American politics in the age of Donald Trump may yet make armchair psychopathologists of us all. The stream-of-consciousness quality of the candidate’s speeches now becomes a factor in governance. In the wee hours, while most of us sleep, the president-elect tweets. Stephen Dedalus’s description of history as “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” feels less literary by the hour.
And so the public is compelled to play analyst: armed with diagnostic checklists and extensive Wikipedian training, we try to categorize his personality (as narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, etc.) in hopes that an adequate label might provide some hint of what to expect over the next four years. It won’t, of course, although the odds that a State of the Union speech will address the president’s penis size have increased considerably.
On a more substantial matter, it’s obvious that Trump’s affinity for the conspiratorial mind-set goes beyond a mutual appreciation of talk-show host Alex Jones. It forms the bedrock of Trump’s very existence as a political figure. His aspiration to something greater than mere celebritydom began in earnest only when Trump made himself a major player in the pseudo-controversy over President Obama’s birth certificate. (That racist melodrama assumed, even if it did not always emphasize, the existence of shadowy forces conspiring to put a Kenyan Muslim into office for their own un-American reasons.)
The penchant of Trump and some prominent figures in his entourage to resort to conspiratorial tropes seems like yet more evidence for the perennial value of Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964). And while I find Michael Paul Rogin’s critique of Hofstadter persuasive, there is no denying the essay’s almost irresistible quotability. Some passages sound as if the historian were making a summary of the themes appealing to the president-elect’s base:
“America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.”
Add complaints about political correctness for seasoning, and the reader would have no reason to think this passage is not from a report on the 2016 election.
And that is, in a way, Hofstadter’s point. Hofstadter identifies the paranoid style as a recurrent if not permanent strain in American political thought and rhetoric -- but also as weaker, and less effective, over the long run, than its durability might imply. It appeals to established but aggrieved groups imagining themselves to be “the real America” under threat from change. Then the immigrants and upstarts become established, new demagogues emerge to exploit their discontent, and the whole thing starts again.
Rob Brotherton’s bookSuspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Bloomsbury Sigma), originally published in late 2015, now appears in paperback as the Inauguration Day bleachers go up near the White House. While not a commentary on the Trump ascendancy, its timing may skew the reader’s attention in that direction even so.
The author, a psychologist and science writer, is more concerned than Hofstadter with the particular cognitive processes involved in the conspiratorial mentality. Rather than pointing to a paranoid mood that ebbs and flows with political currents, Brotherton treats conspiracy theories as part of a continuum of patterns of thought and behavior that are extremely common and not, for the most part, paranoid.
Much of it comes down to pattern recognition (the brain’s incessant but not always reliable drive to find order) combined with a tendency to overestimate the validity or completeness of the available information. Brotherton writes, “When we’re uninformed -- and we’re all ignorant about a lot of things -- our brain indiscriminately uses whatever is at hand to plaster over the intellectual blind spot.” The author adduces a number of lab experiments showing this, including research that suggests cognitive strain tends to heighten the capacity to imagine structure where none exists.
“By painting conspiracism as some bizarre psychological tic that blights the minds of a handful of paranoid kooks,” he writes, “we smugly absolve ourselves of the faulty thinking we see so readily in others. But we’re doing the same thing as conspiracists who blame all of society’s ills on some small shadowy cabal. And we’re wrong. Conspiracy thinking is ubiquitous, because it’s a product, in part, of how all of our minds are working all the time.”
This is persuasive, up to a point. But somewhere far beyond that point are whole milieus of people whose pattern-recognition software got stuck in the conspiratorial program and can’t be reset. There's David Icke, for one, an internationally famous author who believes that most political, social and cultural changes of recent decades are the work of shape-shifting interdimensional reptile people. (Icke makes Alex Jones sound like Walter Cronkite.)
Between Hofstadter’s cyclical rise and fall of paranoid politics and Brotherton’s rather genial vision as everyone being conspiracy-minded at one time or another, it’s almost possible to imagine the next few years as something other than cataclysmic. But I’m not entirely persuaded. Suppose this is just the beginning. After all, we still have no idea where the incoming administration stands on shape-shifting interdimensional reptile people. The president-elect hasn’t even uttered the words “shape-shifting interdimensional reptile people.” What is he trying to hide?
Given this narrative, conservatives in the academe should be miserable. But my own research shows that we are not. Let me tell you why.
I should first mention that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, conservative faculty are just as happy as their liberal counterparts, if not more so. In fact, in 2014, two-thirds of conservative faculty on a nationwide survey responded “Definitely yes,” the most positive on a five-point scale, to the question “If you were to begin your career again, would you still want to be a college professor?” Nationally, an average of 58 percent of all faculty members said they would, while 56 percent of liberal faculty responded in such a positive way -- 10 points lower than right-leaning faculty.
Interestingly, tenure does not play a role in levels of satisfaction, either. Tenured and nontenured conservative faculty members are both highly satisfied, at 65 percent and 61 percent respectively. The numbers look different for faculty members who identify as liberal: of those, 62 percent of tenured faculty would remain a professor compared to only 49 percent of those who aren’t tenured -- a nontrivial difference.
That asks a question: Why are conservatives not miserable?
I think social-identification theory plays a huge role here. The theory argues, in its simplest form, that groups such as families, classes and teams are sources of esteem and pride, and that can lead to a sense of belonging in a complex and often divisive world. Scores of experimental works have shown that being in a small, particular in-group feels quite different and more personally meaningful when one compares oneself to the larger, other dominant out-group. Thus, it is wholly reasonable to think that conservative faculty members see themselves as minorities in opposition to a growing and more powerful liberal majority. Being part of this smaller and nondominant group helps shape career goals and personal outlooks, and it informs a worldview that may lead to quite a bit of personal happiness and comfort for any faculty members with an us vs. them perspective. Ironically, this feeling of being part of a small group can be empowering, given the right circumstances.
In fact, this in-group and out-group structure was certainly empowering for me personally. Even before tenure, I relished being in the ideological minority at Sarah Lawrence College. As a moderate, I stood out like a sore thumb relative to many of my fellow faculty members. In the campus popularity contest, I was a noncontender. My lack of outwardly left-leaning political leanings meant that I was not in competition for the hearts and minds of so many varied constituencies on the campus. I was not included in many of the informal social gatherings and meetings, but rather than being offended at not being invited, I relished the flexibility that being “unpopular” gave me in my schedule.
While that exclusion might upset some people, I found that being in this position gave me the freedom to teach political history and social movements in a balanced, multifocal way. I could talk about the enduring positive and negative impacts, for instance, that the Reagan-Thatcher era has had on the socioeconomic and political climate that exists today without heavy scrutiny or protest, since everyone already knew I was “different.”
Moreover, not being part of the campus “power elite” gave me the chance to really think about where I was intellectually situated within the larger academic community. I realized that viewpoint diversity is increasingly absent on college campuses and, despite pushback from faculty members and students, I took great comfort in seeing it as a personal and professional mission to present my students with a greater variety of ideas and frameworks for thinking about the world. Conflicts about ideas, as well as debates over the merits of various philosophies and approaches to problem solving, should be the bedrock of a college experience. It is how we progress as a civilization.
Accordingly, I taught my classes with the desire to correct this troubling intellectual imbalance in mind. To my surprise, swimming against the current and being part of the out-group made my teaching and work with students an unexpected joy. For instance, seeing a freshman’s eyes light up when he discovers a new way of looking at a public policy issue, or listening to three seniors debate farm subsidies from a multitude of political viewpoints -- those are the intrinsic benefits of teaching with ideological diversity at the forefront.
Thanks to social media and the ease of staying connected, I know that many other conservative-leaning academics feel the same way, and many of them have similar stories to my own.
This feeling that our teaching is instrumental in bringing balance back to campuses may explain why there are ideological differences in satisfaction based on tenure between conservative and liberal professors. For those professors who feel they are in an ideological minority, and therefore see their teaching as an important part of diversifying the campus pedagogy, the pretenure “publish or perish” paradigm is not the singular goal.
The idea of balance may also help explain why survey work reveals that conservative faculty members place far more emphasis on teaching relative to research, while liberal-identifying faculty members prioritize the latter. Although circumstantial, the survey work does lend credence to the idea that conservative faculty members may be reacting to the progressive echo chambers and increasingly prevalent liberal bubbles on their campuses, and therefore they view teaching, rather than publishing research, as a more important part of their mission as faculty.
While the data and narrative I’ve presented here are certainly not conclusive, it certainly is the case that I and my conservative colleagues are far more professionally fulfilled than many accounts would suggest. Samuel Adams wrote, “It does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.” Being an increasingly small minority has lit such a fire under many of us.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Although I am an aspiring scholar of 17th-century devotional poetry, I’ve had a surprisingly large number of drinking buddies who are physicists. Over beers I’ve learned about the Higgs boson, the intricacies of the Large Hadron Collider and the standard model of particle physics. In turn, I hope that maybe they’ve learned a little about Milton’s “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.”
Such friendships are part and parcel of doing the entirety of my graduate education at institutions that are heavily known for their contributions to STEM fields. I’ve never been able to ignore the sciences, and I wouldn’t think it a luxury even if I could. In talking with scientists, at least on a bar stool, I have tried to be largely free from C. P. Snow’s famous assertion in his 1959 The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution that scientists and humanists are members of “two polar groups” and that between those two lies a “a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
There is a cottage industry explaining why those studying the sciences need knowledge of the humanities, and I am sympathetic and largely agree with those views. But as a humanist writing to colleagues, I think that we should admit that Snow may still have a point. Too often we approach the sciences with a mixture of fear, envy and misunderstanding.
First, however, some things that I am not arguing: I do not think that science or scientists are beyond humanistic critique. Science, like any system created by humans, is going to be influenced by the wider culture, and as culture is our subject, we’re perfectly equipped to comment on those aspects of STEM that abut history, philosophy, literature, area studies and so on. The subspecialty of science studies has made important contributions to a considered understanding of how science operates within society, and one need not be a relativist to admit that ideology influences scientific discourses.
Second, if mutual suspicion has grown between the two cultures, the fault does not lie solely with us. Many advocates for a particularly positivist view of science (here I am thinking primarily of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins) are not just dismissive of whole shelves of humanistic scholarship, but they’re also downright anti-intellectual about entire disciplines as well. They deserve to be called out.
Finally, I am not claiming that humanistic work can be reduced into the scientific. Interdisciplinary respect need not entail the loss of disciplinary sovereignty, and I am not supporting a type of epistemological imperialism.
Despite those caveats, Snow’s assertion that the humanities have a bit of a science problem remains pertinent a half century later. As humanists, it behooves us to interrogate our own assumptions about the sciences and the occasionally unthinking ways we may project displaced anger onto scientists that are counterproductive to both them and us. Without an honest consideration of how we sometimes speak about science, we risk alienating potential allies in fighting for shared interests -- such as academic freedom, job security and funding in the era of the increasingly corporate university. Furthermore, some of our personal griping about the sciences subconsciously displays an anxiety that is, ironically, profoundly anti-humanist.
In that aforementioned seminal essay, Snow writes, “A good many times, I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.” While perhaps it’s unwise to universalize that phenomenon, it’s undeniable that Snow identifies an all too common sentiment. There exists a suspicious cringe toward the sciences that is condescending to our colleagues and ultimately not helpful to those of us in the humanities. It includes unstated assumptions that issues of institutional support are always easy for our colleagues in their labs across the campus, as well as the internet flame wars I’ve seen on academic threads griping about science popularization.
Stereotypes Worth Questioning
If anything, the rhetorical problem of the “two cultures” has as of late been exacerbated by the cheap outrage enabled by online culture and the easy discourse of social media, where an attitude of casual disdain toward science and scientists can proliferate. At its worst, I’ve seen the legitimate humanistic analysis of problematic pronouncements made by some scientists veer into an insinuation that said scientists are so unsophisticated that they’re somehow not even legitimately equipped to comment on their own specialties. Or I’ve seen the weird gleefulness of humanists who brag about knowing nothing about science, as if we wouldn’t justifiably denounce the equivalent from our STEM colleagues across the hall as being rank anti-intellectualism.
I’m not innocent in this. From time to time I’ve unfairly stereotyped our colleagues in the sciences as unconcerned or not knowledgeable about history, philosophy and literature. I’ve shared links to online articles and blogs that extol the virtues of humanistic training and research at the expense of the sciences. Oftentimes our disdain can be born out of unpleasant personal interactions with colleagues in STEM fields who are unwilling to acknowledge the difficulties or worth of our own work in the humanities and social sciences. I think the critical attitudes we harbor toward the sciences are almost always related to our legitimate grievances over how neoliberal policies threaten the humanities in higher education.
Being defensive is emotionally understandable, because it can feel that, as humanists, we’re under attack from all sides. After all, when Florida Governor Rick Scott asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” and then responds to his own question with, “I don’t think so,” it’s expected. But then when President Obama jokes about the utility of studying art history, it only reinforces our sense of being beleaguered. Such political attacks often use the humanities as a straw man to contrast them with what is presented as the supremely pragmatic choice of supporting the STEM fields. It’s natural that we’d get a bit touchy. So I get it, I really do. But that doesn’t mean that a defensive posture is always the most helpful.
At the risk of engaging in the fallacy of anecdotal evidence, I’ve heard things that highlight what I see as the dangers of painting STEM with the same broad brush with which we’re tarred. I myself shared a popular meme on Facebook a few months ago that claimed the bizarre pronouncements of former presidential candidate Ben Carson are what happen when STEM students don’t take humanities courses. I’m sure you can blame Carson’s strange comments on many things, but his medical training seems unlikely to be one of them. I’ve never seen his undergraduate transcripts -- perhaps he took scores of English and history classes -- but I imagine that those who created the meme really have no idea, either. It was an admittedly funny image, and in advocating for the humanities I imagine it was made with good intentions.
But I think it does little to convince potential academic allies in the STEM fields of much more than our own intellectual smugness. An even more insidious variety of meme that I’ve encountered are those that argue that the benefit of a humanistic education is that it makes scientists somehow more moral in their research.
The implication that scientists are incapable of parsing the ethics of their own work because they haven’t taken a philosophy course is the height of condescension. From advocating for rational climate policy to explaining what’s dangerous about pseudoscientific anti-vaccination rhetoric, scientists are more than capable advocates for ethical policies that intersect with their own research. The old chestnut that argues that studying the humanities somehow makes a person more moral is tenuous at best. The course catalog justification for the humanities as supplying special skills in “critical thought” is also shortsighted one, for it presupposes that critical thinking is our sole provenance (which it obviously isn’t) and that critical thinking is somehow all that we offer (which it also isn’t).
Not Victims or Martyrs
Of course I think it would be fantastic if more scientists did take philosophy courses. It would be fantastic if every college student did that -- not because those courses only help the student in their primary training but because such courses are an unalloyed good in themselves. That’s the ultimate irony in this sort of defense of the humanities: they use the same economic language of utility that other people use to justify increased funding for STEM.
Yet if we position ourselves too much as victims or martyrs, we ignore the oftentimes similar (or even more dire) political position that scientists find themselves in. We commit a fallacy when we confuse political lip service for STEM as being actual support. One only need look at the precarious situation climatologists find themselves in, under attack by ideologically motivated partisans every bit as organized as those who fulminated against the academic humanities during the culture wars. And while I harbor my own resentments that the wider public may view my interest in 17th-century Puritan theology as helplessly esoteric, 30 minutes of speaking to a mathematician who works on topology and number theory disavowed me of any sense of the grass being greener on the other side when it comes to the public embrace of what one might study.
In defending ourselves, in explaining why anthropology or art history is important, we should not engage in the corollary of denouncing the sciences as unimportant. Too often I see the deployment of the same language used against us, or the ironic gambit of self-justification that involves tethering the humanities to the sciences so that the former is enlisted as some kind of handmaid to the later.
I had a conversation at a conference with a fellow humanist who thought that what I think is the self-evidently fascinating field of astrophysics is simply a financial drain on society, as if it’s somehow clear that the study of poetry is obviously important to everyone. In the academy, both fields of study need to be justified, both need to be explained and both need to be defended. That can be done at the institutional level (why not sponsor events between academic societies like the Modern Language Association and American Academy for the Advancement of Science?), as well as in our own professional lives. The recent catastrophic election to the presidency of the United States of Donald Trump, a man with equal disdain for both the humanistic tradition and scientific evidence, is reason enough for building a spirit of solidarity between academic disciplines.
It’s worth considering biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria,” which was originally meant to delineate the different domains of religion and science, as a useful template for thinking about the relationship between science and the humanities. Factionalism, jingoism and arrogance are no more attractive when they’re gussied up in humanistic language. Incuriosity is an intellectual sin, wherever its origins. This need not be a zero-sum game, as we’re all playing for the same team.
Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University. He is also a widely published writer on the subjects of religion, literature and culture. His work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Aeon, The Paris Review Daily, Salon, Atlas Obscura, The Revealer, Nautilus and many others. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.