“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?