Did the Middlebury Riot Betray an Excess of Virtue?

A commentary posted on The American Interest website (March 29, 2017) about the “protest and subsequent riot” at Middlebury College occasioned by the appearance of Charles Murray, the respected critic of liberal racial and welfare state policies, as a speaker provoked my interest in an unintended way. The author of this piece, Flagg Taylor, obviously wanted us to root for the educational psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who founded the Heterodox Academy website and organization. This NYU faculty member is supposed to be the good guy, as opposed to his co-discussant on “Charlie Rose” Frank Bruni, who works at the New York Times. Taylor shows, without breaking a sweat, that Bruni cannot rise above “the language of the credentialed class and all right-thinking people, even when he goes through the motions of saying (yes!) I’m for academic freedom. A pillar of the liberal establishment, Bruni bubbles with enthusiasm over “the passion and engagement” of the rioters at Middlebury, even if he reluctantly concedes that they may have gone too far in their violent riot. Need we ask about Bruni’s response if the rioters had been impassioned opponents of gay marriage trying to keep the president of the National Gay and Lesbian Alliance from delivering an address? Would he have been as euphoric in his praise of engagement as he was in praising the intolerance of the antiracist-antifascist Left?

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Haidt, by contrast, says at least some appropriate things about those rioting against speakers they don’t agree with at American universities. He observes that what was done to Murray and even more injuriously, to the pro-Hillary faculty member who accompanied him into the Middlebury College auditorium was a “modern auto-da-fe, the celebration of a religious rite by burning the blasphemer.” Haidt describes universities not as places of strenuous debate but “as training centers for the production of ‘correct opinions’ on the subjects of race and gender.” It was, therefore, necessary to expel Charles Murray, who believes that individuals and ethnic groups have different median IQs. Such a step was imperative since one could no longer “hope to train” this septuagenarian speaker. Significantly, Murray had not come to Middlebury to lecture on one of his many past themes, IQ disparities. This, we should note, is a subject that is at least as verboten among Republican think tanks as it is at Middlebury College. In point of fact, Murray had been invited to speak on current social problems in the U.S., which was the subject of his latest book.

Haidt, however, then went on to say something that left me unsettled. He deplored the fact that students may be overly virtuous: “if only they’d learn that any virtue carried to excess becomes a vice.” As I read this initially, I thought Haidt was merely restating in a vulgarized form Aristotle’s view of the Just as lying between two extremes, such as timidity and rashness. One is led into error (hamartia) by failing to be moderate (sophron) in maneuvering between perilous extremes. The Just is always represented by the middle path in qualities of character.  But this doesn’t seem to be Haidt’s position. Like Bruni, he equates student activism with “virtue,” even if the result may be excess.

The question then becomes: why should we regard these overgrown kids visiting physical harm on unwelcome guests as practitioners of virtue? Are they defending someone’s life against an assailant and thereby practicing the classical virtue of courage (andreia)? Or are we referring here to someone whose respect for the sanctity of life caused him to bar a pregnant lady’s entrance to a “women’s health provider” in order to save an unborn baby? Needless to say, this is not what Haidt has in mind when he mentions “virtue.”  One therefore feels impelled to ask why Haidt thinks that the violent protestors at Middlebury were bearers of virtue unless he believes that by being Politically Correct one is somehow being “virtuous.”

Let me not hide my views in this matter. From what I’ve read and heard of his work, Haidt believes in what hard-liners during the Cold War used to style in another political context “false moral equivalence.” And though this comparison may be unkind, it also seems entirely apt. We are dealing in both instances with two sides in the conflict, whether it’s Stalin’s empire and the American government, or the PC police and rioters and those who have a more traditional conception of higher education. In neither case can the gulf between these sides be bridged by assuming that we are dealing with moral equals, who face a resolvable dispute that reasonable people can address. Unless I’m mistaken, the Heterodox Academy crowd has a thing for the metaphor about equally impervious inhabitants of “two echo chambers.” We are told by Haidt’s devotees that the two sides are obstinately isolating themselves and because of this pigheadedness have not done all that is possible to advance “viewpoint diversity.” Unfortunately, this far-fetched metaphor doesn’t apply to universities, where one “opinion” holds sway while the holders of contrary views on a vast array of “delicate subjects” are kept out of the “conversation,” sometimes by force.

At least for me, this picture of two equally blameworthy sides that have equivalent “virtue” but are equally closed to debate makes no sense whatever. The two sides in this present situation are not in any way morally equivalent or similarly blameworthy, any more than I would have regarded Stalin’s Russia and its Western opponents to be equally at fault in 1947 for being at loggerheads. In some situations (although clearly not in other ones) there are just and unjust sides. Unless I equate the merit of social justice warriors with bullying and the use of thought police, there is absolutely nothing in their behavior that would remind me of “virtue.” And I’m not sure that Haidt can find it either, although he may have a professional interest in maintaining the pretense of being the preeminent academic mediator. This may lead him to be overly generous toward those who are the troublemakers and bullies on American campuses — and, lest I forget, to those who admire their “engagement.”

One final observation: from going on Haidt’s website, I notice blogs by a lot of would-be academic centrists pleading with other professors to be open to debate and to be nicer toward those with whom they disagree. I can’t imagine who on the Left will be swayed by these appeals to give up their monopoly of power.  The only possible effect these pleas may have is to cause the forces of resistance (wherever they’re still around) to imagine there’s hope for their side in making concessions to those who are responsible for the academic intolerance. It would be a shame if that were the effect of these misplaced efforts at mediation.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.