Tolerance of intolerance

Ignacio de la Torre. Professor. IE Business School

31 December 2015

Mandatory uniformity in the name of diversity is now a reality. Tolerance is being used as a tool to fuel absolute intolerance.

I remember, when I was seventeen years old and studying in the US, hearing my history professor sing the praises of Woodrow Wilson, President of the US during the perilous years of the First World War. When the class finished I expressed to her my surprise that she could praise Wilson, given that he was a racist.  The professor, a native New Yorker, replied that you cannot judge people from the past based on criteria that apply to the present. You could not, for example, criticize Julius Caesar for having slaves. 

I spent some time pondering her reply.

Recently, a large group of students from Princeton University, of which Wilson had been President from 1902 and 1910, invaded the Rector’s office to demand the removal of Wilson’s name from the rooms that were named after him, to rename Princeton’s prestigious School of Public Policy and International Affairs,   and get rid of the portrait of Wilson in their refectory. Some weeks earlier, Yale students had rebelled and demanded that Calhoun College change its name because Calhoun defended slavery in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, fellows of the Rhodes Scholar University of Oxford refused, for the first time, to toast their benefactor for having been the Prime Minister of a country of segregationist policies (South Africa) over a hundred years ago. *

These are by no means isolated incidents. For some years now, political correctness has monopolized US universities to the point of threatening, by means of self-imposed censorship, the cornerstone of the University world – freedom of expression.   Consider the following facts: **

First: Guest speakers initially invited to speak at Universities have been “vetted” by “liberal” (in the North American sense of the term) students and professors. Paradoxically the despotic and arbitrary vetting process has been used mainly in the application of doctrines and methods that are suspiciously similar to racial left-wing views, which also happen to have a clearly Islamist slant, under the guise of the somewhat euphemistic term “minorities”.  Hence,  vetoed candidates include Condolezza Rice, former Secretary of State for the US,  for being a “war criminal” (Iraq); African women’s rights activists, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for “Islamophobia,” or the current head of the International Monetary Fund,  Christine Lagarde, for being “responsible for development policies that have condemned poor countries to absolute poverty”.  Hence, the University of Michigan banned the film “American Sniper” by Clint Eastwood in the face of protests from Muslim students, and Smith University students blocked the entry of journalists who wanted to cover a sit-in, unless they first expressed their “solidarity with the rebel students.

Second: Public expression is censored by the threat of “microagression,”a euphemism for the fact that anyone who does not comply with political “correctness” can be reported (and eventually sacked) by means of an inquisitional process in which there is no right to defense.

Third: Uniform thinking is promoted by obliging students, and also professors, to study subjects like “cultural competence,” “marginalized nations”, or “racial etiquette,” taught by consultants that are making good money off the back of uniform thought.  As Uton Sinclair pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Fourth: Readers are warned of “very dangerous books” by “trigger warnings” issued by university libraries so that they understand the “good and bad” of each piece of work, such as anti-Semitism (Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”), or misogyny (Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”).

Fifth: There are designated “safe spaces” in which it is forbidden to contest any kind of politically correct statement (some campuses have even banned posters defending free speech, claiming that they go against the concept of safe spaces).

What conclusions could you reach from this situation? The most relevant is that the application of methods straight out of Orwell’s “1984” could well have Orwellian consequences. If the method that consists of tolerating intolerance is not questioned, then the consequences have to be accepted, which is none other than the intolerance of tolerance.  It is the same seed that become the kind of totalitarianism we have seen up close in Europe. Uniform thought has been imposed in the name of diversity.

As Crovitz said “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” adding that in order to be consequential with said intolerance, the capital of the United States would need to be renamed, given that Washington had slaves, Jefferson, the author of the declaration of independence, would have to be reviled for the same reasons, and the Yale University would also have to change its name (Elihu Yale was a dangerous imperialist). Stanford (exploiter of Chinese workers to promote his railways) would have to suffer the same fate, as would Duke (tobacco business), Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Mellon (capitalist thieves). In the face of generalized stupidity, the best thing is to the suggest freedom of speech, because “the cure for bad ideas lies in open discussion rather than inhibition and taboo” as stated by the academic Chicago Hutchins in defense of a communist address on campus in 1932. “Education is not supposed to make people feel comfortable, but rather to make them think” is a quote by another academic from Chicago, a university that has a tradition of defending freedom in the field of economics, and which recently rebelled against the lack of freedom of speech resulting from political correctness and organized a protest to take a stand against it, after which Princeton followed suit. The following phrase stands out “But 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… the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle 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. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”  ***

A Jesuit professor commented some time ago that he used to begin his classes by telling students to raise their hand if they think that all ideas are worthy of respect. Most put their hands up. He then said that was the argument that men were superior to women respectable? Many were intrigued just as I was many years ago about what my US professor said about Wilson.

The great thinker Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, was mummified at his own express wishes and placed at the entrance of the increasingly “uniform” University College of London.  His great disciple, John Stuart Mill, in his work “On Liberty,” stated that even the Catholic Church used the devil’s advocate approach to avail of every single perspective of debate about a possible saint, both in favor and against. Hence, Mill concluded, freedom of expression enables our capacity to suggest our critical thought and that is why we have to defend it. In Europe, Mill’s followers proudly called themselves liberals, because they defended liberty. 

Unfortunately, many “liberals” are currently trying to suppress liberty in the US.

*Gordon Crovitz, “Chicago School of Free Speech”, The Wall Street Journal, November 22.

**Ed Luce “The rise of liberal intolerance in America” Financial Times, November 29.



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