Threats to liberty and the state of the universities

Theodore Dalrymple, Salisbury Review, summer 2017

Recently I was invited to talk at a Dutch university and, as always, was favourably impressed by the politeness of Dutch students even when they disagreed with what I said. They were respectful without obsequiousness, as if some honour, though not necessarily credence, were due to age and experience. No doubt it helps that theirs has long been a society of consensus or compromise rather than of confrontation, but these students, at least, seemed to have mastered the art of disagreement without vituperation or hatred. It is not that the Netherlands is a stranger to political correctness, far from it. But this correctness, or pensée unique, seems to derive more from a genuine social agreement than from any ideological fervour.

Of course, the atmosphere may yet change, for the country, like all others, is not immune from the gusts or gales of moral enthusiasm blowing in from elsewhere — principally from America. There was a notice, for example, on the lavatory doors in the university (but not elsewhere) asking that those who used these facilities should not make others uncomfortable by staring at them, presumably in the process noticing that they were of the opposite sex (or in the process of becoming the opposite sex) from that for whose use the facilities was advertised. The notice, already sufficiently cryptic, ended with the words

We can do better

— though better than what was not further specified. It was difficult to believe that this mildly intimidating nonsense was other than transatlantic in origin, or that mockery of it would not be received by those who subscribed to it with anything but fury.

Dutch academics in the humanities have told me that they do not dare reveal their true, conservative-leaning beliefs, not because of fear of open public hostility but because they fear that their careers might not advance if they did. Thus a soft and unopposed authoritarianism, often exercised in the name of diversity, pervades their institutions, together with the feeling that someone who rejects the orthodox pieties does not merely entertain a different opinion about them, but is a bad person. In the modern intellectual circles, virtue seems to consist largely of having certifiably correct opinions.

But things have gone much further in the Anglo-Saxon world, where the kind of hatred that ideology arouses is more prevalent and the bitterness incomparably worse. And the source of much of this bitterness seems to be in the universities. A couple of recent cases from America illustrate the point.

The controversial but prolific and original political scientist, Charles Murray, was invited to give a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont. This is an élite liberal arts college most of whose students pay fees of something like $65,000 a year: hence it is safe to assume that they come from the most privileged sector of American society.

Dr Murray believes that, as a result of political, demographic and economic changes, America, at least its white population, is becoming a caste rather than a class society, in which social mobility has become, and will become yet more, difficult. He is most famous (or notorious), however, for his book, The Bell Curve, written with the psychologist Richard Herrnstein more than 20 years ago, in which the authors claimed not only that intelligence was a determinant of social and economic position, but that it was in part heritable and that blacks were on average inferior in intelligence (though Ashkenazi Jews, Chinese and Japanese were superior). The authors were explicitly agnostic on the reasons for or causes of these differences. There was much else in the book, which was closely enough argued to call forth many detailed attempted refutations, but it has been remembered, and excoriated, mainly for its supposed aid and comfort to racists.

When Dr Murray tried to speak at Middlebury, about half of the audience of four hundred students rose to their feet and turned their back on him. By doing this, though perhaps without fully realising it, they were implicitly claiming that Dr Murray was so evil a human being — a Himmler, perhaps, or a Goebbels — that no normal human consideration such as good manners was due to him. He whom they accused of dehumanising others in print was himself dehumanised in actual practice. Worse still, they proceeded to shout, or chant, him down, so that it was pointless for him to try to speak. They kept it up for about 20 minutes, and it was obvious that their protest had been organised. For example the first part of their chanting was of a text by James Baldwin, which they read in unison as a prayer, or from a hymn sheet. Their slogans were simple, rhythmical, simplistic and nasty, repeated ad nauseam: for example,

Charles Murray, go away
Middlebury says no way

(arrogating to themselves the opinion of all Middlebury students) and

Your message is hatred
We cannot tolerate it

Not gifted with a sense of irony, the students did not notice that, while Dr Murray stood in dignified silence during this performance, their own faces were often contorted with hatred: moreover, hatred based not on real knowledge of his work, but on rumours about it. Eventually he left the auditorium to give his talk by video at another, supposedly secret venue at the college; but the protesters discovered where it was, and when Dr Murray and the moderator of the meeting, Professor Allison Stanger, tried to leave they were attacked physically and she was slightly injured — though she was explicitly not a believer in his work.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, of course, or perhaps, more aptly, one vulture doesn’t make a carcase — in this case, that of freedom of expression. But a fellow-writer of mine at the Manhattan Institute, Heather MacDonald, received very similar treatment at Claremont College in California where she was scheduled to speak about her view (very well-argued) that American blacks have far more to fear from an absence of police than from the police themselves, who are their main shield from violence.

Most worrying of all, perhaps, is the equivocal nature of the support for free speech by academics. Even after being injured by protesting students, Professor Stanger
felt able to write in the New York Times:

Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point, and nowhere is the reaction to that more heightened than on college campuses. Throughout an ugly campaign and into his presidency, President Trump has demonised Muslims as terrorists and dehumanised many groups of marginalised people. He declared the free press an enemy of the people, replaced deliberation with tweeting, and seems bent on dismantling the separation of powers and 230 years of progress this country has made toward a more perfect union. Much of the free speech he has inspired — or has refused to disavow — is ugly, and has already had ugly real-world consequences. College students have seen this, and have taken note: Speech can become action.

It is certainly true that Donald Trump appeared to flirt reprehensibly with violence during his campaign, ranging from wistful evocation of the beatings-up of political opponents of yore to the implication that Democrat electoral fraud might be tempered by assassination. But this cannot justify or extenuate the intolerance, incivility and violence exhibited at Middlebury and Claremont, which can now, thanks to the pusillanimity of the university authorities, best be avoided simply by refraining from inviting anyone whose presence might result in it.

A fish rots from the head down, say the Russians; and Hume said that it is seldom that any liberty is lost all at once. Putting these thoughts together, we may conclude that when liberty is extinguished in our universities, liberty will not long survive elsewhere.

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