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John McWhorter on Professors Worrying about the Consequences If They Sound Less Than Totally Woke

Summary:
Another defense of sorts has been to claim that even this cancel-culture lite is not dangerous, because it has no real effect. When, for instance, 153 intellectuals signed an open letter in Harper’s arguing for the value of free speech (I was one of them), we were told that we were comfortable bigwigs chafing at mere criticism, as if all that has been happening is certain people being taken to task, as opposed to being shamed and stripped of honors.Read: A deeply provincial view of free speechTo the extent that the new progressives acknowledge that some prominent people have been unfairly tarred—including the food columnist Alison Roman, the data analyst David Shor, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art senior curator Gary Garrels—they often insist that these are mere one-off detours

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Another defense of sorts has been to claim that even this cancel-culture lite is not dangerous, because it has no real effect. When, for instance, 153 intellectuals signed an open letter in Harper’s arguing for the value of free speech (I was one of them), we were told that we were comfortable bigwigs chafing at mere criticism, as if all that has been happening is certain people being taken to task, as opposed to being shamed and stripped of honors.

To the extent that the new progressives acknowledge that some prominent people have been unfairly tarred—including the food columnist Alison Roman, the data analyst David Shor, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art senior curator Gary Garrels—they often insist that these are mere one-off detours rather than symptoms of a general cultural sea change.

For example, in July I tweeted that I (as well as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury) have been receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook. Then various people insisted that I was, essentially, lying; they simply do not believe that anyone remotely reasonable has anything to worry about.

However, hard evidence points to a different reality. This year, the Heterodox Academy conducted an internal member survey of 445 academics. “Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work, at a time when faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues were present. To what extent would you worry about the following consequences?” To the hypothetical “My reputation would be tarnished,” 32.68 percent answered “very concerned” and 27.27 percent answered “extremely concerned.” To the hypothetical “My career would be hurt,” 24.75 percent answered “very concerned” and 28.68 percent answered “extremely concerned.” In other words, more than half the respondents consider expressing views beyond a certain consensus in an academic setting quite dangerous to their career trajectory.

So no one should feign surprise or disbelief that academics write to me with great frequency to share their anxieties. In a three-week period early this summer, I counted some 150 of these messages. And what they reveal is a very rational culture of fear among those who dissent, even slightly, with the tenets of the woke left.

The degree of sheer worry among the people writing to me is poignant, and not just among nontenured faculty. (They write to me privately, and for that reason I will not share names.) One professor notes, “Even with tenure and authority, I worry that students could file spurious Title IX complaints … or that students could boycott me or remove me as Chair.” I have no reason to suppose that he is being dramatic, because exactly this, he says, happened to his predecessor.  

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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