The Paranoid Fantasies of Free Speech Alarmists

The Paranoid Fantasies of Free Speech Alarmists February 13, 2018

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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