Bending Over Backward: A Biased Look at Left-wing Censorship

The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt purports to be an evenhanded analysis of current attacks on free speech in academic settings.

The book begins well enough, with perceptive criticisms of the “Three Great Untruths” that permeate contemporary American society:  1) the belief that humans are fragile and should avoid experiences or ideas that are unpleasant or slightly dangerous, 2) the belief that individuals should always trust their feelings, and 3) the belief that people can be divided neatly into two camps, good and evil.  These ideas, the authors observe, not only contradict ancient wisdom from a plethora of cultural sources but also result in harmful outcomes.  Moreover, perhaps to persuade youngsters and academics who dismiss out of hand the notion of “ancient wisdom,” their introductory chapters note that these great untruths also contradict the findings of cognitive behavioral therapy -- the preferred psychological approach of author Greg Lukianoff.  So far, so good.

Where the analysis becomes irritatingly infected with political bias, diminishing its value with a thousand ideologically-driven cuts, are tedious and unconvincing attempts to show that these misguided beliefs are present equally on the right and left sides of the political spectrum.  This narrative permeates their work despite the fact that all the authors’ detailed examples of campus speech codes, campus violence, and speaker intimidation concern leftist demands for ideological conformity. 

The book is almost worth purchasing for its extensive account of would-be revolutionaries consuming their own at the very progressive Evergreen State College near Seattle.  The authors (who both confess they’ve never voted for a Republican for president or Congress) describe acts of intimidation and extreme incivility by crazed, race-fixated students against a biology professor who, though sympathetic to the intentions of a no-whites-on-campus day, nevertheless declined to join in the group’s misguided means of achieving its objectives.  The threats, vitriol, and involuntary confinement directed toward this professor and others tarred as white supremacists lasted for three days.  Even the ridiculous college president who kowtowed slavishly to the uncivilized mob was insulted and ordered about by these young racial Robespierres. 

To provide “balance” and indicate similar incivility on the right the authors cite “off-campus” groups, regularly described as “alt-right’ and “white supremacist,” that send online threats to political opponents, one to a professor who called for “white genocide.” This subtle academic term, the authors explain, was taken literally by the ill-informed online bigots.  Another professor’s commencement address, they note, sparked a flurry of fifty hate-filled internet responses, as if that number of electronic threats were extraordinary given the speaker’s use of the celebratory occasion to call President Trump “a racist and sexist megalomaniac.” Contrast those cyber-insults with the vile face-to-face confrontations and threats that were endured by an instructor at Yale’s Child Study Center who offered the modest email opinion that the school shouldn’t be so paternalistic as to prescribe Halloween costumes for adult students.  Both she and her husband were harassed and insulted by an on-campus mob.  To make matters worse, the couple received no backing from colleagues or administrators and eventually resigned over this picayune questioning of PC orthodoxy,

In short, Haidt and Lukianoff have transferred the bogus USA – USSR “moral equivalence” argument to an educational setting, ignoring the fact that there are zero examples of conservative incivility on campus like those routinely practiced by leftists.  Thus, while extreme leftists, including faculty members, speak freely at universities, none need the bodyguards required by Ann Coulter or meet with acts of violent suppression and harassment like conservative speaker Ben Shapiro. Yet the authors assert, without providing specific examples, that “right-wing” attempts to squelch speech on campus are as frequent as leftist efforts.  If true, I suspect many of those (doubtless nonviolent) petitions involve the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers that have proliferated on campuses in recent years -- speakers like Iran’s Holocaust-denying former Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia.  Such pleas are really pro-Israeli and not technically right-wing.  Moreover, to weigh equally objections to Condoleezza Rice and Ahmadinejad represents a profoundly skewed moral calculus. 

Haidt and Lukianoff further soften the clear ideological component involved in the censoring and vilification of conservatives by focusing attention on a multiplicity of other causes like social media that have contributed to the belief that “offensive speech” (as subjectively perceived by a single individual) is itself a form of violence which may be countered with actual violence.  While it is doubtless the case that social media helps fan the flames of hyperpartisanship, the book ignores the historical fact that leftist regimes have invariably suppressed dissent and vilified political opponents.  It’s also important to note, as the authors don’t, that while leftists can easily live in ideological bubbles isolated from sophisticated conservative viewpoints, the same isn’t true for conservatives who are inundated with liberal ideas from grade school on.

If Haidt and Lukianoff weren’t bending over backward to avoid being burned at the academic stake by their more zealous colleagues, they would have observed that no conservative mobs are harassing the incendiary Congresswoman Maxine Waters like folks on the left have screamed at Mitch McConnell, Sarah Sanders, or, just recently, Tucker Carlson and his family at their home.  They might also have focused attention on the clear leftist bias of big-tech companies like YouTube that have employed algorithms to limit access to straightforward, conservative Prager University videos (like Victor Davis Hanson’s five-minute overview of the Korean War) while placing no such filters on nonscholarly and often offensive rants emanating from the likes of Bill Maher.   

Finally, if Haidt and Lukianoff wanted to present a more accurate analysis of the maladies they correctly identify, they might have considered whether President Trump’s election was as much the electorate’s response to leftist oppression as the authors view recent acts of political incivility as unfortunate reactions to Trump’s abrasive rhetoric.  A less-biased analysis would also mention at least one unhelpful Obama comment, like his implicit embrace of the false “hands up, don’t shoot” Michael Brown narrative when he said the incident “stains the heart of black children” who “feel targeted by law enforcement -- guilty of walking while black or driving while black.” Instead, Obama is uncritically presented as a champion of viewpoint diversity.   

While there are many positive points in this book about demonizing opponents, listening to opposing views, and even a critique of the idea that equal opportunity demands equal outcomes, the authors’ unwillingness to even consider the totalitarian impulse that is baked into the DNA of leftism makes it a difficult read.  And while there is much to praise when topics like overprotective parenting and even cognitive behavioral therapy are considered, the links between these matters and the book’s primary focus on the suppression of political speech are tenuous and function more to divert attention from the factor that most promotes the “three great untruths” -- leftism.  But perhaps diluted versions of the truth is all that can, with trepidation, be expressed among academics and students who regularly vilify and threaten individuals who don’t support authoritative dicta vis-à-vis Halloween costumes.

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?"  is also available on Kindle 

The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt purports to be an evenhanded analysis of current attacks on free speech in academic settings.

The book begins well enough, with perceptive criticisms of the “Three Great Untruths” that permeate contemporary American society:  1) the belief that humans are fragile and should avoid experiences or ideas that are unpleasant or slightly dangerous, 2) the belief that individuals should always trust their feelings, and 3) the belief that people can be divided neatly into two camps, good and evil.  These ideas, the authors observe, not only contradict ancient wisdom from a plethora of cultural sources but also result in harmful outcomes.  Moreover, perhaps to persuade youngsters and academics who dismiss out of hand the notion of “ancient wisdom,” their introductory chapters note that these great untruths also contradict the findings of cognitive behavioral therapy -- the preferred psychological approach of author Greg Lukianoff.  So far, so good.

Where the analysis becomes irritatingly infected with political bias, diminishing its value with a thousand ideologically-driven cuts, are tedious and unconvincing attempts to show that these misguided beliefs are present equally on the right and left sides of the political spectrum.  This narrative permeates their work despite the fact that all the authors’ detailed examples of campus speech codes, campus violence, and speaker intimidation concern leftist demands for ideological conformity. 

The book is almost worth purchasing for its extensive account of would-be revolutionaries consuming their own at the very progressive Evergreen State College near Seattle.  The authors (who both confess they’ve never voted for a Republican for president or Congress) describe acts of intimidation and extreme incivility by crazed, race-fixated students against a biology professor who, though sympathetic to the intentions of a no-whites-on-campus day, nevertheless declined to join in the group’s misguided means of achieving its objectives.  The threats, vitriol, and involuntary confinement directed toward this professor and others tarred as white supremacists lasted for three days.  Even the ridiculous college president who kowtowed slavishly to the uncivilized mob was insulted and ordered about by these young racial Robespierres. 

To provide “balance” and indicate similar incivility on the right the authors cite “off-campus” groups, regularly described as “alt-right’ and “white supremacist,” that send online threats to political opponents, one to a professor who called for “white genocide.” This subtle academic term, the authors explain, was taken literally by the ill-informed online bigots.  Another professor’s commencement address, they note, sparked a flurry of fifty hate-filled internet responses, as if that number of electronic threats were extraordinary given the speaker’s use of the celebratory occasion to call President Trump “a racist and sexist megalomaniac.” Contrast those cyber-insults with the vile face-to-face confrontations and threats that were endured by an instructor at Yale’s Child Study Center who offered the modest email opinion that the school shouldn’t be so paternalistic as to prescribe Halloween costumes for adult students.  Both she and her husband were harassed and insulted by an on-campus mob.  To make matters worse, the couple received no backing from colleagues or administrators and eventually resigned over this picayune questioning of PC orthodoxy,

In short, Haidt and Lukianoff have transferred the bogus USA – USSR “moral equivalence” argument to an educational setting, ignoring the fact that there are zero examples of conservative incivility on campus like those routinely practiced by leftists.  Thus, while extreme leftists, including faculty members, speak freely at universities, none need the bodyguards required by Ann Coulter or meet with acts of violent suppression and harassment like conservative speaker Ben Shapiro. Yet the authors assert, without providing specific examples, that “right-wing” attempts to squelch speech on campus are as frequent as leftist efforts.  If true, I suspect many of those (doubtless nonviolent) petitions involve the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers that have proliferated on campuses in recent years -- speakers like Iran’s Holocaust-denying former Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia.  Such pleas are really pro-Israeli and not technically right-wing.  Moreover, to weigh equally objections to Condoleezza Rice and Ahmadinejad represents a profoundly skewed moral calculus. 

Haidt and Lukianoff further soften the clear ideological component involved in the censoring and vilification of conservatives by focusing attention on a multiplicity of other causes like social media that have contributed to the belief that “offensive speech” (as subjectively perceived by a single individual) is itself a form of violence which may be countered with actual violence.  While it is doubtless the case that social media helps fan the flames of hyperpartisanship, the book ignores the historical fact that leftist regimes have invariably suppressed dissent and vilified political opponents.  It’s also important to note, as the authors don’t, that while leftists can easily live in ideological bubbles isolated from sophisticated conservative viewpoints, the same isn’t true for conservatives who are inundated with liberal ideas from grade school on.

If Haidt and Lukianoff weren’t bending over backward to avoid being burned at the academic stake by their more zealous colleagues, they would have observed that no conservative mobs are harassing the incendiary Congresswoman Maxine Waters like folks on the left have screamed at Mitch McConnell, Sarah Sanders, or, just recently, Tucker Carlson and his family at their home.  They might also have focused attention on the clear leftist bias of big-tech companies like YouTube that have employed algorithms to limit access to straightforward, conservative Prager University videos (like Victor Davis Hanson’s five-minute overview of the Korean War) while placing no such filters on nonscholarly and often offensive rants emanating from the likes of Bill Maher.   

Finally, if Haidt and Lukianoff wanted to present a more accurate analysis of the maladies they correctly identify, they might have considered whether President Trump’s election was as much the electorate’s response to leftist oppression as the authors view recent acts of political incivility as unfortunate reactions to Trump’s abrasive rhetoric.  A less-biased analysis would also mention at least one unhelpful Obama comment, like his implicit embrace of the false “hands up, don’t shoot” Michael Brown narrative when he said the incident “stains the heart of black children” who “feel targeted by law enforcement -- guilty of walking while black or driving while black.” Instead, Obama is uncritically presented as a champion of viewpoint diversity.   

While there are many positive points in this book about demonizing opponents, listening to opposing views, and even a critique of the idea that equal opportunity demands equal outcomes, the authors’ unwillingness to even consider the totalitarian impulse that is baked into the DNA of leftism makes it a difficult read.  And while there is much to praise when topics like overprotective parenting and even cognitive behavioral therapy are considered, the links between these matters and the book’s primary focus on the suppression of political speech are tenuous and function more to divert attention from the factor that most promotes the “three great untruths” -- leftism.  But perhaps diluted versions of the truth is all that can, with trepidation, be expressed among academics and students who regularly vilify and threaten individuals who don’t support authoritative dicta vis-à-vis Halloween costumes.

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?"  is also available on Kindle