Liberals, the left and academic freedom

quote-i-disapprove-of-what-you-say-but-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-it-voltaire-334856I was a college student in the 1950s, the heyday of Joe McCarthy, and strongly believed in academic freedom, which was under attack.

The idea was that Communists, and people thought to be in sympathy with Communists, did not have the right to freedom of speech because they—by definition—did not believe in it themselves.

We liberals insisted that free speech was for everyone.  We frequently quoted John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and others who insisted that freedom meant that people on all sides of a question had a right to be heard.

The big issue was whether a student organization called the Labor Youth League, which was on the attorney-general’s list of subversive organizations, should be permitted on campus.  We liberals said it should.  The correct response to Communist arguments was to refute them, not to suppress them.

Our principles were that any student organization that followed impartial university rules should be permitted, and any college professor who was met impartial academic standards should be permitted to teach.  True education meant exposure to a diverse ideas, including ideas we might not like.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been been a part of the academic world.  But I get the idea that my concept of academic freedom is no longer taken for granted on campus.   There is a whole campus sub-culture based on a vocabulary that is new to me—”cis-gender,” “tone police,” “micro-aggression”, and, by some accounts, little tolerance for deviation from the new norms.

A graduate student named Fredrick deBoer wrote recently:

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.”  Not repeatedly.  Not with malice.  Not because of privilege.  She used the word once and was excoriated for it.  She never came back.  I watched that happen.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences.  He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist.  It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook.  But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war.  Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people.  I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him.  I saw that.  Myself.

via Fredrik deBoer.

Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America wrote that there was much less overt censorship than in his native France, but that Americans were less free because they submitted to a pressure of public opinion, which was much greater here than in undemocratic lands.

We worried about this in the 1950s, too.  We liberals talked about “conformity”, “the organization man” and “other-directed” versus “inner-directed”.

who-rules-voltaireNow this was much less serious a problem during the McCarthy era than people going to prison or being blacklisted from employment for their supposedly subversive opinions, but it wasn’t nothing, either.

And today’s so-called “political correctness” is a relatively minor issue compared to the Homeland Security state, in which peaceful protesters are treated as terrorists, whistle-blowers go to prison and you can spend hours in detention for disrespecting a TSA operative.  But it isn’t nothing, either.

The Roman Catholic Church once taught that “Error has no rights.”  That’s true.  Error has no rights.  Neither does truth.  Only human beings have rights, and this includes the right to be honesty mistaken.

In the liberal tradition, free discussion is the best path to truth.  To have free discussion, people must be free to peacefully express their honest opinions, and to learn what other people think and have thought.  That’s what liberal arts education is for.

If you disagree, ask yourself:  Who would you trust to decide what opinions you are allowed to express and to hear?


Is the social justice left abandoning free speech? by Fredrik de Boer on his blog.  The comment thread shows widespread push-back against traditional liberal ideas of academic freedom.

Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.  The uproar touched off by this article illustrated Chait’s point.

On Jonathan Chait, ‘Politically Correct’ Speech and the Social Media Left by David Sessions for In These Times.

Jonathan Chait’s ‘Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say’ in a Nutshell by Anne Theriault on The Belle Jar.

Punch-Drunk Jonathan Chait Takes On the Internet by Alex Pareene for Gawker.

Political Correctness Is Not What You Think It Is by Lee Papa as The Rude Pundit.

The Petulant Entitlement Syndrome of Journalists by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.

The truth about “political correctness” is that it doesn’t actually exist by Amanda Taub for Vox.

From blogofascism to PC Police, it’s always something by Heather Digby Parsons on Hullabaloo.

I don’t know what to do, you guys by Fredrik de Boer on his blog.

If You Tweet This, Jonathan Chait Wins by Sady Doyle for In These Times.

Chait, Meet the Law of Merited Impossibility by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

The Left Realizes Too Late That Political Correctness Is a Virus by Charles C.W. Crooke for National Review.

Don’t be an accelerant by Fredrik de Boer on his blog.

Does Political Correctness Work? by Ross Douthat for the New York Times.  Sometimes it does.

Secret Confessions of the Anti-Anti-P.C. Crowd by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.  His reply to critics.


A week or so ago, I told a friend that I never use the word “political correctness” because (1) I don’t really know what it means and (2) it is an insult that triggers reactions that make rational discussion impossible.  It goes to show you should never say “never.”

The subject is complicated.  I am “politically correct” myself in that there are certain expressions and ideas that I believe should never be allowed to go un-contradicted, and I am glad that certain racist expressions are no longer accepted in polite society.


Postscript.   When I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, and writing in the campus newspaper about academic freedom for the Labor Youth League, an LYL member told me that I was inconsistent to be anti-Communist and to defend the rights of Communist sympathizers.

He said that if he thought Communism was as bad as I did, he would want to ban the LYL.

But I did not, and do not, think Constitutional rights are contingent on adhering to a particular set of beliefs.

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3 Responses to “Liberals, the left and academic freedom”

  1. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    I find the gerrymandering of meaning of ordinary words very sinister. It is a tactic cults use to force their recruits into pre- determined thought patterns . It has got to the stage, as you illustrated, that completely innocent people are vilified for not using the new politically correct terms – and views they do not hold are ascribed to them. Straw dog tactic. Also disables criticism – use the “wrong” word and get ejected from the discourse. What is worse is the attempt to criminalise people for their choice of (ordinary) words. As in cults the acceptable terms keep changing in order to trip people up. But how can anyone defend themself from these dirty tactics? Laws are backing the PC position – not freedom of speech.


  2. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


  3. collin237 Says:

    ” Error has no rights. Neither does truth. Only human beings have rights”

    The distinction between error and truth is beside the point; words do not have rights. All these cases of political correctness used abusively are about protecting the “established” word patterns at the expense of people. These speech codes were set up as a market brand; they don’t in any reasonable way follow from government mandates. So the only way to get rid of them is to ban them.

    It may be possible to use argument to stir up support for a right, but the only way to seal the deal is to forbid people from denying other people the right. There is simply no such thing as “granting” a right in a purely positive sense.

    I realize it’s difficult to imagine nowadays, but the people who led the old Liberal movements were smart enough to strategize how to win civil rights battles. They used free speech as a banner because it was effective at the time. If there were political correctness back then, they would still have found a way to win using other strategies.

    The cult (whoever they are) has set up a system of verbal identity, and thus persuaded everyone to use words to give their lives meaning. Fortunately many people, such as the commenters on de Boer’s blog, see through this charade and realize that people have rights and words don’t. You and de Boer, however, don’t seem to get it. There is nothing noble about trying to perpetuate a Party Platform against the clearly expressed will of your own constituents. And it’s even worse when by doing so you score for the other side and refuse to admit it.


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