “Heterodox Academy.” I loved it. I thought it was just perfect
JOHN LEO: It says what it stands for.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. We had no idea that the universities were about to commit suicide. We had no idea that they were going to blow up just a few weeks after we launched the site. So we launched in September. I wrote a post about our big review paper in social psychology. And we got a lot of attention the first week or two. Then it died down. And then we get the Missouri fiasco, the Yale fiasco, the Amherst fiasco, the Brown fiasco. You get place after place where protesters are making demands of college presidents, and college presidents roll over and give in.
JOHN LEO: So you got a lot of attention.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Since Halloween, especially. Look, I graduated from Yale in ’85. Yale is very devoted to social justice. It’s very devoted to affirmative action. Now no place is perfect. But it’s probably among the best places in the country. And to have protesters saying it’s such a thoroughly racist place that it needs a total reformation – they call the protest group ”Next Yale”– they demand “Next Yale”!
JOHN LEO: Everybody saw that.
JONATHAN HAIDT: And these were not requests. This was not a discussion. This was framed as an ultimatum given to the president – and they gave him I think six days to respond, or else. And I am just so horrified that the president of Yale, Peter Salovey, responded by the deadline. And when he responded, he did not say, on the one hand, the protesters have good points; on the other hand, we also need to guarantee free speech; and, by the way, it’s not appropriate to scream obscenities at professors.
JOHN LEO: Or the threat to one professor: “We know where you live”?
JONATHAN HAIDT: I didn’t even know about that. The president was supposed to be the grown-up in the room. He was supposed to show some wisdom, some balance, and some strength. And so we’ve seen, basically what can really only be called Maoist moral bullying – am we saw it very clearly at Claremont McKenna. The video is really chilling–the students surrounding this nice woman who was trying to help them, and reducing her to tears. As we’ve seen more and more of this, I’ve begun calling it, “the Yale problem,” referring to the way that left-leaning institutions are now cut off from any moral vocabulary that they could use to resist the forces of illiberalism. As far as I’m concerned, “Next Yale” can go find its own “Next Alumni.” I don’t plan to give to Yale ever again, unless it reverses course.
JOHN LEO; How did they cut themselves off?
JONATHAN HAIDT: They’re so devoted to social justice, and they have accepted the rule that you can never, ever blame victims, so if a group of victims makes demands, you cannot argue back. You must accept the demands.
JOHN LEO: Michael Kinsley once referred sardonically to one unhappy student as “another oppressed black from Harvard.”
JONATHAN HAIDT: Did you see that website, The Demands.org? Lots of people know how ill-conceived the demands are and what would happen if our universities all set out at the same time to reach 10 or 15 percent black faculty.
JOHN LEO: Are you a Democrat?
JONATHAN HAIDT: No, not anymore. Now I’m non-partisan. I was a Democrat my whole life, and I got into political psychology because I really disliked George W. Bush. And I thought the Democrats kept blowing it. I mean, in 2000, 2004, they blew it. And I really wanted to help the Democrats.
JOHN LEO: So you voted for Obama.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Twice. I no longer consider myself a Democrat today. But let me be clear that I am absolutely horrified by today’s Republican Party – both in the presidential primaries and in Congress. If they nominate Trump or Cruz, I’ll vote for the Democrat, whoever it is.
JOHN LEO: To get back to the lopsided faculties – -what are the chances of cracking anthropology or sociology?
JONATHAN HAIDT: Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists. They’ve taken the first step towards censoring Israel. They’re not going to have anything to do with Israeli scholars any more. So it’s now – it’s the seventh victim group. For many years now, there have been six sacred groups. You know, the big three are African-Americans, women and LGBT. That’s where most of the action is. Then there are three other groups: Latinos, Native Americans….
JOHN LEO: You have to say Latinx now.
JONATHAN HAIDT: I do not intend to say that. Latinos, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. So those are the six that have been there for a while. But now we have a seventh–Muslims. Something like 70 or 75 percent of America is now in a protected group. This is a disaster for social science because social science is really hard to begin with. And now you have to try to explain social problems without saying anything that casts any blame on any member of a protected group. And not just moral blame, but causal blame. None of these groups can have done anything that led to their victimization or marginalization.
JOHN LEO: No. Never.
JONATHAN HAIDT: There used to be this old game show when I was a kid, called “Beat the Clock.” And you had to throw three oranges through a basketball hoop. Okay, that doesn’t look so hard. But now you have to do it blindfolded. Oh, now you have to do it on a skateboard. And with your right hand behind your back. Okay. Now go ahead and do it. And that’s what social science is becoming.
JOHN LEO: Well, but there’s always a possibility of truth and accuracy. I mean, why is the professoriate so…
JONATHAN HAIDT: Spineless? Nowadays, a mob can coalesce out of nowhere. And so we’re more afraid of our students than we are of our peers. It is still possible for professors to say what they think over lunch; in private conversations they can talk. But the list of things we can say in the classroom is growing shorter and shorter.
JOHN LEO: This sounds like the Good Germans.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. Exactly. It is. It’s really scary that values other than truth have become sacred. And what I keep trying to say – this comes right out of my book The Righteous Mind – is that you can’t have two sacred values. Because what do you do when they conflict? And in the academy now, if truth conflicts with social justice, truth gets thrown under the bus.
JOHN LEO: Talk about The Righteous Mind a bit. How did you develop this system of three moral foundations among liberals, versus six or eight for conservatives?
JONATHAN HAIDT In graduate school, I was very interested both in evolutionary psychology, which seemed obviously true, that we evolved and our brains evolved; and in cultural psychology, which seemed obviously true – that morality varies across cultures. One of my advisors was Alan Fiske, an anthropologist. And my post-doc advisor was Richard Shweder, another anthropologist. And they both had developed accounts of exactly how morality varies. And they were both brilliant accounts, but they didn’t quite square with each other. And so I, I tried to step back and build up a case from evolutionary thinking – what are likely to be the taste buds of the moral sense? Things like reciprocity, hierarchy, group loyalty. So the theory grew out of ideas from Richard Shweder, in particular, and then it’s been developed with my colleagues at YourMorals.org.
JOHN LEO: When conservatives read this, they’re going to say, gee, we have more moral foundations than they do. Is there an advantage in having more?
JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, it certainly isn’t a game where more is necessarily better. One of my conservative friends argues that having one moral foundation is dangerous, because you’re much more likely to develop a kind of a mania about it. And, since the Halloween eruption at Yale, I now think much more that he’s right. That if you make anything sacred and, in this case, if you make care for the vulnerable your sacred value, and that becomes more important than anything else, you’re liable to trample all the other values. So I do think there’s a danger to having a one-foundation morality
JOHN LEO: So how did you assemble the team you have at “Heterodox Academy”?
JONATHAN HAIDT: It started with lunch—myself and Nick Rosenkranz. And then I right away emailed an introduction of Nick to the various other people I’d come across, especially my five co-authors on the BBS paper. And that was the core. And then we just talked about, like, okay; who’s in political science? Well, there’s, you know, some guys who were just writing a book about the experience of conservatives in the academy. Let’s invite them. So we just used our network of people we know. We’re up to about 25 people now. We don’t actually know how many conservatives are in the group. We know it’s less than half.
JOHN LEO: What about libertarians?
JONATHAN HAIDT: I think we’ll have more libertarians. When you find diversity in the academy, it tends to be libertarians. You rarely find social conservatives. And so I’m thinking of doing a survey of our members. Because I think we ought to know. Paul Krugman recently referred to our site and described us as “outraged conservatives.” I looked back through all the essays we published and failed to find outrage. Krugman just assumed outrage because we think there should be more diversity in the academy.
JOHN LEO: What happens to the academy now? You used the word ”die.” Is it dead or dying? Most academics think it’s just aflutter. They seem to have no idea that something important happened at Yale.
JONATHAN HAIDT: The big thing that really worries me – the reason why I think things are going to get much, much worse – is that one of the causal factors here is the change in child-rearing that happened in America in the 1980s. With the rise in crime, amplified by the rise of cable TV, we saw much more protective, fearful parenting. Children since the 1980s have been raised very differently–protected as fragile. The key psychological idea, which should be mentioned in everything written about this, is Nassim Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility.
JOHN LEO: What’s the theory?
JONATHAN HAIDT: That children are anti-fragile. Bone is anti-fragile. If you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break. Bone actually needs to get banged around to toughen up. And so do children. I’m not saying they need to be spanked or beaten, but they need to have a lot of unsupervised time, to get in over their heads and get themselves out. And that greatly decreased in the 1980s. Anxiety, fragility and psychological weakness have skyrocketed in the last 15-20 years. So, I think millennials come to college with much thinner skins. And therefore, until that changes, I think we’re going to keep seeing these demands to never hear anything offensive.
JOHN LEO Like micro-aggression, trigger warnings, safe spaces and different forms of censorship for anything that bothers them?
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes, that’s right. Even much of the gender gap in STEM fields appears to result from differences of enjoyment-–boys and girls are not very different on ability, but they’re hugely different in what they enjoy doing. Anyone who has a son and a daughter knows that. But if you even just try to say this, it will be regarded as so hurtful, so offensive. You can get in big trouble for it. And that’s what actually showed up in the article I have online where I gave a talk at a school on the West Coast, and a student was insisting that there’s such massive institutional sexism, and she pointed to the STEM fields as evidence of sexism….
JOHN LEO: Is this the talk you gave at a high school you called “Centerville”?
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes, “Centerville High.” That’s right. That’s exactly what this was about.
JOHN LEO: Where the girl stood up after your talk and said, “So you think rape is OK?”
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes, that’s right. It’s this Marcusian rhetorical trick. You don’t engage the person’s arguments. You say things that discredit them as a racist or a sexist.
JOHN LEO: How do they learn that? The young don’t read Herbert Marcuse.
JONATHAN HAIDT: I don’t know whether they get it from one another in junior high school or whether they’re learning it in diversity training classes. I don’t know whether they’re modeling it from their professors. I do believe it’s in place by the time they arrive in college. And colleges are teaching this. Now, some colleges are much, much worse than others. We know from various things we’ve read and posted on our site, that liberal arts colleges – especially the women’s schools – are by far the worst.
JOHN LEO: Women’s schools are worse?
JONATHAN HAIDT: Nobody should send their child to a women’s school any more. And that’s especially true if you’re progressive. The last thing you want is for your progressive daughter to be raised in this bullying monoculture, and to become a self-righteous bully herself.
JOHN LEO: Well, that’s one of the things I learned from your site. I kept debating with friends whether the closed mind, all the PC and the yen for censorship were there before they arrive at freshman orientation. But I hadn’t see it written about until Heterodox Academy came along.
JONATHAN HAIDT: I wouldn’t say the game is over by the time they reach college. I would just say, they’re, they’re already enculturated. But that doesn’t mean they can’t change. Kids are very malleable. Kids are anti-fragile. I would say there’s some research suggesting that by the time you’re thirty, your frontal cortex is set. So after thirty, I don’t think you can change. But at eighteen, I think you still can. So my hope is that universities will be forced to declare their sacred value. I hope we can split them off into different kinds of institutions–you know, Brown and Amherst can devote themselves to social justice. Chicago is my main hope. The University of Chicago might be able to devote itself to truth. They already have this fantastic statement on free speech, making very clear that it is not the job of the university to take sides in any of these matters. The university simply provides a platform.
JOHN LEO: Yes, that’s just one university though.
JONATHAN HAIDT: But that’s fine. As long as you have an alternate model, then other universities can copy it. But more importantly is this – here’s the one reason for hope – almost all Americans are disgusted by what’s happened to the universities.
JOHN LEO: You mean the micro-aggression, the trigger warnings and the censorship?
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yeah. The craziness on campus. Almost everybody says, you know, shut up, grow up, stop complaining. And this is even true for people on the left. And so, there’s a gigantic market of parents who don’t want to send their kids to Yale and Brown and Amherst, and they want to send them someplace where they won’t be coddled. And so my hope is that if there are some prestigious alternatives where their kids actually could learn how to survive hearing things they don’t like, and that market forces will lead a stampede to less coddling schools.
JOHN LEO: But what about the craving for elite credentials, no matter how bad the school really is. A lot of parents will send their kids anywhere, to the mouth of hell, if they can get a Yale degree.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yeah. Well, look, Chicago’s pretty darn good. Chicago’s a very prestigious school. I don’t know what Ivy could join them. …
JOHN LEO: Well, Columbia still has the Great Books course.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Columbia is very PC. Columbia’s not, going to be it. So, another reason for hope is that more and more progressive professors and presidents are being attacked. And each time they’re attacked, they usually feel quite bitter. And at some point we’re going to get a college president who has been attacked in this way who sticks his or her neck out and says, enough is enough; I’m standing up to this. I also hope and expect that alumni will begin resisting. That’s something we’re going to do at “Heterodox Academy.” We’re going to try to organize alumni and trustees.
Because the presidents can’t stand up to the protesters unless there is extraordinary pressure on them from the other side.
JOHN LEO: After the Duke fiasco, I made a point of looking into the alumni reaction. Resistance at Duke fizzled out very quickly. Stuart Taylor, Jr., co-author of Until Proven Innocent, the classic study of the Duke disaster, predicted that Brodhead would never get another term as president of Duke, or any other college. Not so. Despite the mess he made of things, they gave him a big, new contract. The forces upholding dereliction and folly are very strong.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Yeah. Duke was one outrageous case. This, “The Yale Problem,” is a much more existential threat to the whole system. It’s very hard to organize alumni for collective action. But if there’s a widespread sense of revulsion out there, then I think it might be more possible. You asked, how has “Heterodox Academy” been able to be so successful so quickly? And the basic answer is, we’re pushing on open doors. Most people are horrified by what’s going on. And when we ask people to join or support us, they say, yes. If we can find an easy way to organize alumni and get them to put their donations in escrow, or otherwise stop giving to schools that don’t commit to free speech and free inquiry, we may begin to see schools move away from illiberalism and return to their traditional role as institutions organized to pursue truth.