By Nikhil Vaish
As a lifelong liberal I am sad to say that I no longer recognise this new strain of liberalism, one that seems infected by close-mindedness, intolerance and a severely judgmental view of everyone that does not conform to some inane and thin-skinned acid test.
It seems that as the liberal world order began to thrive across the globe in the seventies and eighties, the liberal mind grew smaller. Rather than embrace diversity of thought, the left today seems to take pride in chastising, publicly shaming and tearing down anyone whose thinking diverges even slightly from the liberal mob.
As a result, liberals come across as closed-minded, parochial and so thin skinned that they seem unable or unwilling to recognise that protecting free speech means that everyone is entitled to his or her views, no matter how vehemently we might disagree.
Seems it did not matter that Mr. Eich was a highly qualified technology executive who had also been part of creating a company that had a history of an open and inclusive workplace, nor did it matter that there was no charge against him of discriminating against gays by bringing his political views into the workplace or anywhere else. He was punished simply because he had a different opinion. I disagree with his view, but I also respect that he has the right to have it.
More recently, Google, which claims to be a champion of free speech, quashed and censored the freedom for one of their employees. By firing James Damore, Google basically proved his point. His memo titled the ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’ was arguing that Google’s, and more broadly, Silicon Valley’s corporate culture is wholly intolerant of conservative views. Forget the merits of Mr. Danmore’s argument in his memo.Thepoint is that he not only has the right to hold such views, but also to openly share them without fear of persecution or prosecution, provided doing so does not break any laws or violate the first amendment, which he did not.
I have no doubt that Google’s lawyers found sound legal grounds to fire him based on some violation of their corporate policy, but a wiser course for Google, as the Economist argued, would have been for Larry Page to have written a full-throated and detailed rebuttal of Mr Damore’s argument. Google would have shown that it respects free speech, especially when it disagrees, and using data and scientific evidence could have eloquently debunked Mr. Danmore’s contention that women are inferior software engineers and programmers.
The whole point of free speech is not that bad or insensitive views and ideas will cease to exist, but that when we encounter ideas like Mr. Danmore’s, we can use more speech to defeat them with better ideas and actual evidence.
If we shut down opinions simply because we find them unkind or hurtful, we will kill free speech. We need to look at actions and not views alone; this is why expressing even the most heinous ideas or opinions publicly is protected under the first amendment. Wecan draw a line when such views trample on someone else’s rights, discriminate against a group or break laws.
This ideological censorship based on some group deeming something “offensive” is happening even in the media. A conservative writer, Daniella Greenbaum, resigned from Business Insider (BI) after being censored. She wrote a piece defending Scarlett Johansson playing a transgender man, arguing that the main challenge of acting is to portray someone other than oneself and that “Johansson’s identity off the screen is irrelevant to the identities she plays on the screen.”
Her article went through the publication’s editorial review process before it was published, but the moment it met with resistance, BI took it down. They claimed it was suddenly in violation of their editorial standards, which the article had passed earlier. Rather than take it down to placate the mob, BI should have encouraged everyone who disagreed with her to pen a rebuttal.
I call this disturbing trend, one that shuts down various points of view, ideological racism and it has become even more pervasive in the age of social media mobs. I decided to do research to try and understand how, liberals, once open-minded, thick-skinned and valiant defenders of free speech, had suddenly become so sensitive, plaintive and censorship-happy.
Over the last generation, a dangerous idea has started to take hold among students and faculty on college campuses across the country, one that suggests that speech is violence.
We are not talking about verbal threats against individuals, which are illegal and not protected by the first amendment. No, this idea of words inflicting violence refers to speech that is deemed by members of an identity group to be critical of the group, or speech that simply ‘upsets’ people. Basically, saying that if I were to give a speech on a college campus criticising Indians for not wearing deodorant (a fact), it would be considered violence against Indianstudents.
A few years ago, a group at Columbia University penned an Op-ed in the student newspaper calling on the school to start implementing “trigger” warnings in curricula to alert students about potentially distressing material, even for classics like Greek mythology or Roman poetry. In 2014, students at the University of California urged the school to make trigger warnings mandatoryon all class syllabi, which would require the school to issue advance alerts and allow students to skip those classes.
Recently, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that alerts should be issued for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ to say, ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence, and a Columbia student publicly complained about her professor using the word “negro”, even though he said it in a lesson about 1960s America.
Sadly, this anti-intellectual, anti-learning and anti-free speech movement has spread well-beyond classrooms and now extends to blocking all Conservative speakers, and even Liberals who don’t spout the party line, from lecturing on campus, often using the ridiculous argument that words are weapons that can cause physical harm.
Ironically, while students complain about the ‘violence’ of words, they seem to have no issue resorting to physical violence to prevent speakers from setting foot on campuses. A talk by conservative social scientist Charles Murray was violently shut down by students who physically attacked him and in the process injured a Middlebury professor who was with him. At University of California, Berkeley, once a bastion of free speech, a group with bandannas wrapped around their faces, tore down barricades, shot projectiles at police and lit a light stand on fire, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage, and succeeded in cancelling a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial far-right speaker.
Another trend contributing to this growing ideological racism has been the creation of ‘safe spaces’. The original purpose of a ‘safe space’ was narrowly defined and meant as a temporary physical space on campus for marginalised groups, often gay and transgender students, to discuss issues without abuse or public attacks. However, what was meant to be a temporary space is morphing into permanent ones for various aspects of campus life; from segregated study halls and libraries and some advocates have turned their attention to student housing, which they want to turn into safe spaces by segregating student living quarters.
Another factor is the lack of diversity within faculty. In 2016, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that has surveyed undergraduate teaching faculty for the last twenty-five years found that liberals now outnumber conservative professors, five to one. Another 2017 study by Econ Journal Watch found that faculty at the top 40 colleges, in the fields of Economics, History, Journalism/Communications, Law and Psychology were registered Democrat versus Republican by a whopping 11.5 to 1 margin. The New Yorker described this failure among our higher education institutions, now completely dominated by the left, as an unwillingness to engage with conservative thought, an aversion to debate, and a weakened commitment to free speech.
For me the main issue is that these developments defeat the main purpose of higher education, which was to open minds rather than to create conformity. Colleges are meant to challenge our thinking by introducing new ideas and exposing us to a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Instead, it seems education is now focusedon creating false realities and safe echo chambers which do not prepare students for the realities of life in the real world.
Colleges are the final rite of passage between the safety and security of home and the unfairness and harshness of life. Time there is meant to help students grow thicker skins, in part by interacting with people who have different views, backgrounds and life experiences than their own. As our world continues to shrink, having a thicker skin has become more, not less, important.
The point is not to pretend that there are no Holocaust deniers or to tell them never to engage with people with offensive views. Progress requires us to work with all types of people. We need to teach children the facts of history (good, bad and ugly) and equip them with critical thinking skills and thick skins so they can publicly debate and defeat bad ideas with better ones.
How can you change the world for the better, if you refuse to accept its ugly realities first?
Every successful democratic society requires a broad spectrum of views, thoughts and ideas to thrive and succeed. This is the point of diversity, not simply skin colour, but diverse thinking. As a brown person, I would rather someone openly hate the colour of my skin but embrace my thinking, not the other way around. If we try to mould everyone into one way of thinking, then that is the end of innovation and progress in society.
As Salman Rushdie once famously said, the price of free speech, and a free society, is that ugliness comes with it. If we try to close down speech we define as critical, unkind, hurtful or distasteful, then we walk away from free speech all together – there is no middle ground.
As a society we would be wise to remember that sticks and stones may break bones, but censoring words and thoughts destroys democracy.