The Paranoid Fantasies of Free Speech Alarmists

I can sometimes get carried away, Andrew Sullivan admits. Yeah, we noticed.

Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

When Andrew Sullivan tried to refute charges that his paranoia about college campus activism is a little hyperbolic, he ended up sounding even more paranoid than his accusers imagined.

In Friday’s New York magazine, Sullivan wrote a diatribe called, “We All Live on Campus Now,” where he defended himself against his critics. Though he worked hard to make it sound like he thinks the sentiments behind lefty activism are understandable, and he conceded that the Trump presidency is a big part of the problem, his magnanimity ended there.

Sullivan’s Slippery Slope

The main thrust of his article, as the title implies, is that what happens on campuses will sooner or later leak into society at large. One minute things like safe spaces and speech codes are just university issues, and the next thing you know, we’re all going to be waist-deep in social justice goo:

When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well. If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges — your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.

Note that Sullivan defines college administrators and academics as elites. Am I the only one who thinks he exaggerates the immense power and influence of academics? Are we allowed to question whether the inexorable process he describes truly takes place? I’m willing to believe that certain phenomena occur concurrently on campuses and society, particularly when it comes to politically charged matters like the safety of women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community. The causal relationship between campus activity and the culture at large that Sullivan describes, however, is something that should invite our skepticism.

Our Meritocracy ‘Tis of Thee

Sullivan is only getting started. When he talks about things like merit and privilege, he starts to go off the deep end:

And, sure enough, the whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect. The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment — untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights — are now routinely understood as mere masks for “white male” power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites. Any differences in outcome for various groups must always be a function of “hate,” rather than a function of nature or choice or freedom or individual agency. And anyone who questions these assertions is obviously a white supremacist himself.

If Sullivan really thinks that Western society is a chrome-plated meritocracy in which the most able and deserving enjoy wealth and authority, I question his commitment to Enlightenment reason and observation. Theorists have been analyzing power dynamics for decades now, and any analysis that doesn’t take into account the way the powerful perpetuate their authority with the help of legitimating institutions such as law, language, religion, and science isn’t one that the experts take seriously. I’ve argued elsewhere that free speech is now mere camouflage for right-wing bigotry, and the nostalgia that men like Sullivan have for “Enlightenment principles” is thinly-veiled longing for a time before multiculturalism and feminism came along and screwed up the sacred social order.

I’m probably not supposed to question claims that he makes using words like “any” and “always,” but Sullivan’s assertion that Any differences in outcome for various groups must always be a function of “hate” has to be one of the silliest things I’ve read this week. Once again, his assumption that there simply has to be a meritocracy operating in society doesn’t make it so.

You’re All Out To Get Me

Sullivan gets truly paranoid when he talks about the atmosphere of intimidation that has already, according to him, caused people to stop speaking their minds about anything:

 If voicing an “incorrect” opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet. This silence on any controversial social issue is endemic on college campuses, but it’s now everywhere… No one feels capable of saying anything in public.

No one feels capable of saying anything? Please. How many careers, on campus or off, have ended because people have “voiced incorrect opinions”? Sullivan then juggles paranoia and misogyny with a skill that’s truly nauseating:

Patriarchy and white supremacy — which define our world — come in micro, mini and macro forms — but it’s all connected. A bad date is just one end of a patriarchal curve that ends with rape. And that’s why left-feminists are not just interested in exposing workplace abuse or punishing sex crimes, but in policing even consensual sex for any hint of patriarchy’s omnipresent threat… In the struggle against patriarchy, a distinction between the public and private makes no sense. In fact, policing private life — the personal is political, remember — is integral to advancing social justice.

Throughout the essay, left-feminists and cultural Marxists are the boogeymen who, according to a frothing-at-the-mouth Sullivan, are threatening our liberties with their groupthink and callous disregard for civil rights. However, I wonder who would be gullible enough to mistake Sullivan’s caricature of left-wing thinking for the real thing. Is there really a cultural movement intent on policing consensual sex?

And that’s just the point. There’s a sizable, credulous audience for this sort of hyperbole, and when the twin specters of feminism and cultural Marxism are looming in their overheated imaginations, critical thinking goes out the window.

Let’s Get Real Real Gone For a Change

Just in case you suspected that Sullivan’s grasp of reality is tenuous, he ups the ante by warning that the multiculturalists and feminists want to do away with that objective reality thing!

Objective truth? Ha! The culture is now saturated with the concept of “your own truth” — based usually on your experience of race and gender. In the culture, it is now highly controversial for individuals in one racial/gender group to write about or portray anyone outside it — because there is no art that isn’t rooted in identity… As for objective reality, I was at an event earlier this week — not on a campus — when I made what I thought was the commonplace observation that Jim Crow laws no longer exist. Uncomprehending stares came back at me. What planet was I on? Not only does Jim Crow still exist, but slavery itself never went away! When I questioned this assertion by an African-American woman, I was told it was “not my place” to question her reality. After all, I’m white.

This isn’t just wildly implausible, it’s nonsensical. Sullivan wants us to think African-Americans don’t realize slavery has been abolished? Or that they long to maintain the illusion that it still exists? His willingness to pander to prejudice seems to have no limits whatsoever. Just look at the featured image of this post, the exact image that accompanies Sullivan’s article: a multiracial crowd confronts the viewer with accusing faces as it chants slogans during a campus rally. They’re coming for you, Sullivan implies, and when they’re done, even reality will be gone.

Back to Schooldays

No one is saying that every campus brouhaha has been handled with total equanimity. No one is saying that things like speech codes or safe spaces couldn’t conceivably be abused. What I question is whether every campus dust-up truly warrants the attention the media focuses on it. Does campus activism truly represent a phenomenon that threatens the American experiment and free society, or is there a lot of paranoid scaremongering in the air?

The fact of the matter is that the university has long been a thorn in the right wing’s side. Since the labor unions have waned in influence, the academy represents the last bastion of professional radicalism. The alarmism about college activists peddled by people like Sullivan and Jordan Peterson is meant to inspire hatred and scorn for an institution that doesn’t buy into the individualist folklore of the free market West. If he wants to live up to his rhetoric about how liberal society “welcomes dissent,” Sullivan needs to be a lot less dismissive of the dissent of college students and feminists.

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  • Foxglove

    I don’t know Andrew Sullivan–perhaps I should–but I see all sorts of problems in these few remarks of his that have been quoted. E.g.,

    When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well.

    As a transgender person, I get heartily sick of complaints about “identity politics” and an “identity-based social justice movement”. Minorities, such as transgender people, are in fact routinely attacked solely because of their identities. If you don’t like identity politics, then stop attacking people for their identities. Treat them as fellow-citizens and you’ll see them behaving as fellow-citizens.

    What matters most of all in these colleges— your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.

    This is only true as long as a given minority is in fact oppressed. In 2015, here in Ireland, through a change in the laws gay and transgender people gained a measure of freedom that would be the envy of most LGBT people in this world. What it means is that we can in many ways stop focusing on our LGBT identity. We can simply be citizens and approach various issues in the way that all other citizens would. I myself will always identify as transgender. But now that I have a good deal of freedom, I now have to focus less on which party supports transgender rights. Since all parties do, I can look at other objectives they have in view. In other words, if you want people to stop focusing on a “hierarchy of oppression”, then simply eliminate that hierarchy.

    And, sure enough, the whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse.

    Again, as long as minorities are oppressed, they will identify with their fellow group members. If anyone fails to understand why a Black American, after the last 400 years or more of their history, still strongly identifies as black, then they’re simply not trying very hard.

    The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect.

    And this is simply as dishonest a statement as one could possibly imagine. Who is it who has attacked the idea of “individual merit”, if not oppressive majorities? Try to imagine yourself as a transgender person who has been forced into the closet and held there for several decades. How in the world can you exercise your “individual merit”? Your individual merit has been trampled into the ground. This is precisely the objective that oppressive majorities pursue–obliterating the individual merit of members of minority groups. Lump a people together as a group, trample them under, keep them ground under so that whatever merit a given individual possesses will have no chance of expressing itself.

    If voicing an “incorrect” opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet.

    This statement is equally dishonest. What do we mean by an “incorrect opinion”? We transpeople know well what that means. We are well used to people pouring out all their hatred and venom on us. We’re called perverts and mentally ill, it’s said that we’re a danger to women and children, it’s said that we want to overturn society, etc., etc. But now things are changing. More and more people are copping on that we’re not actually the monsters we’ve always been portrayed as. People are copping on that we can actually be very decent friends, neighbors and citizens. Thus, they’ve come to recognize that when certain people still want to slander us, abuse us and tell all sorts of lies about us, such opinions are in fact “incorrect”. Someone who’s complaining about not being able to voice an “incorrect opinion” is simply lamenting the fact that his bigotry is now being seen for what it is.

    Objective truth? Ha! The culture is now saturated with the concept of “your own truth” — based usually on your experience of race and gender.

    This again is dishonest. Who is it who has always attacked “objective truth” if not the oppressive majority? The fact that transgender people have always been around is just that–a fact. And yet here we are today, in the year 2018, and there are still lots of people who try to deny the reality of transgenderism. We’re just “confused people” who need psychiatric help to get us back on track. The fact that I’m transgender isn’t “my own truth”. It is truth, period. My experience is transgender because I am in fact transgender. It’s people who want to ignore objective truth who are complaining about attacks on objective truth.

    . . . it is now highly controversial for individuals in one racial/gender group to write about or portray anyone outside it — because there is no art that isn’t rooted in identity…

    It shouldn’t be controversial. I’m as white as they come, and there is no way in hell I would pretend that I could understand a black person as well as a black person could. The more I read or hear from black people, the more I’m impressed with the notion that I cannot begin to fathom their experience. And as a transgender person, I am sick to death of trans-haters who pretend that they know our experience better than we do and that they’re actually in a position to advise us as how to live our lives.

    When I questioned this assertion by an African-American woman, I was told it was “not my place” to question her reality. After all, I’m white.

    And if you can’t understand this, then you’re simply an idiot. Or worse. You could be a bad-minded asshole. Because you don’t want to admit that you need to listen to this woman, understand where she’s coming from, admit the injustice she has to live with, and as a white person take steps to correct that injustice.

    Apologies for the length of this post. . . Oh, hell, I don’t apologize. I think people know me well by this time, and when I get wound up, I take the opportunity to say what I have on my mind and in my heart. Thanks for your patience.

  • No need to apologize! Great input.

    Sullivan’s diatribe was indeed a petty, insulting rant that looks like it was designed to show how crass privilege can make someone. As you say, denigrating “identity politics” comes naturally to people whose majority status has afforded them protection from being marginalized and physically attacked for their identity. I’d only add that this cocoon of privilege amplifies the paranoia folks like Sullivan suffer when there’s pushback from the minorities they’re so used to patronizing.

  • John Pieret

    Just so you know, Sullivan himself is openly gay but still a libertarian/conservative … make of it what you will.

  • Foxglove

    OK. Such people exist. And I have to confess I’ve never been sure what to make of them.

  • Foxglove

    OK. Well, some people have a way of turning things around backwards. As I’ve pointed out, that’s what Sullivan is doing here on more than one occasion. That sort of thing never makes me happy.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    The fact of the matter is that the university has long been a thorn in the right wing’s side.

    Which is why right-wingers like Stephen Pinker, Jerry Coyne, Jonathan Haidt, and Bret Weinstein agree with Sullivan on this.

  • John Pieret

    Sullivan is confusing free speech with the “freedom” to say anything you want without criticism or push-back:

    If voicing an “incorrect” opinion can end your career, or mark you for instant social ostracism, you tend to keep quiet.

    And? Is there any politician, movie star, or anyone else in the public eye of which that isn’t true? Ask Mel Gibson how much his little anti-semitic rant cost him in movie roles, directing gigs and the like. That is and has always been a fact of life even during the Enlightenment. But that’s not the government that’s shutting you up, it’s the good ol’ sainted free market that’s doing it to you. While a government university can’t stop a professor from saying something stupid and they are protected more than most by tenure rules, if you get so unpopular among the “customers” (the students) that none of them want to purchase your “product” (your classes) and the university has to renew your contract … well …

    Of course, if you say something controversial to one group but popular to another, the support from the second can ameliorate the loss of support from the first. What Sullivan (and the religious right, who often make this complaint as well) is really kvetching about is that the the group that would support bigoted statements against women, people of color, LGBT people (like Sullivan) and so forth is getting smaller and protects them less.

  • Sullivan is confusing free speech with the “freedom” to say anything you want without criticism or push-back:

    This is another example of the delusion people have that speech is just blah-blah-blah, we should take offense to any attempt to moderate our rhetoric or make us use less pejorative terms, and we should be able to define the exact extent of the consequences we consider acceptable for what we say. As you point out, it’s like Sullivan thinks he can just name his price in the marketplace of ideas.

  • MoonlightUnkindledOne

    That’s essentially the whole idea behind what many people who whine about political correctness really want-they want to be able to say whatever horrible shit they want to people without being called out on it. They long for the days when it was not only okay but one got praised for being a dick to others. Hate to tell them, but unfettered free speech has never been a thing. There have always been times where it was taboo (aka resulted in consequences) to say or talk about certain things, depending upon the venue.

  • XCellKen

    Right Wingers? Fuck , those guys are full blown Nazis /S

  • AtheistRight

    Nobody look nothing to see here you don’t need freedom of speech Dory about it move along move along https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4c959f69c4281ef6bb355244fc6f299e0da18a43bd35b1ce1550b14773916c44.jpg

  • Check out the Shem Commandments for my posting policy. Going forward, post something a little more substantial than a meme, okay?

  • Priya Lynn

    Bigots condemn “identity politics” because they don’t want oppressed minorities to try and do anything about their oppression. If you’re gay and oppressed or you’re black and oppressed, you’re a bad person for trying to change that.

  • That’s right. It’s easy to spout macho rhetoric about the idea of individual merit when you’re the one who benefits from systemic inequities.

    The myth that most strongly resonates in the American imagination is the idea of society as a zero-sum situation where any gain you make in influence or status represents a loss in my power. This is how people like Sullivan, Jonathan Haidt, and Jordan Peterson stoke the flames of white-guy paranoia.