How Is It “Being Silenced” When You Won’t Shut Up About It?

A pernicious conspiracy against The Truth™ exists in higher education, riddled as it is with politically-correct snowflakes unable to reckon with the cold hard facts of science.  If it weren’t for the Leftist-Socialist-Cultural Marxist-SJW frauds masquerading as “experts,” our students would be learning the true and actual nature of geophysics, beginning with the reality that our world is flat. Big Globe has infected our physics, geology, and geography departments with the idea that the Earth is a sphere, hurtling through space alongside other round objects, somehow tethered to the Sun. That’s only what They want you to believe, though. Those of us brave truth-tellers whom The Academy is trying to suppress can prove that the Earth is actually a disc, hurtling upwards through the cosmos, propelled by Dark Matter energy.  The peer-review process has been thoroughly corrupted by these charlatans, the professoriate is stacked against us, and Clinton Foundation money fuels these purportedly “scientific” journals claiming to “debunk” our work. What higher education needs, then, is a Revolution! We need laws to guarantee Flat-Earth teaching is part of the curriculum, and mandates to ensure our students receive a thorough grounding in Flat-Eartherism so they can reason for themselves in the Marketplace of Ideas—which is a Free Market, by god.

Well, except for the whole curricular-mandate thing.

If you substitute “today’s conservative thinkers” for Flat-Eartherism[1] you wouldn’t be far from actually-existing talking points emanating from the loud and substantial anti-higher-ed faction on the Right. In a political culture where basic human  dignity is now open to debate and civil rights have become a partisan issue, we are confronted with an entire political party actively pushing the line that higher education is ruining the country. As an [unfortunately paywalled] article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education sums up:

An analysis released on Monday underlined what is by now a familiar story: Hyperpartisan feelings have driven a wedge into what Americans think about higher education. The shift has been driven almost entirely by Republicans, the Pew Research Center found: 59 percent of them now say colleges are harming the country, up from 37 percent in 2015.

37% of one of the two major political parties in the US believing higher education is “harming the country” is bizarre. 59% percent is absolutely batshit. So what’s at the root of this “hyper-partisan divide” (which, if we’re being honest, really means one side has untethered itself from reality) over higher ed? According to the Right, the crux of the issue—in the words of the CHE summary—is:

professors purportedly bringing their social and political views into the classroom. Among those who said colleges were heading in the wrong direction, 79 percent of Republicans said professors’ ideology was a major reason for the decline, compared with just 17 percent of Democrats.

What are those “social and political views” we’re “bringing into the classroom?” The Right never tells us that, specifically; words like “social justice” and “cultural Marxism” and “political correctness” saturate the discourse as signifiers of something so profoundly un-American and “Other” as to be dangerous, perhaps fatal, to the entire educational enterprise. And it’s not just the usual suspects on Fox News and in the fever swamps of the Right Wing Industrial-Outrage Complex propagating this narrative; it’s become an article of faith among centrists and some liberals as well. Our students, the conservatives and their fellow travelers argue, are being corrupted and ill-served by the discourse and practices of the modern academy. “Grievance studies” and “call-out culture” have turned college classrooms into some kind of Stalinist dystopia, where right-wing students are afraid to voice their convictions lest they be turned into the Ministry of Truth and thrown into a cell furnished with nothing but a Che Guevara poster and a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Two observations emerge from this spate of what are literal, actual “grievance studies.” First, you can make A LOT of money writing about how colleges and their students are awful, and there’s a whole bucketful of grifters, hucksters, and cranks who’ve cashed in on that realization. Second, and most importantly, it’s worth asking who, exactly, the target audience is.

The concern was sharpest among older Republicans, the furthest removed from college. Virtually all Republicans 65 and older who said colleges were headed in the wrong direction — 96 percent — said professors’ political and social views were a major reason, compared with 58 percent of Republicans aged 18 to 34. (In general, Democrats took issue with the cost and quality of education, while Republicans focused on ideological concerns.)

Ah.

I see.

As one might expect, the details are a bit more complex once one gets onto actual campuses, as opposed to the Tucker Carlson School for Scared White People. Again, from the CHE article:

surveys conducted across the country and on college campuses show a different picture: Most students, including conservatives, feel that their colleges support free speech and open debate, and that they can speak freely in class. Hostile interactions are relatively rare.

WELL, WHERE’S THE FUN IN THAT? Even the director of FIRE, an organization as ready as anyone to pounce on instances of “thought-policing” from lefty students, sounded disappointed. “It’s a tough nut to crack, and there needs to be more social-science research on it,” Nico Perrino is quoted as saying in response to this data showing markedly fewer instances of free-speech suppression than The Discourse would have you believe. AND YET, he continues: “Even if it is a couple incidents, it’s serious and it can create a chilling effect…But we don’t know it’s only a couple incidents.” FIRE has surveyed students themselves and “found that almost 90 percent were comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in class.” THERE IT IS, the conservative defenders of free speech and the marketplace of ideas crow: it IS more than “a couple incidents!” But let’s tap the brakes for a minute: students self-censor for a variety of reasons, but the primary one among them is their worries about how their peers, not their professors, would react. One could argue that students on the Right fear being pilloried by the hordes of Leftists surrounding them in ECON 101, or one could argue based upon actual experience and evidence that there are a variety of reasons students don’t participate in class interactions, and fears of political reprisals are not among them.

Let’s take a moment, though, to really drink in this ludicrous spectacle of self-described “conservatives” claiming they’re being silenced, that they have no platform, and that a continuous stampede of Cultural Marxists makes it dangerous for them to even poke their head above ground and hurriedly whisper their Essential Truths—all of which unfolds on the most-watched cable news network in the country, in the pages of the nationally and internationally-circulated “paper of record,” in splashy cover stories for prestige publications, via books from a lavishly-funded publishing house that can’t print their pronunciamentos fast enough, and in reports from the campus think tanks they control by dictating personnel and research questions.

Let’s also luxuriate in the sheer absurdity of these Right-wingers claiming their views, embedded in the “traditional” canon of Western rational discourse, are being suppressed by a bunch of reverse-racist Social Justice Warriors hell-bent on shaping the Academy along the lines of their own identity [read: non-white-male] politics—and making these claims while sitting smack-dab in the middle of the inequitable and White-dominated system that is US higher education. There are flagship universities in this country where women and Black people have only been allowed to enroll within the last half-century. There is a shadow higher-ed system of evangelical institutions as far from the “free exchange of ideas” as one can get and still be in this universe. We have graduation rates thoroughly shaped by racial disparities. We have a dramatic spike in hate crimes and a sexual assault crisis on campus. But, please, tell us again how replacing William Faulkner with Zora Neale Hurston is destroying student learning.

And that’s the crux of the whole thing, isn’t it? The reason the Right believes that radical hippy lesbian communists are infiltrating universities in order to silence the opposition and indoctrinate the youths is because that’s how they would do it. Epistemic closure and the relentless drilling of orthodoxy into the heads of young people is how the American Right built itself into the revanchist juggernaut it is today. It’s education by trephination. If you think “multiculturalism” is a cancer, you secede from established school districts to create lily-White havens for Hunter and Brielle. If you think the Bible (as you read and interpret it) possesses the sole, unquestionable, infallible, claim to Truth, then you cloister McKaleigh and Leighton into hermetically-sealed bubbles where Charles Darwin and ethnic studies cannot intrude. If you refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change, you scream that it’s fake until you actually believe that instead. When you’re accustomed to privilege, even the suggestion of equality feels like oppression, and that’s how you believe you’re the victim of a conspiracy to silence your voice—when in actuality you’re just having to listen to others’ voices for the first time ever. The Right-wingers who are the purveyors of the “we are being silenced” narrative buy into it so fiercely, even when conservative students report that it’s not the case, because they literally cannot conceive of how else students can be brought to what they see as “successful outcomes.” Epistemic bubbles are what they do; from that perspective, why wouldn’t that be what “the other side” does as well? There’s more projection going on in these claims of “silencing” than there is at the 28-theatre cinema across town.

If irony hadn’t died a horrible death several years ago, we could say that it is certainly present in the fact that the loudest proponents of some archetypical “marketplace of ideas” are also the quickest to add qualifiers and limits to that marketplace when it rejects their ideas. Maybe your racist assumptions aren’t actually science, and that’s why the scientific establishment thinks you’re not only wrong, but kind of an asshole. Maybe there’s no evidence that self-fulfilling prophecies involving evolutionary jargon and a wikipedia-level understanding of crustaceans tell us anything about psychology or interpersonal dynamics, and that’s why you have to hang out in the “intellectual dark web” instead of at the big-kids table.

Maybe your classmates shun you when you assert that racial inferiority is simply a scientific truth not because they’re Stalinist dupes, but because you clearly don’t know what “race” or “science” mean. Maybe the instructor has policies in their class that any students’ basic humanity or civil rights are not matters that are open to debate because it’s both ethically and pedagogically necessary, and not because they’re intimidated by the sheer force of your edgy “truths.” Maybe your personal experiences haven’t equipped you to understand why statues honoring a slavocracy on campus might be off-putting to your peers. Maybe it’s just hard to publicly defend white enthnonationalism, anti-Semitism, or the stealing and caging of children in concentration camps, and you’re scared to admit why that’s really the case.

Maybe you’re not being silenced because the Earth isn’t really flat.

  1. [1] I know, I know; the jokes basically write themselves.

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