How Illiberalism Hinders the Triumph of Reason

(Robert Adrian Hillman/Dreamstime)
From the January 25, 2016, issue of NR.

Woodrow Wilson was controversial among conservatives before the recent wave of unrest on campuses landed on him as an issue. Liberals have long celebrated him. During President Obama’s first term, they wrote a spate of articles defending him from conservative attacks. For decades, the dominant assumption at Princeton was that Wilson was an unquestionably great president of the United States. Only the conservatives there had misgivings. They wished that the university’s School of Public and International Affairs had been named after its other alumnus who became president — the one known as the father of the Constitution — rather than the one who criticized its checks and balances. Conservatives were also more likely than others to know Wilson’s appalling record on race.

So while there is no evidence that left-wing activists at Princeton were looking to split the Right by raising the issue of Wilson’s prominence there, they could hardly have selected among their causes one that would be better designed to do that. And they have divided conservatives. Most conservatives have weighed in against what they view as an attempt to erase part of our history. A few have argued instead that Princeton is honoring a man who does not deserve it.

Predictably, Princeton’s administration has handed off the matter to a committee to study. We can trust that whatever it decides, progressive and conservative critics of Wilson will not come together behind the idea of replacing his name with Madison’s. Our fourth president was, after all, a slaveholder, and owning slaves is objectively worse than supporting segregation, as Wilson did. What tells in Madison’s favor is, first, that he was better by the standards of his time than Wilson was by the standards of his; and, second, that the rest of Madison’s legacy has more to recommend it than does the rest of Wilson’s.

The recent agitation against Wilson does not allow for such considerations. Wilglory Tanjong, writing “on behalf of Black Justice League,” explained the group’s point of view in the student newspaper. Noting that university administrators conceded that Wilson was “deeply flawed,” she wrote: “To be very clear, we owe nothing to people who are ‘deeply flawed.’” That’s clear as can be: Wilson’s name is not to be removed as an exercise of judgment, but as the application of an absolute principle that also condemns Madison, Jefferson, Washington. If Wilson’s name goes, activists will take it as a momentum-building triumph for that idea. That fact, which would be true even if Tanjong had not written her op-ed, has to give pause to even the most anti-Wilsonian conservative.

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An allergy to proportion and judgment seems to be one of the distinguishing features of the ideas and practices that travel together under the label of “political correctness.” Were that not the case, many of the ideas associated with PC would be unobjectionable, even trivial. There is nothing in principle absurd about the concept of a “micro-aggression.” (One example, with which I used to have a lot of firsthand experience, comes to mind: asking someone of South Asian descent where he’s “really from” after he has just told you he comes from Kansas.) All of us should be aware that we can unintentionally slight or offend others, and we should try to avoid it; all of us should also have a sense of perspective if we are unintentionally, and microscopically, offended.

The recurring debates over college-commencement speakers is not one over first principles either. To be selected as a commencement speaker is an honor, and institutions can rightly withhold that honor from certain people for moral reasons. But when Smith College students forced Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to withdraw as a speaker because she “directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against,” they abused that principle (as well as the ideal of clarity in prose).

An allergy to proportion and judgment seems to be one of the distinguishing features of ‘political correctness.’

Being non-white at an Ivy League school surely presents certain challenges that white students, professors, and administrators should try to address. Here is how that idea was presented in another op-ed at Princeton, this one by a group of graduate students: “Princeton University has deepened the anguish and intensified the alienation of its graduate students of color. . . . Students of color are constantly besieged by the racism at Princeton. Surviving Princeton, for students like us, is more than a struggle: It is a battle for one’s life and sanity, for the dignity of one’s non-white flesh.” The occasion for this 2014 op-ed was a reorganization of the graduate school’s administration. The specific complaint: “There is no longer an Associate Dean primarily devoted to issues of diversity.”

In November, protesters at Yale angrily denounced offensive Halloween costumes. Not, mind you, because any students had actually worn any this year or last year. The problem was that a lecturer had suggested in an e-mail that the Yale administration take a step back from advising students on what costumes to wear and that students who take offense at costumes not overreact to them. Her husband, a professor and the master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, defended this gently phrased e-mail. These were the provocations that led to demands for apologies and resignations. One student was videotaped screaming at the master that his job was “about creating a home,” not “about creating an intellectual space” for conflicting opinions.

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Around the same time, Yale was hosting a conference about free speech, and one panelist observed that the protesters had lost all sense of perspective: “You would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.” The conference then drew protests for insensitivity to genocide, and its attendees were reportedly spat on. The impulse on display here, then, is not just devoid of mature judgment; it is actively hostile to it.


The most troubling aspect of the PC impulse is not its insistence on renaming public spaces, its harangues about the improper use of pronouns, or its interest in making sure that Oberlin students can eat culturally authentic Asian food. It is that in the name of egalitarianism, PC threatens the robust exchange of ideas. We cannot overcome this threat solely by appealing to the contrary abstract ideal of free speech. Doing so will also require judgment and, if the word is still allowed in polite company, discrimination.

To begin, we must distinguish between the different challenges to open debate depending on whether they come from government, from university administrations, or from civil society, including the corporate sector. The threats to free speech that require the most vigorous resistance are those backed by the power of the federal government. Americans are more supportive than most people worldwide of the idea that individuals should be able to say what they wish free of governmental censorship — but they, and especially the young among them, are not supportive enough. A recent Pew survey found that 40 percent of Millennials believe that government should be able to prevent people from making statements that are offensive to minority groups. It is the sort of thing that might make us “speak despairingly” of young people — at least if we are not students at the University of Missouri Law School, which recently forbade them to do that on social media with respect to any group.

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The editors of the Washington Post have presumably had more time than 20-year-olds to reflect on the matter. But they cheered the prospect that the Redskins football team would lose its trademark over the putative offensiveness of its name. A “victory for tolerance” was their Orwellian description of the trademark office’s decision against the team. The Post even suggested that senators should force a name change by threatening to withhold tax breaks from the National Football League. Good thing there’s no chance such an intervention would set a bad precedent.

The federal government has contributed to the climate of intolerance on campus, too. Federal statute forbids sex discrimination by federally funded institutions of higher education; the bureaucracy has interpreted this law expansively, to forbid anything that might create a “hostile environment.” Earlier this year, a professor at Northwestern University, Laura Kipnis, wrote an essay saying that colleges, influenced by the federal rules, were instead creating an atmosphere of “sexual panic.” Some students objected to the essay, and the university launched an investigation into whether Kipnis’s writing had itself violated those same federal rules.

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Still more recently, 19 professors at Harvard Law School wrote a letter challenging the bias and inaccuracy of a recent CNN documentary about sexual-assault cases at colleges. (The letter indirectly concerned those federal rules, too, which have weakened procedural protections for those accused of sexual assault or harassment.) The filmmakers responded by suggesting that the professors, by writing the letter, had contributed to a “hostile climate” at the university. The thinly veiled suggestion was that Harvard should discipline the professors or see its federal funding threatened.

Publicity forced Northwestern to drop its investigation of Kipnis, and Harvard has not acted against its professors. But people who want to make campuses less tolerant of opinions with which they disagree now recognize that the federal rules are a weapon they can wield. These people ought to be disarmed.


But neither the suppression nor the attempted suppression of debate on college campuses typically involves the federal government or violations of the First Amendment. Instead, it involves college policies and the temper of the student body, faculty, and administration. To think through the controversies that arise over speech on campus when government is not involved, we need something more than the principle that government should not use coercion to block speech. That something more has to do with the mission of the university.

We can see the insufficiency of the free-speech principle as a comprehensive guide to these questions most clearly at educational institutions that are explicitly dedicated to a particular worldview. In December, Wheaton College, an Evangelical school, put a professor on administrative leave, reportedly because she asserted that Muslims and Christians worship “the same God.” Her suspension gave rise to a lot of theological arguments, but no serious person argued that the college had violated a principle of free speech. On that argument, Wheaton would have to cease to exist as a Christian school.

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The vast majority of American colleges have no such explicit religious commitments or comprehensive philosophical commitments. Instead they are, or should be, communities dedicated to the pursuit of the basic good of knowledge, even as they are also homes. Because of that mission, they must also be especially concerned to protect the robust exchange of ideas and must allow no rationally defensible view to be penalized or excluded from consideration.

Princeton University legal philosopher and political theorist Robert P. George made this point last year in response to yet another campus controversy — but one that had a different political character than most such controversies. Disability-rights activists had held protests against his colleague Peter Singer, a utilitarian among whose claims to notoriety is his argument for a right to infanticide. “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person,” he has written. “Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” George is a leading defender of the view that all human beings have inherent dignity and a right to life, regardless of their age, ability, stage of development, or condition of dependency. He is philosophically poles apart from Singer.

Nevertheless, George defended Singer, and defended Princeton’s allowing Singer to propound his views at the university:

The right to academic freedom is held equally by all who are prepared to do business in the currency of academic discourse: a currency consisting of reasons and arguments. Singer does business in precisely that currency. He is not a demagogue, a shouter, a hater. He does not deploy abusive language or techniques of manipulation. He sets forth his positions with clarity and defends them with rational arguments.

Arguments are to be dealt with by meeting them, not by shutting down (or threatening, or intimidating, or even stigmatizing) the people who are making them. And meeting them requires thinking about them, even entertaining them in a serious way, however much we are scandalized by the positions for which they are adduced.

Note that this defense of open debate at a university does not deny that allowing people to offer their reasons and arguments can cause emotional pain, as it did in the case of Singer and the disability-rights activists. It assumes, rather, that any offense taken — even legitimately taken — is simply irrelevant to the case for encouraging debate. The truth can hurt, after all; and we do not aid the quest for truth by ruling offense out of bounds. We should of course also follow norms of civility that discourage giving offense gratuitously. But even if we believe that someone is doing exactly that, it is better to tolerate the abuse than to risk harming the inquiry that is the university’s raison d’être. It is to President Obama’s credit that he has spoken up for this academic ideal and against those among his progressive allies who have opposed or undermined it (even if it is to his discredit that his administration has itself often undermined that ideal).

RELATED: No Room for Free Speech: The Anti-Intellectualism of Princeton’s Protesters

A commitment to open inquiry should rule out shouting down people. More controversially, it should also lead to a preference for debates, panels, speeches, and dialogues over protests and sit-ins, especially when administrators have signaled their willingness to talk with students who have a concern. And it should set limits to PC culture on campus in other ways as well.

One popular campus-left slogan has it that some people, for example white people talking about matters that touch on race, should “check their privilege.” There is nothing wrong with suggesting that people examine the extent to which their views might be skewed by their experiences. But when “Check your privilege” is used to dismiss views based on the demographic characteristics of the people who express them, it is an affront to the values that should animate an academic community.

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A peculiarity of campus activism is that the loudest cries for “safe spaces” come from those who do not want it to be safe for certain people to express their thoughts anywhere. After the Halloween controversy at Yale became national news, a freshman at Princeton wrote a column defending the “open discussion of ideas.” An op-ed in response built up to the conclusion that “as a cisgendered white male,” “you simply lack the context you need in order to make the claim that freedom of thought should trump feeling safe at a school that doubles as your home.” The PC movement, whatever else might be said of it, is finely attuned to how we use language to deploy power. And the language used here reflects a particular style of rhetoric now prevalent among the campus, and sometimes the off-campus, Left. The claim is not: “Your argument for open debate puts too little weight on its costs because neither you nor most of the people you know have felt those costs.” It is: “You may not make this claim. Your argument for debate should not be admitted into debate.”

Our obligation to protect debate is less stringent outside the academy, but it is still powerful, and supplemented by considerations of civility and charity.

Our obligation to protect debate is less stringent outside the academy, but it is still powerful, and supplemented by considerations of civility and charity. Consider the case of the Benham brothers, who lost a planned television show about flipping homes because of their views about homosexuality, views rooted in their Evangelical Christian faith. They had no right to a show, of course; those who disagreed with them were free to complain, and the cable network HGTV was free to drop them in response. There is no ironclad principle that protects people from ever facing economic pressure because of their views. It would be proper to boycott a company whose CEO was a vocal supporter of North Korean labor camps, or Nazism, or the Westboro Baptist Church, or otherwise to seek that CEO’s ouster.

But even if tolerance is not a universal rule, it is a valuable disposition. We should ask ourselves whether a particular view, regardless of how strongly we might disagree with it, is a sign of a vicious character; fairly answer that question; and act accordingly. Very rarely will the answer be yes. Wanting separate water fountains for non-whites would indeed be such a sign in our society, and it would be appropriate to ostracize a person who held that view. But that judgment would depend crucially on context: That view could be (and was in fact) held by people who were generally decent and well-meaning, if tragically mistaken, a few decades ago. At that time, it was right to seek to persuade such people to change their minds and even to pass laws overriding their views if they remained unpersuaded. But it would have been wrong to seek to deprive them of the ability to pursue job opportunities, have a public platform, and so forth. It should not need saying, but does, that there are good people on both sides of the debates over same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and the whole range of controversial social and political questions, and we should strive to get along while making our cases.

#related#The argument for social tolerance of diverse viewpoints, like the arguments for free speech and for a free society in general, rests ultimately on a view of human beings and of reason that might be described as moderate. We must have confidence that people have dignity and rights, deserve respect, and are capable of rationality. At the same time, we must have humility about how well we apprehend the fullness of truth. We cannot be so convinced of the rightness of all our views that we seek to impose rather than propose them; we cannot be so thoroughgoing in our skepticism that we refuse to protect individual rights. It is a delicate balance. That is why it is a cultural as well as a legal and political achievement, and that is why it is always fragile.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review. This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2016, issue of National Review.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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