What is happening to our country, and our universities? It sometimes seems everything is coming apart.
To understand why, I have found it helpful to think about an idea from cosmology called “the fine-tuned universe.” There are around 20 fundamental constants in physics—things like the speed of light, Newton’s gravitational constant, and the charge of an electron. In the weird world of cosmology, these are constants throughout our universe, but it is thought that some of them could be set to different values in other universes. As physicists have begun to understand our universe, they have noticed that many of these physical constants seem to be set just right to allow matter to condense and life to get started.
For a few of these constants, if they were just one or two percent higher or lower, matter would have never condensed after the big bang. There would have been no stars, no planets, no life. As Stephen Hawking put it, “the remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”
Some have suggested that this fine-tuning might be evidence for the existence of God. This would be a deist conception of God, of the sort that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and most of the Founding Fathers believed in: a God who set up the universe like a giant clock, with exactly the right springs and gears, and then set it in motion. I myself am not taking fine-tuning as evidence of God. I’m simply using it as a way to open this lecture. I want to lift your attention up into the cosmos and put you into a mindset that is awestruck at our improbability. And if I have succeeded in doing that, then I’d like you to take that same mindset and apply it to the existence of our improbable country.
I’d like you to consider an idea that I’ll call “the fine-tuned liberal democracy.” It begins by looking backward a few million generations and tracing our ancestry, from tree-dwelling apes to land-dwelling apes, to upright-walking apes, whose hands were freed up for tool use, to larger-brained hominids who made weapons as well as tools, and then finally to homo sapiens, who painted cave walls and painted their faces and danced around campfires and worshipped gods and murdered each other in large numbers.
When we look back at the ways our ancestors lived, there’s no getting around it: we are tribal primates. We are exquisitely designed and adapted by evolution for life in small societies with intense, animistic religion and violent intergroup conflict over territory. We love tribal living so much that we invented sports, fraternities, street gangs, fan clubs, and tattoos. Tribalism is in our hearts and minds. We’ll never stamp it out entirely, but we can minimize its effects because we are a behaviorally flexible species. We can live in many different ways, from egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups of 50 individuals to feudal hierarchies binding together millions. And in the last two centuries, a lot of us have lived in large, multi-ethnic secular liberal democracies. So clearly that is possible. But how much margin of error do we have in such societies?
Here is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life. This seems to be what the Founding Fathers believed. Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of those eighteenth-century deists clearly did think that designing a constitution was like designing a giant clock, a clock that might run forever if they chose the right springs and gears.
Thankfully, our Founders were good psychologists. They knew that we are not angels; they knew that we are tribal creatures. As Madison wrote in Federalist 10: “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” Our Founders were also good historians; they were well aware of Plato’s belief that democracy is the second worst form of government because it inevitably decays into tyranny. Madison wrote in Federalist 10 about pure or direct democracies, which he said are quickly consumed by the passions of the majority: “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention . . . and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
So what did the Founders do? They built in safeguards against runaway factionalism, such as the division of powers among the three branches, and an elaborate series of checks and balances. But they also knew that they had to train future generations of clock mechanics. They were creating a new kind of republic, which would demand far more maturity from its citizens than was needed in nations ruled by a king or other Leviathan.
Here is the education expert ED Hirsch, on the founding of our nation:
The history of tribal and racial hatred is the history and prehistory of humankind. . . . The American experiment, which now seems so natural to us, is a thoroughly artificial device designed to counterbalance the natural impulses of group suspicions and hatreds. . . . This vast, artificial, trans-tribal construct is what our Founders aimed to achieve. And they understood that it can be achieved effectively only by intelligent schooling. (From The Making of Americans)
Thomas Jefferson wrote, in 1789, that “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government;” he backed up that claim by founding the University of Virginia, about which he wrote, in 1820: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it.”
So, how are we doing, as the inheritors of the clock? Are we maintaining it well? If Madison visited Washington, D.C. today, he’d find that our government is divided into two all-consuming factions, which cut right down the middle of each of the three branches, uniting the three red half-branches against the three blue half-branches, with no branch serving the original function as he had envisioned.
And how are we doing at training clock mechanics? What would Jefferson say if he were to take a tour of America’s most prestigious universities in 2017? What would he think about safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, bias response teams, and the climate of fearfulness, intimidation, and conflict that is now so prevalent on campus? But first, let’s ask: How did we mess things up so badly?
I’ve been studying political polarization since 2007. Data from Gallup and Pew show steadily rising polarization since the 1990s, whether you ask people how much they dislike the other side, how much they think the other side is a threat to the country, or how upset they’d be if their child married someone from the other side.
Why do we hate and fear each other so much more than we used to as recently as the early 1990s? The political scientist Sam Abrams and I wrote an essay in 2015, listing ten causes. I won’t describe them all, but I’ll give you a unifying idea, another metaphor from physics: keep your eye on the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Imagine three kids making a human chain with their arms, and one kid has his free hand wrapped around a pole. The kids start running around in a circle, around the pole, faster and faster. The centrifugal force increases. That’s the force pulling outward as the human centrifuge speeds up. But at the same time, the kids strengthen their grip. That’s the centripetal force, pulling them inward along the chain of their arms. Eventually the centrifugal force exceeds the centripetal force and their hands slip. The chain breaks. This, I believe, is what is happening to our country. I’ll briefly mention five of the trends that Abrams and I identified, all of which can be seen as increasing centrifugal forces or weakening centripetal forces.
External enemies: Fighting and winning two world wars, followed by the Cold War, had an enormous unifying effect. The Vietnam War was different, but in general, war is the strongest known centripetal force. Since 1989, we have had no unifying common enemy.
The media: Newspapers in the early days of the republic were partisan and often quite nasty. But with the advent of television in the mid-twentieth century, America experienced something unusual: the media was a gigantic centripetal force. Americans got much of their news from three television networks, which were regulated and required to show political balance. That couldn’t last, and it began to change in the 1980s with the advent of cable TV and narrowcasting, followed by the Internet in the 1990s, and social media in the 2000s. Now we are drowning in outrage stories, very high-quality outrage stories, often supported by horrifying video clips. Social media is turning out to be a gigantic centrifugal force.
Immigration and diversity: This one is complicated and politically fraught. Let me be clear that I think immigration and diversity are good things, overall. The economists seem to agree that immigration brings large economic benefits. The complete dominance of America in Nobel prizes, music, and the arts, and now the technology sector, would not have happened if we had not been open to immigrants. But as a social psychologist, I must point out that immigration and diversity have many sociological effects, some of which are negative. The main one is that they reduce social capital—the bonds of trust that exist between individuals.
The political scientist Robert Putnam found this in a paper titled “E Pluribus Unum,” in which he followed his data to a conclusion he clearly did not relish: “In the short run, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”
In short, despite its other benefits, diversity is a centrifugal force, something the Founders were well aware of. In Federalist 2, John Jay wrote that we should count it as a blessing that America possessed “one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, the same language, professing the same religion.” I repeat that diversity has many good effects too, and I am grateful that America took in my grandparents from Russia and Poland, and my wife’s parents from Korea. But Putnam’s findings make it clear that those who want more diversity should be even more attentive to strengthening centripetal forces.
The final two causes I will mention are likely to arouse the most disagreement, because these are the two where I blame specific parties, specific sides. They are: the Republicans in Washington, and the Left on campus. Both have strengthened the centrifugal forces that are now tearing us apart.
The more radical Republican Party: When the Democrats ran the House of Representatives for almost all of six decades, before 1995, they did not treat the Republican minority particularly well. So I can understand Newt Gingrich’s desire for revenge when he took over as Speaker of the House in 1995. But many of the changes he made polarized the Congress, made bipartisan cooperation more difficult, and took us into a new era of outrage and conflict in Washington. One change stands out to me, speaking as a social psychologist: he changed the legislative calendar so that all business was done Tuesday through Thursday, and he encouraged his incoming freshmen not to move to the District. He did not want them to develop personal friendships with Democrats. He did not want their spouses to serve on the same charitable boards. But personal relationships among legislators and their families in Washington had long been a massive centripetal force. Gingrich deliberately weakened it.
And this all happened along with the rise of Fox News. Many political scientists have noted that Fox News and the right-wing media ecosystem had an effect on the Republican Party that is unlike anything that happened on the left. It rewards more extreme statements, more grandstanding, more outrage. Many people will point out the media leans liberal overall, and that the Democrats did some polarizing things, too. Fair enough. But it is clear Gingrich set out to create a more partisan, zero-sum Congress, and he succeeded. This more combative culture then filtered up to the Senate, and out to the rest of the Republican Party.
The new identity politics of the Democratic party: Jonathan Rauch offers a simple definition of identity politics: a “political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest.” Rauch then adds: “In America, this sort of mobilization is not new, unusual, un-American, illegitimate, nefarious, or particularly left-wing.”
This definition makes it easy for us to identify two kinds of identity politics: the good kind is that which, in the long run, is a centripetal force. The bad kind is that which, in the long run, is a centrifugal force.
Injustice is centrifugal. It destroys trust and causes righteous anger. Institutionalized racism bakes injustice into the system and plants the seeds of an eventual explosion. When slavery was written into the Constitution, it set us up for the greatest explosion of our history. It was a necessary explosion, but we didn’t manage the healing process well in the Reconstruction era. When Jim Crow was written into Southern laws, it led to another period of necessary explosions, in the 1960s.
The civil rights struggle was indeed identity politics, but it was an effort to fix a mistake, to make us better and stronger as a nation. Martin Luther King’s rhetoric made it clear that this was a campaign to create conditions that would allow national reconciliation. He drew on the moral resources of the American civil religion to activate our shared identity and values: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note.” And: “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Of course, some people saw the civil rights movement as divisive, or centrifugal. But King’s speech is among the most famous in American history precisely because it framed our greatest moral failing as an opportunity for centripetal redemption. This is what I’m calling the good kind of identity politics.
Let us contrast King’s identity politics with the version taught in universities today. There is a new variant that has swept through the academy in the last five years. It is called intersectionality. The term and concept were presented in a 1989 essay by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA, who made the very reasonable point that a black woman’s experience in America is not captured by the summation of the black experience and the female experience.
She analyzed a legal case in which black women were victims of discrimination at General Motors, even when the company could show that it hired plenty of blacks (in factory jobs dominated by men), and it hired plenty of women (in clerical jobs dominated by whites). So even though GM was found not guilty of discriminating against blacks or women, it ended up hiring hardly any black women. This is an excellent argument. What academic could oppose the claim that when analyzing a complex system, we must look at interaction effects, not just main effects?
But what happens when young people study intersectionality? In some majors, it’s woven into many courses. Students memorize diagrams showing matrices of privilege and oppression. It’s not just white privilege causing black oppression, and male privilege causing female oppression; its heterosexual vs. LGBTQ, able-bodied vs. disabled; young vs. old, attractive vs. unattractive, even fertile vs. infertile. Anything a group has that is good or valued is seen as a kind of privilege, which causes a kind of oppression in those who don’t have it.
A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/ them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side of each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.
And here’s the strategically brilliant move made by intersectionality: all of the binary dimensions of oppression are said to be interlocking and overlapping. America is said to be one giant matrix of oppression, and its victims cannot fight their battles separately. They must all come together to fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish male. This is why a perceived slight against one victim group calls forth protest from all victim groups. This is why so many campus groups now align against Israel. Intersectionality is like NATO for social-justice activists.
This means on any campus where intersectionality thrives, conflict will be eternal, because no campus can eliminate all offense, all microaggressions, and all misunderstandings. This is why the use of shout-downs, intimidation, and even violence in response to words and ideas is most common at our most progressive universities, in the most progressive regions of the country. It’s schools such as Yale, Brown, and Middlebury in New England, and Cal-Berkeley, Evergreen, and Reed on the West Coast. Are those the places where oppression is worst, or are they the places where this new way of thinking is most widespread?
Let me remind you of the educational vision of the Founders, by way of ED Hirsch: “The American experiment . . . is a thoroughly artificial device designed to counterbalance the natural impulses of group suspicions and hatreds . . . This vast, artificial, trans-tribal construct is what our Founders aimed to achieve.”
Intersectionality aims for the exact opposite: an inflaming of tribal suspicions and hatreds, in order to stimulate anger and activism in students, in order to recruit them as fighters for the political mission of the professor. The identity politics taught on campus today is entirely different from that of Martin Luther King. It rejects America and American values. It does not speak of forgiveness or reconciliation. It is a massive centrifugal force, which is now seeping down into high schools, especially liberal private schools.
Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: it teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation.
Nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.
Here is how one young queer activist described the cult. The essay is titled “‘Everything is Problematic’: My journey into the center of a dark political world, and how I escaped.” The author identifies four features of the culture: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. Of greatest relevance to our exploration of tribalism, he writes: “Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup—believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. . . . Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare.”
Can you imagine a culture more antithetical to the mission of a university? Can you believe many universities offer dozens of courses that promote this way of thinking? Some are even requiring all students take such a course.
Let us return to Jefferson’s vision: “For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it.” If Jefferson were to return today and tour our nation’s top universities, he would be shocked at the culture of fear, the prevalence of unchallenged error, and the shackles placed on reason.
Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, let me end with a few rays of hope and some thoughts about what can be done. I began this lecture with a discussion of the fine-tuned liberal democracy, which is the hypothesis that human beings are unsuited for life in large diverse secular democracies, unless we can get certain settings finely adjusted. I think this hypothesis is true, and I have tried to show that we have stumbled into some very bad settings. I am pessimistic about our future, but let me state clearly that I have low confidence in my pessimism. It has always been wrong to bet against America, and it is probably wrong to do so now.
My libertarian friends constantly remind me people are resourceful; when problems get more severe, people get more inventive, and that might be happening to us right now. If you want hope, you need only put this quotation up on your bathroom mirror: “We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason . . . On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
That was written by the British historian Thomas Babington Macauley in 1830. It is probably still true today. And if you want more hope, let me tell you why I think things are going to start to improve on university campuses, beginning in the fall of 2018: because as things get worse on campus, more people are beginning to stand up, and more people are searching for solutions. Some college presidents are starting to stand up. They all know they are sitting on a powder keg, and they want to defuse it. Also, they are generally liberal scholars, deeply opposed to illiberalism.
Carol Christ, the new chancellor of Cal-Berkeley, is clearly mortified by what happened to her school’s reputation last spring, and she has taken a very strong and public stand, saying Berkeley supports freedom of speech and will pay to protect speakers. Robert Zimmer, the president of the University of Chicago, has been consistently excellent. I have spoken with several other college presidents who would like to stand up publicly but still feel that the illiberal factions on their campuses are too strong. But if a few more presidents stand up, and if applications to schools like the University of Chicago surge this year, then I think we’ll see the floodgates open, possibly next fall.
Professors are starting to stand up, too. At Heterodox Academy, we started with 25 members two years ago; now we have over 1,400, evenly balanced between left and right. We got a big surge of members after the violence at Middlebury because that was a tipping point. Professors are overwhelmingly on the left, but they are mostly liberal Left, not illiberal. My field—social psychology—for example, is quite sane. I have been raising the alarm about political imbalance and orthodoxy since 2011, and so far nothing bad has happened to me. I have not been ostracized. The problem on campus—the intense illiberalism—is concentrated in a few departments committed to political activism.
When you look at who signs the petitions denouncing professors for what they’ve written, or demanding journal articles be retracted, it is mostly professors from about seven departments in the humanities and identity studies. Few professors dared risk the ire of this illiberal Left back in 2015, but with each new witch hunt, each aggressive shout-down, more members of the liberal Left are willing to stand up and say: enough is enough. This is contrary to my values.
And most importantly, some students are beginning to stand up. At Reed College, one of the most politically orthodox schools in the country, social-justice activists had been protesting and disrupting the first-year humanities course for more than a year. They called the course an act of white supremacy because it focused on dead white authors. They said the course was traumatizing to non-white students. They brought their signs and chants into the classroom every day, making it hard for professors to teach or for students to learn.
Many Reed students and professors objected, but none dared to do so publicly, lest they be called racist themselves. Finally, this fall, several Asian students stood up, criticized the protesters, and asked them to stop interfering with their education. Once these students stood up, support for the protesters collapsed. Many people had been going along out of fear, rather than conviction.
At Heterodox Academy, we’re tracking these trends very closely, and we are putting out ideas and tools that help people stand up for viewpoint diversity and open inquiry. We’ve created a guide to colleges to steer applicants toward the schools that offer more viewpoint diversity. We’ve created an online survey that schools can use to assess the level of orthodoxy and fear on campus, or in any classroom. And most importantly, we’ve created theOpenMind app. It’s a self-guided app that teaches students about the value of viewpoint diversity and then trains them to engage with people who don’t share their values. We have many more initiatives planned for 2018.
I also want to call your attention to someone else who is searching for a solution: Lenore Skenazy has been sounding the alarm about what happens to kids when we raise them like veal, protecting them from everything including emotional harm. Answer: they ask to be protected in college, too. They expect college will be a giant safe space, and that there will always be a designated adult to resolve their conflicts. Lenore has so many ideas for how to restore childhood to children—to give them the unsupervised time they need to become autonomous, self-supervising adults.
With seed money from Daniel Shuchman, she has started a nonprofit called LetGrow.org. I serve on the board, along with Peter Gray, from Boston College. One of the reasons LetGrow is so important, and the reason I mention it now, is unsupervised free play turns out to be crucial for the development of democratic citizenship. I just want to read you a few sentences from one of Gray’s articles on the importance of unsupervised free play:
To play with another person, you must pay attention to the other person’s needs, not just your own, or the other person will quit. You must overcome narcissism. You must learn to negotiate in ways that respect the other person’s ideas, not just yours. [Gray goes on to describe the way that kids learn about rules, when adults are not present.] They learn in this way that rules are not fixed by heaven, but are human contrivances to make life more fun and fair. This is an important lesson; it is a cornerstone of democracy.
So please do not despair. Be alarmed—the situation is truly alarming. But most Americans are decent, thoughtful people who don’t want to give up on their country or its universities. There are many things we can do to reduce tribalism, strengthen our kids, and repair our universities.
We—who fill this room—we have made a mess of the clock. Left and Right, Republicans and Democrats. But we can make up for it if we can come together, admit we messed up, and change what we are doing to kids, and to college students. We just might be able to raise a generation of kids who can care for the clock after all.