Life on the Academic Animal Farm
Dehumanizing others through censorship does not befit the academy, but the pigpen.
“Do not try to teach a pig how to sing.” That was a piece of advice given to me when I was a young man, by a witty and cavalier drag queen, someone who never had the benefit of reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The closest thing to intellectualism in our lives, circa 1991, was that we hung out in the smelly Bronx park in front of the historic cottage where Edgar Allan Poe had lived.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of wisdom in his advice. There is something frighteningly bestial about people who think they are very clever but who can do little more than grunt and snort. You know this type: someone dumb who gets together with other dumb people and somehow gets his hands on resources, influence, and power.
Evil geniuses are scary, but at least they’re interesting. And, as the great philosopher Hannah Arendt once noted, often exceptionally evil people are not the ones who do the most damage. It’s the simpletons who can really do serious harm. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt reflects on Adolf Eichmann, noting:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
This idea of the “banality of evil” is useful in analyzing the smaller psychoses that take over seemingly innocuous milieus—even if we have little reason to fear concentration camps in the near future. Eichmann’s flaw was his bureaucratic tunnel vision, a combination of procedural jargon, petty red tape, and knee-jerk sanctimony.
So what do we do with such people? The “pigs” in the drag queen’s allegory are intriguing, as metaphors go. When pigs oink and writhe in their slop, don’t they probably think they’re right and their sty is wonderful? Who are we to correct them? Giving up on pigs is a comforting course of action. We can take a break from the exhausting exercise of trying to talk reason into someone unreasonable, and we also reserve a small part of our conscience for the self-justifying belief that it’s still the other person’s fault for being a pig rather than a rational human being.
The Bronx drag queen was only partly right, though. The problem, as George Orwell predicted in Animal Farm, and as we are seeing in campuses across America, is this: Pigs are never content with simply not learning how to sing. They end up taking over institutions and imposing their irrationality on everyone as nasty totalitarianism. They resort to the bureaucratic sadism that Hannah Arendt perceived in Adolf Eichmann. They inevitably become censors. They prevent speech from happening lest they be forced to do something other than oink.
Dehumanization through Censorship
In the closing paragraphs of Orwell’s classic, the reader finds out that “After that it did not seem strange when next day the pigs who were supervising the work of the farm all carried whips in their trotters.” The unforgettable closing lines of the book read:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Because they are essentially boring and uncreative, they end up, so often, dehumanizing and demonizing people they can’t converse with.
The greatest, most insidious form of dehumanization is the refusal to let people speak. To impose silence, to take away language and expression from human beings, is to violate one of their most fundamental human rights. More importantly, it discounts their very personhood. This is precisely what mobs on college campuses do when they rally, petition, picket, and scream, preventing a scapegoated individual from speaking. Disturbingly, these tactics have become more and more common.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, was too harsh for Muslim students at Brandeis. Those who protested her planned graduation speech seemed convinced that African women are great for diversity unless they didn’t have a good experience with Islam. In that case, they ought not to let people know their stories exist.
Similarly, Condoleezza Rice worked for George W. Bush and didn’t have the foresight to turn down a job as the National Security Advisor or Secretary of State. That she didn’t have the magical ability to stop war, enhanced interrogation, or Bush’s mispronunciation of the word “nuclear” is infuriating. Didn’t she know that one day such crimes against humanity might cost her a trip to New Brunswick, New Jersey? Isn’t it every statesman’s dream to speak to the hung-over graduates of the country’s “14th biggest party school”?
Just to keep up with Massachusetts and New Jersey, protestors at Pasadena City College forced Dr. Eric Walsh, the city’s public health director, to back out of delivering the commencement speech. He is, after all, a Seventh-Day Adventist and said something negative about homosexuality at some point. Or something.
Are you lost yet? Overwhelmed? There’s more.
Occupation and Rationalization
Robert J. Birgenau was the chancellor at UC Berkeley when Occupy Wall Street came to his campus. Haverford College, outside of Philadelphia, made the grave faux pas of inviting him to be their commencement speaker. The Inquirer reports:
Haverford President Daniel H. Weiss announced on Tuesday morning that Birgeneau has declined the college’s invitation to speak and receive an honorary degree. Birgeneau is known for his support of undocumented and minority students, but became controversial when students, as part of the Occupy movement, held non-violent protests and were subject to force by university police.
I’m not clear, exactly, why “occupying” other people’s spaces by setting up tents and busing in thugs to block sidewalks and scream at people is considered “non-violent.” One might pose this query to the petitioners at Smith College, who intimidated International Monetary Fund manager Christine Lagarde based on her non-military use of global finances to oppress people in poor countries. As the New York Times reports:
For years, critics of the I.M.F. have charged that in providing economic aid to poor nations, it has imposed conditions that favor Western nations and businesses, and propped up oppressive governments. “The I.M.F. has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries,” said an online petition against Ms. Lagarde’s appearance at Smith, a women’s college. “This has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
So let’s get this straight: It’s fine to set up a tent city on campus and demand that the government write off hundreds of thousands of student loans. Even if this is literally called “occupation,” it’s good. What’s bad is asking those people to leave and pay their bills instead of expecting tax-paying laborers across the country to pay back their loans for them. Setting up a world bank offering loans to poor countries? That’s bad too.
One can find a splendid range of rationalizations from academics who justify such censorship. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, sanctimony abounds. They’re sanguine, even delighted, to see speakers barred from campus events. Here is a gem from the comment section of Jackson Lears’s column, “Rutgers U. Should Not Honor Condoleezza Rice”:
Prof. Lears objects to honoring Rice by giving her a prestigious forum and granting her an honorary degree; my guess is that he’d be perfectly happy to have her speak at a university sponsored colloquium where the traditional academic practice of give-and-take discussion and debate could allow for a more thorough and nuanced consideration of the issues.
This defense, though common, is nonsense. First of all, just as much controversy and censorship happen at lower-stakes speaking engagements. As an easy reference point, take yours truly. I won’t go down the long, long list of thwarted attempts I made to engage “across the aisle” on my state university campus, but this essay should give the reader a taste of what happens when someone challenges campus orthodoxy.
You get the wacko protestors harassing presenters, online petitions, grandstanding at department meetings, and no nuanced consideration of anything you say. If you’ve become such a public scandal that pro bono lawyers admire your heroism and pitch in to help, you may survive the tenure-review process. If nobody off campus knows about it, the censors will exploit your obscurity and self-imposed silence. You’ll be getting a “no” at tenure-review time and will be dumped on the job market as just another desperate academic looking for work.
Room for Discussion and Debate?
On April 5, 2014, there was a conference scheduled by Stanford University’s Anscombe Society. Ryan Anderson, Kellie Fiedorek, and I were invited to speak at the event. This is precisely what the apologists for commencement censorship claim exists as an alternative: bring in opposing voices at events designed for debate instead of ruining kids’ graduation day with politics. Right?
Wrong. The Orwellian academy would not let us sing. According to “queer” students (who apparently have little understanding of the originally defiant and transgressive implications of “queerness”), Ryan, Kellie, and I would cause delicate and unstable homosexual students to kill themselves. This, in spite of the fact that Ryan has spoken to Stanford’s law school in the past without incident, and I am a flaming queer who writes dirty novels about gay sex.
But these students were eager to demonize me, the Afro-Caribbean Sino-Malayan queer Army veteran raised by a divorced lesbian in blue-collar Buffalo, who survived homelessness and cancer, then climbed out of a world of crime and abjection to become a world-traveled polyglot delivering speeches about children’s rights to hundreds of thousands of people in Paris. When do I get to be that inspiring story of overcoming adversity?
Thanks to the courage of Stanford’s Anscombe Society President Judy Romea and the assistance of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Stanford event was not derailed. One thing that differentiates the Stanford event is the fact that Kellie, Ryan, and I chose not to leave the pigpen undisturbed. All three of us “faced the music” and went to Palo Alto to present, even in the face of student protests and hostility. The experience leads me to conclude that the wrong choice is simply to avoid the groups that attempt to censor opposition. The speakers who have been targeted bear as much duty to defy resistance and speak, as the academic community bears to engage in the activity that Arendt believes makes human beings unique: listening and “thinking.”
I would explain the ins and outs of Stanford’s controversy, including why certain passages of the university code were cited first by the censors, then by the anti-censors, but Public Discourse does have word limits, and life is short. As we see in all these censorship campaigns, the details are long and convoluted, and they grow more so, as the grunting pigs cite bureaucratic rules, safety regulations, student committee bylaws, funding provisos, and mission statements, to claim that they’re legally justified in dehumanizing other people and preventing them from speaking. Bureaucratic sadism thrives among those afflicted with intellectual cowardice.
While conservatives can certainly be priggish and uptight, it is largely liberals who populate the plush pigsties of Orwell’s Animal Farm these days. The left has become so comfortable that they think this—this distasteful caballing and snickering and demonizing—is the way things ought to be. And unfortunately, they have the power to shape campus culture.
I hope they like the pigpens of their own making.
First published at Public Discourse
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