E-Pluribus | December 28, 2023
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Aaron Terr: Intense disagreements about the Israel-Hamas war fuel cancel culture
While the First Amendment is meant to restrict what the government can do, a free society should generally be open to a free of exchange of ideas in the private arena as well. Writing for the Foundation for Individual Rights & Expression, Aaron Terr explains how the current dialogue about the Israel-Hamas war straddles that line and encourages participants in the debate to maintain a high tolerance for disagreement.
As important as First Amendment rights are, free speech also depends on a cultural climate that supports the exercise of those rights. FIRE Executive Vice President Nico Perrino wrote that free speech culture entails a set of “norms that see value in curiosity, dissent, devil’s advocacy, thought experimentation, and talking across lines of difference; where our first instinct in response to speech we dislike isn’t to find a way to censor it — or ‘cancel’ the speaker — but to meet it with more speech.”FIRE has long defended the free speech rights of speakers on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A thriving culture of free expression relies in part on cultural institutions that embrace and promote this value. If anything, it’s even more important for such institutions to fulfill their role of facilitating dialogue when seismic world events deepen society’s ideological fault lines.
The actions of private employers can also have a major impact on free speech culture. They’re not bound by the First Amendment, so they can generally choose to dissociate from individuals based on their views. Freedom of association is a crucial right, especially for organizations with a distinct expressive purpose. Planned Parenthood should not have to keep on a staffer who vocally opposes abortion rights. Likewise, the NRA should have the right to fire an employee who supports repealing the Second Amendment. As the Supreme Court said more than 60 years ago, “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect” of civil liberties including freedom of speech.
[. . .]
There are no hard and fast rules. But employers should at least embrace a strong presumption against firing someone for opinions they express in their personal capacity, outside of work, on matters of public concern.
Private employers don’t have to abide by the First Amendment, but they should look to its sensible principles as a guide for instituting policies that don’t unduly restrict employees’ freedom of speech in their private lives. In the public employment context, courts balance employees’ right to comment as citizens on matters of public concern against an employer’s ability to run an efficient operation. At the end of the day, a business is a business, and if, for example, an employee’s speech significantly hurts the company’s bottom line or creates so much discord within the company that it’s unable to function efficiently, it’s understandable for the employer to take action.
But all things considered, free speech culture benefits from fewer people losing their livelihoods for speaking their minds, especially off the clock. Gainful employment should not come at the cost of democratic participation.
Read the whole thing.
Peter Wood: Why Plagiarism Matters
The pundits who have downplayed Claudine Gay’s plagiarism have failed to grapple with a critical fact about that particular variety of dishonesty. As National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood explains at The Spectator (reprinted by Minding the Campus), appropriating another person’s ideas undermines the very foundations of higher education.
The academy — the university in the broadest sense — is an old institution, but not as old as song, music, folktales, gossip or even history and philosophy. Part of what distinguishes the university from those other channels of communication is its dedication to joint pursuit of truth. We work together to figure out the best answers to some of the mysteries of the world. The mysteries that most concern us are the ones that look like they are solved by persistent intellectual inquiry. That means sharing what we know along with the reasons we think we are right and our reflections on what others have said. That puts us into a dialogue with others who have done the same.
This dialogue may have no end. We do our best and pass the matter along to the next generation, which may do better. There is no final word for many of the matters we address, but collectively we hope to get closer to what’s real and what’s true.
Plagiarism is a problem because it breaks the links in that chain. The stolen idea, the purloined quotation and the missing citation send us back into the fog of rumor and gossip. How are we to make progress if, “All the truths of the world add up to one big lie?” That patient and steady search for truth becomes a ride in the getaway car of postmodernism. It is thrilling perhaps, but it ends in the badlands.
That explanation puts the university’s own purposes into the foreground. But I should say the university’s traditional purposes. If the purpose of the university is redefined as, say, “the pursuit of social justice,” or less grandly as “the credentialing of the workforce,” the reasons to forbid plagiarism are weakened. Maybe even abolished.
But there is a second reason to reject plagiarism — or a second set of closely related reasons. Learning the art of properly engaging other people’s thoughts and citing them by name is a powerful resource for the individual. Mastering this art isn’t natural or easy. It takes some concentrated effort, and college is the one place where that skill can be effectively learned. A lawyer needs to cite accurately real legal cases. ChatGPT and similar AI technology may provide assistance, but ChatGPT also seems to conflate real laws with fictional ones — and even invents citations for these fictions. That puts the burden on the student to develop his discernment early on. Freshman English, if not sooner. Fortunately, not all students are destined to be lawyers, but all students who hope to play some meaningful part in our complex society need to develop that lawyerly skill of thinking through what others have thought and said.
Read it all here.
George Orwell: The Prevention of Literature
Yes, you read that correctly, and it’s the George Orwell you have in mind. As our final selection for 2023, we reach back 76 years to 1947, when the post-war world was grappling with totalitarianism, intellectual freedom, censorship and misinformation. Sounds familiar, no? As is usually the case with great thinkers, Orwell’s words in this Atlantic essay still ring true today.
The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist, He is accused, that is, either of wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privileges. The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that “the truth” has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of “the truth” and merely resists it out of selfish motives.
In Communist literature the attack on intellectual liberty is usually masked by oratory about “petty-bourgeois individualism,” “the illusions of nineteenth-century liberalism,” etc., and backed up by words of abuse such as “romantic" and “sentimental,” which, since they do not have any agreed meaning, are difficult to answer. In this way the controversy is maneuvered away from its real issue. One can accept, and most enlightened people would accept, the Communist thesis that pure freedom will only exist in a classless society, and that one is most nearly free when one is working to bring about such a society. But slipped in with this is the quite unfounded claim that the Communist Party is itself aiming at the establishment of the classless society, and that in the U.S.S.R. this aim is actually on the way to being realized. If the first claim is allowed to entail the second, there is almost no assault on common sense and common decency that cannot be justified. But meanwhile, the real point has been dodged. Freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings. The familiar tirades against “escapism,” “individualism,” “romanticism,” and so forth, are merely a forensic device, the aim of which is to make the perversion of history seem respectable.
Fifteen years ago, when one defended the freedom of the intellect, one had to defend it against Conservatives, against Catholics, and to some extent—for in England they were not of great importance—against Fascists. Today one has to defend it against Communists and “fellow travelers.” One ought not to exaggerate the direct influence of the small English Communist Party, but there can be no question about the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos on English intellectual life. Because of it, known facts are suppressed and distorted to such an extent as to make it doubtful whether a true history of our times can ever be written.
[. . .]
Whenever one attempts to defend intellectual liberty against the claims of totalitarianism, one meets with these arguments in one form or another. They are based on a complete misunderstanding of what literature is, and how—one should perhaps rather say why—it comes into being. They assume that a writer is either a mere entertainer or else a venal hack who can switch from one line of propaganda to another as easily as an organ grinder changes tunes. But after all, how is it that books ever come to be written? Above a quite low level, literature is an attempt to influence the views of one’s contemporaries by recording experience. And so far as freedom of expression is concerned, there is not much difference between a mere journalist and the most “unpolitical” imaginative writer. The journalist is unfree, and is conscious of unfreedom, when he is forced to write lies or suppress what seems to him important news: the imaginative writer is unfree when he has to falsify his subjective feelings, which from his point of view are facts. He may distort and caricature reality in order to make his meaning clearer, but he cannot misrepresent the scenery of his own mind: he cannot say with any conviction that he likes what he dislikes, or believes what he disbelieves. If he is forced to do so, the only result is that his creative faculties dry up.
Read it all.
Around Twitter (X)
Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt seems inclined to rejoin the American Psychological Association just so he could resign again:
And finally, we’ll end 2023 with a Twitter(X) Russian-nesting-doll. As Thomas Chatterton Williams notes, “now this feels like old twitter.” Happy New Year!