Speech is getting less free

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And the costs are prohibitive.

Things are getting worse, too. Look at the incident at Chicago’s Northwestern University that prompted this editorial from the Chicago Tribune editorial board.

Universities were meant to be places where ideas can be voiced and debated without fear, where the search for truth has no artificial limits, where no assumption is beyond challenge. Their motto could be the line by the 17th-century poet and philosopher John Milton: “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

How archaic that sounds now, sadly.

In February, communications professor Laura Kipnis wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.”

That started a chain of events that blew up the academic arena of ideas where challenge and response should be the norm, and everyone should be intelligent and mature enough to engage in that arena with reason. Read the editorial to see how far short of that ideal the university fell when things started flaring up over Professor Kipnis’ article.

Geoffrey Stone, a First Amendment scholar and former provost of the University of Chicago, wrote in The Huffington Post that Northwestern had committed an “embarrassing” betrayal of “the core principles of academic freedom.” Kipnis’ sole offense, he said, was “writing an article that upset some students.”…

The article Kipnis wrote was in the best tradition of spirited inquiry. Northwestern’s rough treatment of her is bound to have an intimidating effect on professors who see the danger of expressing any opinion that could offend anyone.

Just ask Sir Tim Hunt, formerly esteemed scientist at University College London. Who had an incident of misspeaking in a clearly clumsy setup for a talk before a world conference of science journalists, which he may forever regret.

As jokes go, Sir Tim Hunt’s brief standup routine about women in science last week must rank as one of the worst acts of academic self-harm in history. As he reveals to the Observer, reaction to his remarks about the alleged lachrymose tendencies of female researchers has virtually finished off the 72-year-old Nobel laureate’s career as a senior scientific adviser.

What he said was wrong, he acknowledges, but the price he and his wife have had to pay for his mistakes has been extreme and unfair. “I have been hung out to dry,” says Hunt.

His wife, Professor Mary Collins, one of Britain’s most senior immunologists, is similarly indignant. She believes that University College London – where both scientists had posts – has acted in “an utterly unacceptable” way in pressuring both researchers and in failing to support their causes.

Certainly the speed of the dispatch of Hunt – who won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology for his work on cell division – from his various academic posts is startling. In many cases this was done without him even being asked for his version of events, he says. The story shows, if nothing else, that the world of science can be every bit as brutal as that of politics.

That’s an important component of this case study to note. It’s pervasive now.

Sitting on a sofa with his wife, Hunt tries to explain why he made the remarks that got him into trouble while Collins groans in despair as he outlines his behaviour. Hunt had been invited to the world conference of science journalists in Seoul and had been asked to speak at a meeting about women in science. His brief remarks contained 39 words that have subsequently come to haunt him.

What in the world could have caused so much trouble, in so few words? Here’s what he said in the now infamous, awkward setup on the topic of women in science.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry,” he told delegates.

Just as an aside, I’m a woman and longtime investigative journalist who worked for two decades for one of the nation’s leading news magazines interviewing thought leaders, including a Nobel laureate the day he won the prize, and members of a presidential administration, among other dignitaries. Had I been sitting in that audience, I would not have laughed, smiled, or shown any glimmer of reaction, probably thinking ‘that was a stupid thing to say‘, and waiting for him to get to the important stuff.

But it was a tougher crowd.

Hunt may have meant to be humorous, but his words were not taken as a joke by his audience. One or two began tweeting what he had said and within a few hours he had become the focus of a particularly vicious social media campaign. He was described on Twitter as “a clueless, sexist jerk”; “a misogynist dude scientist”; while one tweet demanded that the Royal Society “kick him out”.

The next morning, as he headed for Seoul airport, Hunt got an inkling of the storm that was gathering when BBC Radio 4’s Today programme texted requesting an interview…

After Today was broadcast, and while Hunt was still flying back, Collins was called by University College London. She is a professor and a former dean there, while Hunt was an honorary researcher.

“I was told by a senior that Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked – though I was told it would be treated as a low-key affair. Tim duly emailed his resignation when he got home. The university promptly announced his resignation on its website and started tweeting that they had got rid of him. Essentially, they had hung both of us out to dry. They certainly did not treat it as a low-key affair. I got no warning about the announcement and no offer of help, even though I have worked there for nearly 20 years. It has done me lasting damage. What they did was unacceptable.”

The story appeared in newspapers round the world under headlines that said that Hunt had been sacked by UCL for sexism. Worse was to follow…

Hunt is under no illusions about the consequences. “I am finished,” he says. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic. I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.”

This is now standard operation procedure for academic institutions, political ones, elite media and activist organizations influenced by “the illiberal left”, as Kirsten Powers calls it, in her challenging book The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. She was my guest on radio twice recently, each time eager and ready to engage, and we had lively conversations about the need for engagement of diverse opinions in the arena of ideas, with respectful debate and intellectual engagement. I also share her deep concern over vanishing civil discourse and a dominant culture of intolerance, shutting down debate and even discussion.

It’s an important book, for its intellectual honesty  and insight by a professional political strategist well-known as a liberal who worked in the Clinton administration, and a current commentator on Fox News. She has accumulated a full package of insights from all that experience, which started in a childhood immersed in news and political affairs. Much like mine. We share a deep appreciation for the art of the argument, and the need for robust public debate between proponents of different ideas. That’s not only not what’s happening, she worries it’s becoming increasingly threatened by the bully forces of “the illiberal left.”

The behavior of the illiberal left flies in the face of decades of jurisprudence forged by liberal Supreme Court Justices who argued for an expansive view of the First Amendment and treated free speech as a precious commodity to be guarded jealously…

Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. – a liberal lion known for his outspoken progressive views – was perhaps the strongest First Amendment advocate of the modern era.

Powers cites what was likely Brennan’s most well-known free speech opinion, in which he defended “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open…” But, she says:

The illiberal left does not share this commitment. Their burgeoning philosophy in favor of government power to curtail freedom of thought, speech, and conscience is troubling.

Because it’s brutal, with a ‘mob mentality’ enforcing silence where free speech laws still protect those still willing to speak out. However, Powers says:

The illiberal left knows that delegitimization works. It’s their strongest weapon in a country with unparalleled free speech protections. If you can’t suppress views you don’t like with repressive laws, then delegitimize the people expressing them.

While we still have free speech laws in place…

deligimization through demonizing and intimidation remains the illiberal left’s most effective tactic…The illiberal left seeks to short-circuit this process (of debate). They don’t want to defend their views, nor do they want to allow forums for other people to present views that are at odds with the conclusions they have drawn on an array of issues. Sometimes, the mere suggestion of holding a debate is cast as an offense.

And this is early in her book. It’s filled with case studies backing up everything she says, and she says a lot that needs to be said.

Under a section titled ‘Age of Un-Enlightenment’, she says what so many have been afraid to say, which she does throughout the book.

The illiberal left isn’t just ruining reputations and lives with their campaigns of deligitimization and disparagement. They are harming all of society by silencing important debates, denying people the right to draw their own conclusions, and derailing reporting and research that is important to our understanding of the world. They are robbing culture of the diversity of thought that is so central to learning and discovery…

When people are afraid to express their opinions because they’ve seen other people as deviants deserving of public shaming or worse, they will be less likely to speak freely…This is not the kind of world we want.

No, it isn’t. We’re in a Paul Revere moment in our history in the US, and a pivotal one globally. Whoever hears the call to stand up to the assault on free speech should be emboldened to engage, challenge, present and defend truths about human rights and dignity that the “illiberal left” work to discredit or eliminate altogether.

This battle goes back to Plato, who battled the Sophists of his time. In Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, Josef Pieper described how they so deftly worked at retooling vocabulary and rhetoric to change the meaning of words to justify anything. Pieper explicitly described the results.

 The place of authentic reality is taken over by a fictitious reality…deceptively appearing as being real, so much so that it becomes almost impossible anymore to discern the truth.

We’re getting darned close to that place.

For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.

Powers makes the point from current politics:

What sets the illiberal left apart are their campaigns to delegitimize people who deviate on even one issue by openly engaging in racist and sexist attacks, all the while presenting themselves as the protectors and representatives of all women and non-white people.

This is going to be a rich and robust presidential campaign season for the next year and a half. So much is at stake.

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