Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Harvard 3L e-mail contretemps

With this post, I introduce a "this is why Phi Beta Cons will always be with us" tag. See this latest blog flap about a Harvard 3L's controversial e-mail about a possible genetic basis for racial group differences. Note that I said "possible": it's pretty clear from the text of her message that she isn't clear to what extent culture, environment, or other factors might explain these differences. None of this, of course, is inconsistent with accepting that there is large variation within racial groups on intelligence and other characteristics. Therefore we ought to judge our friends and adversaries smart, dumb, or in between on the basis of whether they actually act smart, dumb or in between, rather than on the basis of their membership in a particular group. This all feels a bit Classical Liberalism and Race 101, but apparently it's violently controversial enough to cause people to start calling for this student's federal judge to rescind her clerkship.

I didn't get nearly all the way through all 800-odd Above the Law comments, but one of the more striking themes that emerged repeatedly was the contention that whatever this student thought, she was unbelievably foolish, showed "poor judgment," a "lack of professionalism," etc. by putting it in e-mail form. See also the title of this Lyrissa Lidsky post at Prawfsblawg and some of the comments. Apparently it is never appropriate for an attorney or future attorney to venture to say "Controversial Idea X may be true, or Opposite of Controversial Idea X may be true" in samizdat private e-mails to one's friends. Rather, members of our honored profession are only supposed to discuss controversial ideas behind locked doors. Preferably in whispers. Where is Kenneth Anderson to sound off about excess professionalism and therapeutic authoritarians when we need him? Not a glorious profession because it is not a glorious cause, indeed.

Also, I wonder to what extent aggressive left-wing PC like this drives the epistemic closure phenomenon that everyone's been chattering about recently. Tarrings and featherings like this deter some conservatives and libertarians from wanting to speak or write anything remotely controversial. Put another way, PC increases the marginal costs of controversial speech.

Some conservatives or libertarians of more moderate temperaments are less willing to pay those increased marginal costs, once they rise above a certain level. They'll happily retreat to blogging about lemon tarts and polka dot dresses (not that there's anything wrong with that!) That leaves the Ann Coulters and Michelle Malkins of the world, who aren't deterred easily by raised stakes to free speech. So one winds up with a chattering class that's disproportionately slanted to the intemperate -- thus adding fuel to the epistemic closure phenomenon that everyone's discussed so much.


  1. Beautiful post. Well done.

  2. Dear god, this almost makes me feel good about being in a place where racist comments are the norm.