1. Larry Summers is a mirror of the lefty-basher’s soul.
The truthful reason Summers had to resign – his losing power struggle with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences – is a matter of record, but provides only a minor opportunity for left-bashing, and so is of no interest. Instead, each pundit stares into Summers’ resignation and sees their own favorite excuse for left-bashing staring back.
2. Summers did some good things at Harvard.
Of course, that doesn’t excuse the many times Summers was a jerk.
3. Newsflash for Conservatives: There is no constitutional right of freedom from criticism
In particular, there is no first amendment duty for feminists to refrain from criticizing the President of Harvard because criticizing him makes him more vulnerable to faculty politics; nor, if the President’s enemies take advantage of the moment, is it fair to blame feminism.
Many conservatives seemingly want freedom from criticism. Recently, Bowdoin College Republicans passed a declaration saying no one should face “recrimination” for their views. “Recrimination” is just a fancy word for expressing a counter-opinion. No one should be free from recrimination.
Similarly, David Horowitz referred to some left-wing professors as having “totalitarian instincts.” What had the lefty profs done? They criticized Horowitz’s new book; that, in Horowitz’s mind, is enough to justify a charge of totalitarianism. Puh-leeeze.
4. Some topics should not be excluded from reasonable discussion.
* Whether or not it is appropriate for the President of Harvard, who has presided over a nosedive in hires of tenure-track female faculty, to argue that women don’t want the top science jobs and are biologically less likely to be able to do the top jobs, should not be excluded from reasonable discussion.
* Calls for the President of Harvard to resign should not be excluded from reasonable discussion.
5. Unfairness and meanness can shut people up
I don’t think that merely being meek, or quiet, or kind, means you have nothing worthwhile to say. A style of dialog that tends to cut out the meek and kind in favor of the brash and cruel is therefore problematic, because it shuts up people I’d like to hear from.
As debating technique, over-the-top condemnations are bad strategy. As the Summers case shows, such condemnations can easily be twisted by feminism’s enemies into ammunition for attacking and/or dismissing feminism. More importantly, there’s the question of accessibility. If my grandmother asks me for a good explanation of why Summers was wrong, I’m not going to send her an essay that opens by calling Summers a dick – not even when the essay goes on to make excellent points. The more our tone says “anyone who disagrees with us is loathsome,” the more in-groupy and less accessible what we say becomes.
There were certainly examples of this problem in some feminist responses to Larry Summers’ famous speech on women’s achievement in science (there were also calm, reasoned responses which have largely been ignored by conservatives).
On the other hand, it should be noted that the people who criticize leftists for creating an “intolerant atmosphere,” are frequently eager to engage in name-calling and incivility themselves: for instance, calling Summers’ critics Stalinists and witch-burners and tyrants. Unless these folks are willing to refrain from such insulting and unfair comparisons, it’s hard to take their concern for civil debate seriously.
6. Civility and calmness can shut people up
I don’t think that merely being angry, or loud, or foulmouthed, means you have nothing worthwhile to say. A style of dialog that delegitimizes anger and outrage in favor of a calm, cool surface is therefore problematic, because it shuts up people I’d like to hear from.
Furthermore, privilege interacts with the “everyone should always be calm and kind” approach to dialog. It’s easier to be calm and kind when it isn’t one’s own ox being gored; a white person may have an easier time talking about racism in a “calm” and so-called “rational” manner, because they’re not being hurt by racism. Just because someone is righteously pissed off doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be listened to.
Furthermore, the style our culture understands as “calm” and “neutral” tends to be a style of discourse that matches how wealthy, white people often comport themselves. I doubt this is a coincidence.
I’m not saying that sex, race, etc, is deterministic; there are countless examples of women who argue against sexism in a calm manner, people of color who argue against racism in a calm manner, queers who argue against homophobia in a calm manner, and so forth. Similarly, it’s commonplace to see white straight men become emotional and abusive when they argue these issues. Nor am I saying that being in an oppressed group excuses being abusive.
Nonetheless, a norm of calm, level-toned discourse is going to unfairly silence some people; and there’s good reason to worry that a disproportionate number of the folks who are silenced will be people from groups (women, minorities, disabled, fat, etc) who are already marginalized too much in our society.
On the internet, I think the solution is different websites with different norms – on some websites civility is expected, others use more freewheeling standards, and the end result is that more people get to speak than would be the case if all websites held to a single common standard. But I’m not sure how, or if, that sort of solution can translate to real-world issues like the Larry Summers flap.
7. Links to criticisms of Larry Summers’ speech.
Four Points on Summers’ Transcript, by Colin Danby.
Response to Laurence Summers’ Remarks on Women in Science (pdf file), by WISELI
Raise Your Hand If You’re a Woman In Science, by Virginia Valian
Sex and Science, by Sean at Preposterous Universe.
Summers Lovin’, by Kieran at Crooked Timber.
Genetics is Only a Red Herring, by Matthew Yglesias.
Open Mouth, Insert Dick, Larry by Bitch Ph.D.
Sexist Calvinism, by PZ Myers at Pharyngula
The following links are not direct responses to Summers, but nonetheless add useful information:
Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude For Mathematics and Science: A Critical Review (pdf link), by Elizabeth Spelke
The Cost of Being a Woman In Science, by PZ Myers at Pharyngula
Is the Science and Engineering Workforce Drawn from the Far Upper Tail of the Math Ability Distribution? (pdf link), by Catherine Weinberger
The discussion in this thread at Pharyngula is interesting, as well.