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E-Pluribus | November 1, 2023
Silence about violence; Harvard's one way street on speech; and the radicalizing effect of social media.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Jay Bergman: Silence and Violence
Progressives often declare that “silence is violence.” While that’s obviously false, silence about violence can indeed be very harmful. At Minding the Campus (originally in the Boston Herald), Jay Bergman writes that selective outrage about violence from American universities is pernicious virtue-signalling that undermines any moral authority those institutions may possess.
The atrocities Hamas has committed are not a regrettable byproduct of warfare that occur in all wars. They are its purpose.
In the face of such unmitigated evil one might expect the leaders of colleges and universities in Connecticut, and the students who attend them, to respond with moral clarity: distinguishing good from evil, virtue from moral depravity, and an organization committed to the extermination the Jewish people from the nation-state of the Jewish people, the state of Israel, which is the only democracy in the Middle East, and the only country in the Middle East that affords all of its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, the civil liberties we enjoy in America.
But they did not.
The President of Central Connecticut State University [CCSU], Zulma Toro, noted in a public statement rightly disavowing an incendiary message from anti-Israel students how “deeply upsetting” she found “the recent tragedies in the Middle East.” One would not know from her statement what these tragedies were, who were their victims, and who was responsible for them.
The President of the University of Connecticut, Radenka Maric, called the attack on Israel “horrific,” but then described it generically, as a form of “hate, violence, and conflict” like that which afflicts “society” today.
Worse was the puerile rhetoric of “Yalies4Palestine.” In the world of fantasy the Yale students inhabit, Gaza has been an “open-air prison” since the Israelis left it in 2005, notwithstanding Israel supplying Gazans with food, electricity, and other essential commodities, excluding only those with military purposes, such as cement for tunnels dug under the border with Israel. Not surprisingly, the students’ statement said nothing about the 1,200 Gazan children forced by Hamas to construct these tunnels who were killed when some of them collapsed.
Read it all here.
John Tierney: Harvard’s Double Standard on Free Speech
We have included several takes on institutional neutrality in our Pluribus round-up recently, but it’s seem unlikely that America’s elite universities will actually adopt the principle. At City Journal, John Tierney critiques Harvard’s inconsistent support for free speech, arguing it demonstrates how partisanship can poison an environment where open exchange of ideas is supposed to be foundational.
Once upon a time, journalists and scholars on both the left and right were staunchly devoted to free speech and academic freedom, if only out of self-interest. Liberals like Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice defended the rights of Klansmen and Nazis because they knew the First Amendment was their profession’s paramount principle. But in the past decade, that bipartisan devotion has been disappearing, particularly at elite colleges. Harvard’s journalists and scholars adopted the principles that Hentoff criticized in the title of one of his books: free speech for me, but not for thee.
Leftists are free to stir controversy without fear of punishment from Gay and other administrators, and they can count on the Crimson to defend them. Jewish groups on campus were outraged last year when the Palestine Solidarity Committee’s annual spring event, Israeli Apartheid Week, featured lurid murals accusing “Zionists” of being “racists” and “white supremacists.” The Crimson’s editorial board promptly declared itself “proudly supportive” of the murals and the international BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) campaign to make Israel a pariah state. When that editorial stirred further outrage and accusations of anti-Semitism, the Crimson’s president issued a statement proclaiming the newspaper’s commitment to “freedom of expression.”
But that commitment vanishes when the campus’s leftist majority gets angry. The targets of their anger have received, at best, no support from the Harvard administration or the Crimson. At worst, those voices find themselves denounced, investigated, disinvited, or punished by administrators, and they have endured the Crimson’s outrageous campaigns to silence, sanction, and banish them.
[. . .]
Carole Hooven felt similarly isolated during the ordeal that drove her out of the Human Evolutionary Biology Department, where she had taught a popular lecture course on hormones and behavior for two decades. Her troubles began in 2021 after she published T, a book about testosterone and sex differences. Asked during an interview on Fox News about the pressure at medical schools to avoid the terms “male” and “female,” she said that it was important to respect people’s gender identities and use their preferred pronouns, but that med students should be taught that just two biological sexes exist. For this, Hooven was denounced by the director of her department’s diversity and inclusion task force, a graduate student who tweeted that she was “appalled and frustrated” by Hooven’s “transphobic and harmful” remarks. More attacks followed, including another department chair circulating an email accusing her of being transphobic. After the Harvard Graduate Student Union issued a statement denouncing her, Hooven was unable to find any graduate student willing to be a teaching assistant in her undergraduate course.
“I felt as if I had the plague,” Hooven said. “I couldn’t teach my lecture course anymore because it had too many students for me to handle without graduate assistants. Administrators didn’t give me public support and basically told me to keep my mouth shut and stop causing problems. Colleagues stopped talking to me. It just became untenable.” She was 57 and had planned on remaining in the department for at least another decade but decided her only option was to take early retirement.
Read the whole thing.
Rikki Schlott and Greg Lukianoff: The Radicalization of the American Mind
The story of Cain and Abel illustrates that strife plagued humanity long before X existed. That said, social media can magnify strife by discouraging us from honestly confronting and resolving differences, which increases polarization. Rikki Schlott and Greg Lukianoff make that case at Persuasion:
In the digital age, social media has become our home for political discourse. It has allowed many more voices to participate in conversations and trade ideas. But it has also polarized us. We’re all guilty of following people on Twitter who confirm our beliefs. Naturally, moving into our own little spheres has made us more tribal and more hostile to the other side.
A 2019 study found that on both the left and right, people overestimate how prevalent extreme views are on the opposite side—something that was especially true of those who rely on social media for their news.
This is the modern manifestation of the anthropological phenomenon schismogenesis, which contends that group identity is formed in opposition to competing groups. Like the ancient Athenians and Spartans, by defining ourselves as being “the complete opposite of those guys,” we become less and less like each other—and more and more confident that our way is the right way.
This has been true since social media’s inception. But it’s only been worsened by a series of mass bans, particularly on Twitter, the digital home for all things political. In November 2016, Twitter unleashed its first mass alt-right ban. The following year more alt-right and white nationalist accounts were purged after the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia. And in 2018 Alex Jones and InfoWars were kicked off, too.
To be clear, these groups tout some despicable views. But has censoring them made us better off? No. In fact, it actually seems to have increased radicalization in these groups. When platforms “cancel” users based on their speech and beliefs, they quarantine them into circles with less viewpoint diversity.
Read it all.
Around Twitter (X)
Yascha Mounk on campus free speech - what it is, and what it isn’t: