The three-paragraph letter warns against the illiberal “vogue for public shaming” that has destroyed countless careers in recent years. As we witness almost daily now, when the virtual mob descends, its purpose is to obliterate the reputation, credibility, and livelihood of a living, breathing person—all for the crime of venturing an unwelcome idea (or even venturing a permitted thought indelicately).
The bold yet solution-adverse signatories of the “Harper’s” letter are pointing us toward a world where the left and right side of the aisle can once again amicably communicate. Nowhere is this more important than on college campuses, where students should be immersed in a world of thought and discourse that pushes the boundaries of human understanding.
Recently, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by 153 academics, public intellectuals, and journalists, ranging from J.K. Rowling to David Brooks. The three-paragraph letter warns against the illiberal “vogue for public shaming” that has destroyed countless careers in recent years. As we witness almost daily now, when the virtual mob descends, its purpose is to obliterate the reputation, credibility, and livelihood of a living, breathing person—all for the crime of venturing an unwelcome idea (or even venturing a permitted thought indelicately).
The letter rightly identifies the mania to suppress dissent as an effort to establish ideological conformity in the public sphere. The new inquisitors threaten the free exchange of ideas, which is, indeed, “the lifeblood of a liberal society.”
This brief letter could also have mentioned that this cultural affliction is not new; it did not emerge from, or even in response to, the Trump administration. Cancel culture has been fermenting on college campuses for decades and is now spilling into wider society.
In 1982, five years before he published The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom observed, “Today a young person does not generally go off to the university with the expectation of having an intellectual adventure, of discovering strange new worlds, of finding out what the comprehensive truth about man is…. And the university does not try to persuade him that he is coming to it for the purpose of being liberally educated, at least in any meaningful sense of the term—to study how to be free, to be able to think for himself.”
In 2010, an Association of American Colleges & Universities survey of 24,000 college students found that only 35.6% strongly agreed that “it is safe to hold unpopular views on campus.” The state of free inquiry has deteriorated further in the decade since. A recent poll conducted by College Pulse for a forthcoming American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) report revealed that while fewer than 35% of students are aware of their campus’s policies governing free speech, 85% engage in self-censorship to avoid “offending other students” at least occasionally. (74% of self-identified “strong Republicans” do so “often” or “very often.”)
The implementation of draconian speech codes by campus bias response teams, diversity administrators, and assistant vice presidents of inclusion is traditionally blamed for disruption of free expression on America’s campuses. But the situation is yet worse. The survey found that fewer than 40% of students censor themselves due to fear of being disciplined by these campus institutions. It is the students themselves who have marshalled the immense power of social media to create the “cancel culture” monstrosity that is now impoverishing dialogue on their own campuses. Those who refuse to espouse today’s fashionable dogmas—or worse, dare to challenge them—pay a high social price reminiscent of a religious excommunication. The same ACTA survey notes that 48% of students believe the “pressure to conform to political correctness” hinders the development of friendships. In other words, today’s college students largely self-censor out of fear of social scorn from their peers rather than in response to campus speech codes.