A Values Proposition

This week, the Los Angeles Review of Books published a piece that includes the following sentence, about a man whom the author does not like: “He posts things on Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, disgraced evolutionary biologists who were fired for speaking against anti-racist protests on campus.” The sentence contains three transparent errors. After discussion on Twitter shed light on its libelous absurdity, the statement was amended to correct just one of the falsehoods—namely, that my husband, Bret, and I were fired from our tenured positions (we weren’t). Both the author of the piece, Ariel Saramandi, and the object of her ire, are from the small Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Later in the article, the same man, who is asserted to be a member of the “multicultural Mauritian alt-Right” is described as a “Heying–Weinstein enthusiast.”

This is a particularly strange sentiment to express, given the timing. I have just given a talk at Oxford, and Bret has just been on stage in London with Alister McGrath discussing the truths—literal or metaphorical?—to be found in religion. At Oxford, I spoke of the threats to academia, which include the authoritarian left, and Grievance Studies—but also the orthodoxy that has taken over science, in the pursuit of big money from grants. This orthodoxy has made science more reductionist, more reliant on metrics and less engaged with hypothesis. It has further silo-ed its practitioners, and made cross-disciplinary discussion ever more unlikely.

In my talk, I also spoke of the independent evolution—in so very many places on this beautiful planet of ours—of written language, of astronomy, of architecture and of city-states. I said that this should give us hope, that humans did not once and only once happen upon a set of solutions that flourished into civilization, but that we did so many times, across the globe, under myriad conditions. Our shared humanity should celebrate this.

I said, too, that, at university, we have the opportunity to teach students how to understand such claims, how to assess them, how to make meaning of them. Different minds will gravitate to different parts of the story—some will want to focus on the scientific methods by which we date artifacts, some will want to decipher ancient scripts, some will want to understand the significance of the arts, the roads, the concept of zero. But, whatever your route in, being exposed to these truths, and to the many tools by which we assess them, is what education ought to be about.

In this light, Saramandi’s piece strikes me as further evidence of the failures of modern education.

Her article also expresses a strange sentiment, given that, the very day before I encountered it, a young man had told me that Bret and I were providing an honorable and admirable model for marriage, a model otherwise largely missing from the landscape visible to him and to many of his millennial friends. He said that he and they were gaining value from seeing our romantic partnership between peers, in which both partners have agency, and voice and independence. He was grateful, this young man.

We had both been participants in a day-long event in London, the “Rebel Wisdom Summit,” which involved conversations on stage between the handful of us invited to headline, interspersed with small group conversations among those who had chosen to attend. With this young man, and others, we discussed what happens when men wean themselves from porn, why some species switch between monogamy and polygamy as their ecology changes, and the health of the oceans. Among other things.

In other conversations, I heard from socialists who voted Leave—that is, who voted for Brexit—because they see the EU as a corporatist cabal. I also spoke with moderate conservatives who voted to leave. One of them told me that she had also attended a protest wearing a Free Tibet shirt, because she is also, fundamentally, interested in human autonomy. While at the protest—and before spending time on the Remain side, to see the other perspective—she encountered an actual racist, a racial separatist, who was yelling despicable things. He was, she told me, being ignored by everyone, until she turned to him, made direct eye contact, and said to him, “You are better than this.” In so doing, she reminded him that he is human. He did not yell again in her presence.

The stark and bleak, righteous vs. deplorable dichotomy, which we’ve been encouraged to believe in, indeed to fight for—is not correct. It is not an accurate map of reality. So we should be asking: whom does it serve?

In a week’s worth of conversations in London and Oxford, Bret and I heard people from both left and right, upper class and working class, talk about their concerns regarding the watchful eyes of the state, and the de facto orthodoxy that is creeping in. So many people have faith that the human spirit can rise to the set of modern predicaments in which we find ourselves, but believe—indeed, know in their heart of hearts—that we need oversight and regulation of processes too large to contain within small political structures and policy fixes, but that there is an obvious tension between this and a need for privacy, time and space away from state control. How, at this late date, can we free ourselves from the corporate algorithms that capture our attention and resources, from the legal and ubiquitous mood-disrupters and exogenous hormones that so many people find themselves on, from the ever narrowing social norms of what constitutes acceptable discourse? In a sense, we have agreed to our own imprisonment.

In a week’s worth of conversations in London and Oxford, among Brits who voted to remain and those who voted to leave, among Americans who supported Clinton, Trump, Sanders or nobody at all, I never witnessed racism, or sexism, or behavior meriting any of the other slurs that it is now fashionable to sling at people. Certainly, racists still exist, as do sexists. I saw confusion. I saw naiveté. I saw hurt. But making wild and baseless accusations against good people who don’t harbor prejudice is not a thoughtful, humane or smart move. Yell nasty lies at people long enough, and some of them, ultimately, will radicalize. That is not going to be pretty.

What was written in LARB is, of course, also a strange sentiment, given that the protests that enveloped the campus at which Bret and I were tenured—the public liberal arts college many aspects of whose model we have defended avidly and consistently, despite the college’s abrupt and reprehensible turn towards the generic, the regressively woke and the authoritarian—have been well documented. It was those protests and the handful of faculty, staff and students behind them that were racist: not us. The top administrators colluded with the racists to achieve their own bureaucratic goals. Most of the students involved were pawns. As for everyone else: they were some combination of scared and confused. That is what happens when the mob arrives and demands your submission: people become terrified. And terrified people tend to make very bad choices indeed.

As Bret has said many times, including at forums at which he and I were the only liberals: “Actually, modern liberals and conservatives agree broadly on values.” Often, when he says this, the conservatives object at first—though they usually remain quiet as they wait for him to get to the punchline. But when he deploys this idea—that the vast majority of us share values—online, he is sometimes met with, I don’t think so—you liberals are nuts, and you brought this on yourselves! But, although conservatives and liberals differ in how we prioritize our values, how we view the current state of the world and what we view as the best solutions to the remaining problems, at our core, we all—except those on the outskirts, the extremists—want a society in which opportunity is broadly and fairly distributed, and basic needs are met, so as to allow for maximum human flourishing. Perhaps I, as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, am more interested in preserving more wild nature—more places where humans don’t get to produce, and make, and grow—than are conservatives. Or, actually, perhaps not. I have advocated for wild nature to people across the political spectrum, and this, too, seems to be a value widely held.

Saramandi, the author of the LARB article, who brazenly mischaracterized both us and our actions, responded online to another author, who claimed that Bret “sucks shit,” by affirming that “he’s vile, yeah.” When asked, “how do you know?” there was no answer.

So, accuser, can we talk? You have fictionalized my husband and me egregiously, and one of two things must be true: either that discovery will interest you, or it will not. I hope for the former, but expect the latter. Being human is complex, and we all should seek the better angels of our natures, while recognizing that we are also sometimes tempted to listen to the whispers of the devils on our shoulders. Let us learn from our world, ourselves and each other.

We are better than this.

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11 comments

  1. Heather, you know big time what it feels like to experience people who create falsehoods and who will never apologize or right their insufferable wrongs. Welcome to what it is like to live everywhere in this world and the reality of what encompasses all societies housing humanity in all its flawed glory.

    Every day, in every situation whereby people are gathered because they have to for a myriad of reasons, some kind of kerfuffle will explode either one-on-one or by a mob.

    College campuses are institutions which demand money and time for people to go through required and elective hoops in receiving a degree and each generation of students thinks its perceptions about what life should be about add to and leave their mark during their roiling transitory experience.

    It’s awfully sad you and your husband experienced such a mob of idealistic youth inexperienced with real life. It also didn’t help that the adult educators—your peers—threw you under the bus and remained spineless, seeking to keep their jobs, continue to collect a salary and accrue the needed time for retirement perks.

    I don’t know you or your husband but it seems important now to focus on the catalyst which occurred in which you both were a part of and can help change things in lieu of your negative experience. Perhaps, go outside the limited audience of internet essays which you provide and check out television talk shows for instance like NBC’s The Today Show. Please consider stepping up now and telling your story while a certain topic is currently popular and ongoing about tuition bribes. You and your husband’s experience is of far more interest to the public and tells a chilling kind of Lord of the Flies perspective of college campuses, how youth reacts today.

  2. “Yell nasty lies at people long enough, and some of them, ultimately, will radicalize. That is not going to be pretty.” Exactly right. I would argue that the same is true of the position that allyship must equal total agreement, which is quite common among the intersectionalists.

    1. Serious question: why did you say that?

      I mean, it’s pretty clear to anyone reading this that they don’t think it’s “all about them ” and there’s nothing to indicate as much. It’s a response to a comment in a book review, they put a link to it and everything. They’re mentioned invit and this is Heying’s response to that mischaracterization.

      So why would you even attempt to further mischaracterize them? Why would you call them “thin-skinned” when they clearly aren’t, and are attempting to reach out to the author?

      Nobody’s fooled by what you just wrote. Did you really think they would be?

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      1. in the modern paradigm, we read, but do not comprehend. instead we cram what we’ve read into the shape of the expectations and prejudices we had going in. if we’ve decided (beforehand) that it is hostile to us, we argue not the ideas presented in the piece, but the ideas we would prefer to spar with. we do this because to open oneself to comprehending what was actually put down on the page is to risk corrupting one’s mind with the most dangerous thing of all: Idea-Cooties.

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    2. Therefore, if someone claims that totalitarian ideologies are terrible, pseudoscience infiltrates the Academia, and you are a moron, you should keep quiet since the whole statement is not all about you and describes genuine horrors.

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    3. It’s true the article only mentions them in passing, but it uses them in a central way as representatives of the ‘alt-right’ – only they and Jordan Peterson are mentioned. It”s appallingly bad writing and merits a full response.

      You’re right that the article is crap and they should have ignored it, but it definitely puts them at the center of its flimsy argument.

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    4. This article is all about keeping their victim status up to date in right-wing circles. The events at Evegreen happened two years ago (little Bret got yelled at! Clutch those pearls!) and these days two years ago is a long time. She has to keep that victim status or she might not get paid to go to events to whine about how mean college students are. This is all about the grift, about working the right-wing suckers who are willing to fork over cash for this poor victim. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great gig if one has not moral code or soul. But it is what it is. She has to make it all about her. Plus, do you actually think she cares about victims of alt-right abuse? What happens to brown people and women? The only thing she cares about is finding a way to keep pushing her narrative and to remain relevant in right-wing circles.

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