Ask Only Pre-Approved Questions: A review of Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor, Unassailable Ideas

September 2021

A review of Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor (2020), Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education. Oxford University Press, 208 pages.

In Unassailable Ideas, Ilana Redstone and John Villasenor differentiate their book from others addressing the impact of the critical social justice movement on today’s academy by 1) shifting the focus away from students to faculty and administrators, 2) placing a particular emphasis on the role of social media in the phenomenon’s ascendance (now including cancel culture), and 3) highlighting how this authoritarian world view has escaped the walls of the Ivory Tower to affect society at large. The authors’ arguments flow from considering three foundational, unassailable, beliefs that they assert this ideology are based on: 1) all traditional belief systems and structures must be destroyed; 2) all group differences are completely accounted for by discrimination; and 3) the most important dimension on which to view the world is identity (race, gender, sexual orientation and so on).

In an early chapter addressing the hiring, tenure and promotion of faculty, the focus is on the necessity of embracing woke ideology if one is to succeed, or even have the chance to work, in today’s university. The authors criticize the contention that right-wingers exaggerate high profile but rare academic freedom cases by pointing out the chilling effect these incidents have on the many faculty who dare not test the limits between which acceptable critical social justice dogma may exist. Moreover, increasingly university faculty must articulate their equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) credentials at the time of hiring or when applying for tenure or promotion. “Mandated diversity statements are a way of signaling fealty to (the) prioritization” (p.74) of identity and reflect an implicit abandonment of the value of viewpoint diversity. This not only reduces the breadth of political perspective within the applicant pool but means that even viewpoint outliers who may superficially acquiesce to these demands (i.e., go along to get along), are likely to be shaped into true believers over time. Given what is known about cognitive dissonance, it is often not long before obedience becomes acceptance.

The following chapters build on this theme, topic-by-topic, beginning with the new world of peer review and publication. No longer does an author need worry only about covert political bias in the peer review process but also that gatekeepers, often aided by social media storms, will agitate to have a journal retract work post-publication. The phenomenon is illustrated with the high-profile cases of Lisa Littman (PLOS ONE and rapid-onset gender dysphoria), Rachel Tuvel (Hypatia and transracialism), and Bruce Gilley (Third World Quarterly and the positive aspects of colonialism).

About five years ago this reviewer experienced a similar event with a submission to the Canadian Review of Social Policy (my experience differed in that the commitment to publish was reneged upon prior to the work going public). My article was accepted with positive reviews and a request for minor revisions, the only one of significance being that I provide justification for a passing criticism I made of critical theory. On resubmission, the justification I provided only heightened concerns and prompted the then editor to send the manuscript to editorial board members. What followed was a series of back-and-forths aimed at providing the editor with what she and her board could live with while allowing me to preserve my academic freedom with what was to me a political, unscholarly, demand. The editor ultimately agreed that I had met all requests for revisions: the paper was accepted, and I was offered a likely time for its publication.

When the projected time range for the article to appear had passed, I asked for clarification and was told that the journal was experiencing funding problems and that all publications were on hold. Then, months later, noticing that other papers apparently submitted after mine were being published, I made yet another inquiry. A new editor wrote back to say that the paper would be considered were I to undertake a series of new revisions that were far more extensive than those entailed in the first two rounds combined. I concluded that the paper would have died on the vine had I not repeatedly checked in, that the editor’s concerns continued to not be scholarly but political, that the clear evidence she had in front of her that the paper had been firmly accepted held no sway, and that I was unlikely to get published, if ever, without ceding my academic freedom. I gave up.

This anecdote is consistent with the general contention made in Unassailable Ideas that high-profile cases only scratch the surface of the censorship problem in universities. In yet another recent personal experience, I faced repeated interference in attempts to secure a small packet of research funds from within my university, typically considered to be a pursuit of low-hanging fruit; I am sure the proposal would have been approved without much fear only a few years earlier. By way of comparison, I had been successful in my previous six attempts to access funds from this pool, without a single requested revision, whereas with this proposal I was rejected through three consecutive competitions and two appeals by the adjudicating committee which offered various (factually demonstrable) misrepresentations as to the deficiencies of the proposal.

What had gone wrong? Well, as the committee will not say I can only speculate. The sole plausible hypothesis was that I broke the rules with my proposed line of inquiry. My research involved soliciting student perceptions of rape culture, which I now know is a taboo question because, in the view of many in the criminal justice gang, it is an already settled matter. If gate keepers with the power to adjudicate who does and who does not receive research funding perceive themselves to be free to discriminate against a full professor with a satisfactory research record, just what is the probable treatment awaiting untenured faculty? We are unlikely to know as junior faculty, even those not already afflicted with wokeness, are in large part unwilling to venture outside the range of approved research topics that they come to understand as acceptable. Moreover, and as dictated by the three unassailable beliefs, junior faculty understand that even preapproved questions must be followed up with preapproved answers.

Moving on in the same vein, is a chapter about the limits on free inquiry. The authors illustrate how it is taboo to identify any group difference that is not ascribed in totality to discrimination (see unassailable belief number two), except for when it’s not. This exception generally applies to white men as a group to whom inferiority and undesirableness, on a variety of grounds, may be safely ascribed. Having recently spent a significant amount of time considering gender differences in policing in the preparation of a review, I can attest to the reality that researchers may assert 1) that women are the same as men, 2) that women are superior to men, but never 3) that men are superior to women on any dimension.

The next chapter concerns students and freedom in the classroom in which Wilfrid Laurier’s Lindsay Shepherd case is featured. The authors begin this chapter by citing a recent study that 68% of American students refrain from expressing their actual views in class due to the prevailing climate. This self-censorship is more likely to occur in disciplines strongly embracing the three unassailable ideas. So, for example, although students may learn that functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory are competing paradigms in sociology, they also get the message that conflict theory provides the only “proper” framework for those who wish to be seen as competent scholars and decent human beings.

Attendance in a classroom in thrall to the dictates of critical social justice represents time spent chipping away at a student’s ability to think critically. Not only are learners provided with clear messages about which theoretical paradigm is to be selected but, increasingly, there is also a growing probability that students will not even be exposed to incorrect ways of thinking in the first place. This problem with the political disfavouring of perspectives, of course, precedes this millennium; I now remember, with shame, perceiving the need to periodically introduce explanations from an evolutionary psychology perspective but only when accompanied with cues to reflect, quite disingenuously in certain instances, my contempt. As is the case with much in the critical social justice wave of the last decade, the favouring of theoretical paradigms is not as novel as is the absolute insistence that all must conform. The chapter concludes with interesting thoughts about the differences between the university and the community college classroom. The authors are of the view that community colleges, with much more demographically diverse student bodies, are, ironically perhaps, more tolerant of viewpoint diversity than are universities.

Chapter 12 introduces the reader, in a very abbreviated way, to how the authoritarian demands of critical social justice, and the accompanying wave of cancel culture, have escaped the walls of the Ivory Tower into society at large. The central example used is the general take-over of Silicon Valley illustrated by the specific incident of the firing of Google’s James Damore for the offence of “prohibited assertions.” Other areas to which the spread of self-censorship and identity politics have extended, notably in the writing and publishing of young adult fiction, are touched upon. The chapter finishes with a brief discussion of the growing, but not always successful, “apology as ritual” phenomenon.

The final chapter is concerned with recommendations to halt and reverse the illiberal wave that has been sweeping across academe over the past decade. There is interesting content to be had here, including coverage of some of the historical threads underscoring the development of the liberal university and on the importance of viewpoint diversity and of disputation for societal wellbeing. The actual recommendations, however, are of no value. By simply rehashing the principles and actions that underlie a real university, the authors seem oblivious to the reality 1) that these are the very precepts rejected by those in the critical social justice movement and 2) that those actors appear to be highly committed to continuing their crusade.

This reviewer can provide only an equivocal recommendation for this book to those already engaged with the decline of the Western University. There is not much to be found here that is novel, and even the coverage of social media influences and real-world spillover is unlikely to be particularly informative to those already following cultural change within the academy. Moreover, although the writing is sound, the background research quite comprehensive, and the organization logical, the style is not especially engaging. Finally, many are likely to be tired of the, now requisite it seems, apologetic assertions and qualifiers of the “mind you, it’s not that we necessarily agree” quality.

For the uninitiated, however, the book can be unequivocally recommended as a single source, one-stop-shopping, guide to what has happened to the Western academy in recent years. For such a reader, Unassailable Ideas is a reasonably written and commendably comprehensive overview.