Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his June 8, 1978 commencement address at Harvard, observed the following about American intellectual culture:
Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden, have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad. There is no open violence, as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to accommodate mass standards frequently prevents the most independent-minded persons from contributing to public life and gives rise to dangerous herd instincts that block successful development.
There is (as Solzhenitsyn surely understood) a certain inevitability to one form of this phenomenon, for it is never the case that simply any postulate is allowed to freely travel in an intellectual community that is defined by certain commitments. The irony is introduced, however, when a dogmatic and censoring atmosphere characterizes a society or institution that advertises itself as open-minded and oriented to seeking the best answers wherever and however they may be found. This is the tension characteristic of enlightenment liberalism, embraced in the modern American university. Western liberalism is at least as territorial and exclusionary as any of its competitors, but pretends otherwise—which pretending is one of its principle features. (Stanley Fish, for one, has made much of this.)
Our educational institutions have made systemic the exclusion of outlooks that deviate from their shared rigid definition of acceptable rationality. As one prominent example, the Rawlsian ideal of “public reason”—as ubiquitous in its dominance as encompassing in its prohibitions—forbids Christian and other religious presuppositions from participation in public discourse. That this involves de-privileging a framework of understanding that historically informed Western Civilization seems, for that reason, a considerable affront. But it is just there that its explanation is found. An intellectual rival has gained ascendancy, and is not inclined to give any latitude to its vanquished—and loathed—predecessor.
The new managers enforce worship of the idols of current intellectual fashion (to draw from Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor) often through a social pressure, rather than an intellectual one. And that brings us to the title of this blog post. A number of months ago, ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom director David French, writing at Phi Beta Cons, observed that the right-think enforcement environment at our universities is not one characterized by logical justifications.
In the battle of ideas, stigma always beats dogma. In other words, through stigmatization, one can defeat a set of ideas or principles without ever “winning” an argument on the merits. . . . Why convince when you can browbeat? Why dialogue when you can read entire philosophies out of polite society?
This technique is surely effective. But does its utility alone explain why this mode of enforcement is the contemporary means of keeping the herd fenced in? Or does the New Vision, with its diligent avoidance of truth claims and metaphysical foundations, necessarily require non-rational enforcement measures? When consensus rather than justifications is the foundation for the preferred creed, we should not expect the shoring-up of support for it to be an exercise in analysis.
French philosopher Chantal Delsol has given attention to this issue in her Icarus Fallen:
[O]ur era is singularly dogmatic, in spite of its slogans of relativism and tolerance. It not only forbids certain opinions but mandates the acceptance of certain ideas. One might well wonder how to explain the fact that in a world where each is free to decree his own good, strange unanimities have developed that function as categorical imperatives and have the power to function as a veritable moral terrorism. Orthodox thinking does indeed exist today, in spite of the banishment of all objective truth and of an objective good.
With the exile of objectivity, on what grounds is unanimity attained? She later elaborates:
Today’s moral message is not explanatory, as it was [in other settings]. Our message, on the contrary, is loud and repetitive. It is proclaimed vehemently and always carries a threat against its adversaries. It creeps in through all the cracks of social life because to be convincing it must be constantly repeated. It compensates for its lack of justification by its ubiquity and omnipotence. Its “human rights”-ism is incantatory to the point of inducing nausea. It disguises the lack of crucial backdrop by hogging the stage, leaving no space for rival. What it is unable to obtain through persuasion or debate, it obtains through the stifling of adverse ways of thought, which are vilified as soon as they dare to show their faces. Evil is not rejected by reason, but hated out of indignation and denounced through invective. At the same time, discourse about the good is set to the tones of panegyric and the smell of incense. Because the morality of complacency is unaware of its justifications, it attacks its critics not through arguments but through ostracism.
Elsewhere she explains: “We brandish the arms of invective, disdain, repetition, and force, for we simply have nothing else to say.”
Has the stigmatizing efforts of the secular catechizers been successful? You bet.
In the desert now uninhabited by truths, ethical universals create obligations only because most people share them. The “good” appears as a necessity without a reason for being. It is everywhere at once even if it has been deprived of legitimacy and imposes itself self-righteously. We may therefore quite appropriately speak of a common agreement about certain values, without their being at all objective. In Western societies we see a convergence of subjective norms. A certain moral consensus is emerging, without reference to truth. The indefinite repetition of the same subjective intuitions is creating an ersatz objectivity. The repetition of sincere feelings is creating a substitute for moral truth.
This provokes the uncomfortable observation that thereby not only is the dissenter finding his maneuvering space increasingly cramped, but concurrently the community is losing both the mental habits and vocabulary whereby to comprehend his right and reason to dissent from the consensus.
At the college campus, in addition to the social atmosphere which serves the stigma-method of buttressing uniformity are the omnipresent institutional forms, including: mandatory thought-reform programs, speech codes, nondiscrimination policies applied against student associations, and the unstated faculty career advancement requirements. These reinforce the prevailing dogma by removing from subversives their avenues of expression, access to resources and position, and other benefits that allow distribution of an alternative voice.
But if the heterodox evade these restrictions and present their unsanctioned messages, unleash the scorn. The Order must be maintained.