There may be some good news for those concerned about today’s campus madness: the cavalry is on the way. We will, hopefully, be rescued! A recent Wall Street Journal editorial celebrated Harvard’s new Council on Academic Freedom. The organization proclaimed that “… free speech is also essential to human progress,” and that intellectual orthodoxy “is bound to provide erroneous guidance on vital issues like pandemics, violence, gender and inequality.” With a Who’s Who of Harvard scholars from across the political spectrum, the Council was forthright regarding the Left’s animus to honest debate. This newest organization joins other cavalries such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the Center for Individual Rights, and several newly created, alumni-based free speech groups.
Now for the bad news: this academic cavalry will be as effective at beating back the barbarians as would a horse cavalry in today’s Ukraine. To be blunt, defending free speech is the wrong tactic in current campus battles—it will misdirect resources and, thus, fail. The parallel might be the British horse-mounted lancers who, in splendid formation, charged German machine gunners in WWI. They were surely inspiring, but instantly doomed. This is how we are about to engage the enemy.
Placing free speech at the center of efforts to eliminate campus diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE), speech codes, mandatory sensitivity training, de-platforming, micro-aggressions, and all the rest is predictable. Nobody feels safe from the mob’s ire, and scarcely any administrator will risk his cushy job to quell its fury. So, with terror in the air, why not rally around free speech?
Unfortunately, what makes the free speech defense so alluring is its ease of embrace, not its effectiveness. Endorsing an unfettered soapbox for everyone helps professors flaunt their anti-woke credentials and erudition at zero political or personal cost. Physicists can explain how advancing knowledge requires vigorous testing of rival hypotheses, while social scientists can dwell on the marketplace of ideas with the usual J. S. Mill On Liberty quotes. Those in the humanities and the arts likewise possess a handy stock of splendid references. No wonder assembling a pro-free speech group on campus is so popular. This is motherhood-and-apple-pie rhetoric.
Advocating abstract free speech is also a perfectly safe strategy, even on the most progressive campuses. No matter how strident these evocations, you will not be condemned as a racist, sexist, homophobe, white supremacist, xenophobe, misogynist, transphobe, and so on. Instead, you’ll be ignored, and the absence of enemy fire in your direction should tell you something—you’re a non-combatant. You only think that you are in the war.
Celebrating intellectual openness in and of itself side-steps the quackery currently running rampant on campus. Today’s war is about defeating dishonesty, not intellectual openness per se. You do not refute crackpot ideas about sex as a social construct, for example, by calling for “more dialogue.” You eliminate it by showing how it is factually incorrect. It is this unwillingness to confront the quackery for what it is, rather than make vague speeches about free expression, that dooms the campus free speech crusade.
Letting a thousand flowers bloom on today’s campuses will invariably bring a cacophony of jabbering nonsense, not truth. Pushed to its limits, the free speech defense is quackery-friendly, an open invitation for cranks to demand a place at the table for phrenology, witchcraft, astrology, and countless other subjects that have no place in academia. Just wait until the religious fanatics and conspiracy nuts show up and demand a hearing. This is viewpoint diversity on steroids.
In short, the battle is about evidence and logic, what is true and what is false, not easy access to a soapbox. The university is not Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner.
The irony is that every academic enlisting in Harvard’s Council on Academic Freedom (and elsewhere) is, no doubt, brilliant at demolishing idiotic, ineptly constructed arguments. They certainly reject an open-door policy for finding the truth, and their skill at discerning truth is what earned them faculty appointments. In their capacity as professors, they regularly perform this intellectual search-and-destroy mission on undergraduates, graduate students, faculty job applicants, and, most of all, each other. A colleague sends you a paper arguing that some distant, murky event can explain a current, barely discernible voting pattern, and the likely response is skepticism, not an appeal to free speech.
This lust for rejecting bad ideas is plainly visible in how top disciplinary journals boast that they accept so few submissions, despite nearly all the articles coming from bona fide scholars who believe that their research is publishable. In fact, where the pursuit of knowledge is celebrated, scholars appreciate when their colleagues carve up their rough drafts. It’s better to administer this coup de grâce before submitting the paper to a journal and its anonymous, even harsher, reviewers. Thrashing flimflam is what decent academics are supposed to do.
Yet, when these same thrashers attend a lecture where the speaker claims that black children perform poorly in school “due to the teachers’ unconscious racial bias,” they go mute. Not even a frown, let alone a display of disbelief. They all know that the unspoken rules of intellectual combat that they apply elsewhere are off limits when members of protected groups expound “sensitive” topics. All the past free speech oratory now evaporates if it might arouse the mob.
Imagine if Harvard professors created “The Defenders of Truth Society,” whose purpose is to expose dishonesty, shoddy research, ideological bias, and all else that undermines Truth—and if they did so openly for all to see, such that even the most “untouchable” Quack is naked.
Now, when a Harvard speaker claims something that is patently untrue, or at least unsupported by any empirical evidence, the Defenders will sign a rebuttal and nail it to the Harvard Faculty Club door, with a more detailed rejoinder on the group’s website. Meanwhile, those who disagree with the Defenders will be welcomed to a free public disputation that will be livestreamed and archived. What could be more in tune with the university’s historic mission—an open, free-wheeling debate over a controversial issue? If you believe that poor health outcomes for African Americans are due to white racism, here’s your opportunity to cite statistics and offer coherent explanations.
It would not take many of these theses to stop the ideological insanity. The word would get out: give a dumb public talk at Harvard and immediately face the mocking rejoinders from some of the smartest people on the planet. There’s a new sheriff in town, as they say. And, for good measure, this back and forth invites mass media attention. What TV station could turn down a story about some race hustler who was crushed by a few Harvard professors? After a few months, no crank would accept a speaking invitation from the university.
Though the mechanics of such disputations are simple, it will be difficult to convince defenders of free speech to get out of their pulpits and engage in hand-to-hand-combat with the fakes who defends their nonsense with cries of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like. Rounding up yet more champions of free speech is, unfortunately, a more attractive strategy.
We need more warriors like the distinguished Harvard geneticist David Reich, who in a 2018 New York Times essay stated, “Well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position.” And we need fewer academics like Harvard’s Larry Summers, who shamelessly groveled for forgiveness when the feminist mob discovered that he merely suggested that the gender disparity in mathematical ability may have a biological basis.
It’s time to abandon free speech as the antidote to campus wokeness. A non-confrontational strategy just reflects cowardice. Quackery is quackery, and we will not defeat it by ever more high-sounding rhetoric about the life of the mind.
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