Speech is getting less free

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.

Pope Francis and ‘soft power’ diplomacy

He doesn’t soft-peddle his approach.

In another airplane press conference on an apostolic journey abroad, Francis called out anyone who commits violence in the name of religion. And while he emphasized the importance of free expression, he admitted it necessarily has limits.

Here’s the transcript of his remarks. A key exchange, on the tension between freedom of religion, and freedom of speech:

Sebastien Maynard (La Croix): Holy Father, yesterday during Mass, you spoke about religious liberty as a fundamental human right. With respect to other religions, how far can the freedom of expression extend, since this latter is a fundamental human right, too?

Pope Francis: Thanks for the question, that is smart, it is good. I think that both are fundamental human rights, religious liberty and liberty of expression. You can’t … Let’s think, are you French? Let’s go to Paris. Let’s speak clearly. You cannot hide a truth. Everyone has the right to practice their religion, their own religion without offending, freely. And that’s what we do, what we all want to do.

But…

Secondly, you cannot offend or make war, kill in the name of your religion, in the name of God. What has happened now astonishes us…Killing in the name of God is an aberration against God. I think this is the main thing with freedom of religion. You can practice with freedom without offending but without imposing or killing.

The freedom of expression… Every one of us has not just the freedom, the right, but also the obligation to say what he thinks to help build the common good. The obligation. If we think of a congressman, a senator, if he doesn’t say what he thinks is the true path, he doesn’t collaborate in the common good. We have the obligation to freely have this liberty, but without offending. It’s true that you cannot react violently. But, if Dr. Gasbarri, my great friend, says something against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others, you cannot make fun of the faith.

Pope Benedict, in a speech, I don’t remember which, he spoke of this post-positivist mentality, of the post-positivist metaphysics that brought people to believe that religions or religious expressions are a type of lower culture: that they are tolerated but that there’s not much to them, that they are in not part of an enlightened culture. And this is a lecacy of the Enlightenment. So many people speak against others’ religions. They make fun of them. Let’s say they “giocatalizzano” (make a playng out of) the religion of others. But they are provoking, and what can happen is what I said about Dr. Gasbarri if he says something about my mother. There is a limit. Every religion has dignity; I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person. And this is a limit. I’ve used this example of the limit to say that in the freedom of expression there are limits, like the example I gave of my mother. I don’t know if I was able to respond to the question. Thanks.

This is so Francis-like. Honest and sincere, off-the-cuff spontaneous remarks, in the colloquial expressions he’s familiar with but we all are too, in our own way. So we can relate. Would you hear Pope John Paul II or Benedict talking about ‘expecting a punch’ for insulting his mother? No. But Francis is Francis. Catholics refer to ‘Holy Mother Church’, which was a point he was making. Freedom of expression is important, but all freedoms have to be exercised within the limits of truth, right order and the common good (think ‘You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater’).

More on his thoughts about religion being abused in the cause of war here.

When confronted with the question of truth commissions in war torn nations, Francis said this:

I support efforts to find the truth, balance efforts; not those in search of vindication, but balanced efforts to help to reach an agreement.

I heard something from the President of Sri Lanka – I don’t want this to be interpreted as a political comment, it is only phenomenological: I repeat what I heard and I agree with. He said he wants to move ahead with the work of peace, reconciliation. Then he used another word, he said we must create harmony in the people. That’s something more than peace, more than reconciliation, and it’s beautiful, it’s musical, too. Then he used another word. He said harmony brings happiness and joy. I was amazed. I said: I like hearing this, but it’s not easy. He said yes, we must touch people’s hearts. That’s what I thought of in answering your question, only by touching the hearts of people who know what suffering is, what injustice is; who had suffered many things from war, so many things. Only by touching hearts can people forgive, can we find the right path, without incorrect compromises to go forward.

This all comes right after the week of terror in Paris and the extraordinary weekend unity rally that drew world leaders and massive crowds together in a demonstration of solidarity against extremist violence. Francis has been working on that, through the channels available to him, throughout his papacy. In the footsteps of his predecessors, according to former US Vatican Ambassador Francis Rooney, who wrote this Time.com opinion piece not long ago, which becomes timely again with current events.

It has now been announced that Pope Francis will make a state visit to Turkey in November [which he made]. As with Pope Benedict’s visit there in 2006, a papal visit to the secular Islamic nation will garner the attention of everyone who is concerned about the violence and civil wars in the Middle East. Like the Albania visit, the Pope’s very presence will symbolize hopes for genuine religious tolerance and inter-religious dialogue, while drawing the clear distinction between religion and lawlessness and murder.

Following Regensburg, several groups of Islamic scholars acknowledged that Koranic teaching must reconcile with modernity.

Few people know that fact, to this day.

Continuing with Ambassador Rooney

Pope Francis’ engagement of the Holy See, both in calling for an end to the persecution of Christians and implying recently that even military opposition to ISIS in Iraq and Syria could be supported a “just war,” has similarly brought constructive results.

…Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz, the leading Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia, spoke out clearly against radicalism in response to King Abdullah’s public request for all clerics to raise their voices on this issue. While King Abdullah visited Pope Benedict in the aftermath of Regensburg, this is the most clear expression of Saudi opposition to radicalism to date.

On September 10, some two dozen MuslimAmerican leaders met in Washington with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and spoke out against Islamic terrorism and the recruitment of young Muslim Americans to extremism. More recently, in a direct reference to the need for “soft power” solutions, the Minister of Religious Affairs for Jordan, Hayil Abdelhafeez Dawoud, told the Wall Street Journal that “to fight terrorism, we need to fight its ideology. It can’t be solved militarily.”

George Weigel has recently summarized the problem and suggested a solution, stating that the modern world is at a crossroads with Islam, which requires that Islam reconcile its theology with the tolerance, freedom and respect for human life that the rest of the civilized world has come to expect, as well as with the nature of the secular, modern state and its relationship to religion.

While optimism is hard to find right now, and the violence and persecution in the Middle East and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa continue unchecked, these recent expressions offer promise that a broad community of nations will congeal to create a supportable, “just” force against Islamic extremists and that the Muslim states and leaders themselves will work to devise theological and philosophical constructions to bring Islam at large into accord with the modern world.

No sovereign is more aligned with these efforts nor more suited to weigh in diplomatically than the Holy See and Pope Francis.

Post-election ruminations

And they are revealing. Not only about what went wrong for champions of one candidate, much of one party and many advocates of important causes, but how to learn from that. High level disagreement there…

Take this Public Discourse piece.

A common trope in social policy debates is to claim that the public’s changing opinion on the policy at stake, rather than the policy’s moral or substantive justifications, merits changing the platform of one’s preferred political party. This notion seems recently to have taken root on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, and several commentators have reacted.

Consider its November 8 editorial extolling referendums on marriage. The editors argue that views on “gay marriage” are changing so that “after 32 defeats at the ballot box, a gay marriage initiative was adopted by voters,” which shows that Americans are “capable of changing their views and the laws on gay marriage.” They praise the referendum process over judicial fiat, but their implicit premise seems to be that the policy change is a good one. Any substantive arguments to support this view are missing; what remains is only the claim of an inexorable shift in public opinion.

Now there’s a good point. I keep saying that we need a robust and honest public airing of different views on a number of social issues and public policies, with opposite arguments made and defended, so people can engage the fullness of the issues and the ramifications of their outcomes. You know, follow an idea through to its logical conclusion. Engage critical thinking. We’re not getting much of that in any widely accessed public forum, with few exceptions.

Ross Douthat comments on all this, and does some dot-connecting in this op-ed piece.

Liberals look at the Obama majority and see a coalition bound together by enlightened values — reason rather than superstition, tolerance rather than bigotry, equality rather than hierarchy. But it’s just as easy to see a coalition created by social disintegration and unified by economic fear.

Consider the Hispanic vote. Are Democrats winning Hispanics because they put forward a more welcoming face than Republicans do — one more in keeping with America’s tradition of assimilating migrants yearning to breathe free? Yes, up to a point. But they’re also winning recent immigrants because those immigrants often aren’t assimilating successfully — or worse, are assimilating downward, thanks to rising out-of-wedlock birthrates and high dropout rates. The Democratic edge among Hispanics depends heavily on these darker trends: the weaker that families and communities are, the more necessary government support inevitably seems.

Likewise with the growing number of unmarried Americans, especially unmarried women. Yes, social issues like abortion help explain why these voters lean Democratic. But the more important explanation is that single life is generally more insecure and chaotic than married life, and single life with children — which is now commonplace for women under 30 — is almost impossible to navigate without the support the welfare state provides.

Or consider the secular vote, which has been growing swiftly and tilts heavily toward Democrats. The liberal image of a non-churchgoing American is probably the “spiritual but not religious” seeker, or the bright young atheist reading Richard Dawkins. But the typical unchurched American is just as often an underemployed working-class man, whose secularism is less an intellectual choice than a symptom of his disconnection from community in general.

What unites all of these stories is the growing failure of America’s local associations — civic, familial, religious — to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible…

This is a great flaw in the liberal vision, because whatever role government plays in prosperity, transfer payments are not a sufficient foundation for middle-class success. It’s not a coincidence that the economic era that many liberals pine for — the great, egalitarian post-World War II boom — was an era that social conservatives remember fondly as well: a time of leaping church attendance, rising marriage rates and birthrates, and widespread civic renewal and engagement.

No such renewal seems to be on the horizon. That isn’t a judgment on the Obama White House, necessarily. But it is a judgment on a certain kind of blithe liberal optimism, and the confidence with which many Democrats assume their newly emerged majority is a sign of progress rather than decline.

As for conservatives, they’re having a necessary and not necessarily bad wrestling match within their ranks over big ideas and changing realities and criticism both constructive and very unhelpful.

Back to that Public Discourse piece:

To the extent then that the Republican Party appears to abandon its rightward stance on social issues; to the extent that Republicans are afraid to defend their views on the value of life, on religious freedom, and on marriage, they cede back the Reagan Democrats and their children to the Democrats, and they doom themselves to minority status.

These practical realities have not been lost on conservatives, and several important commentators have sounded the alarm. At First Things Matthew Franck cogently compares the Wall Street Journal’s urgings that we abandon our social principles to the cynical political maneuvering of Stephen Douglas on the slavery issue a century and a half ago. Franck notes that had Abraham Lincoln succumbed to the apparent expediency of falling into line with Douglas’s arguments, slavery likely would have persisted…

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, policy has worked, does work, and will work best when it is founded on moral and practical arguments. The Republican Party’s defense of freedom and dignity is based on both.

And more, because as Eric Metaxas puts it so well in so few words, logic is not enough.

Doing injustice in the name of justice

What would a totally tolerant society look like?

It’s not possible. Those who impulsively hurl charges of intolerance at those who disagree with their ideology are being intolerant of those who disagree with their ideology. Everyone has their definitions of the unacceptable, and that constitutes some degree of ‘intolerance.’ It’s getting to be an overused label.

Public Discourse takes this interesting look at liberal intolerance.

Tolerance is a delicate plant that does not grow easily in the soil of humanity. To some extent, then, liberal intolerance is simply a reflection of the ordinary weakness of human nature, which in all men yearns to silence those whose opinions differ too widely from their own. In theory, everyone admits that human reason is fallible. In practice, the conclusion we are apt to draw is that the other guy is wrong—so wrong that he should not even get a fair hearing.

How true.

Nevertheless, given the commitment of American liberals to abolishing intolerance and overcoming bias, it remains a vexing question why they should so often succumb to the very illiberal spirit they claim to reject.

It’s the elephant on the table. ‘The Emperors Clothes.’ What is not politically correct to talk about. Name your cliche…

So we’re at the point where

the liberal belief in Progress causes liberals to view any expression of what they regard as retrograde opinion to be a threat to the very foundations of their worldview. When such opinions begin to gain popular support, they raise the specter that History might be stopped in its benevolent course or even reversed. In contrast, traditionalist conservatives can afford to be more tolerant of ideas they think mistaken, since they view them not as a threat to the gradual perfection of the human condition but as part of the usual parade of folly and weakness that always characterizes human affairs.

Furthermore…

…contemporary liberalism is prone to intolerance because some of its most cherished political and cultural aspirations are at odds with the deeply-rooted moral convictions of the American society it is trying to reform. For example, liberals insist that homosexual relationships are morally equivalent to heterosexual ones, to the extent that the former should not only be tolerated but must be legally affirmed as the same thing as heterosexual marriage.

But wait, there’s more. And race definitely fits in this discussion, because…

liberals hold that racially discriminatory policies are justifiable depending on which persons they advantage.

Things are tense out there, for a reason.

At least in a country with America’s present culture, such ideas cannot win majority support in the context of reasoned public deliberation. Accordingly, liberals have to resort to hysterical denunciation of those who challenge such ideas, precisely in order to stop a debate they know they cannot win.

The key phrase there is “reasoned public deliberation.” Hence the “hysterical denunciation” business generated when anything appears in the public sphere (and everything is in the public sphere now) that challenges ideas that can’t or won’t stand up to the scrutiny of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking.

Finally, the left is intolerant because it tends to be secular, and as a result is less able to respect the dignity of the individual human person. The Western tradition finds support for human dignity in the biblical belief that every human being is created in the image and likeness of a transcendent God. While history demonstrates that this belief has never been powerful enough to restrain all human evil, it nevertheless provides a powerful motive to respect the rights even of those with whom we disagree. From this point of view, no matter how wrong a man may be, he himself is of infinite value.

This is perhaps most vital to ‘get.’ It’s a major difference in the ideological divide.

When fully appreciated, the biblical tradition encourages us to view every human being not only with respect but even with awe—a view for which contemporary Darwinism offers little support. As a result, while liberals are perfectly sincere in their desire to do good to humanity, they have no very strong appreciation for the worth of the human individual as an individual.

Bottom line: Challenge your convictions, and be prepared to make a principled defense for what you believe.