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E-Pluribus | September 1, 2021
Return of The Scarlet Letter, a new approach to keeping CRT out of education, and a report on free speech attacks in higher education.
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Anne Applebaum: The New Puritans
While some have dismissed “cancel culture” as a myth and others contend its victims are disproportionately on the left, Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic finds the phenomenon all too real and ideologically rather uniformly distributed. The hypocrisy, judgmentalism, vindictiveness and lack of forgiveness, however, are sadly nothing new, and just as damaging to a free, open and liberal society as they ever were.
We read [The Scarlet Letter] with a certain self-satisfaction: Such an old-fashioned tale! Even Hawthorne sneered at the Puritans, with their “sad-colored garments and grey steeple-crowned hats,” their strict conformism, their narrow minds and their hypocrisy. And today we are not just hip and modern; we live in a land governed by the rule of law; we have procedures designed to prevent the meting-out of unfair punishment. Scarlet letters are a thing of the past.
Except, of course, they aren’t. Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.
Yet despite the disputed nature of these cases, it has become both easy and useful for some people to put them into larger narratives. Partisans, especially on the right, now toss around the phrase cancel culture when they want to defend themselves from criticism, however legitimate. But dig into the story of anyone who has been a genuine victim of modern mob justice and you will often find not an obvious argument between “woke” and “anti-woke” perspectives but rather incidents that are interpreted, described, or remembered by different people in different ways, even leaving aside whatever political or intellectual issue might be at stake.
Read it all.
Aaron Sibarium: The Liberal Case for Banning Critical Race Theory
The conservative rush to keep Critical Race Theory out of educational institutions has resulted in a mishmash of responses that have gotten mixed reviews, even among conservatives generally opposed to CRT. Via Aaron Sibarium, the Manhattan Institute’s James Copland has released a proposal emphasizing a liberal, pluralistic approach rather than an outright ban that may be able to win broader support and survive legal scrutiny as well.
The legislation, which Copland details in a report titled "How To Regulate Critical Race Theory in Schools," avoids the broad language of many state statutes and takes to heart the suggestions of some of their critics. Copland’s template would bar public K-12 schools from endorsing, but not discussing, a narrow range of concepts associated with CRT and its popular derivatives. It would also bar schools from requiring students and faculty to affirm those concepts or attend diversity trainings based on them. And it would require schools to display all diversity-related materials online, a nod to both liberals and conservatives who have called for curricular transparency in lieu of CRT bans.
The animating philosophy of the template, according to Copland, is "educational pluralism." The goal isn’t to keep divisive ideas out of the classroom, but to prevent them from ossifying into official dogma.
At least one conservative critic of CRT bans has kind words for Copland’s template: David French, who in July coauthored a New York Times op-ed on the "danger of anti-critical race theory laws," said the proposal was "dramatically better" than the bills he’d opposed.
"The problem with the original laws was that they were clumsy and heavy-handed," French told the Washington Free Beacon. Copland’s legislation is "a definite improvement over what’s been adopted in red states."
Read the whole thing.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: 3 in 4 Smear Campaigns against College Faculty for Their Expression Result in Punishment
A new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) finds a disturbing success rate in attacks on academic freedom in higher education.
A new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education shows an alarming 74% success rate for campaigns targeting collegiate scholars for their constitutionally protected speech — and the data suggest the worst is yet to come.
“Scholars Under Fire” documents attempts to penalize scholars for speech and expression that, although often controversial, is protected by the First Amendment. The research includes an interactive database examining over 400 incidents since 2015 — searchable by faculty characteristics, the source of the outrage, whether the pressure is from the political left or right of the scholar, the outcome, and more.
“Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated,” said Sean Stevens, FIRE’s senior research fellow and co-author of the report. “If administrators keep caving in to demands to punish faculty for their expression, the demands will continue to increase. Colleges need courageous leadership committed to the values and mission of their institutions — not spineless bureaucrats who give in to mob demands.”
The First Amendment protects scholars at public institutions — and those institutions cannot legally punish scholars for the expression in the report (though they often do). Private institutions, though not directly bound by the First Amendment, often make institutional promises of free speech and academic freedom. FIRE advocates for targeted faculty at both types of institutions, while the Faculty Legal Defense Fund specifically focuses on public colleges and universities.
Read it all here.
All of Around Twitter today features reactions to Item #1 above, Anne Applebaum’s “The New Puritans.” Here’s Anne herself to start things off:
Megan McArdle on the generational part of the story:
David Frum finds Edith Wharton has something to add to the conversation:
Nancy Rommelmann highlights the chilling effect and offers to publish what might currently be hidden in a drawer out of fear:
Jessica Valenti, however, is not impressed:
Finally, Michael Marshall on the capricious nature of cancel culture: