June 24, 2016 | Commentary on Higher Education, Democracy and Human Rights

Why U.S. College Censorship Reminds Me of Authoritarian Regimes

The one place where freedom of expression and the open mind should prevail is on college campuses, right?  Isn’t that what liberal education is supposed to be about — the free and open inquiry into history, science and the arts in order to understand how humanity has understood itself for millennia?

But if that is so, why has the university become its opposite: an astonishingly illiberal institution where speech codes, “safe spaces,” and other controls of freedom of expression are intended to close down debate?  Why is it increasingly  a “space” where prominent people like former Harvard University President Larry Summers are forbidden to speak, where professors who buck the party line are suspended from teaching, and where some schools even try to control how people address one another in public (“Ze” and “hir” instead of Mr., Miss or him or her)?

This is a kind of Mao-like mind control not dissimilar to what happened in Chinese universities during the Cultural Revolution. But I never thought I’d see the day when such tactics would be used in America to turn free thought into the “thoughtcrimes” of George Orwell’s imagination.

As I describe in my new book, The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left, the American university has become a hotbed of authoritarian thinking.  And frankly, the administrators and faculty are just as much to blame as the students:

"Two things are happening here: One is that the war against free speech is now bureaucratized within the university system.  It has its own army of professionals whose careers depend on finding ever new ways to slice and dice presumed offenses in order to justify the suppression of free speech.  It may appear at first to be all about civility and good manners, but in reality it is about redefining and constructing the boundaries of thought and expression regarding social and political values.  “University Life” bureaucrats are teaching the next generation of young Americans that the First Amendment is not a guarantee of constitutional rights; it is a potential weapon that can be wielded against one’s enemies in the social justice wars.”

The larger problem is the corruption of thought itself.  There are intellectuals like Stanley Fish and Catherine MacKinnon who argue that free speech is a “fiction.”  And yet they insist on it for themselves.  It’s apparently only those who disagree with them that traffic in fictions, and thus can be suppressed.

With this mentality it now becomes permissible to exclude all opposing points of view if they are deemed to offend some protected class.  Speech can be regulated in the name of social justice.  Even attorneys general can be unleashed on scientists and researchers if they don’t toe the line on climate change (as happened recently when an attorney general from the U.S. Virgin Islands subpoenaed a so-called “climate denying” group for their records).

Put aside what you may or may not think about social justice or climate change.  Should administrators and prosecutors be trying to tell people what to think on pain of punishment?

As I explain further in the book, “[t]here is no way to sugarcoat how bad this is for our society.  It is thought control pure and simple. And it is systemic.  It is not merely a lack of grace on the part of a few muddle-minded professors, but the corruption of our institutions of higher learning.”

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally published in Red Alert Politics