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Beyond the Fringe

As Oberlin College finally rids itself of a really florid Jewish-conspiracy devotee on its faculty, as we deal with yet another (there have been several in the last few years) serious embarrassment to a respectable institution — is there actually much of use to be said about this?

A racist conspiracy theory powered the political career of our president-elect. These things are apparently mainstream and can get you places. If some professors at our universities believe Jews brought down the World Trade Center and the New Town massacre was a federal government simulation meant to undermine gun rights, so what? For forty-two years a professor at Northwestern who seems to be a Nazi-symp has been (in the words of NU’s president) a “reprehensible… contemptible… embarrassment” to the place, and assuming the guy is hardy enough to continue teaching past his current eighty-three years of age, NU will continue being embarrassed for some time.

No doubt people with sociopathic and inane beliefs and belief systems crawl the woodwork of plenty of universities. Most are with-it enough to figure out that they should keep their views – at least in their most overt forms – out of their classrooms; but social media and other forms of publication betray them, for eventually some student or colleague is going to discover the place where they park their deepest, most delirious, convictions. Then the press, which is under the impression that professors have something to do with rational and responsible teaching/scholarship (no one cares if the dude bottling vitamins next to you in the vitamin factory writes Facebook postings blaming the Waco biker shoot-out on Muslims), will talk it up, and in seconds a university’s got one hell of a bimbo eruption on its hands.

But what is to be done? How can we avoid it? How should we think about it?

Well, as to the selection and cultivation of faculty on the fringe… Look to your recruitment committees, o ye sinners, and repent. Everyone knows that America has universities that pass all the way to the PhD people whose views move them from the provocative subversive margins (see Trump supporter S. Zizek) to flat-out beyond the pale, and it’s not that hard for hiring groups to check these people out. I mean, they’re not shy about putting what they think about the CIA, the Zionist conspiracy, and black presidents out there. Just take a look. Decide how important it is for your students to understand the links among the Trilateral Commission, King Edward’s abdication, and fluoridation.

As to how we should think about it – well, UD can offer this. People do not like evidence. They really do not like evidence. Americans have just elected an evidence-execrator. More than a few American colleges and universities teach their students that the earth is six thousand years old. Anything goes, and, as Don DeLillo points out in his hilarious novel White Noise, the more sources of information Americans enjoy, the stupider and more credulous they become. Why should one person with a vicious racist conspiracy get to be president, while another person with a vicious anti-semitic conspiracy have to lose her job? Just because, as one of her colleagues correctly points out, her arguments about the world lack evidence?

[Y]ou don’t generally hear such things being espoused by scholars with PhDs. That is because such unsubstantiated, unfalsifiable, speculative hypotheses are not only overwhelmingly wrong, but are also the opposite of research.

But nobody much cares about substantiation – including, on occasion, PhD and hiring committees. In fact a lot of people, inside and outside of universities, have a strong preference for big ol’ crazyass bullshit.

Margaret Soltan, November 16, 2016 10:26AM
Posted in: professors

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4 Responses to “Beyond the Fringe”

  1. Michael Tinkler Says:

    I’m not at all sure one can legally discriminate against such persons. Indeed, if we describe them as “nutjobs” we may NOT discriminate against them, because they’re disabled.

  2. Greg Says:

    The great difficulty is that, on the one hand we need to be open to opinions different from our own and let them into the academy, and, on the other, there must be limits to this tolerance if we are to fulfill our obligations to our moral students and our society. It might be possible to articulate some useful and precise guidelines to line-drawing. But it is more likely that the decision will rest on a set of individuals, each applying something like a vague standard of “big ol’ crazyass bullshit ” though in a cleaned up form. This is simply unavoidable if people in positions to decide are to do their best to make responsible decisions. Needless to say that firing decisions should subject to a looser standard than those involving hiring. And, in an distantly analogous context, a radio show host should apply and even looser standard about when to cut off a guest for unacceptable views, because the stakes are orders of magnitudes smaller. I think conservatives, and a smaller group on the left, are drawn to simplistic solutions to these sorts of problems, often actually varying in an unprincipled way, depending on comfortableness to them of the views expressed. This cannot be escaped entirely: one would hope that comfort with a position had some relationship to the likelihood of its truth. The real question involving balancing the harmfulness of the expression if it turns out to be wrong against the the real world probability (sometimes closely approaching, but never quite, zero) that it is right or useful, keeping in mind that the time for gathering evidence is not infinite. All of this is based on academic free speech values but in the absence of governmental action subjecting decisions to the First Amendment, So in a state school this requires a little more thought from a legal standpoint, if not from a moral one.

  3. Greg Says:

    Sorry for a few typos including a transpositon that was intended to be “moral obligations to our students …etc”

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Greg: Very much agree with all of that – in particular, I actually think we should hesitate a lot, and think for awhile, before booting out anyone with hurtful, harmful, repellent, absolutely-no-evidence-for-it, conspiracy-theory views. Few cases are as straightforward as the professor at Florida Atlantic University who not only believed the Newtown killings were faked by the government, but who harassed the parents of one of the children. Sickening, and not hard to call. The University of Colorado guy who talked about the deaths of all the “little Eichmanns”in the World Trade Center was not as easy a call (he was also fired, for plagiarism). Each has to be approached with great care.

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