At my own college, when a senior colleague at a public meeting last fall uttered an expression (“in their native habitat”) felt by some to be “offensive” — though clearly not intended to be so, and followed by a clear apology when a complaint was voiced — there were calls for her to resign from the faculty. And though she is, and will remain, with us, the incident prompted a volley of abusive and self-righteous rhetoric, drove more than one faculty member to advise students away from courses taught by “that woman,” and stirred a renewed emphasis on “re-education” and “rehabilitation.”
It is tempting to describe the battles convulsing American campuses with epithets like “the politics of hysteria.” More than a bit of hysteria was unleashed at Middlebury College this month, when protesters prevented Charles Murray from delivering a scheduled lecture. In spite of eloquent rebukes delivered by the college president and several prominent faculty members, some on the Middlebury campus defended the protest by citing the poisonous views expressed by Murray in his ugly and notorious book, The Bell Curve. Though it’s a violent instance of so-called free-speech controversies lately ignited on the nation’s campuses, the Middlebury incident doesn’t begin to reveal the depth or virulence of the opposition to robust discussion within the American professoriate, where many self-described liberals continue to believe that they remain committed to “difference” and debate, even as they countenance a full-scale assault on diversity of outlook and opinion.
Confront contemporary left-liberal academics — I continue to regard myself as a member of that deeply troubled cohort — with a familiar passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and they will be moved at once to proclaim that Mill espouses what virtually all of us have long taken for granted. Of course we understand that “the tyranny of the majority” must be guarded against — even when it is our majority. Of course we understand that “the peculiar evil of silencing”— or attempting to silence — “the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing … posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: If wrong, they lose … the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
What can be more obvious than that? Of course we understand that there is danger in abiding uncritically with the views of one’s own “party” or “sect” or “class.” Who among us doesn’t know that even ostensibly enlightened views cannot entitle us to think of those views, or of those who hold them, as “infallible”?
Shaming, scapegoating, and periodic ritual exorcisms are a prime feature of campus life.
And yet a good many liberal academics are not actually invested in the posture to which their avowals ostensibly commit them. Mill noted among his own contemporaries, more than 150 years ago, what is very much in evidence in our own culture: that certain opinions have come to seem so important “to society” that their usefulness cannot be legitimately challenged. Thus a great many contemporary liberals subscribe to the belief — however loath they may be to acknowledge it — that certain ideas are “heretical” or “divisive” and that those who dare to articulate them must be, in one way or another, cast out. The burning desire to paint a scarlet letter on the breast of those who fail to observe the officially sanctioned view of things has taken possession of many ostensibly liberal people in academe, which has tended more and more in recent years to resemble what the Yale English professor David Bromwich calls “a church held together by the hunt for heresies.”
When Mill wrote of the threat to liberty of “thought and discussion,” he was responding, at least in part, to Tocqueville’s idea that in modern societies the greatest dangers to liberty were social rather than legal or political. Both men believed that the pressures to conform, and the pleasures associated with conformity, were such that these societies would not find it necessary to burn heretics at the stake. Mill explained:
And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. … But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the genuine principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts.
Sad to say, however, the expectations nowadays enforced with increasing and punishing severity in the academy are the basis for something rather more alarming than the regime Mill described. While dissentient views are today not always “absolutely” interdicted, and we do not hear of persons who are imprisoned for espousing incorrect views, we do routinely observe that “active and inquiring intellects” are cast out of the community of the righteous by their colleagues and formally “investigated” by witch-hunting faculty committees and threatened with the loss of their jobs. One need only mention the widely debated eruptions at Oberlin College, or Northwestern University, or others, to note that this is by no means a phenomenon limited to a handful of institutions.
The fact that these eruptions have drawn wildly inaccurate and misleading coverage in the right-wing media should not distract us from the serious implications of the kinds of intolerance promoted by ostensibly liberal faculty. Such show-trial-like events are the leading edge of efforts to create the kind of total cultural environment the critic Lionel Trilling described as built upon “firm presuppositions, received ideas, and approved attitudes.”
What does such a total cultural environment look like? In the university it looks like a place in which all constituencies have been mobilized for the same end, in which every activity is to be monitored to ensure that everyone is “on board.” Do courses in all departments reflect the commitment of the institution to raise “awareness” about all of the approved hot-button topics? If not, something must be done. Are all incoming freshmen assigned a suitably pointed, heavily ideological summer-reading text that tells them what they should be primarily concerned about as they enter? Check. Does the college calendar feature carefully orchestrated consciousness-raising sessions led by “human resources” specialists trained to facilitate “dialogues” leading where everyone must agree they ought to lead? Check. Is every member of the community primed to invoke the customary terms — “privilege,” “power,” “hostile,” “unsafe” — no matter how incidental or spurious they seem in a given context? Essential.