Showing posts with label College. Show all posts
Showing posts with label College. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Ideological Racism of the Left


“One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting,” 
-Salman Rushdie

As a lifelong liberal I am sad to say that I no longer recognise this new strain of liberalism, one that seems infected by close-mindedness, intolerance and a severely judgmental view of everyone that does not conform to some inane and thin-skinned acid test.

It seems that as the liberal world order began to thrive across the globe in the seventies and eighties, the liberal mind grew smaller. Rather than embrace diversity of thought, the left today seems to take pride in chastising, publicly shaming and tearing down anyone whose thinking diverges even slightly from the liberal mob.

As a result, liberals come across as closed-minded, parochial and so thin skinned that they seem unable or unwilling to recognise that protecting free speech means that everyone is entitled to his or her views, no matter how vehemently we might disagree.

In 2014, Brendan Eich, Co-Founder of non-profit browser Firefox and inventor of the programming language JavaScript, was forced to step down of CEO of his company after a popular dating site called for the boycott of the browser. Mr. Eich’s unforgivable crime: he had made a single donation of $1,000 to a group that opposed gay marriage six years earlier.

Seems it did not matter that Mr. Eich was a highly qualified technology executive who had also been part of creating a company that had a history of an open and inclusive workplace, nor did it matter that there was no charge against him of discriminating against gays by bringing his political views into the workplace. He was punished simply because he had a different opinion. I disagree with his view, but I also respect that he has the right to have it.

More recently, Google, which claims to be a champion of free speech, quashed and censored the freedom for one of their employees. By firing James Damore, Google basically proved his point. His memo titled the ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’ was arguing that Google's, and more broadly, Silicon Valley’s corporate culture is wholly intolerant of conservative views. Forget the merits of Mr. Danmore’s argument in his memo. The point is that he not only has the right to hold such views, but also to openly share them without fear of persecution or prosecution, provided doing so does not break any laws or violate the first amendment, which he did not.

I have no doubt that Google’s lawyers found sound legal grounds to fire him based on some violation of their corporate policy, but a wiser course for Google, as the Economist argued, would have been for Larry Page to have written a full-throated and detailed rebuttal of Mr Damore’s argument. Google would have shown that it respects free speech, especially when it disagrees, and using data and scientific evidence could have eloquently debunked Mr. Danmore’s contention that women are inferior software engineers and programmers.

The whole point of free speech is not that bad or insensitive views and ideas will cease to exist, but that when we encounter ideas like Mr. Danmore’s, we can use more speech to defeat them with better ideas and actual evidence.

If we shut down opinions simply because we find them unkind or hurtful, we will kill free speech. We need to look at actions and not views alone; this is why expressing even the most heinous ideas or opinions publicly is protected under the first amendment. We can draw a line when such views trample on someone else’s rights, discriminate against a group or break laws.

This ideological censorship based on some group deeming something “offensive” is happening even in the media. A conservative writer, Daniella Greenbaum, resigned from Business Insider (BI) after being censored. She wrote a piece defending Scarlett Johansson playing a transgender man, arguing that the main challenge of acting is to portray someone other than oneself and that “Johansson's identity off the screen is irrelevant to the identities she plays on the screen.

Her article went through the publication’s editorial review process before it was published, but the moment it met with resistance, BI took it down. They claimed it was suddenly in violation of their editorial standards, which the article had passed earlier. Rather than take it down to placate the mob, BI should have encouraged everyone who disagreed with her to pen a rebuttal.

I call this disturbing trend, one that shuts down various points of view, ideological racism and it has become even more pervasive in the age of social media mobs. I decided to do research to try and understand how, liberals, once open-minded, thick-skinned and valiant defenders of free speech, had suddenly become so sensitive, plaintive and censorship-happy.

Over the last generation, a dangerous idea has started to take hold among students and faculty on college campuses across the country, one that suggests that speech is violence.

We are not talking about verbal threats against individuals, which are illegal and not protected by the first amendment. No, this idea of words inflicting violence refers to speech that is deemed by members of an identity group to be critical of the group, or speech that simply ‘upsets’ people. Basically, saying that if I were to give a speech on a college campus criticising Indians for not wearing deodorant (a fact), it would be considered violence against Indian students.

A few years ago, a group at Columbia University penned an Op-ed in the student newspaper calling on the school to start implementing “trigger” warnings in curricula to alert students about  potentially distressing material, even for classics like Greek mythology or Roman poetry. In 2014, students at the University of California urged the school to make trigger warnings mandatory on all class syllabi, which would require the school to issue advance alerts and allow students to skip those classes.

Recentlya Rutgers University sophomore suggested that alerts should be issued for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ to say, ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence and a Columbia student publicly complained about her professor using the word “negro”, even though he said it in a lesson about 1960s America.

Sadly, this anti-intellectual, anti-learning and anti-free speech movement has spread well-beyond classrooms and now extends to blocking all Conservative speakers, and even Liberals who don’t spout the party line, from lecturing on campus, often using the ridiculous argument that words are weapons that can cause physical harm.

Ironically, while students complain about the ‘violence’ of words, they seem to have no issue resorting to physical violence to prevent speakers from setting foot on campuses. A talk by conservative social scientist Charles Murray was violently shut down by students who physically attacked him and in the process injured a Middlebury professor who was with him. At University of California, Berkeley, once a bastion of free speech, a group with bandannas wrapped around their faces, tore down barricades, shot projectiles at police and lit a light stand on fire, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage, and succeeded in cancelling a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial far-right speaker.

Another trend contributing to this growing ideological racism has been the creation of ‘safe spaces’. The original purpose of a ‘safe space’ was narrowly defined and meant as a temporary physical space on campus for marginalised groups, often gay and transgender students, to discuss issues without abuse or public attacks. However, what was meant to be a temporary space is morphing into permanent ones for various aspects of campus life; from segregated study halls and libraries and some advocates have turned their attention to student housing, which they want to turn into safe spaces by segregating student living quarters.

Another factor is the lack of diversity within faculty. In 2016, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that has surveyed undergraduate teaching faculty for the last twenty-five years found that liberals now outnumber conservative professors, five to one. Another 2017 study by Econ Journal Watch found that faculty at the top 40 colleges, in the fields of Economics, History, Journalism/Communications, Law and Psychology were registered Democrat versus Republican by a whopping 11.5 to 1 margin. The New Yorker described this failure among our higher education institutions, now completely dominated by the left, as an unwillingness to engage with conservative thought, an aversion to debate, and a weakened commitment to free speech.

For me the main issue is that these developments defeat the main purpose of higher education, which was to open minds rather than to create conformity. Colleges are meant to challenge our thinking by introducing new ideas and exposing us to a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Instead, it seems education is now focused on creating false realities and safe echo chambers which do not prepare students for the realities of life in the real world.

Colleges are the final rite of passage between the safety and security of home and the unfairness and harshness of life.  Time there is meant to help students grow thicker skins, in part by interacting with people who have different views, backgrounds and life experiences than their own. As our world continues to shrink, having a thicker skin has become more, not less, important.

The point is not to pretend that there are no Holocaust deniers or to tell them never to engage with people with offensive views. Progress requires us to work with all types of people. We need to teach children the facts of history (good, bad and ugly) and equip them with critical thinking skills and thick skins so they can publicly debate and defeat bad ideas with better ones.

How can you change the world for the better, if you refuse to accept its ugly realities first?

Every successful democratic society requires a broad spectrum of views, thoughts and ideas to thrive and succeed. This is the point of diversity, not simply skin colour, but diverse thinking. As a brown person, I would rather someone openly hate the colour of my skin but embrace my thinking, not the other way around. If we try to mould everyone into one way of thinking, then that is the end of innovation and progress in society.

As Mr. Rushdie said, the price of free speech, and a free society, is that ugliness comes with it. If we try to close down speech we define as critical, unkind, hurtful or distasteful, then we walk away from free speech all together – there is no middle ground.

As a society we would be wise to remember that sticks and stones may break bones, but censoring words and thoughts destroys democracy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Open Letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: We will not go quietly into the night.


Image credit: www.republicdaystatus.in

Dear Mr. Modi,

I write not to celebrate your government’s demise but to say that I am gravely disappointed in you. There are many who were actively rooting for your failure, based on your RSS and Hindutva roots; to be clear these people are not rooting for India’s failure but for you to show your true saffron colours, so to speak, as you have now done.

Against my better judgement, I decided to give you a chance; not by giving you my trust but by vowing to keep an open mind. I understood that you would need to walk a tight rope, balancing your RSS constituency’s Hindutva demands and striving for double digital growth. But I gave you the benefit of doubt because I hoped you had grown wiser and understood that there can only be economic development in a democracy unhampered by religious and fanatical ideology. That there can be no innovation without inclusion. There can be no invention without free thought.  And there can be no democracy without freedom of speech, unimpeded by limitations imposed by an elected government.

India has never feigned democracy like a China or a Russia. We have always strived to be a genuine beacon of discovery, debate, discussion and dissension. Messy, corrupt, polluted and imperfect as we might be, I have always been proud to be an Indian. But I am also critical, when and where I need to be, of corruption, vote bank politics, the caste system and the fact that we remain a male dominated society even in the twenty-first century.

I once asked my father why he was always hard on me, and seemingly critical of everything I did, even though he would see my friends do much worse, and say nothing to them. He said; “Son, I care deeply about you, and how you turn out. If I am hard on you, it is only because I love you.”

Therein lies the definition of patriotism for me.

It is a relationship of a loving parent and child: always proud but also so deeply caring that it can be overly and passionately critical of all that is wrong. Do not mistake this honesty, sometimes demonstrated through anger and frustration, and even misguided sentiments, for anything more than a bid to shake up the status quo. It is the depth of this patriotic love that pushes many of us to find ways to make India better by first acknowledging our faults and shining a bright light on our government's flaws. 

You would do well to remember that patriotism is NOT blind love and devotion for one’s country or government. That is the definition of dictatorship and has all the trappings of an oppressed society where citizens are too fearful to express themselves.

And no Indian requires a certificate of patriotism from your government or any other. If I choose not to stand during the national anthem in protest, that is my right. If I choose to compare my Prime Minister to Hitler, in a social media cartoon, that is also my right. There are laws and there is freedom of expression; do not muddy the two.

So far I have held my tongue, but your government's actions on the JNU campus are a disgrace to India and to the democratic principles my forebears spilled their blood to earn. The BJP’s use of archaic laws, those once used by our oppressors, to arrest faculty and students is a step too far.

Our nation must recognize this growing abuse of power, this attempt to erode basic freedoms. To that end, I have adapted below words Churchill used when he and Britain also faced great adversity and the greatest threat to their way of life. 

Even though large tracts of India and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the BJP and all the odious apparatus of RSS rule, we shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end; we shall fight in Gujarat,
We shall fight from the Himalayas down to Kanyakumari,
We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in social media, we shall defend our freedom of speech, of thought and our Mathrubhumi whatever the cost may be,
We shall fight on college campuses,
We shall fight on the farm lands,
We shall fight in the judiciary and with the ballot box,
We shall fight in the halls of parliament and use the power of the press;
We shall never surrender to Hindutva…Jai Hind!*

Sincerely,
A patriotic and ‘anti-national’ Indian

*Credit: Indianised version of Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech delivered to the House of Commons, 4 June 1940

Friday, December 5, 2014

On Education: Why Peter Thiel and Vivek Wadhwa Are Both Wrong.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela 

You may have read an opinion piece by Peter Thiel that lambasts the traditional four year college (“Thinking too highly of higher ed”) calling it an elitist tournament that “bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists.” Some years ago Mr. Thiel famously offered students $100,000 to drop out of college to start a company; since then he has been trying to hasten and also championing the demise of traditional education. On the other side of the argument, Vivek Wadhwa penned an Op-ed, also in the Washington Post, defending college education as we know it today (“In defense of college: What Peter Thiel gets wrong, once again”). He cites numerous studies about how college educated workers earn many times more than their peers without degrees. He purports that Mr. Thiel’s formula would lead us in a race to the bottom. 

The problem is that both men are completely wrong. 

The issue lies in this same absolutism that we seem to have generally embraced as a society. It comes in large part from a totally broken political system in Washington. One that has permeated into the media; with pundits from both sides having raucous debates on every issue, always with black and white viewpoints and never agreeing on anything at all. Sure, it is great for ratings because it is much more fun to watch but it is lousy for progress and keeping America competitive for the next century – which will require collaboration and ideas from all sides of the political and individual spectrum. The same seems to hold true for debates in the business world today. Whether it is the abhorrent behaviour of an Uber senior manager or the growing cacophony of women claiming that Bill Cosby drugged and raped them, we inevitably have two sides emerge, both firmly entrenched in their positions and refusing to budge. Both citing anecdotal and statistical evidence to make their individual cases. The end result is that we never reach consensus and most times the perpetrators walk away without facing any real consequences for their actions (other than a social media battering or outpouring of support). The net result is that we learn nothing and nothing changes. 

In fact, it feels like compromise has become a bad word. To suggest it is deemed as a sign of weakness rather than seen as a positive way to find a better solution - one that takes into account both viewpoints and finds the BEST path forward. Here, I stress the best path and not the one of least resistance or one that appeals to the lowest common denominator, by trying to satisfy all sides. The point is that nobody has a monopoly on great ideas – democrat, lesbian, republican, entrepreneur, African American, corporate executive, short, tall, illegal immigrant or college professor – we need to take the best ideas from across the spectrum to find the most innovative solutions to the problems we face today. Having a position, and getting entrenched without being able to listen to those who oppose our position will never allow us to make progress. Also, consider that many entrenched positions are driven by purely political ideology versus substantive data or genuine objectivity. 

In this instance I would suggest that each man has merits to his arguments, but neither is right on the merits of his alone. If we were to combine their contentions, we might start with the premise that the education system in the US is broken. Granted, pre-college education seems much more broken than higher education, but this is in large part due to the fact that it has received far more attention and been the focus of both political parties and many interest groups. However, when parents stop having a second child purely because of the cost of a private school and the ability to send a second kid to a top tier college would be cost-prohibitive, I would say we have a problem that needs to be fixed. 

Mr. Thiel is right when he states that the education system today designed to make us all conform. From the first time we step into a classroom we begin the process of removing creative, independent thought and courageous risk-taking behaviour from our wild and imaginative little minds. We are taught to act, speak and think in a certain way rather than to explore our imaginations in ways that expand our little boundaries without ever suppressing bold and unconventional thinking. On the other hand Mr. Wadhwa is also right when he argues that we learn invaluable real world skills in college, beyond what comes out of a textbook. It is in college that we are away from our parents and fending for ourselves for the first time. Sharing a room and learning to negotiate, resolve differences and get along with perfect strangers. It is the first time many of us have had to step outside our little bubble and deal with people with whom we may have nothing in common. We also taste untethered freedom for the first time, and need to learn how to balance it with studies. We learn to deal with professors, select classes, make a schedule and figure out how to be accepted into various social circles. Most importantly it gives us time to figure out how to become adults before we have to face big bad world of responsibilities and mortgages. 

I would also go further and say that college, in the traditional four year format is not for everyone, but we cannot simply write it off as completely redundant for this reason alone, as Mr. Thiel suggests we do. What I am saying is that the premise of pre-college education should be based on teaching us valuable inter-personal skills to help us survive, but also ensure that our curious little minds get the opportunity to explore a world we did not know existed and barely imagined; from mathematics to woodwork and Shakespeare to swimming – we should stop trying to box kids into neat little squares and expect them all to become monochromatic adults. Based on this premise, if we were to re-think higher education in the same vein then we would imagine a world where it consisted of various different types of courses based on passions that have peaked during the early school formative years. We could have some kids coming out of school wanting to become mechanics, woodworkers or electricians and they can attend a two or five year specialized skills based training program that would involve job placements. Equally, we may have a bunch passionate about law, engineering or business. And finally we may have another set of people who have no idea what they want to be and attend a newly designed curriculum that exposes them to everything from business to the arts, and a host of other things. 

The point is that if we can get Mr. Wadhwa and Mr. Thiel to sit down and start to envision new ideas and ways to get kids ready for this brave new world then we will likely end up with an amazing starting roadmap to fix our broken system. But as long as they refuse to acknowledge the realities, positive and negative, and remain invested in protecting or tearing down their status quo, our kids will continue to suffer and nothing will change.