“Conservative Thought” or “Bigotry”? A Conservative Professor Makes Waves

Is it “conservative” or “bigoted” to express skepticism toward sensitivity training about transgender people? About sexual-harassment investigations?

Steven Hayward finds himself facing these questions as he completes his one-year position as visiting professor of conservative thought at the famously left-leaning University of Colorado at Boulder. ILYBYGTH readers may remember the program that brought Hayward out to Boulder. Conservative critics of the university had complained that the school did not include any conservative intellectual presence. As a result, outside political pressure pushed through the program to welcome a series of one-year visiting professors to the campus. The hope was that these prominent conservative intellectuals would spark debate and a more profound sense of intellectual diversity.

Steven Hayward

Steven Hayward

Predictably, the sparks have begun flying. Hayward has been accused of bigotry. His representations of conservative thought, he has charged, have been said to “‘border’ on ‘hate speech.’” In response, Hayward declared, “they’re welcome to fire me if they want.”

What’s the issue? Hayward publicly questioned university policies about sexual harassment and gender sensitivity training. In an interview and an editorial a few weeks back, Hayward asked if the CU philosophy department was really guilty of sexual harassment. In his editorial, Hayward compared the investigation to a witch hunt:

Unquestionably philosophy is among of the most male-dominated disciplines in universities today, but inviting outside review by the American Philosophical Association’s (APA) Committee on the Status of Women was guaranteed to produce a finding as predictable as the Salem Committee to Investigate Witchcraft in 1691. The irony of this situation is the unacknowledged reversal of the presumption of “privilege” that was at the heart of the original (and justified) feminist complaint about sexism a generation ago. While it may still be justified in the case of academic philosophy, it should not be beyond question whether mere statistical “underrepresentation” should be regarded as prima facie evidence of guilt, and therefore allowing the APA report to assert damning findings about the whole department while disclosing virtually no concrete facts.

And recently, Hayward poked fun at campus sensitivity trainings. New faculty at Boulder, as at many college campuses, must attend a session geared toward increasing their awareness about transgender sensitivity. What pronouns should we use when addressing students? How can we avoid unintentional offense to those who do not fit into neat traditional gender divisions? Hayward dismissed this sort of training as “gender-self-identification whim-wham.”

Students reacted with predictable fury. “Bigotry is not diversity,” proclaimed student editorialists Chris Schaefbauer and Caitlin Pratt. In Hayward’s breezy dismissal of the complaints of sexual harassment in the philosophy department, Schaefbauer and Pratt charged, he engaged in the worst sorts of “victim-blaming.” In his dismissive comments about sensitivity toward gender-identity issues, Hayward “invalidate[d] the lived realities of transgender individuals and mock[ed] the LGBTQ community as a whole.”

The kerfuffle has raised some important questions about intellectual diversity and culture-war politics. Is it possible for a university to include a diversity of opinions? Or is there a need for inclusive environments to police any ideas that challenge that sense of inclusivity?

As we’ve seen recently with the case of Brendan Eich at Mozilla, some issues seem to include less wiggle-room than others. It is widely considered “bigotry” these days to oppose same-sex marriage. But I would suggest, in spite of what some conservative intellectuals have asserted, that it is not seen as bigotry to oppose abortion. It might be seen as “bigotry” to make fun of non-traditional attitudes toward gender identity, but it is generally not seen as bigotry to press for lower taxes or more free-market solutions to social problems.

Can a university include a diversity of opinions about sexual-harassment policies? About gender-sensitivity training? Or, to paraphrase one pithy conservative commenter on Hayward’s blog, have birkenstocks become the new jackboots?

It wasn’t a tough call to predict this sort of situation. Back when Hayward was announced as the first Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought at Boulder, your humble editor made the following guess:

this experiment seems certain to degenerate into the most fruitless sort of culture-war grandstanding.

It’s not very satisfying to be proven right when the case was so clear. It can be depressingly difficult to engage in discussions that cross culture-war trench lines.

Conservative thought has always struggled with accusations of bigotry. By framing themselves as defenders of tradition and traditionalism, conservative intellectuals have put themselves in the position of defending the gender and racial hierarchies that were part and parcel of those traditions. Perhaps most famously, conservative intellectual guru William F. Buckley supported segregationism in the 1950s. Though Buckley later repudiated those views, we must ask a difficult question: Will conservative intellectuals always have to defend yesterday’s traditions?

And, on the other side, student leftists have struggled with accusations of hypersensitivity. It is not difficult to lampoon campus activists. Students preach diversity while sometimes demonstrating a stern intolerance toward ideas that ruffle their feathers.

Is this just a question of irreconcilable cultural politics? Will conservative intellectuals continue to outrage leftist sensibilities? Or is there some way to find agreement about the definition and value of intellectual diversity across the culture-war trenches?

 

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15 Comments

  1. I don’t think most students care about most of Hayward’s conservative politics. Think lower taxes are always a better idea? We can discuss that. Think that welfare programs are corrupt and ineffectual? Let’s have a conversation about that. Think that the federal government is too strong? Let’s chat.

    Think that a trans person’sidentity is “whim wham”? That actually is just ignorance and bigotry.

    Reply
    • Samantha, This is precisely the question that I find so difficult. Economic issues may be easy to discuss civilly. We might even be able to talk politely about conservative or progressive school-reform plans. But any of the issues near and dear to the hearts of social conservatives seem to be off limits for even the most banal public conversations. I don’t want to speak for social conservatives, but I imagine many would agree that calling someone’s gender identity “whim wham” is mean-spirited and ignorant. But I think many conservative intellectuals would NOT agree that simply questioning university training policies about transgender identities automatically qualifies as ignorance, bigotry, and “hate speech.” I think for many social conservatives the politics of gender and sexual identities raise legitimate philosophical and moral questions. At least from my reading, it seems many conservative intellectuals (I think of Ryan T. Anderson and Robert George as prominent examples) want to insist that they must raise these questions. Even more basically, I think they would insist that labeling them as ignorant and bigoted is more of a political strategy to shut down public discussion than a moral point itself.
      Me personally, I’m from the “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” school of public discourse. That is, the limits of “free speech” will be found at that point when speech hurts others. And further, IMHO, I believe that denying same-sex marriage rights or gender-identity rights hurts others.
      But many non-ignorant conservatives will insist that opinions about traditional marriage and traditional gender constructions must be allowed to co-exist in the public square. Especially on a university campus.

      Reply
      • I’m continually puzzled that apparent “conservatives” want the government out of their private business, but they have absolutely no reluctance in interfering with other people’s private affairs and legislating their “morality” for them.

        Many of the arguments for conservative politics make sense to me, but not the social ones– especially when their stance causes active harm and damage to real, live, breathing people. Isn’t being “pro-life” sort of a thing for them?

      • Donna

         /  April 10, 2014

        “Me personally, I’m from the “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” school of public discourse.”
        I agree with this. I think the problem is everyone has a different definition of what it means to be hit in the nose. It makes public discourse difficult.

  2. The “whim-wham” comment was a little much.

    Reply
  3. Agellius

     /  April 10, 2014

    “Will conservative intellectuals always have to defend yesterday’s traditions?”

    Your assumption seems to be that conservatives defend things because they are old, rather than because they think they’re right. Racism is a (relatively) old thing (but also relatively new, historically), but it’s only the most extreme conservative cranks who still defend it.

    The thing about sensitivity training is it’s just annoying. I have a hard time explaining why, because it seems self-evident. I suppose part of it is the arrogance and presumptuousness of it. Who are these people to tell me how to be sensitive? How do they know that I need “training”? Why presume that everyone will be a complete a-hole without it?

    Another part is that if you want to adopt a public persona which a lot of people consider strange or foreign, then you have to expect to deal with a certain amount of, well, reaction. It may be perfectly fine, moral, legal and legitimate to wear a burka, but you still have to expect to be stared at if you do. That’s life, deal with it.

    I guess the way it comes across is, that some people are too fragile to deal with other people looking askance at them or saying insensitive things, so we all have to go through this silly ritual of being “trained” to look at them in the correct way and say the correct things.

    It just all seems silly and childish, presumptuous and arrogant.

    Besides, there seems to be a double standard: I have had many extremely insensitive and offensive things said to me about my religion, sometimes by professors. How come liberals don’t have to be trained in the correct way to view and talk to devout Christians? Aren’t we at least as numerous as the transgendered? Is it that we are presumed to be less sensitive than they?

    Reply
  4. Agellius

     /  April 10, 2014

    Forgedimagination write, “I’m continually puzzled that apparent “conservatives” want the government out of their private business, but they have absolutely no reluctance in interfering with other people’s private affairs and legislating their “morality” for them.”

    I’m continually puzzled that apparent “liberals” think that they are immune from trying to legislate morality. They legislate morality all the time. The only difference is that they don’t call their morality “morality”, but morality it is just the same.

    Reply
  5. Agellius

     /  April 10, 2014

    “Think that a trans person’sidentity is “whim wham”? That actually is just ignorance and bigotry.”

    Easy there. “Whim-wham” wasn’t said of anyone’s identify, but of the training.

    Reply
  6. Agellius

     /  April 10, 2014

    Donna writes, “I think the problem is everyone has a different definition of what it means to be hit in the nose. It makes public discourse difficult.”

    Right. Offend a Christian and you’re just exercising your free speech. Offend a transgendered individual and you’re an ignorant bigot who may be subject to re-education.

    Reply
  7. Although there is certainly a lot of hypersensitivity going around in most any group, I think that part of Hayward’s problem, and that of a lot of old white guys, is that a part of them still lives in the 50’s and 60’s. For example, Hayward said that “… 40, 50 years ago when they [women] were in the working world, they slapped people. Maybe we ought to get back to that.” Of course he might have been exaggerating to make a point, but he does seem a bit too flippant when talking about hot-topic issues – probably not wise to try to make a funny with “LGBTQRSTUW (or whatever letters have been added lately).”

    Reply
  8. Agellius

     /  April 10, 2014

    “I think that part of Hayward’s problem, and that of a lot of old white guys, is that a part of them still lives in the 50′s and 60′s.”

    Oh, OK. As long as we’re not generalizing based on race.

    Reply
  9. @Douglas E. says “I think that part of Hayward’s problem, and that of a lot of old white guys, is that a part of them still lives in the 50′s and 60′s.”

    Careful, man, you aren’t being politically correct so you may hurt someone’s feelings. [/sarcasm]

    Reply
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