Why Don't People Speak Up?
I posted on Facebook a few days ago about the bullying that Justin Wolfers and other economists are doing to try to get an editor of the Journal of Political Economy fired. I start by saying that I don’t know if he should be fired. I don’t know enough about how good an editor he is, which, in my view, is the only thing that should matter. Justin hasn’t made a case that he’s a bad editor. Rather, Justin doesn’t like what the editor, Harald Uhlig, said about Black Lives Matter(ing). (Disclosure: I had a very civil debate with Justin about lockdowns. He seemed to be a nice guy. He is not nice on Twitter.)
At Cornell University Law School, a number of people are trying to bully the Dean into firing law professor William Jacobson over 2 of his criticisms of Black Lives Matter. (Disclosure: I read Professor Jacobson’s posts at least once a week because I find them informative.) The Dean, to his credit, defended Jacobson’s academic freedom, but to his discredit, made a nasty attack on Jacobson’s posts, managing to badly misstate the posts in the process. It’s interesting how easy it is to win an argument when you badly misstate what the person you’re arguing against says. Dean Eduardo M. Peñalver will not soon be winning any ideological Turing test awards.
Professor Jacobson appears to have received little public support from his colleagues. He writes:
None of the 21 signatories [of a public letter denouncing him], some of whom I’d worked closely with for over a decade and who I considered friends, had the common decency to approach me with any concerns. Instead they ran to the Cornell Sun while virtue signaling to students behind the scenes that this was a denunciation of me. Such is the political environment we live in now at CLS.
I’m not surprised. The reason has to do with an “aha” moment I had in the summer of 1979. I was leaving the University of Rochester’s Graduate School of Management even before my tenure clock was up. I had become friends with W. Allen Wallis, the Chancellor of the university, and he invited me to lunch in the nicer section (the part that served booze) of the faculty club, housed in the Frederick Douglass building. Early in the lunch, I realized that this wasn’t just a warm good-bye, although it was that too, but also an exit interview. So I ordered a whisky sour and loosened my tongue.
Allen wanted to know what I thought of the management school. I said that it had a lot going for it. The Dean, William H. Meckling, was great and there were a lot of strong faculty, especially in finance. But, I said, it could be so much better, even with existing faculty if there were a more open discussion and not so much kowtowing to Michael Jensen, the most prominent member of the faculty. Everyone had figured out that Michael was Bill’s buddy and so the majority were hesitant to challenge him in workshops or faculty discussions about policy issues. I said that I was one of the few willing to do this. (I didn’t name Richard Thaler, who was also one of the few, because he had left and it looked as if he wasn’t returning.)
Then I said, “My view is that in a faculty of 40 people, you should have 40 independent minds.”
Allen started laughing and I felt hurt. “Why are you laughing at me?” I asked.
He answered, “My view is that if in a faculty of 40 people you have 2 or 3 independent minds, you’re doing well.”
His insight has served me well.
So my answer to the question that’s the title of this post, “Why Don’t People Speak Up?”, is because they don’t have the courage to do so.
By the way, Wallis was a major figure in the move to abolish the draft. We had become friendly early in my time there and the friendship had strengthened after I called him up in December 1976. Incoming president Jimmy Carter had said he would grant amnesty to draft dodgers. Because Allen was the highest-ranking Republican I knew, I called him to make a pitch to his buddies in the Ford administration to steal a march on Carter by granting amnesty first. Allen didn’t agree with me but we had an interesting discussion.
In case you’re wondering about the pic at the top, it wasn’t so much to advertise co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s book, excellent as it was, as to show a picture of sheep.
Jun 12 2020 at 2:16pm
The pettiest battles are often fought in the halls of academe.
Jun 12 2020 at 2:18pm
Yes, academia is full of cowards and bullies. But then the entire world is full of cowards and bullies.
Jun 12 2020 at 4:59pm
I don’t know about that Scott, I think the above post demonstrates that the world is filled with people who have the capacity to be cowards and/or bullies (perhaps out of survival reflexes) and also the capacity to be more evolved and oscillate between them depending on mood, life events, medium, just having a bad/good day etc…
And I do not know if I agree with the premise of post about these professors being bullied for expressing their “academic freedom,” I mean what if the speech is un-academic, dishonest, and is of the type that has been proven unhelpful in creating a more equal and just nation/community/university? Are those grounds for other proffessors to express their free speech and contribute to academia but pointing at terrible opinions and explaining why they are such? I too would recommend reading more into the racial history of any issue that you deem “ideological,” if we do not separate those from issues that are “moral,” “ethical,” “professional,” “civil,” and “academically honest” then we will be doomed to repeat history and continue on down the horrible decline in racial relations brought about by the rise in power of people dedicated to a philosophy (libertarianism) that has heretofore had no valid, positive, or succesful thoughts to add to race issues.
Jun 13 2020 at 4:59am
While that is true, Academics have a greater responsibility to society than the “average joe”. Academia has historically been nonpartisan, and respectful of alternative views. And if history has taught us anything, its that when academics fail to lend their voice to truth, the madness of crowds win.
If more academics were as courageous as Glenn Loury, and stuck their neck out – like the piece he wrote in the WSJ and City Journal, the narrative would begin to change.
Jun 12 2020 at 5:58pm
Wolfers has also bullied you on Twitter. I believe he is implying you are sexist. https://twitter.com/justinwolfers/status/1086753529971294208?lang=en.
Jun 12 2020 at 10:59pm
Thanks, Justin. I’m glad I didn’t know about that when I debated him. I guess he thinks the gender of people is important. To some of us, the ideas matter more. Too bad Justin is stuck on gender. As he showed in the debate, expect for his absurd comment about employers’ deep pockets, he has it in him to be a good economist.
Jun 12 2020 at 11:20pm
Not sure about Canadian English but to me, this does not sound like a compliment…
Jun 12 2020 at 11:46pm
It is a compliment.
Jun 13 2020 at 2:50am
Or the energy to start start or join a fight they know they really don’t want to spend the effort following through on.
Civilly losing one’s job is a very serious punishment that should be reserved for those who have criminally violated the law (there are probably exceptions to this). I wish people would treat it as seriously as it deserves.
Jun 13 2020 at 4:36am
This is clearly the most pressing issue of our times. And it was so brilliantly stated by Dr. Glenn Laury in his city-journal piece published a few days ago titled “I must object”. It has clearly gone to far. We now have Universities issuing political statements, and declaring with one voice, as if everyone agrees, what the Universities political positions are. It is a historically dangerous proposition, and one that reminds us of a Russian politburo.
Jun 13 2020 at 8:34am
What saddens me most about this issue is the fact that, often times, it only takes one or two people’s speaking up to bring the rest of the community back to their own independent thinking. It’s shocking how many terrible things people will just “go along with.” But if one person has the courage to stand up and contradict the prevailing opinion, often many of the “sheep” discover their own reasons to be skeptical, and the tide can be turned.
Jun 16 2020 at 6:18am
I have noticed this too, the general sheep-following instinct I see people have (and I’m sure I myself am prone to), occasionally punctuated by the independent thinker.
But just thinking a bit abstractly here, has this always been the case? Or is it new this decade? I don’t even know how to answer the question as I don’t have the historical knowledge.
Has the tribal culture (that blogs like this lead me to believe are the biggest problem in society right now) been particularly revamped in the past few years, or has it always been around and we’ve only just given a label to it.
Anyone have any thoughts?
Jun 13 2020 at 1:12pm
Do you perhaps think that the education system itself may be to blame for encouraging this homogeneity and followership? At the very least I don’t see the education system (or hell, typical employee-employer dynamics and laws) doing much to encourage the reverse.
Thinking about this with respect to academic careers I did a search on tenure and on the first .edu page found (https://fsu.umb.edu/content/fsu-guide-tenure-process ):
😀 At least whoever wrote this is trying for some honesty.
Jun 13 2020 at 2:20pm
I know you didn’t mean it this way, but it’s important to emphasize here that black lives mattering is not in dispute. As much as his critics would like to insinuate otherwise, Uhlig did not in any way assert or even imply that black lives do not matter.
Black Lives Matter is a specific ideological movement, and a criticism of that movement does not imply a belief that black lives do not matter, any more than a criticism of self-styled “Progressives” implies opposition to progress.
Jun 13 2020 at 6:14pm
Thanks. That’s why I used capital letters for Black Lives Matter.
Jun 15 2020 at 4:07pm
I do not know that you have that entirely right Brandon. The dispute is not whether Black lives matter, but rather to what extent do they (or don’t) matter to our gov’t, law enforcement, media, politicians, and the various industries in the public sector. It is an incredible broad issue in that respect, a hydra of sorts in so far as correcting one problem often leads to it growing back if the others are not dealt with in a timely manner as well. Therefore, I am very sympathetic to BLM- a movement to holistically confront the ways that Black lives are not treated with equal and appropriate value in this society , not an ideology as was misstated- and their antipathy that want to critique and not help. The margins of error are low when confronting racial inequality, it is reasonable to treat attempts and speech that in effect lowers those margins of error as hostile to a beneficial and moral cause -> that of making Black lives matter, which we’ve agreed is not in dispute and should be treated as such.
And to everyone saying the University has been a cherished institute of Academic Freedom and Free Speech, please tell me me when in the US that has been the case for Black Lives. When have universities found Black Lives to Matter enough to give them equal opportunity, equal support, equal coverage. I’m 99.99% sure the answer is never. In fact, I’m fairly sure we are less than 75 years removed from the majority those bastions of free speech and academic freedom barring Black Lives from access to those hallowed rights. That is why someone who supports the BLM movement would be skeptical of this freedom of speech, they are using their freedom of speech to provide a free and valuable history lesson.
Therefore, I am sorry but Academics and Academic Institutions deserve no pass on whether others are skeptical of their support of Black lives mattering. You can say you think they matter, someone else can say that they don’t believe you. The latter has the historically and substantially better argument based on the available evidence -> it is your job to prove you actually think Black lives matter.
Jun 15 2020 at 12:35pm
Let’s put morals (talk of courage) aside and admit that the economics of the situation rule. The costs of speaking up usually outweigh the benefits.
Take the marginal university professor. Speaking out in favor of abstract principle (like free speech) can have significant and obvious negative consequences. The benefits of doing so are not so obvious.
In fact, the opposite seems more and more likely. Attacking individuals is a beneficial endeavor, and doesn’t appear to impose much cost at all.
So, how can we design our “cultural systems” to reverse these incentives back to a healthier, self-reinforcing state (incentives to defend outweigh incentives to attack)?
Jun 15 2020 at 2:57pm
It seems the cherished idea that university is a crucible for free expression died a longtime ago. I suspect that staying silent is often done out of pragmatic self-interest. For example, look at the treatment endured by whistle blowers in government and corporate America. Edward Snowden, no matter one’s opinion of him, has paid a huge price for blowing the whistle. Finding courage in the face of compromised conscience is rare.
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