Among the latest entrants into the community of the cancelled is former Assistant Professor of Psychology at Marietta College, Bo Winegard. After the second year of his tenure-track appointment, his contract was not renewed, and the reasons for it have everything to do with an anonymous accuser who was displeased by his views. Winegard details the story in Quillette.
Quillette has been part of the story of cancellings for a while, because they are one of the few publications that is willing to tell the story, and to continue allowing a platform for those voices who have been effectively silenced by their communities. Winegard was a regular contributor to Quillette. He wrote an ode to centrism, and about the bias against conservatism in the academy. He decried progressivism in an article on the problem with its hostility to the west. Most recently, he penned a piece on his professional termination.
I talked to Winegard about his termination from Marietta, why it happened, and about publishing with Quillette, something he and I have both taken lots of heat for. I asked him if there was anything in his employment contract with Marietta that prohibited his publishing on certain things.
“No, there wasn’t,” he said. “To be clear about that situation: it’s a tenure track job. The first year is a probationary year, so they can actually fire you after that year with no consequences. I was in my second year. Not only is there nothing that says you can’t talk about these topics, if you look at the handbook, there’s a pretty robust defense of academic freedom, including for extramural comments or activities.” These include posts on social media. Winegard’s goals at Marietta were to teach, publish, and contribute to the community.
Yet it appears he was fired over a tweet, one of these extramural comments elucidated as acceptable in the handbook. It was only up for an hour before he deleted it, believing he had not best represented his view. But that was enough time for the anonymous accuser to bring the tweet to the attention of Marietta’s administration.
The tweet read: “The greatest challenge to affluent societies is dealing openly, honestly, and humanely with biological (genetic) inequality. If we don’t meet this challenge, I suspect our countries will be torn apart from the inside like a tree destroyed by parasites.”
Agree with his views or not, Winegard has a right to speak, and anonymous accusations should never result in termination from employment.
Perhaps Winegard’s most controversial work was one he co-wrote with Noah Carl. It was a review of the book Superior, by Angela Saini, and it earned him this description in RationalWiki: “Winegard believes that race is a biological reality, white people have superior IQs predominantly because of genes and that skull shapes and measurements can determine human races by continental ancestry.”
I hadn’t heard of Winegard’s work until it was brought up by a former classmate against me in a guilt-by-association accusation, saying that since I had published in Quillette, I must share Winegard’s views, and that made me even more unacceptable. Winegard had been surprised by the backlash against the review.
“I was shocked by the reaction to the article. People were saying that we were promoting phrenology, including blue check marked writers for The New York Times. And we had said nothing of the sort, it was a sort of ‘through the looking glass’ experience.”
I wanted to get to the bottom of this article, and the backlash that followed during which he was called probably the worst thing a person can be called in our western nation today, a racist.
Carl and Winegard tackled Saini’s notion that race is a construct and not a biological reality, that genetic differences are merely superficial, that looking at genetic differences between population groups is inherently probelmatic, and that those who pursue this course of study are necessarily racist.
Winegard and Carl posit that genetics do play a role in determining characteristics that are more than skin deep. The idea is that population groups evolved diverged due to differences in landscape, natural selection, etc. Winegard does not put a moral judgement on any of the variable traits.
“I would never use the words superior or inferior,” Winegard told me. “It’s a divisive way of putting a very complicated issue. There are partially, genetically caused differences in cognitive abilities among human populations,” he asserted. But he also said that “It’s important to note that I’ve never claimed that this is certain, or that there is dispositive evidence. It’s a very complicated problem which is why we need to debate the topic honestly, but judiciously.”
To say that this is a controversial line of inquiry would be an understatement. Those who dive into it, from Charles Murray to Jordan Peterson, are tagged as racists in general culture and discourse. This label, once earned, is not easy to get out from under. Given the concepts of microaggressions and unconscious bias, there is basically nothing a person can do to overturn this negative perception.
I asked Winegard why he pursued the course of inquiry. “I’m interested in what’s true about the world,” he said, “so my job, as a scientist who is interested in human nature and evolution, is to understand the truth.”
“When I first encountered the claim of partially genetically caused differences, I was skeptical as well,” he said, “and I took a year in reading the literature before I thought it was more likely than not that genes played a role and I would be honest in my views on that.”
We talked about the idea that children are born as a “blank slate,” able to be thoroughly molded by environment, and how, as Winegard said, “the evidence against the blank slate view is sort of overwhelming at this point.”
Like probably many of his colleagues who do not think ill of Winegard, but are also unwilling to speak in his defense, I found myself wondering, again, why he would pursue this topic, knowing as he did that it would be controversial.
This is something my good friend said to me when, a few years ago, I would not shut up in print about my views, and found myself on the sour end of a social and professional cancelling. I was surprised to find myself having the same thought, remembering her question to me “why did you have to say anything at all?” Despite my own experience, I am not immune to this line of thinking.
Cancellations and the firing people for their views, tweets, and poorly phrased jokes are playing out across society. While we hear stories of the moguls being taken down, those at local levels slip beneath the radar. Winegard thinks this is a process of alienation.
“You’re going to allientate more people,” he said, “and those people will find sympathy with each other and I hope that is good in some ways. You and I probably disagree on lots of things,” he noted, “but we can be sympathetic to each other.”
“My hope is that we’ll form a sort of social/political alliance with people who have wildly different views,” he said, “but share a commitment to liberalism, with like a small L, freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, the ability to take a joke, having charity for people and the things that they say.”
What we have going now is a culture wherein people assume the worst intentions of those they come into contact with, figuring that a person is either intentionally or unintentionally putting their worst self forward. How much better discourse would be if we weren’t constantly looking for the ways in which we’d been wronged, or ways to punish each other for those infractions.
Winegard lost his job, but he won’t be shut out of discourse. Those who disagree with him should engage in the actual content of the conversation, not send anonymous accusations to college administrators to ruin a man’s livelihood.