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E-Pluribus | October 8, 2021
Dorian Abbot tells his own story about his MIT cancellation, how 21st century authoraritism might be different, and the silver lining on campus free speech.
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Dorian Abbot: MIT Abandons Its Mission. And Me.
The cancellation of Dorian Abbot’s talk at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has already made several appearances here at Pluribus, but Abbot himself has now written an essay at Bari Weiss’s Substack. Abbot of the University of Chicago relates his awakening over the past several years to the illiberal trends on campus and in the country more generally, and how it ultimately led to the present situation.
In the fall of 2020 I started advocating openly for academic freedom and merit-based evaluations. I recorded some short YouTube videos in which I argued for the importance of treating each person as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context, that means giving everyone a fair and equal opportunity when they apply for a position as well as allowing them to express their opinions openly, even if you disagree with them.
As a result, I was immediately targeted for cancellation, primarily by a group of graduate students in my department. Whistleblowers later revealed that the attack was partially planned and coordinated on the Ford Foundation Fellowship Program listserv by a graduate student in my department. (Please do not attack this person or any of the people who attacked me.)
[M]y detractors developed a new strategy to try to isolate me and intimidate everyone else into silence: They argued on Twitter that I should not be invited to give science seminars at other universities and coordinated replacement speakers. This is an effective and increasingly common way to ratchet up the cost of dissenting because disseminating new work to colleagues is an important part of the scientific endeavor.
Sure enough, this strategy was employed when I was chosen to give the Carlson Lecture at MIT — a major honor in my field. It is an annual public talk given to a large audience and my topic was “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” On September 22, a new Twitter mob, composed of a group of MIT students, postdocs, and recent alumni, demanded that I be uninvited.
It worked. And quickly.
On September 30 the department chair at MIT called to tell me that they would be cancelling the Carlson lecture this year in order to avoid controversy.
Read it all.
Robert D. Kaplan: The Tyranny of the 21st-Century Crowd
At the Wall Street Journal, Robert Kaplan compares current trends in authoritarianism with other such occurrences over the past century and finds reason for concern with the latest iterations. Unlike some of the notable examples from the 20th century and, in part thanks to new technologies and communications platforms, present day authoritarians do not always need a big government position of power to foment discontent with democratic systems and exercise outsized influence on political debates.
There is a difference, however, between the 20th and 21st centuries. The 20th century was an age of mass communications often controlled by big governments, so that ideology and its attendant intimidation was delivered from the top down. The 21st century has produced an inversion, whereby individuals work through digital networks to gather together from the bottom up.
But while the tyranny produced has a different style, it has a similar result: the intimidation of dissent through a professed monopoly on virtue. If you don’t agree with us, you are not only wrong but morally wanting, and as such should be not only denounced but destroyed. Remember, both Nazism and communism were utopian ideologies. In the minds of their believers they were systems of virtue, and precisely because of that they opened up new vistas for tyranny.
The lust for purity combined with the tyranny of social-media technology in the hands of the young—who have little sense of the past and of tradition—threatens to create an era of the most fearsome mobs in history. The upshot of such crowd coercion is widespread self-censorship: the cornerstone of all forms of totalitarianism.
This ultimately leads toward a controlled society driven by the bland, the trivial and the mundane, wearing the lobotomized face of CNN weekday afternoon television. Outright evil can surely be dealt with, but a self-righteous conformity is harder to resist. Left unchecked, this is how the West slowly dies.
Read it all here.
Rikki Schlott: Some Universities, Even Public Ones, Actually Support Free Speech
While not all the news from college campuses is good, Rikki Schlott at Reason finds at least some reason for optimism. There is much to be concerned about in higher education when it comes to free expression, but an annual survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education highlights some bright spots and gives students good information on what kind of environment they are likely to encounter when choosing where to attend.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has released its annual college free speech rankings. This is the largest survey of campus free speech, reaching 37,000 students from the nation's top 159 colleges and universities; it assesses each school's speech climate across seven aspects: perceived comfort in speaking one's mind publicly, soundness of the speech code, reported levels of self-censorship, tolerance for liberal speakers, tolerance for conservative speakers, levels of acceptance for disrupting campus speech, and ability to discuss challenging topics on campus.
Topping 2021's list is Claremont McKenna College, which has been celebrated for gracefully handling a controversial speech by the conservative journalist Heather Mac Donald and for launching an Open Academy Initiative intended to foster viewpoint diversity. In the poll, 54 percent of students report that their administration makes it "extremely" or "very" clear that they champion free speech.
FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley says prospective students can use the rankings to find out which schools value free expression and open debate. Meanwhile, the polling provides an up-to-date snapshot of the state of free expression on campuses nationwide.
One major trend is rising hostility towards controversial speakers on campus. Two thirds of students say shouting down speakers is at least sometimes acceptable, up 4 percent from last year; 23 percent believe using violence to stop certain speech is acceptable, up from 18 percent in 2020. The two schools at which violence is considered most tolerable are Wellesley College and Barnard College, both elite women's institutions, who polled at 45 percent and 43 percent, respectively. According to the survey, conservative speakers face greater potential blowback.
Read the whole thing.
A thread from NYU-Stern’s Jonathan Haidt on the Dorian Abbot essay above:
Part of a thread from Ana Kasparian on pushback she got from her own side after debating Ben Shapiro, followed by a few comments from Peter Boghossian:
And finally, the devil will probably be in the details: what constitutes “denial”?