The war on freedom is rotting our intellectual life

Denyse O’Leary
May 2, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

In 2015, Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, announced that "universities are right - and within their rights - to crack down on speech and behavior. Students today are more like children than adults and need protection."

Why today in particular? Is it possible that decades of proselytism for left fascism by their teachers have left their mark? The rioting students are not dissidents but conformists. Professor Posner claims that students' rights are not violated so long as they are permitted to have Incorrect opinions off campus. He writes as if the campus were not part of the country in which it is located: "If students want to learn biology and art history in an environment where they needn't worry about being offended or raped, why shouldn't they?" The easy segue he offers, from feeling offended to being raped, tells us what we are up against if we would restore civil liberties to campus.

Indeed, from Pew we learn that in 2015, "40% of Millennials OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities." As it happens, both "offensive" and "minorities" are subjective, plastic, and expansive concepts.

One episode typifies the new demand for shelter from a complex, real world of ideas: A talk scheduled for a college's school's "uncomfortable learning" speaker series was cancelled due to an uproar. Writer Suzanne Venker was scheduled to speak on "One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails":

The program's purpose is to expose students to controversial voices and opinions they might not otherwise hear. Many of the speakers tend to be conservative or people whose views don't square with those of most students.

Williams' students and many others are making abundantly clear that they are not interested in knowing how others think.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) surveyed 440 schools for a report and found that "49.3 percent maintain severely restrictive, 'red light' speech codes - policies that clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech. That's a bit down from previous years, principally due to FIRE's dedicated pushback, and that of some other groups like Campus Reform. In an academic world where intellectual freedom is the enemy, it's an uphill fight.

Society's leaders are typically chosen from among university graduates. The news cannot be good for the future of freedom for the rest of us once the graduates reach positions of influence in the off-campus environment that Professor Posner believes is protected (for now). It is therefore worth knowing what the graduates do believe, apart from the fact that they don't care much for intellectual freedom.

Dominant themes

The war on intellectual freedom is rooted in themes such as these: Humans are just another animal , the mind is an illusion , and there is no free will . Ideas, in that case, have only an accidental relationship to reality, not an intrinsic one.

These views, widespread if not dominant among elite academics for decades, are spreading slowly from campuses into society. They do not spell an end to all values. Some values survive, but they are warped, truncated, and increasingly incoherent. For example:

If no one really thinks or chooses, coercing Correct thoughts and suppressing Incorrect ones is morally neutral. Belief can be demanded and doubt can be prohibited irrespective of any relationship to fact. In a recent Scientific American piece (December 2016), social scientist Julie Shaw explain that we now live in a post-truth society :

I'm a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and "the truth" sometime last year. I wrote a whole science book, The Memory Illusion, almost never mentioning the terms fact and truth. Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don't actually exist. At least not in the way we commonly think of them.

Facts have no privileged position in the world that struggles to be born. Beliefs are evaluated on their supposed utility. Economist Thomas Sowell, reflecting on the violence at Middlebury where sociologist Charles Murray was prevented from speaking, notes that accusations no longer require evidence:

Frank Bruni of the New York Times, for example, while criticizing the rioters, lent credence to the claim that Charles Murray was "a white nationalist." Similar - and worse - things have been said, in supposedly reputable publications, by people who could not cite one statement from any of Dr. Murray's books that bears any resemblance to their smears.

It makes little difference if useful beliefs are based on deliberate lies (fake but accurate). Retired psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple is not enthusiastic about the outcome: "A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to."

Discussion of ideas in conflict gives way to therapy or social engineering goals . For example, as Sean Collins notes at Spiked , re accusations of racism:

But beyond extracting a confession from a college official before their execution, what exactly do these students want the universities to do? In a word, all want to expand what might be called the race therapy complex in higher education. This complex encompasses a variety of administrative bodies, student clubs, training and course curricula, all with the aim of propagating a particular view about race - one that sees the problem of racism, and its management, in therapeutic terms.

Sensitivities are not subject to reason; they are indulged when they coincide with social engineering goals, irrespective of their implications. And they are rejected if they don't. Consider, for example, the surge of enforcement around "offensive" Halloween costumes. It's blaringly obvious that most of the costumes ran afoul only of politically correct groupthink. The same people did not seem offended by the Donald Trump or fundamentalist Christian costumes, whatever they imputed to the figures portrayed.

Sensitivities can be contradictory because the legitimacy of a concern depends on the social identity of the person advancing it, not on reason. As Lynne Truss, author of Talk to the Hand , observes ,

"And where the 'minority' issue is involved, the rules seem to shift about: most of the time a person who is female/black/disabled/gay wants this not to be their defining characteristic; you are supposed to be blind to it. But then, on other occasions, you are supposed to observe special sensitivity, or show special respect."

Similarly, we were recently informed that at Oxford University, not making eye contact when speaking to someone might be deemed racist . Note how the budding totalitarians are comfortable second-guessing unknown social relationships blindly. One outcome of their influence has been a tsunami of scares and hoaxes around claims of discrimination. The fact that so few participants in the resulting panics apparently feel silly afterward tells us something important: In the new order, a high level of suggestibility and a low level of common sense will be important survival skills.

History is fungible if it raises troubling issues. That is a logical outcome of a post-truth society. Statues must be removed or names changed if historic figures' failings feel sensitive. And it is only the current sensitivity that matters. Failings that do not arouse current sensitivities are never considered. In the vacuum of context that necessarily develops, learning about the actual past becomes impossible. In George Orwell's 1984, the protagonist Winston, a low-level bureaucrat, was employed full time rewriting history. He certainly would not want for work today.

There are no fixed standards of justice to appeal to. Recently, controversial conservative pundit Ann Coulter could not speak at Berkeley due to threats of violence . But Marxist anarchist Germain Greer had to withdraw from speaking at Cardiff in Wales because she does not toe the line on transgender claims. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited from receiving an honorary degree at Brandeis because of her negative attitude to Islam. Ex-Muslim Hirsi Ali is a victim of female genital mutilation but that is apparently not a Correct sensitivity any longer so it cannot be counted in her favour.

When the only standard is sensitivity, moral outrages must be accommodated. Where does that lead? Jonathan A.C. Brown, director of a centre for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown praised slavery in Muslim societies and claimed that it is "not immoral for one human to own another human" and that "consent isn't necessary for lawful sex." No riots ensued, so the content of his ideas does not matter.

The sciences are especially hard hit . In a post-fact science world, objectivity comes to be seen as sexist if not racist , and engineering is suspect . Does it feel odd to you, reader, that young progressives are adopting the viewpoint of misogynists and white supremacists as to why women or visible minorities groups would not succeed in the sciences today -- that members of these groups cannot easily master the historic core values of science? The only explanation I can offer you is that political correctness need not make sense. It need only be successfully enforced.

And there is more of it to come. A Toronto neuroscientist who attended a recent March for Science, noted ,

What I found particularly concerning was the March's emphasis on intersectionality as a "core principle." This theory is fuelled by anti-science sentiments, such as the belief that we should prioritize subjective feelings over objective fact. These ideas have no place in the discourse on legitimate science.

But what if "legitimate science" is increasingly dictated by post-fact thinking on campus?

Finally, many ask, how does the enforcer of social justice stripped of rationality logically justify his own position? In a word, power. Once he has power, he need not justify it. In a world governed by naturalism , power is its own justification. That is the single hardest thing for opponents of rampant political correctness to grasp. Opponents keep looking for the rational, evidence-based core that underlies an idea like transgender tots . But there isn't one. There can't be one. And it doesn't matter whether there is or not. The goal is to compel assent or silence from all of us by whatever available means. No amount of understanding or appeasement of the enforcers of Correctness will turn them aside because they take for granted that you had better cave in to their demands, or else.