How ‘Social Justice’ Warriors Kill Free Thought

Sixty years ago, higher education had an open culture where students and professors could explore many different social and political perspectives, views, values, and theories. Together, they would consider different approaches, argue about them, and draw what conclusions they could.

But for the last half-century, universities have transitioned from an open to a closed culture, in which an official ideology was merged with an official morality, which led to the exclusion of all other views. I have seen this development first hand as a professor for fifty years at McGill University, but have read news and organizational reports that verify that this is as close to a universal change in North American colleges and universities.

In closed cultures, the official ideology is the only theory, set of beliefs, and values that are permitted. There are no procedures to challenge or correct that ideology. Decisions are made solely by the holders of the official ideology. Alternatives theories, arguments, evidence, and conclusion are suppressed.

Related: Race and Gender Studies Kick Shakespeare Out of Class

One type of example is theocracies. The official ideology of a theocracy is that the universe requires one set of beliefs only, and any other is heresy. Iran is an example of such a theocracy; dissidents are imprisoned, tortured, and or executed. In Islam, criticism of Allah, the Koran, Islam, or Mohammed is to be punished by summary execution. Another type of closed culture is that of communist states, such as the USSR, China under Mao, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

In the USSR, dissidents, if not executed in the cellars of the secret police or sent to a gulag for forced labor and death, were sent to mental institutions to be drugged on the grounds that communism was in everyone’s interest, and anyone opposing communism was opposing his own interest, and was therefore crazy. During the cleansing of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, school children and university students harassed, attacked, crippled, or assassinated anyone who was not sufficiently “woke” to egalitarian communism’s virtues. The Khmer Rouge, self-appointed champions of the workers, just murdered the entire Cambodian middle class and anyone who looked middle class.

Goodness, you may say; we have nothing like that in Canada or the United States. But if you say that, you have not spent much time recently in institutions of “higher learning.” Whereas in the past, colleges and universities emphasized the processes of teaching and learning, scholarship and collecting evidence, debating various views and understandings, and trying out new and original conclusions, today colleges and universities have discovered The Truth and its associated Good, and made it into their official ideology, held uniformly by administrations and professors, and taught to students as the only understanding that they need to have.

This new official ideology is “social justice,” a neo-Marxist framework that divides the world, not into the proletariat and bourgeois of orthodox Marxism, but into more general categories of oppressors and victims: whites are oppressors and people of color victims; men are oppressors and females are victims; heterosexuals are oppressors and gays, lesbians, transsexuals, etc. the victims; and Christians and Jews are oppressors and Muslims are victims. But “social justice” is not just a theory and classification; it is a practical program for attacking oppressors and raising up victims. Morality is defined as siding with all members of the victim categories, and opposing members of the oppressor categories. The new, official purpose of “higher education” is to advance “social justice.”

Related: The Growing Threat of Repressive Social Justice

Professors in the social sciences, humanities, education, social work, and law, almost all of whom self-identify as “progressives,” socialists, or communists, are almost without exception strong advocates of “social justice.” That is what they teach, and that is the point of their “research” and “scholarship.” “Social justice” is thus regarded as an established Truth, and supporting it is the only morality. Dissidents and contrary views are by definition “unjust,” and their holders immoral.

Universities enforce “social justice” by means of its “social justice” police: the ever-growing bureaucracy of “equity, inclusion, and diversity” officers whose job it is to suppress alternative views. And why not? Alternative views are regarded as contradicting an established truth and preferring evil to “social justice” morality. Criticism, contrary arguments or evidence, different conclusions are regarded as an attack on non-whites, females, gays, etc., and Muslims. This is seen as a violation of the minority rights and human rights of everyone who falls into victim categories. Any complaints by individual student “victims” can bring down the hammer of the inclusiveness bureaucracy, and lead to censoring publications, banning professors from teaching certain courses or any courses, obliging professors to attend re-education diversity courses, or outright expulsion, firing even of tenured professors.

Don’t take my word on this. Here are recent cases of censorship and attacks on views not entirely in accord with “social justice” ideology:

Do not dare to say anything good about members of oppressor categories

Rachel Fulton Brown, Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago, had the temerity to publish some good words about white men in her blog, “Three Cheers for White Men.” For this she was attacked as a “racist” and “white supremacist” by Dorothy Kim, then an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar, currently holding the same rank at Brandeis. Some 1400 medievalists and historians sent an open letter to the University Chicago denouncing Brown’s views that “betray her fundamental lack of knowledge concerning the discourses of structural racism and white supremacy,” and claiming that she violates norms of professional behavior. An extra-university organization, the National Association of Scholars, has defended Brown. Its letter has been signed by hundreds of academics. Up to the present, she has not yet been disciplined or fired by the University of Chicago.

Do not question the victimhood of members of victim categories

Mostly my publications have been about non-controversial subjects, mainly nomads and pastoralists. But twice I crossed the “social justice” line and was censored.

One of my most original and politically relevant articles is entitled “The Iron Law of Politics,” the central theme of which is that all values are not compatible, and, more specifically, that equality and freedom are incompatible. I submitted it initially to a distinguished anthropology journal that turned it down with the editor’s remark that it was not credible. As the article was a cross-cultural study full of evidence, I concluded that the article was rejected on the political grounds that equality was an absolute value and no constraints on it were acceptable.

I was disappointed with this response and submitted the article to a journal closer to STEM disciplines, Politics and the Life Sciences. The paper was accepted and published.

Related: How a Social Justice Mob Fired a Tenured Professor

My second experience was in writing a response to an article published by an anthropologist in an anthropology journal. The author, a Marxist feminist, presented quantitative data about work in an East African pastoral society and concluded that women did most of the labor. I reclassified and reanalyzed the data and found that young men who lived in the cattle camps 24/7 did the most physical work, but that in any case it was unfair to define work solely as muscular and exclude the management work of the male elders.

Because the subject was women’s labor, among other things, my submitted response was sent to female “peer” assessors, who rejected it. Most female anthropologists are ardent feminists, and the readers clearly did not like my challenge to the argument that females did more work than men. So, my response was rejected outright, not on theoretical or evidentiary grounds, but on feminist, “social justice” grounds.

Do not dare question the biological basis of gender dysphoria or transgenderism

Lisa Littman, an Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University, published a peer-reviewed study of “gender dysphoria” and the opting for transgender medical procedures. She did a survey from which she received 150 responses from parents about the “rapid onset gender dysphoria” of their children. Her findings included these:

  • 3% of children had been part of a group where one or more friends had come out as transgender when they did.
  • 7% of children found their popularity increased within their group after declaring their transgender preference.
  • 9% of children had high expectations that transitioning would solve their problems in social, academic, occupational or mental health areas.

These figures suggest that social influence through peer groups could lead to gender dysphoria and transgenderism.

Related: A Professor at Brown Uncovers an Inconvenient Truth

There was an explosion of indignation with objections pouring into the Brown University administration. Feminists who had vehemently argued for fifty years that all gender was socially constructed, were now arguing that gender dysphoria, like homosexuality, was entirely biological. Anyone, such as Professor Littman, who said anything different, was said to be victimizing potential or completed transgender individuals.

Brown University pulled its press release about Professor Littman’s article. “A letter from Bess Marcus, the Dean of the School of Public Health, claimed that she has ‘heard from the Brown community members expressing concerns that the conclusions of the study could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.’”

Do not dare suggest that the success of members of oppressor categories is biological

Theodore P. Hill, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Georgia Tech, and currently a research scholar in residence at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, describes in the following passage the topic of his recent paper:

“In the highly controversial area of human intelligence, the ‘Greater Male Variability Hypothesis’ (GMVH) asserts that there are more idiots and more geniuses among men than among women. Darwin’s research on evolution in the nineteenth century found that, although there are many exceptions for specific traits and species, there is generally more variability in males than in females of the same species throughout the animal kingdom.

“Evidence for this hypothesis is fairly robust and has been reported in species ranging from adders and sockeye salmon to wasps and orangutans, as well as humans. Multiple studies have found that boys and men are over-represented at both the high and low ends of the distribution in categories ranging from birth weight and brain structures and 60-meter dash times to reading and mathematics test scores. There are significantly more men than women, for example, among Nobel laureates, music composers, and chess champions—and also among homeless people, suicide victims, and federal prison inmates.”

Hill wrote a paper with another specialist on this topic and submitted it to “the Mathematical Intelligencer, the ‘Viewpoint’ section of which specifically welcomes articles on contentious topics.” It was welcomed and accepted with some edits. After Hill’s coauthor posted the article on his website, “a representative of the Women In Mathematics (WIM) chapter in his department at Penn State contacted him to warn that the paper might be damaging to the aspirations of impressionable young women.” And, further, that some readers “‘will just see someone wielding the authority of mathematics to support a very controversial, and potentially sexist, set of ideas…’”

Hill’s coauthor came under attack at his home institution: “At a faculty meeting the week before, the Department Head had explained that sometimes values such as academic freedom and free speech come into conflict with other values to which Penn State was committed. A female colleague had then instructed Sergei that he needed to admit and fight bias, adding that the belief that “women have a lesser chance to succeed in mathematics at the very top end is bias.” “Faced with career-threatening reprisals from their own departmental colleagues and the diversity committee at Penn State,” Hill’s coauthor and his colleague who had done computer simulations, both withdrew their names from the paper.

That was not all. The National Science Foundation, responding to complaints from the Women in Mathematics, demanded that their names be removed from the acknowledgments. Then the editor of the journal contacted Hill to tell him that she was now rejecting the article. “‘Several colleagues,’ she wrote, had warned her that publication would provoke ‘extremely strong reactions’ and there existed a ‘very real possibility that the right-wing media may pick this up and hype it internationally.’” The editor went on to say, “she had received no criticisms on scientific grounds and that her decision to rescind was entirely about the reaction she feared our paper would elicit.”

Hill finally received a break. The editor of the respected online New York Journal of Mathematics had heard about the paper and said he wanted to publish it. But after it was published in the NYJM for three days, it then disappeared. The editor explained: “‘Half his board, he explained unhappily, had told him that unless he pulled the article, they would all resign and ‘harass the journal’ he had founded 25 years earlier ‘until it died.’” So, he deleted the article.

Hill ends his account of his trials with this homily: “I understand the importance of the causes that equal opportunity activists and progressive academics are ostensibly championing. But pursuit of greater fairness and equality cannot be allowed to interfere with dispassionate academic study. No matter how unwelcome the implications of a logical argument may be, it must be allowed to stand or fall on its merits, not its desirability or political utility.”

Hill is out of step with the new “social justice” university, where everything stands or falls on its “desirability or political utility.” “Merit” is denounced as a white male supremacist dog whistle.

In academia today, the official ideology of “social justice” is the arbiter of truth and morality. Colleges and universities consequently have closed cultures that accept only their own doctrines and make every effort to suppress any other views, arguments, theories, and evidence. This is what the cases reported here demonstrate. For this reason, North American contemporary colleges and universities are increasingly becoming more like the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Soviet Union or Mao’s China than they are like the Canadian and American societies that surround them.


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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One thought on “How ‘Social Justice’ Warriors Kill Free Thought”

  1. “In the USSR, dissidents … were sent to mental institutions to be drugged on the grounds that communism was in everyone’s interest, and anyone opposing communism was opposing his own interest, and was therefore crazy.”

    It’s not just that. What the Soviets understood is that once someone is declared to be mentally ill, anything the person says can legitimately be ignored as the raving of a lunatic.

    In other words, where there is an expectation that the accused have an opportunity to “tell his side of the story” and that the accuser has the burden of disputing it, anything that an insane person says can merely be dismissed as symptomatic of his illness. Furthermore, the Soviets argued, they weren’t being punitive — the person was “sick” and they were trying to “help” him, not punish him.

    In reality it was a distinction without a difference — in either case, bad things happened to the person who said things that the government didn’t like and everyone else knew that. And that was the goal, not to silence the dissidents as much as to prevent anyone from listening to them — and, worse, from becoming dissidents themselves.

    The same is true today in academia — there really is no difference between a student being expelled and being placed on indefinite (involuntary) medical leave for purported mental heath reasons. The kid’s gone, all his peers know that he’s gone, and even without the helpful administrators suggesting they not let what happened to him happen to them (which I’ve seen done), they understand the wisdom of compliance…

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