Letter to the Editor: Alumni defend free thinking

Dear Editor,


As Scranton alumni, we are grateful to The University for many things. But perhaps the greatest gift of our Jesuit education was that it taught us how to think. The free exchange of ideas and the ability to deconstruct an issue from all sides, then put it back together again, are what set a Jesuit education apart. Or at least that is what we believed. The letter to the editor by Professors Karpiak and Mulhall that appeared in last week’s issue has deeply troubled us. The professors’ attack on the democratic, Constitutional and free thinking choices of the American voter is the antithesis of the great academic traditions that make us proud to be Scranton alumni. This letter is not a defense of Donald Trump. Nor is it a defense of Hillary Clinton. This is not a defense of any candidate or agenda. Rather, this is a defense of the American Constitution and the ability of every American to vote as they so choose. In short, this is a defense of free thinking.


For the professors to expect some form of apology from those Americans who voted for, in the professors’ view, the wrong candidate is distinctly undemocratic. It is narrow-mindedness masquerading as academic intellectualism. Americans who voted for Donald Trump do not need a “patronizing excuse” from the professors’ “liberal friends.” We direct the professors’ attention, and that of their friends, to the U.S. Constitution and the four voting Amendments, none of which require a voter to apologize or explain him or herself to professors (or anyone else). See U.S. Const., Amends. 15, 19, 24, 26.


Americans do not owe anyone an explanation for the way they choose to vote. The ability to vote is at the core of our democracy. As a result, any action that infringes on that right is rightly viewed as suspect and potentially unconstitutional. But while this nation outlawed such things as poll taxes and literacy tests years ago, these professors seem to be in favor of an “explanation test” in order to weed out anyone voting for reasons the professors deem improper. If that is the case, we have some proposed language for them: “In 250 words or less, please state the reasons you are voting for this candidate. Failure to satisfactorily and properly explain yourself will result in your ballot being discarded.”


The professors deploy an impressive skirmish line of horribles in their letter: racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious discrimination, misogyny, harming the poor and harming the environment. Throwing labels is a wonderfully easy tactic. Labels stick, but are often only backed up by repetition. They become “true” simply because someone said it. We doubt the professors have access to data that demonstrates that every sexist, racist bigot in the country voted for Donald Trump and that not a single one voted for Hillary Clinton. Further, there is data that some Americans voted for Hillary Clinton simply because she was the first woman candidate from one of the two major political parties. The professors do not bother to condemn, or even address, this “sexist” voting decision because it does not fit their narrative. We decline to address it for a different reason: voting considerations are a personal matter that each voter is entitled to decide individually.


The professors’ attack on single-issue voters is particularly disturbing. A single issue voter may have a great many “issues” with a candidate’s other positions. Demeaning an individual’s choice to prioritize the issues that are important to her or him and then vote accordingly manifests a stunning elitism. Do the professors believe that everyone who voted for Hillary Clinton was so “comfortable” with her stance on the issue of abortion as “to go ahead and vote for it?” Is anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton incapable of being a good Catholic? Of course not. We would not be so bold as to assign such motives to our fellow Americans, regardless of our individual stances on the underlying issue. However, the professors have assigned motive and, based on that assignation, summarily tried and convicted these Americans of voting for the “wrong” candidate. We are very uncomfortable with such proceedings.


A secretive, insurgent minority did not elect Donald Trump; 60 million Americans did. He won the election through the same process that has produced every American president. He is no longer the Republican nominee. He is the president-elect of the United States. To be sure, we ourselves have many disagreements and differences in opinion with Donald Trump’s policies. But it is the contest of ideas that should form the basis of our democracy, not elitist demands for explanations and apologies from voters with whom you disagree. American democracy is a binary system. A choice must be made. But that choice is an individual one. No one needs to engage in calculus, physics or psychology in order to justify their choices to the satisfaction of Professors Mulhall and Karpiak.





Alumni of the Class of 2014

Christian R. Burne

Sean McKee

Amanda Stahl

Alexander Flynn

Daniel P. Gleason

Nicolas Constantino

Ashley Arcieri

Daniel J. Pati

Corey Kroptavich

Daniel DiPaola

8 Responses to Letter to the Editor: Alumni defend free thinking

  1. Jonathan Rizzo Reply

    November 20, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    I disagree with you. Hillary won the popular vote. A vote for Trump is a vote for hate, racism, bigotry, scapegoating, and xenophobia. The professors were absolutely in the right because they do not want those terrible things to be a part of our democracy. You may say the professors were wrong, but what is wrong is EVERYTHING the Trump campaign was fueled by – hate, racism, bigotry, scapegoating, and xenophobia. My Jesuit education also taught me how to think; no one is doing the thinking for me.

    • Amy '02 Reply

      November 21, 2016 at 6:04 pm

      Very unclear what “Hillary won the popular vote” has to do with ANYTHING that was said in this article. In fact, I applaud these individuals for taking a neutral position, yet still providing a compelling argument.

      But thank you, Jonathan, for being a prime example of what this article conveys–your catch phrase insults (scapegoating AND xenophobia TWICE in 1 paragraph–well done!) do not somehow gain meaning simply because you repeat them x number of times.

      Proud of the students who wrote this article.

    • Evan McLaren Reply

      November 22, 2016 at 8:00 am

      The main evidence that Trump represents “hate, racism, bigotry, scapegoating, and xenophobia” is that his haters repeatedly say so–like Mr. Rizzo does, twice.

      The US does not hold a popular vote Instead, as a federal republic, it holds 51 individual contests according to a compact between the states and the District of Columbia. Trump engineered his come-from-behind against-the-odds victory with this reality in mind.

  2. Matthew Meyer Reply

    November 20, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    I’m sorry, but the opening paragraph is one of the more bizarre pieces of reasoning I have seen in some time (and that includes many student philosophy papers). I fail to see how Karpiak and Mulhall’s letter is an attack on free thought, democracy, and the Constitution. It is an attempt to say that Trump voters are either racist (etc.) themselves or fail to see in racism (etc.) something non-negotiable, but what does that have to do with an attack on democracy or free thought or the Constitution? As I see it, the response to K+M’s letter is to simply claim either that (a) Trump doesn’t traffic in or support a racist (etc.) agenda or (b) that supporters of Trump find such racist (etc.) rhetoric and policies permissible so long as they get something else they want in return (or (c) they themselves just are racist). I think (a) is obvious, and so it seems that whoever voted for Trump fits into the category of (b) or (c). As I see it, all K+M want Trump voters to do is to be honest and own that decision. It has nothing to do with stopping free thought or democracy or whatever else.

    • Evan McLaren Reply

      November 22, 2016 at 8:08 am

      After the election, one of the Democratic primary candidates, Jim Webb, explained that the voters had elevated Trump to express their rejection of “a new form of elitism,” in which those at the top of the social and political hierarchy substantially avoid armed service. Further, Webb saw the results as an objection to the outcome of the Immigration Act of 1965, “which has dramatically changed the racial and ethnic makeup of the country while keeping in place a set of diversity policies in education and employment that were designed – under the Thirteenth Amendment – to ‘remove the badges of slavery’ for African Americans.” Webb pointed out that, given this reality, rhetoric about “white privilege” and racism are likely to irritate white people living in places like Clay County, Kentucky, where the poverty rate is above 40 percent and whose population is 94 percent white.

      And so on. So you can call that “racism,” if you like, but to me that seems like a crude and unfeeling explanation. Beyond what I feel personally, it’s an explanation from which many are turning away.

      • Matthew Meyer Reply

        November 22, 2016 at 5:06 pm

        Well, now we have a sensible response to the initial article, which seems to have two layers. First, some might question whether this is racism at all. This would be (a) above. Second, and this seems to be the primary claim in the comment above, one can question the wisdom and sensitivity of leveling the charge of racism especially against working class and poor whites in places like Kentucky. I think both are points valid enough for discussion, especially the latter. I don’t want to get too involved in the content of the debate (my objection to the alumni response was largely logical-formal), but I will say that K+M seem to be leveling the charge against the educated college students and graduates who voted for Trump, since it appeared in this periodical. Thus, the context might help them escape, or at least lessen, the charge of insensitivity. In any case, I think the point is worthy of reflection.

  3. Victoria '12 Reply

    November 21, 2016 at 1:15 am

    Dear fellow alumni, as a Scranton alumna and former student of Professor Karpiak, I too am thankful to the University for teaching us the “value of the free exchange of ideas and the ability to deconstruct an issue”, in addition to the value of reading comprehension, empirical research, including research methods and statistical inference, and also basic logic. I am grateful for the University of Scranton’s dedication to Jesuit values (most especially the pursuit of justice (with particular emphasis on the poor and most marginalized), critical thought, and responsible action on moral and ethical issues).

    Free speech guarantees Karpiak and Mulhall the right to beseech their liberal friends to stop making patronizing excuses for those who voted for Trump and thus endorsed Trump’s platform that is by all objective measures harmful to the environment, discriminatory, and unjust. Free speech gives you the freedom to claim to be the protectors and defenders of the American Constition and to frame a letter and an argument on the misrepresentation of another’s argument; that Karpiak and Mulhall attacked the constitution and the right of Americans to vote as they choose and demanded apologies and explanations from Trump supporters.

    Karpiak & Mulhall do not condemn free speech, the U.S. Constitution, or the ability of every American to vote as they choose; nor do they ask Trump voters to apologize or explain their votes. Indeed, with basic reading comprehension skills, one might read that Karpiak and Mulhall suggest their “liberal friends” need not keep apologizing (or making “patronizing excuses”) for Trump voters. They are, like you, and like myself, practicing the free exchange of ideas and free speech, with respect to Jesuit values.

    You claim that Karpiak and Mulhall throw labels, labels that can only be backed by repetition (as opposed to data). However, data suggests that many Trump supporters are racist (and fearful of minority groups), middle class (rather than poor as frequently suggested), sexist, and endorse authoritarian values. If you had taken Professor Karpiak’s statistics and/or research methods course(s), then you would have learned that research involves aggregating data (often comparing the means between two (or more) groups). For instance, you might dichotomize Trump voters and Clinton voters into two groups and then analyze the aggregate differences in their opinions about Mexicans. You might find that Trump supporters statistically differ from Clinton supporters in their views on Mexicans. You might then infer, that Trump supporters are generally more racist than Clinton supporters. Basic logic would faciliate your understanding that not all Trump supporters are racist and some Clinton supporters are racist. However, generally, Trump supporters are more racist than Clinton supporters.

    See Karpiak and Mulhall’s references here: http://aquinasarchive.scranton.edu/2016/11/16/letter-editor-professors-address-student-backlash/ .

    You also argue that labels “become “true” simply because someone said it.” I am confused by this. Are we living in a post-truth world? Does this mean that if I label the earth as flat, it will become flat? What if someone else says the earth is spherical? What does the earth become?

    I share your commitment to a defense of free thinking but I do not believe you adequatly defended free thinking, nor have you adequatly read or represented Professor Karpiak and Professor Mulhall’s letter. I question your understanding of free speech and free thinking.


  4. Christie Karpiak & Declan Mulhall Reply

    November 22, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Dear group of alums,

    Thank you for your letter in support of the right to vote.

    Your letter and some of the comments under our original letter have reminded us that it is important to have an extra set of eyes go over written work before sending it off for publication. Had we done that we might have avoided some predictable misinterpretations.

    It goes without saying that voting is a private act, and no one should be expected to disclose or defend their vote. We certainly do not make a “demand for explanations and apologies from voters.”

    To clarify, our first letter was addressed not to Trump voters but to liberals and other people trying to grasp how their friends and neighbors could have voted for a man who so openly used xenophobic rhetoric and promised xenophobic policies. A statement such as “they can explain their calculus to the rest of us” means that liberals should stop trying to explain Trump voters’ choice and let them explain it themselves. It certainly does not mean that the Trump voter MUST explain, or should be grilled for an explanation, or anything of the sort. It means the rest of us should stop making up reasons for them, a phenomenon that unfortunately is still going full force among pundits.

    We addressed a second letter, and some comments under the first, to our student Trump voters. These messages were intended for those students who know and care about people that might reasonably feel threatened by Trump’s agenda. (Trump’s current nominees for important positions aren’t doing anything to assuage those fears.) To these students we suggested that denial of Trump’s vile rhetoric likely would not be useful in conversation with people who were the targets of that rhetoric. Again, the point was not that Trump voters must explain themselves, but rather that they should not expect people who were insulted during the campaign and who have a lot to lose during the upcoming administration to have a neutral view about their Trump vote (should they disclose it).

    A final note: your assertion that asking Trump voters for an explanation of their behavior would be analogous to a poll tax belies profound naivete about real discrimination.

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