Election Imperatives: Ten Recommendations to Increase College Student Voting and Improve Political Learning and Engagement in Democracy

I’m on vacation and not blogging, but I’m proud to help circulate a major new report from our Institute for Democracy & Higher Education entitled Election Imperatives. It recommends 10 strategies that colleges and universities should implement to improve political participation on college campuses in 2018 and beyond. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an exclusive story on it this morning. More than a dozen national organizations are endorsing and disseminating the report, and you can see that list here. There is also a nice video gif of the report with photos.

Here are the 10 headings, but you have to consult the report to understand them fully:

  1. Reflect on past elections and reimagine 2018
  2. Remove barriers to student voting
  3. Develop informed voters
  4. Establish a permanent and inclusive coalition to improve the climate for learning and participation
  5. Increase and improve classroom issue discussions across disciplines
  6. Support student activism and leadership
  7. Empower students to create a buzz around the election
  8. Invest in the right kind of training
  9. Talk politics across campus
  10. Involve faculty across disciplines in elections

the new Two Cultures

In 1959, C.P. Snow thought he observed “two cultures” in universities and intellectual life. “At one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

As evidence, he cited the fact that humanists would privately decry the “illiteracy of scientists,” yet when Snow asked them to define the Second Law of Thermodynamics, “the response [would be] cold and … also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

Conjecture: today many humanists and “literary intellectuals” would acknowledge that they have never read Shakespeare–or at least not since a high school English assignment that has no bearing on their interests. This would not be embarrassing. Many people in many disciplines may still have to look up the Second Law of Thermodynamics (now easily done, on their phones). But a different “gulf of mutual incomprehension” runs through the university today.

At one pole are researchers who are generally optimistic that technology (broadly defined) can solve problems. They think that once we’ve found a good technical solution, it should go to market so it can reach many people. Therefore, it’s appropriate for corporations and wealthy individuals to fund research, for research to move from universities to firms, and for the government to support and even to subsidize all of that.

At the opposite pole are scholars who perceive technology as a threat to cultures and nature, who critically assess market capitalism, and who see a government that supports it as the neoliberal state, captured by business.

The first pole is anchored in business schools, engineering schools, and other applied science disciplines, but it has adherents in many fields. The second pole is anchored in the cultural disciplines within the humanities, but it attracts support from some social scientists and pure natural scientists. The gulf runs right through fields such as education and public policy.

And between the two, C.P. Snow’s “mutual incomprehension.” Also, I think, a degree of disapproval is directed in both directions. If you’re at the technology-solves-problems pole, you may think that public-spirited researchers invent tools that help people and make sure that those tools are used. Spending one’s time reading and writing books may seem self-indulgent. If you’re at the opposite pole, you may think that a scholar of integrity is independent and critical of the major institutions of the society.

In one way, though, the situation is asymmetrical. I think that almost everyone realizes that universities produce pharmaceuticals, algorithms, hardware breakthroughs, materials, and a range of other products that ultimately get bought. But the critical end of the pole is sometimes invisible. Some technologists are unaware that there’s a critique of technological capitalism underway in their own universities. And humanists are partly responsible for their own invisibility, because they don’t engage the public debate effectively.

See also: college and the contradictions of capitalismwhat are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists)the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)does naturalism make room for the humanities?innovation in technology and the humanities.

the politics of student debt

When Democratic political candidates are asked about “youth,” often the first issue that comes to their minds is college affordability. For example, when Hillary Clinton was asked during a Democratic primary debate about how she would reach Millennials, her whole answer was about student debt.

I agree that student debt is a problem, but it’s not nearly as widespread as politicians assume. Nearly half of the debt is held by families in the top quartile, and for less advantaged younger Americans, student debt is only one of many challenges. Therefore, a much broader policy agenda is needed to engage the younger generation as a whole.

According to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, 42% of Millennials say that they or anyone else in their household holds student debt. Pew reports that 37% of 18-29s hold student debt in their own names. That is a lot of people, but not a majority.

Forty percent of Millennials do not take any college courses at all (whether in community colleges or four-year institutions). They don’t have college debt, and their immediate economic problems may be quite different: the minimum wage, daycare, job training, GED options.

Another 38 percent enroll in college but don’t attain a BA. They have mixed experiences. Some of them incur debt but don’t hold degrees. However, according to Sandy Baum and Martha Johnson, 60% of graduates of public community colleges hold no student debt. They have Associates Degrees and are debt-free. Most of the people who borrow to obtain a 2-year degree attend for-profit institutions, and that’s a problem unto itself.

[Graph corrected on April 21]

The proportions of all adults who report holding student debt is pretty steady across all income levels. (Source: Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan for the Urban Institute.)

But the loans get bigger as you go up the income ladder. Ratcliffe and McKernan report that people in the top quartile are least worried about their ability to repay their debt, yet they hold almost half of the dollars owed.

Similarly, Pew reports, “About two-thirds of young college graduates with student loans (65%) live in families earning at least $50,000, compared with 40% of those without a bachelor’s degree.”

It should not be surprising that the more education you attain, the higher your debt. This also means that the people with the most debt are young adults in white-collar professions. They may be struggling, and I am fully sympathetic to them, but they represent the upper socio-economic stratum.
Median amount of outstanding student debt varies widely by education level

It would therefore be difficult to spend public money reducing debt without channeling most of the resources to upper-income young adults.

More youth regard debt as a problem than personally hold debt. Fifty-seven percent tell Pew that “student debt is a major problem for young people in the United States.” One reason may be that the prospect of debt deters people from pursuing college at all (or keeps them from pursuing more costly four-year and postgraduate degrees). In that case, college affordability and debt would be challenges for more than the 35%-40% of Millennials who actually hold debt.

But it’s a big assumption that the main reason people don’t pursue college degrees is the cost of tuition. About 41% of 31-year olds have no more than a high school diploma. The next step up the SES ladder for them would be an Associates Degree, and 60% of people who graduate from public community colleges have no debt. There may be many reasons 41% of young adults can’t get Associates Degrees–and they may not even want one–but tuition is not likely the main obstacle.

I’d be the last person to criticize reforms that make college more affordable. I just don’t think that this is the Rosetta Stone to the Millennial vote.

new Civic Studies major at Tufts

Yesterday, the Tufts Faculty of Arts & Sciences approved our proposal for a new major in Civic Studies, the first in the world. It will begin next fall, and I’ll co-teach the new introductory course with my colleagues Erin Kelly (Philosophy) and Yannis Evrigenis (Political Science). Here are the relevant portions of the proposal that passed yesterday:

Curriculum Proposal: Civic Studies

“We see before us an emerging civic politics, along with an emerging intellectual community, a field, and a discipline. Its work is to understand and strengthen civic politics, civic initiatives, civic capacity, civic society and civic culture.…and to contribute to an emerging global movement of civic renewal.” — Harry Boyte, Stephen Elkin, Peter Levine, Jane Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, Karol So?tan, and Rogers Smith, “Framing Statement for Civic Studies,” 2007

Civic Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that focuses on critical reflection, ethical thinking, and action for social change, within and between societies. People who think and act together to improve society must address problems of collective action (how to get members to work together) and deliberation (how to reason together about contested values). They must understand how power is organized and how it operates within and between societies. They must grapple with social conflict, violence, and other obstacles to peaceful cooperation. They will consider questions of justice and fairness when social tensions arise, and they must confront questions about appropriate relationships to outsiders of all types. This includes examining alternative ethical, political, and theological frameworks to encourage comparative reflection about different ways in which people live together in society.

The focus on civil society contrasts with state-centric approaches. It includes the study of collective action in social spheres that, while organized, may not be institutionalized or otherwise sanctioned by the state, and it highlights the perspective of individual and group agents.  Thus civic studies considers phenomena that are central to other disciplines—governments, law, markets, societies, cultures, and networks—but from the distinctive perspective of civic agents, that is, individuals and groups who think together and act cooperatively. It includes principles and vantage points civic agents may use to evaluate existing social norms, institutions, governments, and ideologies. In these and other ways, Civic Studies brings critical scrutiny to status quo norms of social order.

Civic Studies is more than citizenship studies. Civic agents include citizens, disenfranchised or colonized groups, temporary residents, undocumented migrants, refugees, and members of other societies acting across borders. Civic Studies engages with the importance of a society’s criteria of membership, as well as the logic and dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, hierarchy and subordination, across social groups. It subjects social dynamics to empirical study and normative evaluation, with the aim of understanding how to challenge unjust inequalities and to enhance just forms of social inclusion.

Normative reflection, ethical analysis, empirical understanding, historical perspective, and the development of practical skills are all important to the study of social and political conflict, and for developing cooperative strategies to enable positive social change. Civic Studies brings those modes of learning together to deepen our understanding of social criticism and action for social change as well as the circumstances that give rise to a need for it. The major’s classroom and experiential learning requirements would enable students to explore the theory and practice of critical reflection and just social change.

A Peace and Justice Studies track within the Civic Studies major provides a special focus within Civic Studies for learning about the causes and effects of violence, and for developing nonviolent strategies for conflict resolution and just social transformation. A minor in Peace and Justice Studies is also available to students who are particularly interested in studying violence and alternatives to it.

In sum, a major in Civic Studies [will] continue from the Tufts Peace and Justice Studies major the following core commitments: a combination of classroom-based and experiential learning; normative analysis and critical scrutiny of claims about justice; an explicit focus on conflict and possibilities for resolving it, and the development of skills useful in nonprofits, governments, community groups, and social movements. We believe the intellectual content of Civic Studies is exciting and the curriculum distinctive, highlighting strengths of Tufts University.

The proposed requirements for the Civic Studies major are 11 courses distributed as follows:

  1. CVS 0010—Introduction to Civic Studies
  2. Thinking about Justice: two courses in political theory, philosophy, or social theory devoted to normative questions about the nature and content of justice. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Examples are listed in the proposal. E.g., PS 41: Western Political Thought I and II; REL 43: Asian Religions; HIST 129: Black Political Thought in the 20th century]
  3. Social Conflict and Violence: Two courses to enhance an empirical understanding of the historical, political, and social origins of conflict and violence. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Among others: SOC 94: Sociology of Violence; PS 138-01: Political Violence in State and Society; PSY 136: Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination]
  4. Civic Action and Social Movements: Two courses dealing with the historical, ethical, and social origins of organized movements for social change. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Among others: CH 109: Community Action and Social Movements in Public Health; ANTH 0146: Global Feminisms]
  5. Civic Skills: two courses that focus on civic skills or civic practices, e.g., dialogue and deliberation, ethical reasoning, emotional intelligence, conflict-mediation and peacemaking, community-based research, communication and media-making, public art, community organizing, evaluating nonprofits, or financing social enterprises. [Among others: UEP 194: Technology, Media, and the City; ELS 193: Social Entrepreneurship, Policy, and Systems Change; VISC 145/AMER 94, which is a course taught in state prison]
  6. CVS 099: A required internship. This includes a weekly 2.5 hour class with graded assignments and a final project. (3 SHUs)
  7. CVS 190: A capstone seminar taught by a CVS affiliated faculty member.(3 SHUs)

Total: 11 courses

differences in voting by major

My colleague Inger Bergom has a piece in The Conversation with  entitled “Why don’t STEM majors vote as much as others?” They are analyzing data from the two million college students who are included in our National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement at Tisch College.

The raw correlations between college majors and voting rates are pretty substantial. In 2016, more than half of all education majors voted (53.5%), which was more than 7 points ahead of the rate for business students.

But majors attract different demographic groups. For example, women vote at somewhat higher rates than men. If more education majors were men, the turnout rates in education programs would fall. By the same token, STEM turnout would rise if STEM majors recruited more women. However, education majors would still be ahead.

Once you zero in on major, race and gender together, you see some interesting patterns. African American women who major in education voted at a 58% rate in 2016, well over double the rate of Asian-American men who majored in business.

Self-selection must be part of the story: people who are more interested in the kinds of issues that arise in politics may also enroll in majors like education. Still, there is room to improve the civic education that STEM and business majors experience.

why study social justice?

I just finished teaching a philosophy course in which the primary question was “How should I live?” We spent some time reading and thinking about personal and internal questions, such as what constitutes happiness and truthfulness and whether those are possible and desirable states. We also talked about political justice, reading a fairly standard canon of Mill, Rawls, Nozick, and Scanlon, plus Bayard Rustin, Kwasi Wiredu, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Steve Biko, Audre Lorde, and Susan Bickford. The premise of those readings was that it might be important to know what justice is when choosing how to live a good life.

Meanwhile, my students were introspecting about the principles that guide their lives and how those principles are organized into networks of moral ideas.

The students, as they recognize, emphasize attitudes toward concrete other people in their lives plus values related to learning: empathy, openness, and hard work. The kinds of ideals that figure in political theory–liberty, equality, welfare, and democracy–are mostly absent or marginal from their maps of their own animating ideals.

They offered several explanations for this gap between what I’d assigned and what they perceived when they looked inward. Some thought it was evidence of their own privilege: they don’t have to think about freedom because they take it for granted. (For the same reason, they don’t list “having enough to eat” as a guiding principle.) Others thought their introspective maps were developmentally appropriate: their job right now is to learn and revise their views, not to hold onto principles. Some were skeptical about the validity of any abstract principles of justice. And some thought that their own views reflected political discouragement or disenfranchisement at a hard time in our history. They don’t strive directly for democracy because they don’t believe that they can.

The question arises, Why should we study and conduct research on justice? Why should justice be part of any curriculum, and specifically a curriculum whose leading question is about the good life for the individual students?

I think my colleagues in academia (writ large) would divide on that question.

For some academics, justice seems irrelevant to their professional work or is a mere matter of opinion. “Who decides what’s good or bad?” is a frequent question. It suggests that we scholars and students shouldn’t try to define justice and defend our stances in academic contexts, publications and classrooms. The most we should do is to study and explain why various populations define justice in various ways.

For some academics, commitment to justice is measured by the degree of one’s distaste for the prevailing political and economic system. The way to assess whether a colleague is oriented to justice is to see how strongly she or he opposes the status quo. One way to demonstrate such opposition is to study various concrete forms of injustice. Thus justice-oriented scholars are those who investigate and teach situations that should be abhorred.

By this standard, my curriculum would be deficient, since we did not go deeply into the empirical facts about poverty, racism, or tyranny. Moreover, we read authors chosen for their divergent views. By the time you see that Hayek and Nozick would like less government than we have, and Rawls and Scanlon would like more, you could perhaps conclude that we have about the right amount of government. I’m not saying that splitting the difference would be valid logic, but the question is whether ideological diversity might have the psychological effect of making students confused or complacent.

I belong to a third category of academics, for whom being seriously concerned with justice means asking what it is and what we can do to promote it. Both parts of that question are topics for research. One can study what justice is by critically investigating the available theories and their relationship to concrete facts. One can also study strategies and tactics for promoting justice. Those two topics intersect, because a goal without any plausible strategy is not much of a goal; and a strategy without a defensible account of its purpose is not worth undertaking. I criticize what’s called “ideal theory” in political philosophy because its focus on end states–without serious consideration of strategy–yields misleading results.

Speaking of privilege, I am privileged to move across communities with quite different ideological centers. One day recently, I was at a conference where libertarian economists were well represented and may have predominated. A speaker showed a photo of FDR and said something like, “Since we’re all classical liberals, I can count on you to hate this guy.” I suspect the speaker overestimated the ideological uniformity of his audience; I may have had some company in deeply admiring Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it was certainly a different context from the Tufts classroom where, on the very next day, we discussed this fascinating exchange between Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones about how to diagnose and address racial injustice in America. The center of gravity in that room lay somewhere between Clinton and Jones, with only one student openly asking whether the assumption that those two people share–that America is deeply racist–is a given.

The disadvantage of posing the question “what is justice?” in a truly open way is that one can discourage action. For instance, I think that the pending tax bill is awful, but I also have questions about some arguments against it. There’s a strong equity-based argument for curtailing the charitable tax deduction, and there’s even a case that the Republicans have generated new federal revenues while passing a deeply unpopular tax cut for the upper stratum, which is likely to be repealed. The net result, as early as 2019, may be a larger stream of revenue than would have had been possible without this bill. But making such critical points (if anyone paid attention) could dampen enthusiasm for the opposition, and there’s a plausible case that the tax bill is on its way to passage because of relatively weak popular opposition. I wouldn’t want to undermine anyone’s motivation to protest by posing awkward questions.

The advantage, of course, is learning. I feel challenged and enriched by the conference at which libertarians were well represented. I think I understand better the relative advantages and disadvantages of three ways of understanding what works in the real world: talking with people, conducting scientific research on impact, and observing price signals. The last category is valuable for reasons that you won’t notice if you hang around all the time with lefties.

In the end, we need both commitment and critical analysis, both true openness to alternative views and effective, coordinated action. We need utopian vistas and hard-nosed tactics. The balance is very hard, but there must be at least a place for abstract and dispassionate inquiry into the nature of justice.

[See also: social justice should not be a clichéwe are for social justice, but what is it?a method of mapping moral commitments as networks.]

revisiting the Port Huron Statement’s focus on universities

(en route to Michigan) The Port Huron Statement (1962) inaugurated the New Left. I had forgotten that it concludes with an argument that universities are the most promising sites of social change. It’s interesting to revisit that argument 55 years later.

The statement is written in opposition to a “dominating complex of corporate, military, and political power.” It defines the Republican/Dixiecrat coalition as “the weakest point” in that complex, vulnerable to political opposition. In our time, someone writing a similarly radical manifesto might target the neoliberal political coalition in Congress, which often includes mainstream Republicans and moderate Democrats. Despite partisan polarization that makes Congress ineffective, this coalition musters majorities for policies that neoliberals like and that radicals oppose.

“But” says the statement, “the civil rights, peace, and student movements are too poor and socially slighted, and the labor movement too quiescent, to be counted with enthusiasm. From where else can power and vision be summoned? We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence.”

This would be like saying in 2017 that #Blacklivesmatter, #Occupy, and the #Dreamers lack the resources to challenge the ruling coalition–and labor is too moderate–so social change should start in universities.

That seems an implausible claim on its face, but the Statement offers reasons:

First, the university is located in a permanent position of social influence. Its educational function makes it indispensable and automatically makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes. Second, in an unbelievably complicated world, it is the central institution for organizing, evaluating and transmitting knowledge. Third, the extent to which academic resources presently are used to buttress immoral social practice is revealed [by the way defense contractors and corporations rely on academia for technical research].

The Statement acknowledges the university’s serious limitations but adds even more reasons to focus there:

Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. … A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. … A new left must consist of younger people … A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. … A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond. … A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close up by every human being. … The university is a relevant place for all of these activities.

Reflecting on this argument in 2017, I’d propose:

  1. Quite a few people still think this way. In particular, they continue to see social movements, labor, and the universities as the promising sites of radical change, but they believe that the first two are too weak or quiescent. Political parties and campaigns, municipal governments, and working-class cultural movements are resources that seem to be overlooked, then and now.
  2. You don’t have to be paranoid to be concerned about the ideological capture of the university, if you are a conservative. That was an explicit proposal of a hugely influential document in 1962.
  3. Some reasons that the university resists the ideals of the Port Huron Statement are unfortunate: e.g., the influence of Big Money on research. But the university also resists these ideals because of worthy principles: independence, nonpartisanship, and intellectual diversity. (On the other hand, a friendly reading of the Port Huron Statement would conclude that its authors liked robust, untrammeled, and diverse debate.)
  4. It’s interesting to read this document in conjunction with recent and widely-publicized research by Kyle Dodson, who finds that students’ interactions with faculty tend to moderate their political opinions, but participation in student-led groups makes them more radical. The Port Huron Statement, of course, was written by students, not by faculty. Perhaps it prefigures today’s student organizing but not the current curriculum.

college student voting rose in 2016

Today, my colleagues at Tisch College’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education have released their national study of college students’ voting, based on the voting records of 9,784,931 students at 1,023 higher education institutions.  The team finds a national college turnout rate of 48.3% in the 2016 presidential election, up from 45.1% in 2012, with significant variations by race, gender, field of study, and institution type. Women voted at rates about seven points above men in both years. (It’s interesting that the dynamics of the 2016 campaign didn’t change that pattern.) Asians and Latinos increased their turnout substantially. African Americans’ turnout slipped from a high baseline in 2012.

  • Here is the full national report.
  • This is an interactive portal where you can explore the data yourself.
  • The team also sent individual reports to 1,005 colleges, with their own turnout data broken down as much as possible by students’ demographics and fields of study.
  • On NPR, Danielle Kurtzleben covers the release in a story headlined, “2016 Voter Turnout Dropped At HBCUs, Climbed At Women’s Colleges, Study Finds.”

assessment criteria for participation in a seminar

Thinking that I should be explicit about how I define good participation in a seminar that I’m teaching, I circulated these eight criteria:

  • Being responsive to other students. (Responsiveness needn’t always be immediate, verbal, or occur within the class discussion itself.)
  • Building on others’ contributions, and sometimes making links among different people’s contributions or between what they have said and the text.
  • Demonstrating genuine respect for the others, where respect does not require agreement. (In fact, sometimes respect requires explicit disagreement because you take the other person’s ideas seriously.)
  • Focusing on the topic and the texts, which does not preclude drawing unexpected connections beyond them.
  • Taking risks, trying out ideas that you don’t necessarily endorse, and asking questions that might be perceived as naive or uninformed.
  • Seeking truth or clarity or insight (instead of other objectives).
  • Exercising freedom of speech along with a degree of tact and concern for the other people.
  • Demonstrating responsibility for the other students’ learning in what you say (and occasionally by a decision not to speak).

Students also privately wrote how they will assess themselves. Their assessments will be for their reflection alone–I won’t ever see them.

See also: responsiveness as a virtuewhat makes conversation go well (a network model); and network dynamics in conversation.

science, law, and microagressions

We live and work in settings that are diverse but unequal. Opportunities and outcomes can often be predicted on the basis of race/ethnicity, culture and religion, gender and sexual orientation, and class background. In these settings, we communicate constantly. Some of our communications are blatantly inappropriate, threatening the recipients or intentionally and obviously making them feel unwelcome and inferior. Some are acceptable or even helpful. And in between, some are arguably problematic. They are being called “microaggressions“–“aggressions,” because they are wrong; and “micro-” because they are not blatantly or clearly objectionable when taken one at a time.

One problem with them is that they may combine with many similar statements to create an overall environment that prevents people from flourishing and succeeding. Another problem is that they are simply unethical. Even if a given aggression contributes no harm at all, it is not what a person should say to another person.

Our culture is uncomfortable with ethical distinctions. Even children are taught that ethical claims are opinions in contrast to facts. We are quick to see explicitly ethical claims as subjective and biased. To criticize another person’s expression on ethical grounds seems arrogant, judgmental, and a possible threat to liberty.

In contrast, two major forms of reasoning are confident and widely viewed as legitimate: science and law. So there is a constant temptation to convert an ethical discussion about what is right into a science-like or law-like analysis.

For instance, in Aeon recently, the psychology professor Scott O Lilienfeld wrote that all policies and programs that target microagressions

hinge on one overarching assumption: that the microaggression research programme aimed at documenting the phenomenon is sound, and that the concept itself has withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is not the case. Microaggressions have not been defined with nearly enough clarity and consensus to allow rigorous scientific investigation. No one has shown that they are interpreted negatively by all or even most minority groups. No one has demonstrated that they reflect implicit prejudice or aggression. And no one has shown that microaggressions exert an adverse impact on mental health.

Lilienfeld concludes, “Until the evidence is in …, I recommend abandoning the term microaggression, which is potentially misleading. In addition, I call for a moratorium on microaggression training programmes and publicly distributed microaggression lists now widespread in the college and business worlds.”

I agree that it would be useful to know more about the consequences of definable categories of communication. The consequences of any form of speech will vary depending on the situation, the speaker, the recipient, etc. There won’t be one empirical finding about microagressions, but there may be many useful findings.

Still, note the assumptions that underlie this call for a scientific approach:

  1. A given act (in this case, a speech-act) should be criticized if, and only if, it causes a measurable harm. Moral philosophers would call this assumption “consequentialism.”
  2. Categories of behavior can be usefully abstracted from contexts and defined with necessary and sufficient conditions. This reasoning uses what Jonathan Dancy [in Moral Reasons, 1993, p. 65] calls “switching arguments”–arguments that isolate a given feature of a situation and assume that if it has a moral significance in its original context, it must have the same significance when the context is “switched” to another one. 

These are controversial positions. Kantians, virtue-ethicists, and others dispute consequentialism for various reasons, holding that an act can be right or wrong regardless of its causal impact. And particularists deny the validity of “switching arguments,” on the basis that a given feature can change its moral significance depending on the context. They criticize what Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

I don’t want to litigate those debates here, but merely to suggest that a scientific investigation of microaggressions makes strong assumptions about what should matter ethically. Those assumptions violate many ordinary people’s intuitions and ways of reasoning about what is right.

Meanwhile, legalistic reasoning influences the discourse of microaggressions. It’s not that critics want to make these acts literally illegal, but they introduce legal-sounding analysis. A microaggression deserves some kind of disciplinary intervention–perhaps not a punishment, but at least an authoritative statement that the speech is inappropriate in its context. A teacher or other authority figure who fails to intervene can be held responsible for creating a hostile environment.

But disciplinary responses threaten other values: freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, authentic expression of privately held views, and freedom from arbitrary judgments. Jesse Singal thinks that “microaggressions are being defined so broadly and so subjectively that students who are exposed to them are likely to come away very, very confused about what constitutes acceptable speech on campus — and campus disciplinary systems could get seriously gummed up in the years to come.” Thus we feel the pressure to introduce regular rules and policies that strike the appropriate balance and are predictable. Rule by people is to be replaced by rule of law.

Jürgen Habermas laments the tendency to “juridify” or “judicialize” what he calls the “Lifeworld.” For instance, when well-intentioned governments seek to protect pupils and parents against unfairness in testing and discipline, he writes, fairness “is gained at the cost of a judicialization and bureaucratization that penetrates deep into the teaching and learning process,” depersonalizing the school, inhibiting innovation, and undermining relationships [Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2, p. 371.] Habermas reads the New Social Movements that have arisen since the 1970s–both on the right and the left–as efforts to protect the authenticity of the everyday Lifeworld from both the market and the intrusive welfare-state. It is an ironic outcome when these movements ultimately “juridify” such contexts as classrooms by turning ethical judgments into legalistic arguments. For example, some people cut their teeth in liberatory social movements but end up as diversity & inclusion specialists inside institutions, writing empirical papers (science) and establishing policies (law).

I am inclined to agree with Habermas that the underlying process is specialization. In large and technically complex modern societies, it pays to differentiate one’s expertise and authority. Constantly increasing specialization is thus a fundamental process of modernity. [Ibid. p. 374]. Science and law are two categories of specialization, each endlessly ramifying into sub-specialties. They seek legitimacy and often obtain it. Lilienfeld’s review of psychological research is an example of a scientist asserting authority on the basis of expertise.

Science and law are sometimes in tension. Behavioral scientists may argue that laws lack empirical basis; lawyers may block empirically justifiable rules on constitutional grounds. But these two systems also easily interlock. For instance, both disciplines need to categorize behavior and draw causal implications. 

Science and law offer important checks on the kinds of judgments that we may reach intuitively in ordinary life. When we assert that a given statement has (or does not have) effects on specific individuals, that is a causal claim that must stand up to scientific scrutiny. When we make a judgment about an individual’s speech, we should check it against general principles that would block favoritism and arbitrariness.

But these two limited forms of reasoning can distort or block ethical judgment–as when Lilienfeld uses the lack of scientific evidence to support a “moratorium” on the use of the word “microagression,” even though that is ultimately an ethical category. The imposition of law and science can overwhelm the following values:

  • Responsibility: We are obligated to make judgments about speech, our own and others’. We can’t offload responsibility onto bureaucratic or scientific systems.
  • Judgment and discretion: There is no algorithm that can settle subtle cases. It is up to the moral agent to decide, under circumstances of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. Discretion cuts two ways, sometimes requiring us to excuse behavior that violates policies or that has negative effects, and sometimes requiring us to condemn behavior that is allowable and inconsequential.
  • Holism: Good judgment requires concern for the whole individual, the whole situation, and the whole community.
  • Relationships: Ultimately, what matters are relationships among differently situated human beings. Relationships are affective as well as rational, embodied as well as communicative, implicit as well as explicit, and prolonged over time.

See also: morality in psychotherapy; insanity and evil: two paradigmsprotecting authentic human interaction;  is all truth scientific truth?free speech at a university; and don’t confuse bias and judgment.