The silencing of social scientist Charles Murray at a scheduled speech at Middlebury College in Vermont and the response to it seem to have legs unlike most recent free speech violations. Daniel Henninger has called it “a major event in the annals of free speech” and there have been several very striking essays in response indicating that we may truly be at the tipping point on college campuses that I described a couple of months ago after the outbreaks at Cal-Berkeley and NYU. Why is this so? I think Steve Hayward is correct in his essay “Free Speech is Not Enough”, in which he argues that perpetrators are immune to First Amendment appeals and have embraced the idea that America is so profoundly beyond repair and so corrupt that appeals to reason under our principles are simply more examples of “tools of oppression” subject to overthrow by any means necessary in pursuit of “social justice”.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article by Crispin Sartwell, he suggests that one evolving force behind what he calls this new wave of the culture wars is a theory of truth which holds that we don’t merely describe or represent the world in language; language creates the world and ourselves. In other words, “we are the stories we tell”. These ideas hark back to one of the leading postmodern intellectual figures, Richard Rorty, who held that reality was a matter of widely accepted narratives–in particular narratives of social progress. Again, progress toward what Tom Sowell has nicknamed “cosmic justice”.
This notion of a “narrative” reminds me of the concept of “poetic truth”, as defined by Shelby Steele in his great book, Shame. This is a form of truth that disregards the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position. Poetic truths defend the sovereignty of one’s ideological identity by taking license with reality and fact.
So the birth and nurture of this campus phenomenon has grown out of the ideology of the mid-20th century postmodern left, but in the process even the responsible left has been transformed. As recently as a generation ago, social justice was defined by equality of opportunity; now justice demands equality of outcomes. As social critic Jonathan Haidt has noted, according to the academic left, everyone is racist because of unconscious bias and systemic racism, which makes justice impossible to achieve.
What is the answer? It’s pretty simple, but it will also be difficult. Simple because the solution is a return to the pursuit of truth through the Western intellectual tradition that begins in our elementary and secondary schools and is consistently applied in postsecondary work. Difficult because we have a lot of rewiring to do and a lot of garbage to take out. And mainly we need more serious adults at the governing level throughout the education food chain to take charge of the academic cultural overhaul that is long overdue. There are some positive signs of movement here, but we need much more, and very soon.