Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

red concave bar 1

In Defense of “Context”

In general, dullards think in binaries; trained experts will be far more interested in contextual variables.

It made good congressional theater to nail three Ivy League college presidents on a question of how they would manage verbal threats against Jews. The standard response now is that they prevaricated when they should have been unequivocal. Asked during the hearing whether suggesting the genocide of Jews was against their policies prohibiting harassment, Harvard’s Claudine Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.” But as she later noted, she should have returned to her “guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard and will never go unchallenged.”

Gay missed the opportunity to make a clearer definitive statement against racism. But the presidents were not wrong to explicitly suggest the need for defining the contexts in which threats against others are spoken. There is a long tradition in the United States to treat overheated rhetoric against another group as unfortunate but mostly tolerated. We tolerate blather but not violent behavior. Courts in the country have rarely agreed on what constitutes “fighting words,” and whether they are legally actionable. In each case that has come before a federal court context mattered.

Peer societies like France have more stringent norms against “inciting hatred” that would have muzzled rhetorical provocateurs like Donald Trump years ago. His constant efforts to incite violence against reporters, election officials and politicians opposing him would have crossed the line. But Americans have tolerated Trump’s rhetoric because many view his taunts as the mostly harmless ravings of a man-child.  In some ways his abusive rhetoric is treated with the same kind of indifference American legislators have shown toward gun laws.

The three Ivy League presidents put on the hot seat by a New York Congresswoman were doing what academics are trained to do by trying to deconstruct a broad and panoramic question by considering contextual variables. For example, it is a credit to our culture and campuses that we usually do not send in goon squads to arrest a fiery orator. On my own campus I’ve seen visiting Christian evangelists single out and taunt a single Muslim woman in a hijab, with no interruption from the authorities on site. Should the campus police have stopped the hurtful hurangues of the speakers? Maybe. But I’m glad they let the crowd react with suitable anger.

Context Matters.

The same process is replicated by any trained specialist that is ready to face the messy externals that make any bald claim inaccurate. For example, the description of a dreaded disease to a hapless patient should come with a whole range of scenarios based on the particulars of a person’s case and recent past. A weather prediction similarly comes with a backstory that includes the specific meteorological conditions that are shaping what may happen. And it is obvious that a good biography of a key figure will always include carefully researched details that makes some authors rethink their initial  infatuation with their subject.

Too many members of Congress have perfected the “gotcha question.” But it is inconceivable that a scholar would not have an extended trail of qualifiers to amend a simple panoramic judgment. Their impulse would be to “unpack” the assumptions embedded in a question and wonder if there is a better formulation.  Nitpicking?  Not at all.  Any query suggesting a blanket prohibition of speech needs to be carefully considered.

To be sure, we clearly like the theater of take-no-prisoners questions. That is how television’s Perry Mason kept us riveted for over a decade. But life is complex. Even moral assertions have their limits. If we bother to notice, behaviors are usually more nuanced than our utterances about them. And so, it should not surprise us that the three academics wanted to explain themselves as if they were in a seminar. To be sure, they clearly picked the wrong “universe of discourse” for the setting they were in. They paid the price of having their thoughts reduced to soundbites that made them look equivocal. But it is useful to remember that all of this unfolded in what has become an alien place: a tarnished institution that has abandoned honest curiosity for the  low arts of deprecation and vituperation. It is clear that academics often have a higher standard of discourse that requires amendments, exceptions, genuine questions, and a willingness to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time.

short black line

Revised square logo

Our Brush with Authoritarianism

Americans need to become smarter about weighing the claims of leaders who are willing to trade accuracy for certainty.

German academic T. W. Adorno was the lead researcher of the first major analysis of social conditions that give rise to populations overly-enamored with authority figures.1 The researchers, some of whom had escaped from Europe at the start of World War II, traced the origins of a multitude of personality traits, including anti-Semitism, “susceptibility to antidemocratic propaganda,” ethnocentrism (judging others by one’s own values), and predispositions toward fascism. The rise of the Nazi Party and its wide acceptance even among well-educated Germans was the puzzle they wanted to solve.  Are certain kinds of citizens overly susceptible to appeals based on authority, especially “official” sources? Are some types of audiences too willing to ignore the natural ambiguities of everyday life in favor of the rigid ideological certainties of a demagogue (i.e., Hitler’s stereotypes of Jewish “failings”)? And what psychological needs are satisfied when total allegiance is given to such a leader?

One product of their work was a paper and pencil questionnaire called the F-Scale inventory probing for signs of “authoritarian submission” and “uncritical attitudes toward idealized moral authorities.” It consisted of claims, such as the ones listed below, to which a respondent would agree or disagree.

  • Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.
  • Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions will be obeyed without question.
  • What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, are a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.

Positive responses to these and similar statements were identified as likely authoritarians.


Authoritarian leaders typically overreach their formal powers, distrust the press, and incite citizens against alleged internal enemies.

The researchers found that anti-Semitism, rigidity, ethnocentrism, undue respect for power, and other traits tended to cluster within many of the same people. They theorized that the clustering was tied to styles of family life. They also learned that authoritarianism can be identified in segments of almost any population. Some people may be psychologically hardwired to seek a “place” in a clearly defined social order led by a dominating leader.  It also seems clear that many authoritarians–who can be followers or leaders–want to take ambiguities and uncertainties out of their lives.  They prefer simple answers to complex problems.  As with Adolph Hitler and many others since, authoritarian leaders typically overreach their formal powers, distrust the press, and incite citizens against alleged internal enemies.

The recently concluded political campaign is a reminder that many among us also want simple and magical answers to entrenched problems: all the better if the explanations include scapegoating others.  We have lived through a seemingly endless number of false alternate narratives told and retold about stolen elections, pedophile Washington elites, dead voters who managed to cast a ballot, and all the rest. Presently the political right simmers with many of these fears, as us evident from the compliant silence on wild fantasies expressed by Trump and some of his staff.  Four more years from this puffed-up leader might have been too much for our unexpectedly frail constitution.

Not all authoritarians are on the right. Any number of countries ruled by populist leaders can fall victim to the same patterns. Wherever they come from, they are the enemies of democracy and the values of an open society. As for us, Americans need to get smarter about weighing the claims of leaders who are willing to trade accuracy for certainty.

By the way, you probably noticed that the “F” in the F-Scale Inventory stands for fascism.


1The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.