Oh, Those Hypersensitive Students

February 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Liberals, as Jonathan Haidt has documented, argue on the basis of only two principles or “moral foundations”: Hurt and Fairness. Conservatives add other bases for their positions: Loyalty (vs. betrayal), Authority (vs. subversion), and Sanctity (vs. degradation). Also Liberty, which Haidt later added to the original five. (A summary of Haidt's moral foundations is here: http://moralfoundations.org/.)

So conservatives have lots of ways to justify what they want. If hurt and unfairness are not in plain sight, conservatives can fight against betrayal or subversion. But liberals, absent real hurt or unfairness, must have recourse to finding micro-hurts and micro-unfairness from micro-aggressions.

This week’s example comes from Georgetown law school (source: Inside Higher Ed).  Justice Scalia was an undergrad at Georgetown and made several visits to the law school. Shortly after Scalia’s death, a law professor (Prof. G___ , to use a 19th century construction) sent out an e-mail to students and faculty eulogizing Scalia – his jurisprudence, his wit, his writing, and his refusal to trim his sails to the winds of political correctness. Scalia, said Prof. G____, stood steadfast in putting Constitutional principles ahead of the particular interests of classes of people, classes based on race, gender, or economic standing.

Some other professors objected to this e-mail, not for its content but for its effect on students.

Some of them are twenty-two-year-olds, less than six months into their legal education. Leaders of the Black Students Association, the Latino Law Students League, and two women’s groups reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor G____’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for those who disagree with Scalia.  How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?

I think most people would doubt that students at a top law school would be “traumatized” by a professor stating his views about Scalia. Are these ambitious 20-somethings such delicate flowers that they must be protected from legal positions they disagree with lest they be “traumatized, hurt, shaken”? If so, maybe they should choose a different profession. Lawyering ain’t beanbag. And must a law professor, in the interest of fairness, pretend that all opinions are equally valid?

Conservatives will probably tell these students to stop their whining and sniveling and to man up (or attorney up). Conservatives could also argue on the basis of Liberty. People, even professors, should be free to expound their opinions; nobody should censor them.

There’s nothing new here, except . . .

It was the other way round. I reversed the actual facts. The Georgetown law professor who sent the e-mail, Gary Peller, came to criticize Scalia not to praise him. The faculty who then accused Peller of traumatizing the students are Scalia supporters. The hothouse flowers in need of protection are the student conservatives and libertarians.  (“Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students.”)

When the claims of injury and intimidation on one side and the accusations of hypersensitivity on the other are bouncing back and forth like this, it’s hard to tell the pot from the kettle.


Clay Graham said...

So what is your position regardless of ideology? Sniveling or justified concern? Next time you see a campus safe zone is an article like this going up, or were the Scalia suppoters justified regardless of their hypocrisy?

Jay Livingston said...


My post was not about evaluating the behaviors of anyone involved. The point was that our perceptions of someone as justifiably aggrieved or snivelingly hypersensitive are flexible depending on who’s doing the complaining.

There’s a longer post to be written about why the two profs who criticized their colleague chose to pull their arguments out of the Hurt locker. Was it because in academia, even conservatives recognize this and Fairness as the only legitimate moral foundations? Or was it because in this case, they just didn’t have anything else?

Assuming that Scott Jaschik didn’t leave anything important out of the Georgetown
story, my position is that it’s OK for a professor to publish his views about Constitutional law and the about the interpretations of a particular justice. I’d extend that to other fields. If a sociology prof wanted to send out a harsh critique of Howie Becker or C. Wright Mills, fine (though hard to imagine). If the prof wants to include that critique in the syllabus, that’s cool too.

As for “safe zones,” I don’t know much about them (most of that stuff seems to be happening at elite, residential campuses – to the extent that it is in fact happening, which is probably less than the impression I get from articles in the popular press). My guess is that these zones are set up not for the purpose of allowing students to avoid hearing academic views they disagree with. Instead, they are to protect students from assholes doing and saying asshole-ish things.

Andrew Gelman said...


I think your post is difficult to read because it's hard to convey intonation in typed speech.

That aside, I have a question about the list of values that you gave at the beginning of your post. Where in that list is efficiency? Maybe this is just me as a statistician speaking, but it's my impression that a lot of political arguments are made based on the grounds of efficiency or performance, not on hurt, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty.

Do you have a source for the list of moral foundations that you are giving?

Jay Livingston said...

I agree. Tone, especially irony, is hard to convey
As for moral foundations, I’ve added a link to Haidt’s website. I don’t know what he’d say about efficiency, and without examples, I’m not exactly sure what you have in mind. But maybe the difference is that Haidt’s moral foundations are more about ends while efficiency is about means.