Liberal Organizations Should Not — And Boy Is It Crazy That I Have To Type This — Explicitly Denounce Objectivity And Rigor

On the Urban Institute and 'superpredators' and the importance of basic intellectual standards

Recently, the Urban Institute, a highly respected think tank, published an article online headlined “Equitable Research Requires Questioning the Status Quo.” The article argues that “long-standing values and practices rooted in racism, ableism, and classism are ingrained in the fabric of research, leaving many researchers unaware of the harm they are causing. Researchers can counteract harmful aspects of these practices by sharing power with the people and communities they study.”

To help researchers do better, the post lists three “Harmful Research Practices.” Two of them are ‘objectivity’ and ‘rigor.’ This seems strange. Aren’t objectivity and rigor the hallmarks of any decent knowledge-producing body? The Urban Institute, after all, touts itself as “a nonprofit research organization that believes decisions shaped by facts, rather than ideology, have the power to improve public policy and practice, strengthen communities, and transform people’s lives for the better.” It’s unclear what the words ‘unbiased’ and ‘authoritative’ and ‘facts’ could possibly mean in the absence of ideals like objectivity and rigor, even if, as is true of literally every human ideal, these concepts can be abused to justify malevolent acts or beliefs.

(To be clear, the post explicitly calls objectivity and rigor “Harmful research practices.” It does not say something like “they are generally good things that can be abused.” If the post did say that, there would be no reason for it to exist, because this is a very obvious point. But whenever these sorts of arguments arise, someone pops up to say, “Well, really what they’re saying is…” No! That’s a motte-and-bailey tactic and it’s annoying and we should glide on right past it.)

This explicit denunciation of objectivity and rigor and other crucial intellectual concepts isn’t new, unfortunately. It’s been percolating in liberal spaces for a while — particularly in education. Back in 2019, for example, I wrote about a slide from a training given to administrators in the New York City public school system which described ‘Individualism,’ “Worship of the Written Word,” and, yes, ‘Objectivity,’ among other things, as elements of “White Supremacy Culture.” (The New York Post originally broke that story, reporting that some administrators, unsurprisingly, were not happy with the training.)

Matt Yglesias noticed this stuff popping up consistently in certain corners of the liberal world and wrote about it for his own newsletter, taking a closer look at its source: a book by the (white) antiracist trainer and consultant Tema Okun. “Tema Okun's ‘White Supremacy Culture’ work is bad,” he argued in the headline of his resultant post. Yglesias’s post is an enjoyable read, and the headline really does sum it up — he argues that at no point does Okun come close to marshalling an actual argument that objectivity or worship of the written word (or “sense of urgency” or “quantity over quality” or “right to comfort” and so on…) should be seen as white supremacist, per se, rather than, in many cases, pretty good principles that can backfire when taken too far or misused. 

And yet Okum’s work has had a big impact on some organizations. Yglesias notes that while it is “not what I would call a particularly intellectually influential... in highbrow circles — even ones that are very ‘woke’ or left-wing — it does seem to be incredibly widely circulated [emphasis his]. You see it everywhere from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence to the Sierra Club of Wisconsin to an organization of West Coast Quakers.”

Whether or not its author was directly inspired by Okum, the Urban Institute post is clearly disseminating some similar ideas. I think what’s going on here is that as part of the ongoing reckoning over racism in America, certain institutions want to broadcast, very loudly, how serious they are about promoting social justice and trying to undo the mistakes of the past. The best way to do that? Show that you have read key thinkers and internalized key ideas from the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

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