WASHINGTON: The world has a long history of stifling free and open discussion and debate. In the 17th century Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer, and physicist offered evidence that the earth traveled around the sun. The Catholic Church and other scientists of his day believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo, accused of heresy, was forced to recant and was imprisoned by the Inquisition. A lack of free speech rights.
Today, with our Constitutional guarantee of free speech, men and women cannot be put in jail for expressing unpopular points of view. Still, they are being silenced in other ways.
Denying the Research
Professor Stephen Hsu of Michigan State University was pressured to resign as Vice President of Research and Innovation because he conducted research that found that black police officers were just as likely to shoot blacks as were white officers.
The research found:
“The race of the police officer did not protect the race of the citizen shot. In other words, black officers were just as likely to shoot black citizens as white officers were.”
For political reasons, the author of the study sought its retraction. A form of self free-speech censorshp.
The U.S. Department of Education warned UCLA that it may impose fines for improperly and abusively targeting a professor, Lt. Col. A. Jay Peris. Peris being threatened with disciplinary action over the use of the n-word while reading to the class the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Dr. King wrote:
“when your first name becomes ‘n——‘ your middle name becomes ‘boy,’ no matter how old you are.” Referring to civil rights activists, King wrote: “They have languished in …roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as ‘dirty n—-lovers.”
On July 4, a letter was issued by hundreds of faculty members at Princeton University. It begins with the following sentence: “Anti-blackness is fundamental to America.” In the view of Professor of Classics Joshua T. Katz, “The letter calls for eliminating academic freedom via a committee that would review all publications for racist thought (racism defined by the committee).”
Students at Marymount Manhattan college are seeking the termination of Theater Arts Professor Patricia Simon.
The reason being that she appeared to briefly fall asleep during an anti-racist meeting held on Zoom. Simon denies the allegation, but a Marymount student, Caitlin Gagnon, started a petition campaign accusing Simon of ignoring “racist and sizeist” actions. The petition quickly got roughly 2,000 signatures.
At times like this, it is important to remember George Orwell’s observation that,
“Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.”
It is not only in the academic world where freedom of thought and open debate are under attack. Our newspapers also are becoming part of what critics call the “cancel culture.”
In July, Bari Weiss, an opinion editor and writer at The New York Times, resigned after she found herself the victim of bullying for “wrong thinking.”
This closely follows the resignation in June of her boss and editorial page editor James Bennet, who was pushed out after his section published an op-Ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-ARK), in which Cotton advocated using military force to quell violent protests.
Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker asks,
“How could a newspaper intent on airing differing opinions and diverse voices decide that a sitting U.S. senator’s viewpoint didn’t measure up? Allowing a senator to espouse thoughts one might find objectionable is exactly the point of the op-Ed page. The walk-back had less to do with standards and more to do with the simple fact that Cotton thought the ‘wrong’ thing.”
In her letter to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Bari Weiss said that there may well be many among the Times staff who are concerned as she about the cancel culture, but they dare not say so in public.
“If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy,”. She wrote, “they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderstorm. Online venom is excused as long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
In Kathleen Parker’s view,
“Sulzberger, too, is likely cowed by the wrongthink police. So is corporate America. So are our institutions of higher education. Most have decided it is not worth the risk of certain punishment to challenge the orthodoxy of the relentless left. But it is…”
Ironically, Bari Weiss is a part of the cancel culture assault on free speech. A strong supporter of Israel, she categorizes Jews who call for Palestinian rights and oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as being “as dangerous as white nationalists.”
In her book on anti-Semitism, she said that Jews who oppose Zionism “are as deeply opposed to Jewish interests as many of our community’s enemies.”
Even when she was a student at Columbia University, she tried to have Palestinian professors removed from the faculty.
Andrew Sullivan, a columnist for New York Magazine, was forced to leave his position because staff members “believed my columns were physically harming them.”
Sullivan takes conservative positions on many subjects, but is vocally opposed to President Trump and is openly gay. Independent thinking, however, is no longer in demand. Noting that the intolerance of dissenting views which is now widely present in academic life has made its way to journalism, Sullivan says, “We all live on campus now.”
Fortunately, a reaction to the cancel culture is growing.
More than 100 writers and scholars of a variety of points of view have signed a public letter decrying the cancel culture and the rising intolerance of opposing views. Among the signatories are J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, David Brooks, and Malcolm Gladwell.
The letter, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine, declared that “The free exchange of information and ideas, which is the lifeblood of a liberal society, is lately becoming more constricted.” From literary giants to broadway, the is an awareness of the impact of the assault on free speech as books, classic movies, and Broadway plays are canceled.
Censorship, which often characterized the right-wing, as in the McCarthy era, is now increasingly coming, the letter declares. As well as “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
At the present time, the letter notes that,
“Editors are fired for printing controversial pieces, books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity, journalists are barred from writing on certain topics, professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class. This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”
Assaults on free speech do not only come from the left. President Trump has gone to court twice to try to prevent publication of books critical of him, one by former national security adviser John Bolton, the other by his niece, Mary Trump. In both cases, he lost, and the First Amendment prevailed.
The president has also put a chill on free speech by regularly referring to journalists with whom he disagrees as “enemies of the people.”
Those on both the left and right who seek to stifle the voices of those on the other side of major public issues misunderstand the nature of a genuinely free society.
In “On Liberty,” the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill writes:
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, a posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still move those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose. What is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution valued free speech. The assaults on speech that we now see—-from various points on the political spectrum—-show us how much we have departed from their respect for a diversity of opinion. We have had moments in our history like this before. They were brief and we moved beyond them. Let us hope that the same is true today.