How woke illiberalism is killing the academy


How woke illiberalism is killing the academy

The University of Chicago was always a bastion of free speech. But even there, freedom is now under threat.

Benjamin Schwarz

Topics Free Speech Identity Politics Long-reads USA

From its founding in 1890, the University of Chicago has occupied a singular place among American universities. Lacking the ancient lineages and social cachet of the Ivy League schools (Chicago welcomed women and Jews at a time when Harvard, et al, excluded the former and imposed strict quotas on the latter), Chicago, which is consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 universities, has always been known for its fierce intellectualism. ‘I think the one place where I have been that is most like ancient Athens’, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once declared, ‘is the University of Chicago’. Indeed, whereas the Ivy League universities, Stanford and their ilk, admitted – and continue to admit – their undergraduates based on such qualities as athletic ability, family connections, and that vague attribute known as ‘leadership’, students came to Chicago because they prized what it still venerates as ‘the life of the mind’. (Chicago’s students score on average higher on the SAT – a national standardised test that assesses academic aptitude – than do those at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford).

Given its devotion to rigorous inquiry – to the belief that ‘education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think’, as its former president Hanna Holborn Gray declared – Chicago has been from its inception the most stalwart bastion of free expression in American higher education. Refusing to bow to political and popular pressure, Chicago’s trustees and administration have insisted, from the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1920s, through the McCarthy era and the politically tumultuous 1960s, that its faculty be unfettered to explore the most heterodox ideas and that its students be free to debate any topic and to invite the most unpopular speakers – including, in 1932, William Z Foster, the presidential candidate and future general secretary of the Communist Party USA, and, in 1963, George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder and leader of the American Nazi Party. In 2015, discerning that free speech was under assault in American universities, Chicago reaffirmed its ‘commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university’s community’. The subsequent statement of policy – the so-called Chicago Principles – is at once stirring and precise; it has been rightly praised as a full-throated (and much needed) defence of campus free expression. In addition to publishing the Chicago Principles, the University has repeatedly and unequivocally promulgated its commitment to free speech on its website and in statements by its president, provost, and deans.

Alas, however, although the University of Chicago is a unique institution of higher education, it nonetheless inhabits the ecosystem of higher education. So while its administration and most of its faculty and students remain devoted to what is characterised in the Chicago Principles as ‘the spirit and promise of the University of Chicago’, a woke illiberalism is subverting that spirit and promise from within. In January 2018, Steve Bannon, the former director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the former chief strategist in Trump’s White House, accepted the invitation of Luigi Zingales, a University of Chicago professor, to debate at the university. In explaining why he invited Bannon, Zingales quite sensibly explained, ‘Whether you like his [Bannon’s] views or not, he seems to have understood something about America that I’m curious to learn more about’. But – surprisingly, given their university’s long-held commitment to free expression; unsurprisingly, given the climate within academe – a minority of Chicago students and faculty members mounted a vociferous campaign demanding that the invitation to Bannon be rescinded. Opposing their university’s policies and principles on free expression and displaying an ignorance of its history of upholding them, a group of professors issued a statement, which took the form of a demand letter to Chicago’s president and provost, calling for Bannon to be de-platformed. The professors proclaimed that ‘the defence of freedom of expression cannot be taken to mean’ that views that the professors deem abhorrent ‘must be afforded the rights [sic] and opportunity to be aired on a university campus’. Although Chicago didn’t heed the protesters’ demands, two years later Bannon has yet to speak at the university for reasons that cannot be discerned – so it’s unclear what part, if any, the student and faculty appeals to withdraw Bannon’s invitation have played in his non-appearance.

University of Chicago students participate in a walk-out to protest President-elect Donald Trump, 15 November 2016.
University of Chicago students participate in a walk-out to protest President-elect Donald Trump, 15 November 2016.

Although the 87 professors who demanded that the invitation to Bannon be revoked asserted that they represented ‘the breadth of the University’s intellectual community’, in fact 36 of them – nearly one-third – teach at either the school of social work (20) or in the English department (16). Indeed, the English department has carved out for itself a role as the chief critic of Chicago’s policies on free speech, and has since 2017 promulgated an alternative to the Chicago Principles on its official web pages — pages that are, themselves, part of the university’s official website. Reserving a permanent and prominent place on its web pages for a proclamation in the form of an ‘open letter’ signed by 40 of its faculty members, the department has classified this three-year-old proclamation as the only item of ‘Departmental News’ worthy of publication. While the proclamation genuflects to the principles of free expression, it proceeds to undermine those principles with the assertions that follow:

‘…our academic pursuits do not exist in isolation from the hate, racism, and violence that continue to play a powerful role in US politics and in the social and legal arrangements that endanger the safety and wellbeing of people of colour throughout the country. We wish to reaffirm that our role as scholars and educators centrally includes the fostering of a culture of inclusiveness and mutual respect that prizes our diversity rather than seeing it as a threat. Such a culture depends on a willingness to listen carefully to other viewpoints, and to engage critically with them, in ways that respect norms of reasoned argument and the use of evidence. Particularly in the context of emotionally and politically charged issues, it is crucial to respect the right to freely express and argue for one’s views, especially when they are controversial or run counter to popular opinion. But when disagreement takes such forms as bullying, racially charged attacks, and the glorification of violence against those with whom one differs, then speech is no longer primarily a matter of the expression of ideas, viewpoints, or opinions, and an invocation of the right to free speech is a distraction from the real issue. There is a crucial difference between speech that makes claims and articulates ideas, and speech that demeans, intimidates, or harms others. Such hostility has no place in academic life. It is our responsibility as scholars not only to condemn and repudiate hatred expressed in speech and other forms of action, but to model forms of discussion that manage criticality in a spirit of open inquiry, committed to acknowledging and thinking through the difficult histories and difficult present in which we are all embedded.’

As an example of the muddled and insidious thinking that characterise woke assaults on campus free speech, the English department’s proclamation – which expresses not just the signatories’ opinion but their perception of their academic ‘responsibility’ and their intent to fulfill that responsibility – should be subjected to the same kind of rigorous inquiry that is, or was, the hallmark of the University of Chicago.

Although the US News and World Report rankings (America’s most famous academic league table) place the University of Chicago’s English department as the best in the US, the department’s arguments and assertions evince sloppy writing and thinking. Who is to decide what constitutes ‘bullying’ or ‘racially charged attacks’? Who determines if and how speech ‘demeans, intimidates, or harms others’? Who deems what speech ‘has no place in academic life’? Would any individual who feels demeaned or harmed by speech have the power to exclude that speech from ‘academic life’? Is the English department proposing itself as the star chamber? The open letter states that ‘bullying’ and ‘racially charged attacks’ are just some of the ‘forms’ of ‘disagreement’ that are illegitimate and therefore deserving of expulsion from the academy (‘when disagreement takes such forms as…’, emphasis added). Who will decide what other ‘forms’ of ‘disagreement’ are considered worthy of banishment from campus? The department states that ‘the invocation of the right of free speech’ is illegitimate when ‘speech is no longer primarily a matter of the expression of ideas, viewpoints, or opinions’ and that only speech that ‘makes claims and articulates ideas’ is legitimate. Who is to determine what speech pursues these aims and falls under these categories? If the open letter’s signatories ‘condemn’ and ‘repudiate’ certain on-campus expression or activities, what form will that condemnation and repudiation take? The Chicago Principles ‘guarantee all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude’ of expression, but the English department seeks the opposite goal – not free speech, but licensed speech.

Moreover, the position articulated in the department’s proclamation is contradictory and therefore ambiguous. Speech that any person or group might construe, or misconstrue, as ‘bullying’, ‘racially charged’, ‘glorif[ying] violence’, ‘demean[ing]’, or ‘harm[ful]’ – forms of expression that the English department states should be expunged from campus – could simultaneously be ‘a matter of the expression of ideas, viewpoints, or opinions’ and constitute ‘speech that makes claims and articulates ideas’ — that is, forms of speech that the department deems permissible. Thus the position advocated in the proclamation, and any policies that might derive from that position, are irredeemably flawed. Furthermore, if the proclamation’s precepts are followed, any persons who feel that they have been ‘harm[ed]’ or ‘demeane[d]’ or that the content or manner of debate is ‘bullying’, ‘racially charged’, or ‘glori[fies]…violence’ can, in fact, ought to, shut down the offending debate or discussion. The department’s position would thus squelch free inquiry and potentially require any member of the university to be ‘condemn[ed]’ and ‘repudiate[d]’ (by the English department?) for articulating an argument because some unspecified party judges that argument to be offensive.

Too many critics of free speech fail to grasp that championing free speech does not imply endorsement of the content of the speech to be protected

Furthermore, the department broadens the forms of speech proscribed by the Chicago Principles. There the categories of expression that should be barred from academic life were confined to what the university calls the ‘narrow exceptions’ of the criminal and the defamatory. Certainly, direct threats, incitement to imminent violent action, and defamatory speech are not protected forms of expression: the criminal courts punish the first two and the civil courts provide remedies for those injured by the third. The English department’s proclamation substantially and dangerously extends those categories, proposing to condemn and to exclude (and to punish?) forms of expression that are neither illegal nor actionable.

The English department asserts that ‘there is a crucial difference between speech that makes claims and articulates ideas, and speech that demeans, intimidates, or harms others’. But inevitably and unavoidably, expression ‘that makes claims and articulates ideas’ will be found by some – and in quite a few cases by nearly everyone – to be demeaning, hurtful and even intimidating. The Chicago Principles emphatically recognise this very point: ‘It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive… [C]oncerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.’ The Chicago Principles go on to declare unambiguously that ‘debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed’. In this way, too, the department holds a position incompatible with the principles of the university that houses and governs it.

Because the English department’s categories of proscribed speech, and the criteria by which the speech would be deemed illegitimate, are wholly dependent on the attitudes, political outlook, and emotional state and personal views of the recipient of the speech, those categories and criteria could not withstand judicial scrutiny. Of course, in nearly all instances the kind of speech the department would ‘condemn’ would not be a matter for adjudication in the courts, but it is at the very least troubling that the English department is comfortable establishing what amounts to a speech code that so clearly ignores the acuity – and accumulated wisdom – that First Amendment jurisprudence provides.

The English department affirms that all speech that can be interpreted as the ‘glorification of violence against those with whom one differs’, or as ‘hatred expressed in speech’, should be condemned and excluded from academic life. This blanket condemnation and exclusion would necessarily embrace within its ambit many important political statements and arguments. Will those who would approvingly cite the dictum ‘from the river to the sea Palestine will be free’ (a statement many believe advocates a genocidal programme against Israel’s Jews) be expelled from academic life? What about those who express Mao’s idea that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’? And what about those who invoke Thomas Jefferson’s idea that ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed… with the blood of patriots and tyrants’? Or consider the following statements:

‘The dictatorship of the proletariat [can only be achieved by] revolutionary terror’.

– ‘The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.’

– ‘A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon… if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror’

– ‘Far from opposing the so-called excesses – instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals… the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but must even give them direction.’

Surely invoking or subscribing to these statements by Marx and Engels – whose writings are, rightly, required reading at Chicago – would fall under the English department’s categories of illegitimate ‘hatred expressed in speech’ and expression that is ‘the glorification of violence against those with whom one disagrees’. The English department blithely ignores the reasoning behind Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous injunction that ‘we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death’. Chicago is rightfully proud of resolutely holding, even in the darkest days of the Red Scare and of McCarthyism, that Communist speech should be permitted on its campus. Had the open letter of the English department’s sweeping and imprecise criteria been applied at that time, such speech would necessarily have been banned from the university. In today’s political climate, one could assume that the department might, in fact, exempt Communist rhetoric (and perhaps Palestinian liberation rhetoric) from its condemnation and expulsion, but such an exemption would necessarily suggest that the department believes that some forms of speech that embrace ‘violence against those with whom one differs’, and that represent ‘hatred expressed in speech’, are more legitimate and worthy of protection than are others.

Perhaps most perniciously, the department proclaims that ‘the invocation of the right to free speech’ is not legitimate when ‘it is a distraction from the real issue’. Who is to determine what the ‘real issue’ is, and who judges when an invocation of free speech is not to be credited because it is merely a supposed smokescreen? It is particularly disturbing that the English department holds that the invocation of the right to free speech – the foundational precept of democracy and of rigorous inquiry – should ever be regarded as politically suspect. That the underlying motivations of those who invoke free-speech arguments should be sussed out smacks of McCarthyism. The English department, like other critics of free speech, fails to grasp that championing free speech does not imply endorsement of the content of the speech to be protected. After all, the past courageous work of the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of free expression, for example, did not mean that the ACLU was (contrary to the claims of its critics) pro-Communist, pro-Nazi, or pro-Ku Klux Klan.

University of Chicago students protest a visit by Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager, 15 February 2017.
University of Chicago students protest a visit by Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager, 15 February 2017.

What is clear from its proclamation is the English department’s lack of faith in debate and rigorous inquiry, the very qualities that historically defined the University of Chicago. The department’s faculty and those others who called for de-platforming Bannon have plainly forgotten that their university has been a haven for untrammeled discourse. In such a place, the proper, indeed the only, response to speech deemed racist or otherwise wrong is fiercely exacting argument based on evidence, logic and reason.

Of all universities, the University of Chicago has historically been the most vigorous defender of academic freedom – that is, of the right of faculty members to pursue and expound on any views in or outside the classroom. Clearly, then, individual professors or a group of professors are free to proclaim any opinions whatsoever, even if those opinions contradict the positions and policy of the university. But a department’s web pages are a place for departmental matters and for defining the nature and purpose of the department’s academic function, not for expounding the incidental private opinions of the department’s members. Had a collection of English professors published this proclamation on the limits to free expression in the campus newspaper or in the New York Times, then the proclamation would be merely a collective expression of private opinion. But by publishing it on its web pages, and by reserving for it a permanent and prominent position there, the English department is clearly giving the proclamation its imprimatur and conveying that its contents are of defining importance to the department. Plainly, the department does not make its web pages available as an open forum to any and every faculty member for the airing of any and every personal opinion. So why is this particular statement published on the department’s web pages? Such publication clearly connotes endorsement.

I’m perhaps particularly exercised by the English department’s position because my son will be entering the University of Chicago in the fall. He had hoped to study English, but now feels compelled to change his plans because he takes the department’s statement to mean that, were he to be an English major, he would have to exercise a vigilance in his response to literature that he would find incompatible with fruitful academic pursuit. Although I’m disappointed with his conclusion, I cannot say that I find it unreasonable.

In his four years at his New England prep school, my son – who, though I’m loath to point out such things, considers himself on the political left – has not infrequently observed that teachers have taken upon themselves the role of arbiters of what constitutes views or interpretations that are (to quote the vocabulary in the English department’s proclamation) ‘racially charged’ or ‘offensive’. Such proscribed views have included the defensible if debatable propositions that identity politics can be a distraction from a class-based politics and can therefore have the effect of exacerbating economic injustice; that being colour-blind is a worthy personal goal; and that racist statements written by members of racial minority groups are still racist. Some teachers have judged those views as insufficiently sensitive to ‘the hate, racism, and violence that continue to play a powerful role in US politics and in the social and legal arrangements that endanger the safety and wellbeing of people of colour throughout the country’ (again, to quote Chicago’s English department). Because these teachers believe that those views fail to take into account the experiences of others, these teachers have judged that expressing them ‘demeans… [and] harms others’, and therefore have determined that their ‘responsibility’ is to ‘condemn and repudiate’ those views. This approach obviously exercises a chilling effect on academic discourse; these teachers have effectively excluded those views from debate and discussion in the classroom and assembly hall, and have effectively ruled that those views have ‘no place in academic life’.

I’d like to tell my son that this could never happen in an English class at the University of Chicago, but the sweeping avowals in the English department’s proclamation suggest otherwise. For his part, my son is dismayed that the department that he had planned to make his academic home has taken a position so contrary to that which attracted him to the University of Chicago in the first place.

Benjamin Schwarz is the former national editor and literary editor of the Atlantic.

All pictures by: Getty Images.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech Identity Politics Long-reads USA


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today