Politics in Mind: Activism in Academia?


La rigueur est de rigueur.

What role should activism play in academia?

Science and other academic fields have provided human societies a way to explain and understand the hard, often complex problems that beguile us, and to eventually come up with effective solutions to those problems. 

Some of the problems studied are not clearly tied to moral issues, such as my own previous research on visual perception as processed in the brain. Yet plenty of research focuses on topics with clear moral implications, and so the researcher might be a passionate advocate for the very thing they are researching.

Will this affect the researcher’s intellectual rigor?

And if so, how?

Based on Jonathan Haidt’s psychological model of reasoning outlined in The Righteous Mind, moral intuitions come first –

…then our conscious verbal reasoning comes in to strategically support those intuitions.

Haidt makes clear his position that individual human beings are unreliable due to this fact.

Yet a larger system in which different researchers compete to come up with ideas that best withstand the incisive challenges from their professional opponents – i.e., the competitive enterprise that has been part of scientific research for the past few centuries – this can in fact yield rigor, and can generate real hope to uncover some solutions.

So if an activist researcher is kept in check by peers who pick away at the weak parts of an argument, then this researcher’s activism could in fact be compatible with rigorous academic study – at least as part of a larger dialogue among experts, with broad academic consensus based on the evidence perhaps a ways off.


What if most or all of the researchers in a field share the same values on the topic that they’re studying? The same sense of passion and urgency?

This shared activism seems far less likely to yield intellectual rigor, as no one will be willing to pick apart the weakest aspects of an argument or worldview.

Indeed, Haidt argued in his book that viewpoint diversity is crucial for the integrity of academic systems of knowledge, in order to place checks on motivated reasoning. 

And it’s not just viewpoint diversity that can affect an intellectual dynamic, but also a sense of urgency with respect to threat.

Based on the work of Haidt, Karen Stenner, and others, I’ve come to see group problem solving as kind of a spectrum based on levels of perceived threat:

  • You see, when threats are thought to be low or remote, individuals in a group work together to better understand problems and find solutions to them.

  • When a threat is thought to be imminent, the group stops their debating and bands together to act in unison.

  • In other words: we either get information, or we get in formation.
(citation: Knowles, B.)

The thing is, activism is by its nature all about getting in formation, not about getting information.

It’s about taking action as a united force. For an activist, the threat to their moral world is imminent, and the time for hearing different perspectives, or debating details, is over.

I don’t think academic study and activism are mutually exclusive, per se.

But the two do exist in real tension with one another.

The more passionate researchers feel about a moral topic, the more resistant they will be to evidence or arguments that challenge their convictions. Even calls for more nuanced considerations tend to be unwelcome, as they stop or slow down desired actions that need to happen now. 

This “get in formation” phenomenon goes into hyperdrive when a community of academics all share the same moral perspective on what they’re researching, and viewpoint diversity can’t keep their weakest ideas in check.

Even more so when the group feels threatened by a different moral tribe, perceived to be an enemy. 

Surely these conditions can’t be relevant today…

What are your own thoughts on the matter?

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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Famed Member
November 23, 2022 12:29 pm

All of these are hard questions. So glad that I have this social media tribe where we can discuss them without resorting to arguing, and we don’t have to deal with trolls.

Famed Member
November 23, 2022 6:45 pm

For one of my graduate history classes we had to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, then related it to the development of accepted historical themes/theories. Have you had the chance to? It’s an excellent book…

…which (I think) ties into the pressures of conformity within the scientific community, and to a larger extent governments that aren’t built for adapting. Dictatorships are horrible and non-sustainable; the United States’ government is becoming more static due to its rejection of updating a document over 200 years old.

These things all overlap…at least I think they do.

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
November 23, 2022 10:16 am

First of all, the Beyoncé needle drop was perfect! “Formation” is my favorite Bey song and a nice way to start the morning.

My own practice to counter the division and extremism is to understand, to believe, that WE are all on the same team. And my life’s purpose is extending the definition of “we” as far as I possibly can.

I tell my employees when we meet with our customers, don’t sit together. In a room, everybody spread out and sit among each other rather than my team on one side and customers on the opposite side. Always frame anything you’re discussing as “we” not “you” or “they.” And work like that and talk like that and live like that… we’re on the same team; we’re partners in this endeavor.

It’s not the antidote and there are people who are actively causing harm and who should not be welcome on the team. But an atmosphere of inclusion and welcoming can sand down a lot of those rough edges. We may not agree on many things, but we got each other’s backs.

Famed Member
Online Now
November 23, 2022 10:22 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

The “we,” and inspiring the teams to focus on the collective and collaborative goal.

That’s leadership. Good on you, Pauly.

Noble Member
November 26, 2022 12:46 pm

I’m a fed, and we talk about politics, but luckily no one gets overly offensive or offended. If that started to happen, I’m sure there would be new rules.

JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
November 23, 2022 12:48 pm

I’ll see your Beyonce and raise you with Whitney;
I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way

That’s not meant to be facetious. OK so it is a pretty facile lyric but in answer to your question of how can we cultivate nuance and the ready digestion of differing perspectives for our better understanding of the world? Learning from the past and the present and finding a new way of dealing with contentious moral arguments and the cesspit of social media needs to come into play and that means instilling it in education systems so that future generations grow up with a different mindset. If only it was that easy in practice.

I’ve read plenty of opinion pieces over the years that posit that this young generation are different and will create an understanding community that will solve all of this. Seems unfair to put the responsibility and expectation on their shoulders. That’s a lot of pressure.

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
November 23, 2022 1:59 pm
Famed Member
November 23, 2022 9:21 pm

David Byrne, of course, covered this for Austin City Limits. The theme of utopia runs through Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, the albums Remain in Light and Rei Momo(I like to imagine the musicians asking themselves in Portuguese: What does this song mean?), and especially, his sole feature film as director, True Stories, not just his recent Broadway stage show and documentary film.

Byrne doesn’t strike me as a particularly warm person. He’s not going to say that we are all human beings, or that we all shed the same color of blood.

At the outset of American Utopia, he holds a brain out to the audience. I think that’s Byrne’s way of saying how we’re all alike. He’s not into pan-culturalism for the sake of pan-culturalism in the key of kumbaya. He respects other people from other cultures because they offer something that expands his brain.

Famed Member
November 24, 2022 4:54 pm

I’m blown away by this Goya reference.

“If I was David Byrne/I’d go to galleries and not be too concerned.”
-Brad Roberts

Backstage, at the end of American Utopia, everybody is hugging each other, but nobody is hugging David. He looks happy, though.

Famed Member
November 26, 2022 11:07 am

It is a very fine line, isn’t it? Too often, activists allow their passion to get the better of them and consume them, closing themselves off any further fact gathering or being willing to listen to any balances. Yet, those who have invested the time in researching and have chosen to have a career obtaining as much knowledge about a particular subject have every right to argue about something they have far more knowledge about than the regular Joe Schmoe on the street, because they can back up their arguments with facts.

IMO, it comes down to the individual personality. It’s all a crapshoot. Does the person trying to expand others’ minds and care about activism and certain causes want to lead – or just dictate? Are they genuinely concerned about a particular cause, and want others to understand the urgency of why said topic needs to change course? Or do they just get off on the power and attention that screaming about something – anything – garners them?

And will the people being challenged to answer the call be wise enough to recognize if the Chief Activist is sincere and humble in leading others on this journey for change….. or is just someone desperate for ego-stroking attention?

That’s part of college education really, wouldn’t you say? Learning how to think for yourself? It’s up to the student which path they choose, but they are at the mercy of their mentors at the same time and how they steer these students.

As a stubborn mule who has always tried to be educated and never listen to just one side, I am a bit biased in saying this, but from my perspective – humanity is lazy and likes to just blindly follow the bright dot. One dot fades out, another dot appears, and off the masses go after the newest bright light. Am I perfect? Not at all. But I always try to be aware.

Just my two cents. 🙂

Noble Member
November 26, 2022 1:03 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

The masses, the mob mentality. That’s what’s scary. Even when it’s for ‘good’ or ‘all in good fun’, the mob really is terrifying. And I’m not claiming I don’t figuratively follow a mob or two.

I am always torn about activism. I am a thinker by nature. But activists…they have to work, to cheerlead, to teach, and to lead. That is HARD WORK! And it’s especially hard when you’re not 100% convinced that you are doing the right thing. I think at the heart of the issue to me is that I am a lame activist, and that makes me feel lazy. Also, activists are REALLY ANNOYING. Almost by definition. They feel very strongly about something and feel it is their moral duty to let everyone know that they need to change.

Of course, progress always requires change, but change can be hard. I am really thankful that there are some people that want to be activists, because I naturally don’t, and I am not very good at it. (Enneagram 9, if you are familiar with that. “Hey, whatever you want to do is cool, man…I’ll adapt!”)

I would argue that facebook has made me recognize good activism (and bad) and helped change some of my attitudes. I have purposely not blocked people with strongly different opinions than mine. I like to see what they have to say. What if they actually are right?

The other think that has helped is having adult kids with pretty different opinions than my wife and I on various topics. Some of their opinions are a little naive, but others are kinda well informed, and I can’t deny that my general opinions have been changed in ways i never would have expected. This is good.

Sometimes activitsts just seem like contrarians that are looking for something to whine about. Sometimes that’s because their methods aren’t good, and sometimes people whine about stuff that really doesn’t matter that much. BUT sometimes you need a revolution. Those don’t come easy. Those take brave activists and brave followers. I hope that I can be one of those when i need to be.

(I kinda ignored the whole activism in academia thing and just went on a general activism stream of conciousness. Sorry. Jingles, anyone?)

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