Avoiding conflict undermines academic freedom, risks First Amendment rights

Avoiding conflict undermines academic freedom, risks First Amendment rights
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About the time political correctness was entering campus culture, courtesy of new layers of administration hired to ensure compliance with federal regulations on gender and racial equality, Gore Vidal issued this prescient warning in “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire” (1992): “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it.” 

Nearly 30 years later, our decadence had been codified in what observers such as David Foster Wallace calls politically correct English (PCE) in “Consider the Lobster” (2011): “PCE purports to be the dialect of progressive reform but is, in fact — in its Orwellian substitution of the euphemisms of social equality for social equality itself — of vastly more help to conservatives and the U.S. status quo.”

A recent opinion contribution to The Hill by Spencer Brown, on campuses becoming progressive playgrounds, cited a poll that reported “nearly half of respondents (46 percent) had stopped themselves from sharing ideas or opinions in class discussions.” Brown attributes this disturbing result to “the left’s culture war.” In this respect, his analysis perpetuates the notion that political correctness is the discourse of “the increasingly radical left.” I beg to differ.

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There is indeed fear in the classroom, and it exists on both sides of the desk. Whereas students may fear microaggressions via proscribed words that threaten their personal space and disturb their comfort zone (I don’t use quotation marks here so as to demonstrate the normalization of these repressive administrative tools), their professors now know from example that they risk rebuke, penalization in terms of salary and advancement, and possible dismissal if they “cross the line.” (I put “cross the line” in quotation marks to highlight the fact that nobody knows where that “line” is until somebody decides that it has been crossed.) 

George Orwell is most frequently called upon to provide appropriate dystopian analogies. A colleague at the University of Tulsa, where faculty are fighting a corporate-style implementation of program cuts in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, recently wrote to me that “Orwell’s name has been in wide circulation here at TU lately, as he seems the most apt figure to account for our administration’s relationship to language. Just about everything they say means exactly the opposite of what the words mean.” A contributor to the Australian edition of Huffington Post argued two years ago that “Orwell’s words are more relevant to 2017 than 1984.” 

I agree with the author’s statement that “‘alternative facts’ and dishonesty are something to be resisted coming from left, right or centre.” If we hope to understand the deplorable state of anomie in U.S. colleges and universities, we need to begin by depoliticizing the argument. Weaponizing rhetoric is a symptom of the problem. Brown’s op-ed, for example, points to no solution and intends to demonize entire institutions as “progressive,” which makes them appropriate targets.

No, the United States is not Oceania and we are not engaged in an endless war, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Professors today find themselves not in an ivory tower, but in some corridor of Franz Kafka’s castle. No Ministry of Truth here. Higher education now has offices of euphemization run by bureaucrats whose entire reason for being devolves from the avoidance of any and all conflict. Conflict is bad; the office of euphemization will impose harmony, understood as the avoidance of discomfort or any challenge to the student’s expectations. The system is now so well entrenched that a mid-level administrator can, with the approval of senior administrators, impose what Orwell called Newspeak through collective Groupthink

Academics of my generation see as a sick joke the charge that this atmosphere is in any sense “progressive,” as Brown would have us believe. I began my teaching career at the end of the McCarthy era, when it was necessary to sign a loyalty oath. The third rail of classroom discourse in the early 1960s was Marx and Marxism, which we were allowed to mention only to discredit communism with our next breath. Progressive academics opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee’s goon show in Washington at their very real peril. The “Red Scare” had discouraged any political activity seen as left of center. 

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Despite those conditions, I recall during my undergraduate days at Hamilton College a representative of the Communist Party USA addressing faculty and students in the college chapel. Today controversial speakers are regularly disinvited, picketed or demonized. By attempting to avoid conflict we have put in place a system that excludes in advance any argument (I refuse to use “conversation,” which is meant to take the teeth out of “argument”) that might — stress placed on the conditional — challenge received opinion. 

And students are now at the forefront of this travesty. They have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they are now complicit in their own repression. Where is the free spirit of inquiry? Where the vaunted search for truth, wherever it may lead?

There was great poignancy in the late Pat Conroy’s plea (“My Reading Life,” 2010) that “political correctness is going to kill American liberalism if it is not fought to the death by people like me for the dangers it represents to free speech, to the exchange of ideas, to openheartedness, or to the spirit of art itself.” 

Academic freedom already has been seriously undermined. The risk to our First Amendment rights is real; to avoid further infringement a concerted counter-offensive is necessary.

Albert James Arnold taught French and comparative literature at the University of Virginia from 1966 to 2007. Trinity College of Cambridge University made him a visiting fellow in 2007. In 2015, he was made a Knight of the Order of Academic Palms by the French government.