Whether it’s a conservative invited to speak on a college campus or a new columnist hired by The New York Times sparking outrage and controversy, the illiberal left has become increasingly intolerant of diverse viewpoints.
On March 2, a mob of students (some of them masked) shut down Charles Murray’s speech at Middlebury College; students turned their backs on him and spouted slurs. Later, after moving Murray to another room, the female professor who invited him—someone who wanted to challenge his views—was assaulted.
A month earlier, violence greeted provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos when he tried to speak at the University of California at Berkeley. His speech was canceled. More recently, Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley―once the alleged home of the free speech movement―was canceled (allegedly due to security concerns). Even Sixties activist Joan Baez has spoken out against that.
First, the Revolution comes for Louis XVI. Then for Danton. Then for Robespierre. Then for you.
Jonathan Haidt, an author, psychologist, and professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has been speaking out against this alarming trend. In 2015, he founded Heterodox Academy, a “politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities.” His latest project, The Viewpoint Diversity Experience, “takes students on a six-step journey, at the end of which they will be better able to live alongside—and learn from—fellow students who do not share their politics.”
Haidt told me that this crackdown on ideological diversity is a recent phenomenon and is a result of the convergence of America’s political polarization, sorting (college campuses have finally reached a saturation point where there are virtually no conservative professors), and the rise of social media that “greatly amplifies the power of whatever the majority is.”
When students are no longer used to having their beliefs challenged, and orthodoxies can no longer be questioned. “Do you know why peanut allergies are rising? Because we haven’t exposed children to peanuts,” Haidt said recently on The Charlie Rose Show. People used to be forced to confront differing viewpoints. By sheltering them from uncomfortable ideas, we have essentially made them allergic to controversial ideas.
Some issues are more intolerable than others. “Anything related to identity—anything related to race or sexual orientation… you’re… going to be shut down,” said Carrie Pritt, a freshman at Princeton who wants to diversify the books incoming students read. Whether speakers or books, topics that challenge politically correct views about race and gender seem to be especially non-negotiable on campuses. “It’s not that any conservative speaker will be boycotted,” Haidt said. “It’s that they can’t stand anyone that has committed sacrilege.”
As if to prove this point, comedian Bill Maher recently declared, “The new racism is not knowing you’re a racist.”
A logical extension of his comment suggests that denying you’re a racist is proof that you are one. Either way (whether you deny the accusation or confess to it), you’re a racist. It’s akin to “When did you stop beating your wife?” It’s also akin to the “swimming test” where witches would be thrown into water; if they drowned, they were exonerated. Floating was proof of witchcraft.
“It’s a church. And you cannot have blasphemy on campus. And so the best way to understand what happened is it’s an auto de fé. It’s a religious rite coming together to punish the sinner, to punish the devil, and to reaffirm our community,” Haidt said.
Illiberal intolerance isn’t merely confined to college campuses. In recent weeks, we have seen immense pushback to The New York Times hiring Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist who is skeptical of some of the science behind climate change. Just as issues involving identity are “no go” zone on today’s campuses, environmentalism has emerged as a secular religion for today’s left.
Stephens’ first column for The New York Times, Climate of Complete Certainty, aroused so much pushback that it, in the words of media observer Jack Schafer, “traumatized the Times mind-meld like nothing before.”
Climate change is a sacred issue. “Once the issues become sacred, that means there can be no tradeoffs… and so even though Stephens said very clearly that global warming is happening… in other parts of his essay he questioned the received wisdom… so he committed sacrilege,” noted Haidt. In the past, Stephens has called this Malthusian worldview “a religion without a God,” and the apocalyptic fervor of his newfound critics does nothing to contradict this.
Free inquiry and open-mindedness―hallmarks of classically liberal universities―have given way to safe spaces, trigger warnings, and violent protests of unpopular speech.
It’s easy to see why this is a problem for America. Tolerance and diversity were once liberal ideas; today’s “liberals” eschew these values—when it comes to anything that challenges their worldview. But this is also bad news for liberals, who are creating a generation of “snowflakes” whose ideas may melt outside the safe confines of academia.
Americans once grew up hearing liberals say “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” Those days seem sadly gone. They grew up hearing people say, “Hey, it’s a free country.” All of a sudden you don’t hear that anymore. All of a sudden, it doesn’t seem so free.
They want that country back again.
What is more, today’s “liberals” don’t even realize how smug and off-putting they come across—not just alienating conservatives—but alienating average Americans.
They claim to be for science but forget the Third Law of Physics: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
That’s also a pretty reliable political maxim, and it—and they—may help re-elect Donald Trump.