Don’t Talk to Me, I’m Not Listening — 14 May 2012

In this country, we revere the right to freedom of speech.  It is one of the tenets of our Constitutional liberties that we hold most dear.  But there are surprising quarters where that freedom is not so freely honored.

Consider the case of Naomi Schaefer Riley.  Riley, a journalist who has written books and articles about higher education for fifteen years, was until recently a paid blogger for the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The Chronicle recently ran an article highlighting a number of PhD. candidates in Black Studies, leading Riley to blog that the thesis titles themselves stood as testament to why the discipline should be disbanded.  At best, she said, the offerings were irrelevant, and at worst, “left-wing victimization claptrap.”  You can read the profiles of the students and their theses here; see for yourself.

The response was predictable, but surprising in its ferocity.  It quickly descended into ad hominem attacks against Riley, naturally laced with charges of racism.  The editor of the Chronicle braved the storm for a few days, and acknowledged the controversy by inviting people to join the debate.  That good will lasted a heartbeat.  Like the tracker jacker wasps in the Hunger Games, the swarm of criticism – including a petition signed by 6500 academics – soon overwhelmed the editor, who ultimately capitulated with a craven “we have heard you; we are profoundly sorry for your distress” and Riley was fired.

This episode has echoes of the defenestration of Lawrence Summers  back in 2005.  Back then, he was President of Harvard University, and hosting a conference on under-representation of women in the physical sciences.  He mused on stage at the conference that there just might be physiological differences between men and women that could account for the differences in female participation – that they were not automatically evidence of discrimination.

As with Riley, the comment unleashed the Furies.  Summers offered no fewer than three increasingly obsequious attempts at apology, but it was not enough to placate the outraged faculty, who ultimately passed a resolution of no confidence and ended his tenure as President of the university.

Ironies abound in both these cases.  One participant at the Harvard symposium declared herself so upset at Summers’ suggestion that she “almost fainted” – a nice little appeal to Victorian norms of female sensibilities, so handy when you need them, but jarring in the context of the moment.  As for Riley, the charges of racism are laughable, given that she is married to an African American, Jason Riley, an editor at the Wall Street Journal.  One of the PhD students she critiqued complained of an attempt to “silence” her; this seems to be a frequent response to criticism from that side of the aisle, as if a lone blogger could have that effect.  Ultimately, of course, it was Riley’s voice that was silenced, at least at the Chronicle.  When Riley was cashiered, blogs responded with proclamations of “victory for civility.”  Nice touch, that.

Both of these examples take place in university settings; but the phenomenon is not limited to campus.  Recall Al Gore and the rest of the climate change community insisting that “the science is settled” – the very opposite of the scientific approach, which is constantly to challenge prevailing theses to see if they hold up.  As well, I have heard advocates of gay marriage state as indisputable fact that those who oppose it are motivated by bigotry, plain and simple.

In all these cases, the point is not to engage in debate and emerge victorious in the vigorous contest of ideas.  It is instead to declare certain propositions outside the pale, illegitimate, and those who espouse them not worthy of response.

All this is terribly corrosive to the body politic and to the pursuit of knowledge.  In a polarized society, split deeply over all kinds of issues both social and economic/political, we need to engage in debate that acknowledges that the other side has sincerely felt beliefs that merit respect.  If we do not start from a position of mutual respect – like the bowing of sumo wrestlers before they crash into each other – that our politics descends into savagery, the objective being to win rather than to persuade.

Do conservatives similarly seek to silence or delegitimize rather than out-debate the opposition?  I am sure there are examples, but I can’t think of any circumstances similar to the hounding experienced by either Summers or Riley for the crime of being politically incorrect.

During the summer of rage in 2009, when the Tea Party was born and politicians got an earful of constituent displeasure over the stimulus package and Obamacare, there were definitely scenes of people shouting down their local representative as he tried to present his case.  This seems to me to be of a different order, however – this is a case of concrete policy differences, and constituents telling the person they sent to Washington that they were unhappy with what he was doing there.

When Gabriel Giffords was shot in January 2010, the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets found ways to connect the shootings to Republicans’ rhetoric, highlighting, for example, a country map circulated by Sarah Palin’s camp that featured targets over certain vulnerable districts.  This meme persisted well after it came to light that the demented shooter’s motivations were entirely internal – the complaint shifted to the supposed “atmosphere” of malice that Republicans allegedly foster.

But it was not Republicans who heaped all kinds of vitriol on Joe Lieberman in his primary campaign – including vile anti-Semitic slurs – for his apostasy in supporting the war in Iraq.  And this was the treatment meted out to a previous Democratic candidate for Vice President!  And it was a Democratic Congressman, Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, who said of Rick Scott, then candidate for Florida’s governorship: “Put him against the wall and shoot him.”

Again, the right has plenty of examples of firebrands and controversial speakers – Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Anne Coulter and the like.  But I can’t think of any movement among conservatives that sought to drive a voice from the public forum.  For the left, however, it is a tactic straight out of Saul Alinsky: delegitimize the opposition, so you don’t have to answer it.

The problem seems most acute on our campuses.  And there is a final irony – these places are supposed to be where unorthodox ideas are tried and evaluated.  The original idea of professor tenure was to free them to pursue their studies without fear of reprisal if the subject matter ruffled some feathers.

Instead, academia in this country has congealed around a handful of orthodoxies about race, feminism, and the like, and any voice that dares to prick that bubble is shouted down.  But we are not going to solve the big problems in this country if a large swath of our brightest stick their fingers in their ears and go, “la-la-la-la.”

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