“Achieving Disagreement” Inside the College Bubble

One of the best explanations for why colleges and universities seem so insane these days is offered indirectly by one of the smartest left-leaning academics of our time—Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School. An interesting old article of Sunstein’s entitled “The Law of Group Polarization,” he explains how homogenous groups of people will become more extreme the more they deliberate together, and paradoxically degrade deliberation. And there are few groups more intellectually homogeneous than a “cultural studies” department and its various disciplinary cognates these days.

Sunstein was prompted to write this paper because he was surprised at how little studied this phenomenon is. The main point, according to Sunstein: “Members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point of view in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ pre-deliberation strategy.” In other words, it is not at all to be surprised that a homogeneous group of academics concerned with the problems of racism, sexism, inequality, and so forth should, deliberating in isolation, become more extreme in their outlook, finally offering sweeping categorical generalizations that Explain Everything.

One of the implications, Sunstein went on to argue, is that “social homogeneity can be quite damaging to good deliberation. When people are hearing echoes of their own voices, the consequence may be far more than support and reinforcement. . . [P]articular forms of homogeneity can be breeding grounds for unjustified extremism, even fanaticism.” This leads, he goes on, to “social cascades. . . . The serious risk with social cascades . . . is that they lead to widespread errors, factual or otherwise.” Sunstein quotes other social scientists who warn that “the social process is polluted by the dominance of conformity.” Swap out “academic process” and “academic homogeneity” for “social process” and “social homogeneity,” and I think you have an accurate description of the causes of the campus climate today. The application of Sunstein’s analysis to higher education is conspicuously missing from his article, but I think that is no accident.

One of the problems with campus discourse is that it is so thick with specialized jargon. It is not clear any more where the need for technical or specialized terminology for a specific discipline ends and the use of jargon as a tool of gnostic obfuscation begins, but among other problems the jargon of academia today is out of place in a wider public conversation about justice and injustice, and the public good. Some of this is, as I hint, on purpose: the jargon seems to create intellectual celebrity in proportion to its distance from intelligibility. (Think Slavoj Zizek as the pre-eminent example at the present time.)

This brings me to recalling a great conservative thinker from the last generation, John Courtney Murray, who liked to say that sometimes the best—but hardest—thing you can do is “achieve disagreement.” This sounds very odd on the surface, but let him explain it more fully in his excellent book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition:

As we discourse on public affairs, on the affairs of the commonwealth, and particularly on the problem of consensus, we inevitably have to move upward, as it were, into realms of some theoretical generality—into metaphysics, ethics, theology. This movement does not carry us into disagreement; for disagreement is not an easy thing to reach. Rather, we move into confusion. Among us there is a plurality of universes of discourse. These universes are incommensurable. And when they clash, the issue of agreement or disagreement tends to become irrelevant. The immediate situation is simply one of confusion. One does not know what the other is talking about. One may distrust what the other is driving at. For this too is part of the problem—the disposition amid the confusion to disregard the immediate argument, as made, and to suspect its tendency, to wonder what the man who makes it is really driving at.

This is the pluralist society as it is encountered on the level of intellectual experience. We have no common universe of discourse. In particular, diverse mental equivalents attach to all the words in which the constitutional consensus must finally be discussed—truth, freedom, justice, prudence, order, law, authority, power, knowledge, certainty, unity, peace, virtue, morality, religion, God, and perhaps even man. Our intellectual experience is one of sheer confusion, in which soliloquy succeeds to argument.

Murray wrote this passage way back in 1960. I’d say that the problem he described is at least an order of magnitude worse in universities today.


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