E-Pluribus | December 27, 2023
Harvard's speech double standard highlights the need for reform; self-censorship's cost; and the timeless observations of Alexis de Tocqueville.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Jeffrey S. Flier: The Harvard Double Standard
Harvard’s current troubles may draw a lot of “a pox be upon ye” responses from conservatives in particular, but Jeffrey Flier argues that the school’s PR issues present a good opportunity for reform throughout America’s universities. For Quillette, Flier reminds us of higher education’s purpose and explains how a restoration of the principles of free expression will go a long way towards helping colleges and universities regain their past glory.
Lost in much of the discussion of how to balance our freedoms with ensuring protection from harm is an appreciation of why universities exist in the first place: what are they for? The core mission of universities is to discover, explore and transmit knowledge, and free speech and academic freedom are fundamental to those goals. Despite the centrality of these values to the mission of the university, they’ve been under assault in recent years from two distinct directions. From one pole, members of the campus community have attempted to suppress views and voices that they perceive as offensive or harmful to vulnerable groups of people. They’ve shouted down, disinvited, shamed, and punished faculty and invited speakers for expressing views they oppose—sometimes with university complicity—more often without administrative comment or intervention. Many view this “cancel culture” as a major problem, while others see its prevalence and impact as exaggerated for political reasons. Whatever its extent, cancel culture has been amplified by programs under the rubric of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) established with noble intent—that have markedly expanded their scope and remit. Today, DEI programs promote speech codes inconsistent with free expression that lead many to self-censor, an outcome that encourages “cancel culture” by silencing its critics and emboldening its advocates. More limited in their goals at the outset, DEI programs and administrators now influence faculty recruitment and curricula, previously the sole dominion of the faculty.
In contrast to the two foregoing challenges of cancel culture and DEI, assaults on academic freedom have also arisen in public universities through government efforts to influence faculty hiring, curricula, and other faculty prerogatives. These actions are claimed to be justified by concerns that prevailing approaches produced politicized educational outcomes requiring state intervention. The first two challenges of cancel culture and DEI excesses generally arise within left-leaning campus cultures, and the third of government intrusion arises from right-leaning state governments. Holistic and productive discussion of these diverse threats to academic freedom has been limited by their links to progressive vs right wing political factions.
If we’re going to meet these challenges, we need to understand the legal underpinnings of free speech on campus. First Amendment speech protections directly apply to state university campuses, and though private universities have no such protections, most choose to respect similar rules. But even First Amendment protections have limits. Speech may—and should—be restricted when it directly targets specific individuals or groups and is threatening, harassing, or bullying. Even speech that doesn’t directly target specific individuals or groups may be restricted as contributing to “hostile environment harassment,” when it is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, that it effectively bars ... access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” In fact, under federal civil rights laws, any educational institution that receives federal funds has a legal obligation to redress any discriminatory harassment of students with particular identities.
Read it all here.
Andrew Hartz: The High Cost of Self-Censorship on Campus
Thinking through what we’re going to say before saying it is a good idea. But that’s not what self-censorship is in the context of the free speech debate. Clinical psychologist Andrew Hartz writes at Discourse Magazine that discouraging teachers and students from sharing their opinions, or even asking questions, hurts education across the board.
Self-censorship is taking a toll on public life, especially education. It’s not just the books and articles that teachers quietly remove or the reluctance to engage with students on sensitive topics or the talented educators who quit. It’s the questions students become afraid to ask, the untold anecdotes and jokes, and the deleted assignments. A great deal of knowledge is quietly vanishing—and along with it the joys and satisfactions of teaching and learning.
There’s also the psychological toll. Censorship cultures make people feel anxious, hopeless and frustrated, and they can lead to stifling and cold communities full of bitterness, paranoia and isolation. Problems that people can’t talk through get acted out in more destructive ways.
[. . .]
Some instructors remove material from their courses because they don’t want to face a Diversity Committee inquisition, or they don’t want to be asked to complete re-education training. Some worry about quiet blacklisting or their contract not being renewed. Other times they worry about social ostracism, being gossiped about or antagonized in less direct ways. I wasn’t as worried about these things as I was about having disruptive and unproductive conflicts with antagonistic students.
Because resolving these attacks seems impossible, people censor themselves. They try to guess what might risk offending the most aggressive students and administrators—and then they simply avoid saying those things. And even when they don’t fear getting fired, the arguing and the hopeless attempts to prove one isn’t racist or sexist are so humiliating, distracting and unproductive that most people would do nearly anything to avoid them.
Ironically, self-censorship probably just reinforces the worldview of the most narrow-minded students. As they encounter fewer and fewer ideas that make them uncomfortable, they become even less tolerant and more belligerent.
What’s lost here? The students’ education, for sure. Students are now missing so much great material. But we also lose some of the joy of teaching, the ability to share the love of the material with students, the spark. Where once there was humor, light and spontaneity in the classroom, now there is a coldness, a formality and, at times, even a lingering unspoken acrimony. The opportunity to challenge, to expand students’ understanding, to get them to embrace new ideas is what draws many people to teaching in the first place.
Read it all.
Dan McLaughlin: Tocqueville on How Self-Government Dies, Part One: The Fall of the July Monarchy
At times is seems like Americans do not hold France in very high regard (the Statue of Liberty notwithstanding). But Dan McLaughlin at National Review has begun a series of posts to recall Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century observations about America and what made it (and hopefully still makes it) different. With illiberalism on the rise, we can look to the past to help shore up America’s future.
Tocqueville is best known as the French traveler who chronicled American democracy in the early 1830s. Most of Democracy in America was written, and its first volume published, before Tocqueville turned 30. It marked him as a shrewd observer of humanity and a profound political philosopher who offered an unsentimental assessment of democracy’s strengths and weaknesses. While the two-volume study reflects a particular moment in Jacksonian America, it is justly an enduring classic.
By 1857, Tocqueville had fallen into “despair” at the prospect that dissension over slavery put at risk “the great experiment in Self Government” that the United States represented: “If it fails, that will be the end of political liberty on earth.”
Self-government and how it could be lost was a more immediate threat in his own country. There, Tocqueville witnessed up close the collapse of tenuous forms of democratic, republican, liberal, and constitutional governance during and after the 1848 revolution. As foreign minister to Louis Napoleon in 1849, he lost control over an ill-considered foreign intervention. He had a front-row seat to the failings of kings and strongmen, the decay of an irresponsible ruling class, the madness of riots, the struggles of coalitions, the menace of communists, and the danger of demagogues. It is in Tocqueville’s observations of France that we can find cautionary tales for our own times.
Between 1850 and 1852, Tocqueville wrote Recollections, a memoir of the events of 1848–51. The book was never completed, and because of its barbed portraits of the people around him, he insisted that it not be made public until everyone involved was dead. A full, unexpurgated edition was published only in 1942. The modern translation by Arthur Goldhammer is edited by Olivier Zunz, who in 2022 published a biography, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville.
Even in its unfinished form, Recollections is just as essential a book on self-government as Democracy in America. On nearly every page, one finds a quotable epigram, an indelible portrait, or both. It takes us on a journey from a failing system to a utopian revolution to a collapse into dictatorship.
Read the whole thing.
Around Twitter (X)
Here’s Wesley Yang comparing and contrasting the treatment of Harvard president Claudine Gay and former Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain (Swain is one of the scholars Gay plagiarized.)
And finally, Jake Tapper of CNN has begun posting daily tweets reminding people that Russia continues to keep reporter Evan Gershkovich in jail. Also serves as a reminder of why the First Amendment exists here and how fortunate we are that it does.