Thursday, June 18, 2015

Intolerance for Intolerance or Thought Police Taking over the University?

Higher education is supposed to be a space for free and independent thought, where your arguments are held up to the scrutiny of reason, logic and evidence, rather than the whims of public opinion. Tenure is supposed to protect professors from being punished or fired for their opinions alone. Classrooms are set up to be spaces for open discussion and debate. College newspapers and student groups have relatively free reign and controversial thinkers are often given the space to speak their minds. Yet serious attacks have occurred in recent years trying to undermine the most radical space for democratic deliberation left today.

In just the past week, a Nobel Laureate was forced to resign from his job at University College for a rather tepid sexist joke (WP), the University of Illinois was censured for firing a professor who criticized Israel in a tweet last summer (WP), tenure is in serious jeopardy in Wisconsin (WUWM) and the University of California at SF is eliminating all sugary drinks from campus (Inside Higher Ed). This comes as battles continue about whether warning labels should be included in syllabi for any material that could be considered a trigger to prior trauma for students (Guardian), whether campuses “liberal” bias is manipulating students (Inside Higher Ed) and whether “affirmative consent” should be the national standard (WP) in addressing the plague of sexual assault on college campuses. On top of this, we have students and professors pushing their campuses to disinvite any speakers whose views they find offensive.

The question that must be asked is whether this is a positive trend seeking to address the excesses of the university and intolerance among those protected by the university structure or overreach by thought police that are trying to colonize post-secondary education with the same absurd call for “objectivity” that has defiled the mainstream media. While few would question the idea behind “affirmative consent” or criticizing a professor for sexist comments in a public venue, should we really accept the policing of opinion that has become so pervasive today? In a world where political insularity is more ubiquitous than ever before, should heterodoxy really be held under such tight scrutiny, ensuring that no one is ever offended by what someone else said? Should we allow the thought police to stamp out all opinion not comporting with the university’s political leanings? And what would that mean for future generations, never taught to critically engage with ideas or have their own ideas and beliefs challenged?

What did Tim Hunt, the aforementioned Nobel Laureate, actually say that led to his forced resignation? “Three things happen when they are in the lab. … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Tasteless? Sure. Not terribly funny? Okay. But worthy of immediate dismissal without even a hearing? Couldn’t he just make a public apology and take the heat? And what of the elimination of tenure, a popular conservative idea that far too many moderate liberals have rallied behind, under the faulty assumption that teachers, and now professors, have too much power? What of students and faculty forcing universities to eschew controversial thinkers that disagree with their well cultivated and rarely challenged ideas? What of conservative students who, I now think rightfully, charge that they have no freedom to voice their opinions? Gilles Deleuze once argued that all learning begins with provocation. It is a lesson that we should heed, as provocation itself comes under almost constant attack!

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