PATHOLOGICAL COMFORT AND SHOOTING THE MESSENGER

A few days ago, the graduate director of Duke’s biostatistics program had to step down from her position because she made the following statement:

abc.13.com

abc.13.com

“Hi All,

I had two separate faculty members come to my office today and ask if I had pictures of the MB students. I shared with them the head shots of the first- and second-year cohorts taken during orientation. Both faculty members picked out a small group of first-year students who they observed speaking Chinese (in their words, VERY LOUDLY) in the student lounge/study areas. I asked why they were curious about the students’ names. Both faculty members replied that they wanted to write down the names so they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project. 

They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.

To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building. I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting. Copying the second-year students as a reminder given they are currently applying for jobs.

Happy to discuss more. Just stop by my office.”

These comments echoed another email, also sent by Professor Neely, in February of last year to the same effect. You can see that email here: 

https://twitter.com/siruihua/status/1089294093912543232/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1089294093912543232&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cnn.com%2F2019%2F01%2F28%2Fhealth%2Fduke-professor-warns-chinese-students-speak-english-trnd%2Findex.html

Here is the relevant portion of the Dean’s response: 

“To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.”

Predictably, Professor Neely has been labeled a racist and chased out of her position and the two unnamed professors will now be the subjects of an investigation by Duke. Doubtless, schools and corporations will continue to request that applicants waive their rights to see their letters of recommendation, so there will be no way for students to vet the convenient and unenforceable claims of the Dean.

This controversy exists a larger context, which I will address more fully elsewhere. It has to do with Asian self-segregation in American colleges and universities – behavior that is problematic for any student who wishes to remain in the United States (something like 80% of my students do) after graduation. This is a real problem and language use is a real part of it. However, a full discussion of the dynamics of self-segregation and what should be done about it – if anything – will require a separate post. For now, I wish to offer a brief defense of Professor Neely.

Let’s summarize what she said: on at least two occasions, she received complaints about Chinese students speaking very loudly, in Chinese, in common space. After at least one of these incidents, certain professors asked her to identify the students in question, presumably so that they could avoid hiring or working with them in the future.

There are a few things to notice here: 

  1. Professor Neely was not endorsing these views and she had not, on her own initiative, sought any information about these students. Her email simply pointed out the negative consequences of a certain set of actions as evidenced by the demonstrated intentions of people with power.

  2. This is emphatically NOT racial discrimination. If the professors wanted to discriminate against Asians or Chinese people, they wouldn’t have needed to ask for the names of the students who were speaking in the break room. They would simply exclude anyone with a Chinese name or an Asian face whenever they interviewed them or received their applications to various programs. 

The condemnation of Professor Neely or her actions as racist borders on incoherent. To point out the factual consequences of an external reality is not to endorse or defend that reality. Let’s take an unambiguous negative: air pollution in Hanoi. When I say you should wear a mask because pollution will hurt your lungs, I’m not saying that pollution is a good thing. I’m saying that it’s a real thing and that it might hurt you. By telling you to wear a mask, I’m giving you a way to avoid harm and achieve an objective you deem important: living a healthy life in Hanoi. It will do you absolutely no good to say that people should drive less, that Hanoians shouldn’t burn their fields or their trash, or that factories should install better exhaust filtration systems. That all may be true. It may be an outrage to Gaia that you must wear a mask. You’ll still get pneumonia. The bacteria that will eat your lungs will not care about your goodthink.

Let’s yield Neely’s critics the strongest possible ground and assume absolutely no legitimacy in the complaints of the professors. Let’s assume that these whiners are completely racist, insane, irrational, and mean-spirited monsters who simply can’t stand the sound of the Chinese language. If that’s the case, then Professor Neely’s advice is doubleplusgood advice. In fact – if students want to get hired by such evil men and women at all – the more monstrously hateful the professors and the greater their hatred for the Chinese language, the better the advice! In the worst case, bigotry is like an environmental toxin. Should we remove the toxins (either by a re-education of the professors or removal of the doubleplusungood thoughtcriminals)? Sure. Should Hanoi clean up its air? Absolutely. Will these proper and righteous beliefs help me tomorrow or even 2 years from now? No. Taking immediate action to evade the threat posed by my environment will. Wearing a mask will. Speaking in English in university common space will.
Notice also that the more thoroughgoing and terrible the pollution, the more urgent my need to evade its harm. That advice designed to help students evade the harms of supposed racism is absurdly labeled racist is how I know that there is no serious culture of Asian oppression at Duke biostatistics. 

Of course, I don’t think that the complaining professors in Duke’s biostatistics department are evil racists and I see no reason to concede to Prof. Neely’s critics their strongest possible premise. To see the situation more clearly, let’s reverse it. Let’s say that I apply to a Vietnamese academic program, come to Vietnam, then, whenever I was in/around school, I choose to only or mostly hang out with other Americans and speak English with them, rather than engaging with Vietnamese people in Vietnamese. On top of that, my friends and I are rude in the common space and fail to observe social norms. Several professors observe this behavior. They conclude that, because I am failing to observe cultural norms and not taking this chance to improve my Vietnamese, they don’t want to work with me in the future. 

Are these professors racist? Of course not. “American,” like “Chinese,” is a nationality, not a race. But that’s cheating, I’m being uncharitable. When you say “racist” you actually mean “bigoted.” Do these professors have an irrational or refractory bias against a group to which I belong that they will exercise against me as an individual? Are these professors bigoted against me as an American? I have no reason to think so. In a Vietnamese context, they would know that I was an American just by looking at my name or my face. If they had bigoted views on Americans, then they wouldn’t need to know my individual identity to exercise their bias against me – that’s the whole point of group hatred. 
So, if they aren’t being racists or practicing bigotry what are these professors doing? They are making unfavorable inferences about me from my individual behavior. They are judging, as it were, the content of my character. Am I among the most comfortable foreign students in the department? If you have seen me, over several weeks, speaking with other English speakers exclusively, probably not. Am I among the most socially graceful students in the department? Probably not, since you have seen me repeatedly violating norms that other students understand and observe. Given these two things, in a population of international students, some of whom are more comfortable with Vietnamese and some of whom are more observant of prevailing social norms, why should these professors hire me, rather than an American who is clearly more comfortable operating in a Vietnamese context? If they’re serious people who want to work with the most effectively communicative and socially enterprising Americans, all else equal, they shouldn’t.

There is even a non-exclusionary interpretation open to us. American university professors are among the most politically progressive and inclusive people in the world. This is true even in STEM fields like biostatistics. I assumed, earlier in this essay, that the offended professors were asking so that could screen these students out from certain opportunities. But, as anyone who has met me will surely attest, I am not among the most politically progressive and “inclusive” people in the world. My perceptions might be skewed. Perhaps these professors wanted to know who these students were so that, if they ever interacted with them, they could help their social integration or English acquisition. If you’re a teacher, the reason that you identify underperformance is so that you can correct it.
So, if they aren’t being racists or practicing bigotry what are these professors doing? They are making unfavorable inferences about me from my individual behavior. They are judging, as it were, the content of my character. Am I among the most comfortable foreign students in the department? If you have seen me, over several weeks, speaking with other English speakers exclusively, probably not. Am I among the most socially graceful students in the department? Probably not, since you have seen me repeatedly violating norms that other students understand and observe. Given these two things, in a population of international students, some of whom are more comfortable with Vietnamese and some of whom are more observant of prevailing social norms, why should these professors hire me, rather than an American who is clearly more comfortable operating in a Vietnamese context? If they’re serious people who want to work with the most effectively communicative and socially enterprising Americans, all else equal, they shouldn’t.

There is even a non-exclusionary interpretation open to us. American university professors are among the most politically progressive and inclusive people in the world. This is true even in STEM fields like biostatistics. I assumed, earlier in this essay, that the offended professors were asking so that could screen these students out from certain opportunities. But, as anyone who has met me will surely attest, I am not among the most politically progressive and “inclusive” people in the world. My perceptions might be skewed. Perhaps these professors wanted to know who these students were so that, if they ever interacted with them, they could help their social integration or English acquisition. If you’re a teacher, the reason that you identify underperformance is so that you can correct it.
As for the Dean’s statement, while I’m sure it made everyone feel very tolerant and progressive, it does a disservice to foreign students. She can say that student social and linguistic behavior outside of the classroom will have no effect on their job or scholarship prospects, but her wishful thinking will not make it so. In the February 18thletter, Neely mentions that the Department Chair – a professor with real power over what money goes where and to whom – was one of the complainants. Unless the Dean controls the budgets or minds of those who award jobs and scholarships, her pc bullshit, inasmuch as it encourages self-segregation, will ultimately hurt her students. What’s worse, now that professors have been punished for attempting to identify problematic individuals, perhaps they will stop trying. Since we have deprived them of the ability to identify problematic individuals, we have now created a situation where it is only possible for them to exclude those individuals by wholesale exclusion of the identifiable group to which those individuals belong. Liberal progressive social pressure has created an environment that is likely to produce a facsimile of actual racism. 

Perhaps, eventually, all this will tell in the rankings. Such a ranking drop would be mediated by lower placement rates for graduates less fluent in English than graduates from other schools with less pc policies. A disservice to students is a disservice to the university. That said, if college administrators all act in the same way, we may not see a shift in the rankings at all, since relative quality will stay the same. Instead, we’ll just see a generation of Chinese biostatisticians who can’t communicate in English as well as they might have been able to. The invisible cost will be all the advances in biostatistics that could have been the product of collaboration in what is, for better or worse, the international lingua franca. We will lose out in the form of unsolved medical problems and shorter, unhealthier lives. A disservice to the university becomes a disservice to society at large.
This is just the latest expression of a pathological need for comfort overcoming a civilizational drive for excellence. It will probably get worse before it gets better. The time is coming when we will need to think about comfort-seeking for self and others as a mode of civilization failure.

Justin Shelby