E-Pluribus | November 29, 2023
The future of liberal arts; the future of publishing; and the other problem with the heckler’s veto.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Yael Hungerford: Liberal Arts and the Future of the University
Americans are anxious about the future of education. Our universities in particular face intense scrutiny from parents and taxpayers who are skeptical of the ideas these institutions force on their kids. Since a liberal arts education helps to turn students into good citizens and future leaders, Yael Hungerford writing at Law & Liberty examines the reforms that will most likely produce the best outcomes in America’s colleges.
By considering the purpose of a liberal arts education in training citizens for active lives in a modern republic, this examination does, however, offer a framework for guiding these reform efforts. By reminding us of the noble potential of the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and institutions so dedicated—a point seemingly absent from today’s conversation—this framework is consistent with a recognition of the need for reform today, while being robust enough to challenge reforms that are illiberal or excessive. I suggest it offers several provisional lessons.
First and foremost, we need institutions and faculty dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake—who are prompted to inquiry by doubt and the desire for clearer understanding, free from agenda and partisanship. The unprejudiced scholar dedicated to expanding our understanding is a noble antidote in our democratic age.
Administrative offices tasked with educating students and faculty on how to promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion do not belong in academia. Bureaucracies that police how faculty and students speak through trainings and investigations are particularly pernicious. As Tocqueville noted, there is already a strong tendency in democracies toward groupthink. All the more reason why, if universities as institutions ought to have any agenda, it should be to rigorously protect and promote the scholarly virtues of open inquiry, logical analysis, and empirical testing.
What about academic disciplines that develop and promote the same social justice agendas? The post-modern entrenchment in the academy poses a serious challenge for reformers, not least because academic departments have historically been self-governing. [Charles S.] Peirce reminds us that political goals compromise the scholarly pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. On the other hand, if academic centers are co-opted by social activists, it might ultimately fall to leaders from outside the academy—politicians and trustees among them—to recenter departments on sound academic footing.
For these efforts to be successful, we must resist the urge to replace post-modern departments and schools with conservative fortresses. Encouraging students to parrot truisms is not the way to cultivate their critical thinking skills nor raise their sights. New departments and institutions ought to be characterized by what Peirce called fallibilism—intellectual humility rooted in the recognition that no one can be certain they have a hold on the truth.
Citizens who are attached to liberty should have nothing to fear by reforms that fit into the framework here discussed. As Peirce taught, by expanding and elevating the sentiments, a proper liberal arts education has a liberalizing effect on the soul. A republic will benefit when its citizens—and especially its leaders—have been formed by a genuinely liberal education. This is why those who love liberty ought to protect properly oriented institutions of higher learning—those that pursue knowledge for its own sake and seek to educate students in the art of thinking, without agenda or prejudice.
Read it all here.
Alex Perez: The Fight for the Future of Publishing
While discussions of free speech often focus on the spoken word, written words are not safe from attack either. At The Free Press, Alex Perez considers trends in the publishing industry and how politics influences what publishers ultimately serve up to their readers.
For years, there has been a growing politicization inside the industry, which editors describe as a slowly percolating illiberalism that makes it difficult to publish books by authors who don’t adhere to the new dogma. Out of fear of losing their jobs and friends, these editors (we spoke with ten across these publishing houses) insisted upon speaking anonymously.
“It’s so much harder to publish controversial books than it was when Judith Regan published Rush Limbaugh back in the day,” said an editor at a major publishing house, referring to Regan’s time as a Simon & Schuster editor in the early nineties, when she acquired a book by the conservative radio host.
The new dogma, industry insiders told me, is two-pronged: books should advance the narrative that people of color are victims of white supremacy; and nonblack and non-Latino authors should avoid characters who are black and Latino—even if their characters toe the officially approved narrative. (White authors who write about black or Latino people oppressed by white people have been accused of exploiting their characters’ trauma.)
“It began, really, in 2010, 2012,” the award-winning author Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, told The Free Press. “It’s just been getting worse, and there are a lot of characters or plot turns in my own earlier books that, especially if I didn’t have this pretty solid relationship with a mainstream publisher, would get me into trouble or would be called out, and I’d be told to change them, or if I were just starting out I would be rejected because of them.”
One of the biggest flashpoints in the politicization of the publishing industry arrived in early 2020 with publication of Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt.
Cummins’ novel—about a Mexican woman and her son who cross the U.S. border to escape violent cartels—won a seven-figure advance and was hailed by celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Stephen King. But Cummins, being half-white and half-Puerto Rican, ran into trouble with Latino activists who accused her of appropriating Latino struggle. After protests erupted outside her publisher, the Macmillan imprint Flatiron, Cummins’ national book tour was canceled, and the publisher apologized for how the novel had been marketed. (Despite the controversy, American Dirt went on to sell more than three million copies. Cummins declined to comment for this article, saying she is busy working on her next book.)
Read the whole thing.
Holly Lawford-Smith: The Heckler’s Veto and the Right to Free Association
Clearly the heckler’s veto impacts freedom of speech by literally drowning out a speaker’s voice. But Holly Lawford-Smith at Quillette says that’s not the only effect. Freedom of association is talked about considerably less than other Constitutional rights, but Lawford-Smith explains that it’s vital nonetheless.
[F]reedom of speech is not the only value at stake in the heckler’s veto. There is also the question of freedom of association.
When association is free, we get to choose who we associate with; we can gather in groups of like-minded individuals to pursue our projects. The opposite of free association is compelled association. When association is compelled, we are not allowed to choose who we associate with or—at the very least—there are certain categories of people who we may not be allowed to prevent from associating with us for certain kinds of purposes.
There are two separate ideas to consider in relation to the heckler’s veto and freedom of association. The first consideration is that getting together with others (that is, exercising our freedom to associate with others) serves a number of interests, including freedom of thought, and the heckler may be interfering with those interests by heckling. The second is simply that freedom of association means that we’re free to get together to do things, and the heckler may be interfering with or disrupting our ability to do that.
[. . .]
[S]ome groups are allowed to exclude people. It’s seen as important to protect their freedom of association because it’s important to protect their freedom of thought. Other groups are not allowed to exclude people. If we don’t want to protect those groups’ current thoughts (and expressions of them), we won’t want to protect their freedom of association.
Unless hecklers have a valid case for being included in the events they heckle in the interests of equality or desegregation, the argument outlined above suggests that people should be permitted to exclude them. (Of course, disruption is often done in the name of equality, so we will have to consider the hecklers’ justification critically.)
The other, more straightforward implication of thinking about the heckler’s veto in terms of freedom of association rather than freedom of speech is—as philosophers Emily McTernan and Bob Simpson have argued—that for most of the campus events at which the question of the heckler’s veto arises, the group that organized the event and the people who booked tickets have the right to get together for the purpose of the event, and the heckler is hindering them from doing so.
Those who are curious about a topic may invite a speaker to campus and be looking forward to refining their ideas together in response to what that speaker has to say. It’s partly about speech—hearing the speaker’s ideas—but it’s partly about association, too: about meeting up, attending the event together, talking to each other, and perhaps going out together afterwards to discuss things further.
Exercise of this right to freedom of association is likely to be particularly important when the group is united by a minority viewpoint, and even more so when those who hold that minority view are despised or vilified (as radical and gender-critical feminists are, to return to the University of Tokyo case we started with).
The heckler’s veto, then, is not just a matter of weighing up one group’s free speech against another group’s counter-speech. It’s also a matter of one group’s freedom of association being impeded.
Read it all.
Around Twitter (X)
And finally, the United Nations Women organization has come under fire for its silence about sexual violence during Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel. Given that the tweet below (from 2013!) is UN Women’s only mention of Hamas on its Twitter feed in its entire history, their lack of response makes a lot of sense: