by Luke Cuddy
Neutrality is a Laudable Goal: A Clarification of Viewpoint Diversity
Critics of neutrality abound. For one thing, neutrality is boring compared to the hot, partisan take that gets the most clicks. In social settings, people who take the path of least resistance and don’t have an opinion on anything are often deemed annoying at best. Even Jesus didn’t like neutrality, promising to vomit the lukewarm out of his mouth (Revelation 3:16).
Neutrality is impossible, one could argue, since being neutral itself constitutes a point of view. Some even seem to think the call for neutrality reveals a deeper, more nefarious intention. While I concede that some people calling for neutrality may have such intentions — or may have had them at earlier points in history — presumed intentions alone cannot be a reason to reject an argument.
What do I mean by neutrality? I mean the call for viewpoint diversity; the desire for reasonable perspectives on a given issue to be heard fairly and civilly. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not defining neutrality with respect to people’s attitudes in that I think we should all be dispassionate about every topic. I am defining it with respect to the presentation of the topic itself. There is no incompatibility between being passionate and presenting a topic fairly. The best college professors do it all the time.
Are There Some Topics to Which Neutrality Doesn’t Apply? Yes
I’m happy to concede to the many critics of viewpoint diversity that some topics are off limits. Should we discuss Charles Murray and so-called race science to hear all the points of view? No. Like many, I was disappointed with Murray’s non-answer on Sam Harris’ podcast when asked why he investigated intelligence levels between races to begin with. In an article for Arc Digital, L.D. Burnett argues rightly that a topic like this — one that puts one’s value as a human being up for debate — should be rejected up front. Some arguments have such faulty premises that they should never get off the ground. Indeed, she alludes to the infamous case of Andrew Sullivan, who took Murray’s claims seriously and justified his argument by appealing to viewpoint diversity.
Unfortunately, though, this is the only contemporary example she provides. Perhaps that wasn’t the main point of her article, but it does leave the curious reader wanting. She rightly targets early polygenists, who claimed the superiority of the white race, for criticism. But are most people calling for viewpoint diversity today like these early polygenists?
The History-to-Present Bait and Switch
This argumentative strategy — using historical cases in which an argument was misused as a justification for rejecting that same argument in the present — is not foreign to critics of neutrality. Imagine if your adult daughter thought that you were treating her unfairly during a recent meal by, say, interrupting her too much. But rather than address that specific complaint, you instead pointed out that children, too, claim to be treated unfairly for clearly childish reasons, thus trivializing your daughter’s legitimate complaint about your behavior.
Adam Serwer trivializes civility in this way in The Atlantic . He doesn’t target viewpoint diversity per se, though it’s two sides of the same coin. The calls to be civil are calls to be neutral with respect to interpreting people’s arguments fairly, from multiple perspectives, even those with which we disagree. Following the strategy like a pro, Serwer cites copious historical examples — from William Howard Taft’s inauguration speech in 1909 to Biden’s wistful lament of being civil with segregationists — to argue that civility is overrated (which also is the title of his article).
To be sure, much of what authors like Burnett and Serwer write is true and terrible. One can’t argue with history. The problem lies in the conclusions they draw from it. Serwer continually hammers home the point that the so-called civility that whites like Biden pine for is a result of the exclusion of marginalized groups. Such civility wouldn’t exist, in his view, without the suppression of the racial tension beneath it.
But the sort of civility being called for by people like Jonathan Haidt — founder of the organization The Heterodox Academy whose focus is viewpoint diversity — is clearly not one that is built on racial tension. To be sure, Haidt’s argument should be [and has been] subject to legitimate academic criticism, but the critiques of authors like Burnett and Serwer don’t address this more robust version of the argument for neutrality.
Haidt and his ilk mainly want more diversity of political thought at universities, based on evidence that there is a lack of it in some important regards. For example, while liberal professors still grade conservative students fairly, conservative students are nevertheless more likely to self-censor than their moderate or liberal counterparts. In one survey, even liberal students said that they were significantly more likely to hear disparaging comments about conservatives than about Muslims, Christians, or African Americans. Haidt’s push to balance the political scales at universities is not incompatible with empowering marginalized groups, and arguably shares the same humanistic goal of inclusiveness.
Is Tension Incompatible with Civility/Neutrality?
Serwer suggests that tension and civility are in conflict, but they’re not. The best academic debates involve a great deal of tension and are also civil and neutral with respect to the presentation of the topic. Indeed, the Socratic method (or dialectic), that core of rational debate, is founded on a tension between two conflicting points of view (thesis and antithesis).
There is an irony in Serwer arguing in favor of tension but against civility, because to the extent that truly civil debate is suppressed, various academic arguments will be subject to less tension and simply accepted. This acceptance may be something that is hard for left-leaning academics to notice since they are immersed in those accepted viewpoints.
What are the best and worst arguments for systemic racism? If it exists, how widespread a problem is it and what are the best and worst strategies to address it? Do genes determine our behavior significantly? If the evidence for the effectiveness of implicit bias training is inconclusive, why is it being required so many places, including in many academic institutions?
It’s important to see that questions like this are legitimate academic questions whose answers, once known, will have a serious effect on not just future academics but on society in general. It’s also important to see that we don’t know the answers yet to any reasonable degree of certainty (unlike, say, the way we know that evolution is true). Questions like this need to be debated fairly.
What Critics of Neutrality Get Right
Ultimately the problem is not neutrality but the misuse of it. In my college days, the creationists were prominent misusers of “neutrality” talk regarding evolution. “Teach the controversy!” they used to say, suggesting that the creation of the universe by a higher being be taught alongside evolution in biology classes as theories on the same footing. But there was no controversy. Evolution had already won that debate and every legitimate academic knew it. Although creationism fails on nearly every count to be a scientific theory, many prominent creationists nevertheless used every public space they could to argue the contrary.
Some racists push their views under the guise of neutrality, just as some creationists do. Cases like this are a serious concern for neutrality/viewpoint diversity and must be addressed. The best argument for viewpoint diversity is that it is more likely to lead to truth and suppress our naturally tribal, confirmation-seeking instincts. But only with issues on which multiple reasonable answers are possible. It could actually lead away from truth if unjustified, false ideas are allowed to be propped up as legitimate, like creationism or early 20th century polygenism.
It is therefore important that we cast a wide net in terms of the topics that are deemed academically legitimate, but not infinitely wide. This line may not always be easy to discern, but it’s not impossible. Unfortunately, as illustrated by the fact that a growing number of scholars believe there is only one answer to the above academic questions, the line is being drawn too often these days in a clearly illegitimate way.
It’s easy for debates like these over terms like neutrality to seem academically dense, replete with tedious philosophical hair-splitting. While I’m sympathetic to this intellectual exhaustion, hair-splitting is of course sometimes necessary. Still, concrete examples help, which is why I end by pointing to Julia Galef, host of one of the first major podcasts, Rationally Speaking.
Galef challenges her guests respectfully but poignantly, making an effort to Steelman the ideas under discussion. She often asks guests to present books or articles that they disagree with, but still think are worth reading. She sometimes does shows (like this one) where she interviews two experts on a topic with opposing views, making an effort to split the differences fairly, pinpointing the most fruitful points of agreement and disagreement. She has also chosen not to cover certain topics, still drawing lines in the sand, not unlike critics of viewpoint diversity like Burnett and Serwer. In her recent excellent discussion with Coleman Hughes, the two address the very issue of how to talk about race. She’s not perfect — and who is — but she’s one of the best public examples of how to achieve the best version of viewpoint diversity/neutrality, without sacrificing other important values worth fighting for.
Luke Cuddy teaches philosophy at Southwest College, San Diego.