What if I told you that a professor at Duke started to ridicule and make generalizations about leaders that are important to modern liberalism, alienating students in the process? Would Duke as an institution put up with it? Would there be outrage?
In fact, the prospect of simply hosting someone with conservative beliefs often causes students to insulate themselves and claim that these ideas are forms of violence. Unfortunately, the opposite situation occurred recently. Given that essentially nothing has been done, Duke once again proves itself to be a breeding ground of double standards.
Last week, controversial Duke history professor Nancy MacLean at New York City’s Unitarian Church of All Souls to talk about her book “.” During the Q&A session, an audience member unfairly categorized Public Choice Theory economist and libertarian leader James Buchanan as greedy and malevolent in a question about his motivations.
Professor MacLean responded by saying, “As an author, I have struggled with this, and I could explain it in different ways. I didn’t put this in the book, but I will say it here. It’s striking to me how many of the architects of this cause seem to be on the autism spectrum—you know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have difficult human relationships sometimes.”
Microaggression! Although she did follow up by saying that she was speculating, this does not validate her thought process and the content of her statements.
For good reason, Professor MacLean’s statements prompted Duke senior Hunter Michielson to launch a small social media campaign as well as a petition to expose and condemn Professor Maclean’s bigoted comments. Mr. Michielson is studying German and Philosophy, and is the acting President of Duke’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter. The organization, which I have worked with from time to time, is founded on mobilizing passionate young people promoting individual liberty such as freedom of speech, free market capitalism, and other issues that tend to attract conservatives and libertarians on a non-partisan basis.
“I was disgusted and infuriated,” said Michielson after I asked him about his initial reaction to the . “If a conservative professor had done something similar, there would be outrage… I don’t want her to be punished because she has the right to free speech. However, her broad and generalized statements linking people with autism to a lack of empathy have serious implications.”
Empirically, there is no evidence to fully support Professor MacLean’s claim, although libertarians have statistically been shown in to have social dispositions of lower empathy, “a dispositional lack of emotionality, and a preference for weaker, less-binding social relationships.” Nonetheless, it is extremely bold to diagnose that architects of libertarianism and conservatism are on the autism spectrum without proper professional qualification. I remind you that she was responding to a question about greed and malevolence, and yet somehow managed to conflate political ideology with autism. If she does believe that these values are ingrained in the libertarianism and conservatism, then why attack the people and rather than their ideas?
Furthermore, it is offensive to assume, marginalize, and perpetuate a false narrative for those with libertarian values or autism. Her “intellectually lazy” comments, as Mr. Michielson put it, are unfortunately also ignorant, degrading, and insensitive, especially to the students and institution she represents. Many of us whose loved ones or friends live with some form of autism know very well that having autism does not mean being libertarian or lacking empathy for others. Given her left-leaning ideology, it is ironic that she chose to generalize a group of people without considering its effects on them.
Libertarianism and conservatism, like their ideological counterparts, are flawed and imperfect. However, the promotion of free markets and individual liberty is based on the idea that these principles provide a net positive to a society. Additionally, many libertarians and conservatives believe that government intervention is detrimental to the well-being of others. Even if you don’t agree with these ideologies, it is unfair to label them as inherently lacking compassion given the principles and motivations behind them.
“College should be a place for people to feel free to discuss challenging ideas and take on those they disagree with,” said Michielson. “I am privileged to be surrounded by brilliant liberal students and faculty, who have forced me to question and evolve my beliefs. However, baselessly calling people with whom you disagree with autistic is a disservice and is not fostering type of environment we want.”
Professor MacLean’s statements are also reflective of the stigma against students who hold unpopular opinions relative to Duke’s campus. It would not be surprising if, should these students heard what she had to say about fellow libertarians, they would not want to speak up in class, feeling silenced and threatened. This negatively affects the educational experience of not only themselves, but their peers who could benefit off of conversations and intellectual discussions with them. Situations like this suggest a pernicious narrative that one answer exists, and dismissing the concerns of millions of other people is okay.
Conservative and libertarian students like Mr. Michielson and I continuously experience intolerance on campus by receiving hate mail and undergoing stressful encounters. We are not asking others to pity us, but rather suggesting that it is a shame that our world has come to this point of double standards.
Professor MacLean’s statements are inconsistent with Duke University’s core values and reputation. Duke’s lack of response to this issue is disappointing and the lack of accountability is discomforting. If the administration truly stands by all of their students, alumni, and professors, especially conservatives, libertarians, and those with autism, then they would condemn Professor MacLean’s statements and respond to Mr. Michielson’s . Unfortunately, a petition will not resolve the underlying disrespect that was expressed toward those with neurological conditions in this situation.
Professor MacLean provided no response when asked about this column. I would be happy to engage with her in a discussion.
Mitchell Siegel is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “truth be told,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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Mitchell Siegel is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "truth be told," runs on alternate Wednesdays.