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Academia Seems Much Better At Producing Derailing Tactics Than Actual Arguments
On the Yoel Inbar situation and the growing allergy to reasoned debate
I highly recommend you listen to this episode of Very Bad Wizards. The guest is Yoel Inbar, a University of Toronto psychologist who himself hosts a psych-centered podcast called Two Psychologists Four Beers (disclosure, I guess: I enjoy both podcasts and have been on both, but not for a while).
In the second half of the episode, Inbar tells a rather frustrating story in a much more composed manner than I would, were I in his shoes. The short version is that his longtime, relatively long-distance (five-hour drive) girlfriend was offered a job in the UCLA psych department. She put in his name as a potential “partner hire” (this is a common practice, though of course it’s far from a guarantee), UCLA agreed to look over his CV, and so on, and they seemed very interested in hiring him as well. He was flown out there and strongly got the vibe that they were trying to recruit him rather than evaluate him. (It’s always possible Inbar was mistaken, but for what it’s worth, given his personality, I do trust his judgment on something like this.
There was a little bit of weirdness when, during one meeting with a small diversity committee now enmeshed in the UC hiring process, Inbar was told that it had been brought to their attention that (four and a half years prior) on Two Psychologists Four Beers, he’d expressed skepticism of the mandatory diversity statements the University of California system had adopted around that time for anyone seeking to get hired as faculty. Inbar is a political liberal and very much favors making campuses inclusive; he just thinks diversity statements are unlikely to accomplish anything, and are much more about a sort of easily faked signaling that one has the “correct” political values. He explained these views and thought the conversation was fine, even if he was surprised to be discussing a very old podcast episode. His interlocutors also asked him what he would say to the department’s “very passionate” (Inbar’s paraphrasing) grad students who might be upset about this. Inbar responded that he wasn’t sure — he’d probably just explain his views as he just had.
It turned out that some of the department’s grad students were, in fact, quite passionate. During a meeting with them, Inbar explained to the VBW hosts, one student “talked kind of extensively about how bad the department was, how much racism there was, how there were abusive professors, how the administration was letting all that slide — which is, in a recruitment visit, is strange.” During dinner with faculty, Inbar subsequently described that exchange as “intense.” The faculty members explained that it might partly have been connected to very bad blood stemming from a recent grad student strike.
Despite these minor hiccups, Inbar flew home to Toronto confident he’d be offered the job. Not long after, he got an alarmed email from one of his allies within UCLA: a letter was circulating, signed by dozens of psychology grad students, urging UCLA to not offer him a job.
Why? I’m sure you can guess. Inbar was deemed Problematic. According to this counter-letter disagreeing with the original one, students received the don’t-hire-him letter at 1 a.m. and were told they had to choose whether or not to put their names on it by 4:00 p.m. that day — and they knew that decision, which was being framed as an urgent matter of social justice, would be public to their classmates. Grad students tend to be overworked and overscheduled; it’s basically impossible anyone unfamiliar with Yoel Inbar (which most of the students would have been) could have possibly checked all the letter’s claims in time.
As for those claims, the students’ beef wasn’t just centered on Inbar’s views on diversity statements. Inbar, himself staunchly pro-
life choice (EDIT: I definitely meant -choice! He’s pro-choice), had also argued on Two Psychologists that professional societies like the Society for Personality and Social Psychology shouldn’t weigh in on political issues like abortion. Plus, the “intense” remark has been distorted: “Finally, we were deeply troubled to discover that, following this graduate student meeting, he attended a dinner with faculty where he labeled a graduate student who is a woman of color as ‘intense’ in response to her questions about DEI efforts.” In an email, Inbar confirmed what he said on the podcast: he was referring to the situation as intense, and was talking about the grad student’s diatribe against her own department, not anything having to do with the DEI efforts.
Inbar said on Very Bad Wizards that while he can’t prove it, he believes he ultimately wasn’t offered the job because of this activist campaign. As evidence, he explained that the psych department at UCLA did not go through the complete process it would when evaluating a serious candidate — instead, his application was nipped in the bud via an earlier bureaucratic move that forestalled a faculty vote.
This story has really exploded across Twitter and I’m sure there’s more coverage of it coming in mainstream outlets. But I just want to talk about the letter itself. It’s ridiculous. It really is. In some cases, the arguments are just stupendously silly and in bad faith. For example,
The January 23rd graduate student meeting also raised concerns regarding Dr. Inbar’s mentorship priorities. When probed about his mentoring experiences with underrepresented minority (URM) individuals, he shared that his primary approach to supporting graduate students generally is one where he “just asks what’s going on because graduate students will tend to tell you.” This response leads us to believe that he does not appreciate the importance of power dynamics or invisible barriers that prevent students from feeling empowered to advocate for themselves, particularly students from URM backgrounds.
For the sake of argument, and setting aside the “intense” controversy, let’s assume Inbar is being quoted accurately and fairly throughout this letter, as deeply unlikely as it seems. Here, my only response is: Huh? What’s wrong with saying that your approach to working with URM students is to be proactive about asking them how they’re doing and what’s going on? Isn’t that exactly what you should do to overcome those “invisible barriers”? One gets the sense that the grad students were on a fishing expedition — they’d already decided Inbar shouldn’t be hired because of his eeeeevil views on DEI issues, so anything he said would be twisted, one way or another, to paint him as a bad guy.
But the broader problem with the letter ties into an absolutely endemic issue in many liberal spaces that feels like it’s getting worse: when it comes to controversial subjects, derailing tactics are deployed far more often than actual substantive arguments.
Let’s just jump to a few examples:
Also in episode 92, Dr. Inbar and his co-host discuss SPSP’s stance against Georgia’s decision to outlaw all abortions past six weeks following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Dr. Inbar firmly argues against SPSP advocating for complete reproductive autonomy by claiming that the organization’s position on the matter “is quite extreme” and that “it is not the place of SPSP to take a stand on this kind of issue.” He goes on to say that “when we align ourselves with a political side or faction it’s bad for our science.” His flippant conflation of this issue with a political disagreement (i.e., Democrats vs. Republicans) trivializes the necessity of bodily autonomy that all people, regardless of political ideology and governance, ought to be entitled to. The UCLA community’s position on this issue was made abundantly clear when the UCLA Office of the Chancellor issued a statement on June 24th, 2022 to all UCLA community members that stated “as University of California President Michael Drake wrote today, this decision is antithetical to the University of California’s mission and values. Our university firmly supports individuals’ ability to access necessary health care services and make decisions about their own care in consultation with their medical teams.”
It’s nothing but derailing. Inbar’s argument is that “when we align ourselves with a political side or faction it’s bad for our science.” Maybe he’s right and maybe he’s wrong. But it is not an argument to respond by accusing him of “trivializing” abortion by painting it as a Democratic versus Republican issue (I’m not sure I even understand this line of reasoning; surely it can be both an important issue and one that breaks down fairly neatly along partisan lines), and it’s certainly not an argument to respond by pointing out that UCLA has itself issued statements on these issues. Neither claim comes close to actually offering evidence Inbar is wrong — and you don’t even need to agree with Inbar to see this!
Moreover, Dr. Inbar claims that “there is a non-negligible concern about. . . the organization’s values and who is excluded by them” because “who are the people. . . who are gonna be like more centrist on social issues such as abortion? It’s gonna be the nonwhite people.” This sentiment leverages the identity politics of BIPOC individuals while failing to acknowledge the reality that those most severely and directly harmed by laws restricting the reproductive rights of people who can become pregnant are from BIPOC and/or LGBTQIA+ communities. Time and time again in these episodes, he fails to reflect on how these issues structurally affect marginalized individuals. He instead prioritizes advocating for those he classifies as political minorities in academia. In doing so, he defends perspectives and positions opposed to values our university system has affirmed as fundamental to fostering a safe and inclusive environment for those most widely and deeply afflicted by ongoing sociopolitical issues.
This is so poorly written, and so hard to parse, that it is difficult to respond to. But it’s clear that the authors aren’t responding to Inbar’s point. That point is one that a lot of class-oriented lefties, myself included, have made: the political values of highly educated white liberals and leftists are often not shared, or not shared quite so intensely, by the groups they claim to represent. This is true on issue after issue after issue. I’ll just tick off a few concerning black Americans, but the same logic applies to many other groups: “Faced with a streak of conservatism about abortion among some Black Americans, a vital constituency for President Biden, Democrats are framing the issue as part of a broader civil rights struggle,” reports the Times. In California in 2008, “Seven in 10 African Americans who went to the polls voted yes on Proposition 8, the ballot measure overruling a state Supreme Court judgment that legalized same-sex marriage and brought 18,000 gay and lesbian couples to Golden State courthouses in the past six months.” And black Americans are very skeptical of major defunding, let alone abolition of, police departments, despite these being very hot policy proposals in progressive quarters during the 2020 reckoning.
This is not news. It is not news that black Americans, and many other Americans of color and non-white immigrant groups, are a bit more socially conservative than white liberals. So Inbar is pointing out that policies that seek to foster inclusion might actually leave some people feeling left out. This is me rather than him thinking out loud, but if you’re a first-generation Californian college student from a conservative Muslim background, for example, and you see that social liberalism is effectively the in-house religion of the UC system, right down to administrators sending out searing commentaries about hot-button political issues, are you going to feel at home there? It certainly seems like a fair question, even if, like Inbar (or me!), you yourself are quite socially liberal.
So how do these grad students, all legal adults at a highly respected research institution, respond to this critique? By completely derailing things. With a passage so tangled and so larded with buzzwords you feel like you need a cup of coffee by the end of it. “This sentiment leverages the identity politics of BIPOC individuals while failing to acknowledge the reality that those most severely and directly harmed by laws restricting the reproductive rights of people who can become pregnant are from BIPOC and/or LGBTQIA+ communities.” Okay, way to not say anything.
I’m jumping around a bit in the letter, but last excerpt:
In episode 15, he remarks that his “skepticism about these [diversity statements] is they sort of seem like administrator value signaling. It is not clear what good they do, how they’re going to be used. . . ” He continues, “to lots of people on the left, diversity is such an obviously positive thing,” and says that the left fails to acknowledge that these statements “[signal] an allegiance to a certain set of beliefs.” Rather than recognizing the value of DEI initiatives to improve representation and inclusion of marginalized scholars, he casts valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion as uniquely “liberal” values reflective of ideological bias. These comments frame diversity statements as a threat to ideological diversity, and reflect a lack of prioritization of the needs and experiences of historically marginalized individuals across the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. In contrast, our institution’s position on this issue is unequivocal: page one of the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion FAQ proclaims “Equity, diversity, and inclusion are integral to how the University of California conceives of ‘merit.’ ”
At the level of a basic failure to engage in careful, logical reasoning, this one might stand out the most.
Inbar [again, assuming he’s being quoted correctly]: We all value diversity, but these diversity statements really seem more about signaling belief in a specific set of ideas about diversity than in actually accomplishing anything.
Student authors: Inbar fails to recognize that these diversity statements are important, and also our university says diversity is important.
Complete derailment! Their response does not, in any way, address Inbar’s argument.
Maybe the “iron law of institutions and the left” can partly explain this. By regurgitating this nonspeak, this jargon, these buzzwords, the grad students in question can signal their allegiance to their own lefty communities. It isn’t about persuading anyone else. But this isn’t a very healthy intellectual habit. Inbar is exactly the sort of critic you should want if you favor these proposals: he is smart, thoughtful, and on board with the broader mission of promoting diversity and making universities a more welcoming place. You should take advantage of a friendly adversary like that and use his arguments to sharpen your own.
But in so many liberal spaces, the mere thought that you even need to defend your opinions with logic and reason are seen as outré. Not just liberal values but very specific, very idiosyncratic ways of discussing and executing these values are seen as so self-evident, as so blindingly ablaze with the very light of Truth Itself, that how dare someone ask any questions about them? If they do, the only solution, given this affront to sacred values, is to derail the conversation before they can ask any more questions. And, if possible, do whatever you can to torpedo the asker’s reputation.
This. . . doesn’t sound like a healthy ecosystem for independent thought and intellectual life.