Is Purity Politics Behind Campus Homogeneity?
Updated: Apr 18, 2021
Recently I had a bizarre exchange with a cook in the breakfast line at my college.
“I’m not washing the pan first.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I’ll make you a vegetarian omelet, but I’m not washing the pan first.”
I had ordered a vegetarian omelet, and the cook wouldn’t make it unless I first confirmed that I was OK with him using the same pan he used for ham and cheese omelets. It turns out that he had been chastised earlier that morning by a liberal customer who ordered a vegetarian omelet but refused to eat it when she learned that it had been cooked in a pan that touched meat. (Why liberal? Liberals are almost 6 times more likely to be vegetarian than conservatives.)
Apparently, she wasn’t alone. An Atlanta customer recently filed suit against Burger King for cooking the new plant-based Impossible Whoppers on the same grill as beef burgers. Despite the fact that the patties themselves are 100% vegan, cooking them next to beef burgers would result in contamination as the juices on the griddle moved around during the cooking process.
It’s difficult to come up with a logical rationale for drawing dietary lines in these ways. It doesn’t make sense from a gustatory perspective—the change of flavor is slim to none. It doesn’t make sense from a health-perspective—the minimal exposure to meat wouldn’t be enough to cause health complications in anyone who wasn’t deathly allergic to meat-based foods. And it doesn’t make sense from an ethical perspective—the customer isn’t killing an animal or supporting the meat industry by eating foods that touch meat.
However, there's one motivation that makes this sort of behavior perfectly clear. It's the same as the one kids everywhere deploy to keep the different foods on their dinner plate from touching: a sense of purity. The omelet cooked in a pan that touched ham is rendered impure. The Impossible Whopper fried up next to a meat patty has been defiled. A demand for purity renders certain foods and pans as untouchables.
This whole exchange over an unwashed pot got me thinking. Maybe a liberal obsession with ideological purity can help to explain why higher education has become a thoroughly progressive environment. From the faculty to the staff to the curriculum, higher education is exceptionally liberal, and that trend has only accelerated over the past fifty years.
The answer is no doubt complex. But I want to suggest that a demand for purity might be part of the explanation. A craving for purity renders certain names, ideas, and people as untouchables. That would go a long way towards explaining the liberal homogeneity in higher education. It would also explain many of the decisions and actions of institutions of higher ed in the last decade.
I know full-well that suggesting that liberals might be responding from a purity impulse is surprising given the findings of social science. It’s supposed to be conservatives, not liberals, who care about purity. According to Moral Foundations Theory, humans share five (or six) innate psychological foundations that provide the phenomenological backdrop for our moral sensibilities. Over time, different cultures can develop in ways that emphasize or suppress the roles of each of these background foundations.
One of those foundations is the sanctity/degradation system. It’s the system that underlies moral intuitions about purity, defilement, disgust, holiness, etc. It’s widely thought that political conservatives reply on such a foundation while liberals eschew it. Conservatives care about things like purity (e.g. saving yourself for marriage) and holiness (e.g. supporting laws against flag burning). Liberal frameworks are supposed to minimize the moral importance of purity in favor of things like fairness and equality.
But--back to higher ed--it’s hard to square the homogeneity of higher education with a mere preoccupation with fairness and equality. In my own discipline of philosophy, a recent paper showed that left-leaning professors were willing to discriminate against a right-leaning paper during a referee report just over 30% of the time. That rises to 38% when considering a right-leaning symposium talk, 42% when refereeing a right-leaning grant project, and a whopping 55% when hiring a right-leaning colleague. Those are astonishing figures. Surely, it’s more than fairness and equality that explains why over half of left-leaning professors self-report that they would be willing to discriminate against a candidate purely because of her right-leaning views.
The purity foundation does a better job explaining that level of discrimination. A right-leaning paper in an anthology infects the whole thing. A right-leaning colleague in your department degrades the entire enterprise. A right-leaning grant project defiles the subject matter. A preoccupation with purity goes a long way towards explaining the political homogeneity of the American faculty.
It also explains many of the other preoccupations of the academic left. Taking Woodrow Wilson’s name off of a residential college and public policy program didn’t make Princeton any more safe for students or faculty of color. But it was a step towards purity. Harvard is doing the same with a building named for Philip Johnson, an American architect with Nazi sympathies. And when the San Francisco School Board voted to change the names of 40 schools to eliminate references to Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John Muir and others, it wasn’t fairness or equality that prompted the revisions. It was purity. The slenderest of connections to a sullied past were sufficient to render certain names untouchable. Even progressive champions like FDR and Diane Feinstein were caught up in the purge. All in the name of purity politics.
If I’m right about the role that purity is playing in the liberal shift in higher education, that has at least two exciting implications. First, it opens a research project for scholars in the social sciences. My suggestion that liberal staff at colleges are motivated by ideological purity is nothing more than a hunch. And it's one that I--as a philosopher--can't confirm. But someone could run empirical tests about intuitive moral judgments that are aimed at eliciting purity-type responses from self-described liberal participants to gauge the role that the sanctity/degradation foundation plays in the liberal moral culture in academe. Only empirical evidence could confirm or disconfirm my suspicion.
Second, it provides some strategy to the advocates of viewpoint diversity (like my colleagues at Heterodox Academy). There are lots of arguments for viewpoint diversity in education, but most of them appeal to the goods of truth, fairness, equity, etc. But if your interlocutor’s primary motivations for homogeneity are based in purity, such appeals are likely to be futile. My niece got a box of sour cream crickets in her stocking this year. No arguments or information about the healthy nature of that snack would get her to try one. Her disgust had already kicked in.
Similarly, if resistance to liberatarian or conservative ideas is similarly rooted in disgust or a need for purity, the force of arguments and information about the benefits of viewpoint diversity will be blunted. That’s why it would be helpful to know whether the liberal homogeneity of campuses is being driven by a need for ideological purity or something else entirely.