A large portion of this issue is devoted to essays that conjure with the problem of free speech in the academy. The “problem,” it may almost go without saying, is that the academy is increasingly inimical to free speech, free inquiry, free action, and free minds. The dissemination of political correctness, subordinating the pursuit of truth to the imposition of political dogma, sacrifices freedom on the altar of virtue, or supposed virtue. The half-dozen essays that follow anatomize that mournful, multifarious drama. It is a thorough and dispiriting sequence of reflections. Taken together, they reveal an institution in crisis. It’s not so much that the academy has turned its back on its traditional raison d’être—the pursuit of truth and the propagation of civilization. No, it’s worse than that. The academy has increasingly embraced an ethic that is positively inimical to its founding principles. “Nowadays,” Georg Lichtenberg mordantly observed, “we everywhere seek to propagate wisdom: who knows whether in a couple of centuries there may not exist universities for restoring the old ignorance.”
As it turns out, Lichtenberg didn’t go far enough. For the old ignorance looks pretty good when compared to the new variety. At least the ignorance of yore was content to subsist in its lack of knowledge. The new variety is infatuated with a sense of self-importance and wants to proselytize. Can there be anything more to be said on the subject? It turns out that there is. When it comes to minatory absurdity, the contemporary academy is a gift that keeps on giving. Every nadir is provisional, a basement floor that conceals a seemingly endless series of sub-basements. Which means that the task of docketing the excavation is also endless. For example, we had just wrapped up our series of essays on free speech and the academy when we received a bulletin from Washington State University announcing that twenty-odd “scholars” (many from the department of “Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies”: you can’t make it up) had issued an open letter denouncing “discourses of free speech.” It is truly a special document, destined to be prized by connoisseurs of cant.
The academy has embraced an ethic inimical to its founding principles.
What are “discourses of free speech”? That would be speech unpoliced by the self- appointed guardians of virtue. Hark: “It is not enough,” these modern Robespierres declare, to
encourage “open-mindedness” and “sensitivity” especially when these passive efforts and rhetoric invariably lead to a culture that accepts and tolerates bigotry and harassment; a campus culture that hides behind “tolerance” and discourses of free speech undeviatingly creates a campus that is especially disempowering to marginalized students.
Let us pause to consider the semantic significance of those deflationary scare quotes. There is a difference between open-mindedness and “open-mindedness,” just as there is a difference between fresh fish and “fresh” fish. The quotation marks are intended to withdraw the indicative or declaratory aspect of the assertion. You are meant to understand that what we are talking about is not genuine open-mindedness or tolerance but somehow dubious simulacra of those virtues.
There are, we should mention, perfectly legitimate uses of this technique of epistemic sabotage, as, for example, in the case when the fish really isn’t fresh, only “fresh,” or, as above, when the scholars are only “scholars.”
But when we read in this open letter from the wsu faculty that “It is not enough to call for ‘tolerance’ or encourage ‘respect’ for all opinions,” we know that they intend a two-stroke act of semantic sabotage. First, they call into question the cogency or authenticity of the concepts of tolerance and respect as traditionally understood. Second, they substitute a supposedly higher understanding of those virtues whose true effect is not to perfect but to undermine those virtues. So: “We must create a campus that asserts that we are anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-xenophobia, anti-homophobic, anti-Islamophobic, anti-ableism, and anti-bigotry. We must work to create mechanisms and structures that combat hate, which empower all constituencies to be active in our collective efforts to rid the campus of bigotry and systemic inequality.”
This procedure is reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse’s attack on tolerance as commonly understood as a “false,” “bad,” or (famous phrase) “repressive tolerance.” Against this evil he advocated what he called “liberating tolerance.” What is liberating tolerance? Simple: “intolerance against movement from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.”
The classical liberal (who is also the contemporary conservative) championed tolerance because it helped maintain a space for civilized disagreement. Many readers will recall hearing sentences like this: “I disagree with you but support your right to voice your opinion.” How quaint that now sounds! The modern social justice warrior abominates disagreement as a form of heresy. Accordingly, he rejects tolerance in favor of enforced, indeed totalitarian, conformity. It is the antithesis of what a liberal-arts education was all about, which is why its installation at the center of our erstwhile liberal-arts institutions makes for such a sad irony.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 1
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