Friday, August 28, 2020

Tolerance of Nonconformers: An Ever More Endangered Ideal


For the first time since March, I am writing a post not centering on the Covid-19 pandemic.  There, we have reached a stable position that may last for months:  new American cases still a problem but slowly drifting down from our mid-July peak, about one million weekly employment applications but many other jobs resuming, new outbreaks popping up here and there but offset by decreases, a steady stream of misinformation from the White House but most people including Republicans wise enough to make their own more informed life-activity choices.  I will return to this issue, as there is nothing much to say about employment without considering it.

Something else has been getting attention these past two months.  Problems with responses to public disagreement with what are perceived as the most appropriate positions – whether called “the free exchange of information and ideas,” the cause of “cancel culture,” “freethinking,” refusing to cooperate with “political correctness,” or just “nonconformity” – have been brought to our attention, first by over 100 prominent academics, authors, and journalists, and then by two major columnists.

We could start with attempted university First Amendment violations around 1990, or even millennia before, but we’ll instead choose last month.  In Harper’s Magazine, dated July 7th and simply titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” a piece decried an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides,” in which “it is all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”  The 153 signatories, including those who have written hundreds of well-regarded books of all kinds among many other achievements (such as those of Wynton Marsalis and Garry Kasparov), agreed that we now have “institutional leaders… delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”; as examples, “editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study.”  And a week after, a second New York Times editor was forced out for printing unacceptable views.  They stated that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”  I was surprised to see how many people, especially on the left, signed this document despite having histories of suppressing intellectual dissent in the past, but was glad to see it blaming those on both sides. 

One week after that, Ross Douthat’s “10 Theses About Cancel Culture” appeared in The New York Times.  He defined this phenomenon: “cancellation, properly understood, refers to an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collection of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.”  While “cancellation isn’t exactly about free speech… a liberal society should theoretically cancel less frequently than its rivals,” he meant liberal in the liberty sense instead of the political one.  He maintained that “the internet has hastened the consolidation of cultural institutions,” and saw “increased uniformity across cities and regions and industries in general,” and that “the point of cancellation is ultimately to establish norms for the majority,” as “the goal isn’t to punish everyone… it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform.”

On July 23rd followed David Brooks’s Times “The Future of Nonconformity.”  He stated that “intellectual exclusion and segregation have been terrible for America, poisoning both the right and the left,” which was hastened as “Sarah Palin and Donald Trump reintroduced anti-intellectualism into the American right: a distrust of the media, expertise and facts.”  He understated that “in some ways the left has become even conformist than the right,” and that our arguably greatest university, Harvard, has only 1.5% conservative faculty.  Brooks called cancel culture “an attempt to shift the boundaries of the sayable so it excludes not only conservatives but liberals and the heterodox as well.”  Now, per a Cato Institute poll he cited, “sixty-two percent of Americans say they are afraid to share the things they believe,” which would be higher among those with terminal degrees. 

That is one wonderful thing about writing this blog.  As I am beholden to nobody, I am under no opinion restrictions.  I had to look up the meaning of “heterodox,” but my writings and broadcasts match Google Dictionary’s definition of “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.”  I handcraft my ideas and opinions, which can only be refuted through argument and persuasion.  Come back – you can count on that to continue. 

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