Duke students rebuke prof for saying libertarians are autistic
Duke University students are circulating a petition condemning a professor who labeled conservatives and libertarians autistic, but the administration remains silent.
When Hunter Michielson, president of the school’s Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) chapter, awoke to the news that a professor at his university had publicly speculated that libertarians and conservatives are autistic, he was angry.
"Just because you are a libertarian doesn’t mean you are autistic and just because you are autistic doesn’t mean you lack empathy."
“My initial response was that I wanted her to be punished,” he told Campus Reform.
After conversations with others on campus and seriously contemplating the matter, however, Michielson decided that calling for institutional intervention to silence the professor’s free speech would be hypocritical for him as a libertarian, so he elected to instead create a petition to demonstrate that the Duke community does not condone such remarks.
History professor Nancy MacLean gave a February 7 public lecture on her controversial book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, during which she discussed the life and work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan in light of the American libertarian and conservative movements.
One hour into the lecture, an audience member asked her whether she thinks Buchanan’s libertarian philosophy was motivated by “personal greed” or “malevolence,” to which she responded by speculating that support for individual liberty might actually be the result of a mental disorder.
“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,” she answered.”
“Professor MacLean is obviously a brilliant woman,” Michielson said, noting that he did not want to pass judgement on her other works, which he has not read. “I struggle to accept that she actually believes libertarianism or conservatism is the result of autism. The question is then why she would say something like this.”
After reflecting on the incident, Michielson said that he does not entirely blame academics like MacLean when they make offensive comments about those with whom they disagree. “I think it could be emblematic of lack of exposure,” the Duke senior opined, pointing out that “maybe these academics don’t actually encounter conservative views.”
“I think sometimes it can be easier to level ad-hominem than to actually confront their arguments,” he explained. “I think that this is emblematic of a larger phenomenon that happens at campus across the country.”
That is why Michielson and some of his fellow libertarian and conservative students have started a position calling on Duke University or its History Department to “issue a statement in support of the conservative and Libertarian students as well as autistic students on campus.”
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the university stand with conservative, libertarian, and autistic students and community members and say that just because you are a libertarian doesn’t mean you are autistic and just because you are autistic doesn’t mean you lack empathy,” Michielson remarked.
“College should be a place where you confront difficult opinions,” he added, saying that despite experiencing classroom discrimination for his views, having liberal-leaning professors has been a welcome component of his education given his conservative background.
While he still maintains that MacLean’s comment was “abhorrent,” Michielson did say that he would like the opportunity to discuss the matter with MacLean to lean more about her perspective.
MacLean has not responded to requests for comment from Campus Reform, and spokespersons for Duke declined to provide any reaction to the student petition.
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