Freedom from speech

Daily World International, November 14, 2023

R. N. Prasher

It is not usual to weave an editorial web around a single author who
does not even have the ‘merit’ of being ancient. Greg Lukianoff’s
first book, ‘Unlearning liberty: Campus censorship and end of American
debate’ appeared only in 2012. His latest, ‘The cancelling of the
American mind: The Cancel Culture undermines trust and threatens us
all – But there is a solution’ appeared earlier this year. The recent
events at Harvard related to the war in Gaza have brought renewed
attention on this writer who has forcefully brought into focus an
issue that has, during the last decade, increasingly bedevilled the
American civil society in general and the university campuses in
particular. Freedom of speech is the quintessential ingredient of
democracy even as its denial is a necessary criterion for defining the
absence of democracy. By that yardstick, the Cancel Culture, that
tries to shut out a person for expressing his views, aims to strike at
the very roots of democracy. Lukianoff’s book, ‘Freedom from speech’
from which we have borrowed the sub-title, refers to Paula Deen, a
celebrated chef, whose travails resulting from the Cancel Culture were
reported in the Los Angeles Times of June 19, 2013 under the headline,
“Paula Deen admits using N-word, telling racist jokes”. While
explaining her words uttered eons ago, she said something that should
become the motto for any anti-Cancel Culture movement, “I can’t
determine what offends another person”. If a person has to pre-judge
the reaction of others before expressing herself, we shall take
several steps towards the silence of the graveyard.

In February, 2021, in two successive editorials in this paper, “Cancel
Culture: China’s ‘gift’ to the world” and “China’s cancel threats
modulate the West” we had highlighted the plight of authors, Hollywood
stars and producers, TV celebrities, sports bodies, the media and the
elites of the corporate world, who had aired anything unpalatable to
Beijing. They were promptly cancelled and receiving no support from
their American peers, they soon grovelled and apologised or were put
out of business. The latter were far and few, one of the examples
being the star Richard Gere who was cancelled by China for speaking in
1993 at the Oscar ceremony about the plight of the Tibetans. Since
then, during the last 30 years, Gere has not been invited as a
presenter at the Oscars. In these thirty years, this ‘gift’ from China
has permeated every democratic aspect of the US. It has become an
integral part of the ‘woke’ culture, of the racist ‘Black Lives
Matter’ that cancels anyone who says ‘All Lives Matter’ or speaks in
favour of law enforcement by saying ‘Blue Lives Matter’. It is almost
impossible for a right-wing speaker to be invited to a major
university and if so invited, the loud and often violent opposition
sees to it that the invitation is withdrawn. Any campaign contribution
to a pro-life organisation or one promoting the traditional family
values will result in cancellation of the donor. Anybody speaking
against biological males masquerading as females and using female
public conveniences will similarly meet a cancellation fate as was
found by Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling when she spoke in favour of
biological women.

In “Unlearning Liberty”, Lukianoff says, “Administrators [on campus]
have been able to convince well-meaning students to accept outright
censorship by creating the impression that freedom of speech is
somehow the enemy of social progress. … The tactics and attitudes
that shut down speech on campus are bleeding into the larger society
and wreaking havoc on the way we talk among ourselves.” The result of
this cultural regression is the revealing title of a chapter in
Lukianoff’s “Freedom from Speech” – “Campus speech, disinvitation
season, and the movement from the ‘right not to be offended’ to the
‘expectation of confirmation’”. The long list of those who have been
disinvited included Condoleezza Rice who has been United States
Secretary of State and National Security Advisor of the United States
and is at present director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University and Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary

In the 2018 book “The coddling of the American Mind: How good
intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure” that
Lukianoff co-authored with Jonathan Haidt, they talk about the three
Great Untruths that have proliferated on many college campuses and are
now spreading to the universities in the rest of the English-speaking
world. They call them the untruth of fragility, the untruth of
emotional reasoning and the untruth of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Contrary to
the conventional wisdom that what does not kill us makes us stronger,
the first untruth preaches that all such perceived threats make us
weaker. The second encourages overriding one’s rational reasoning and
letting emotions dominate. The third is the obvious outcome dividing
the students into two irreconcilable camps. Rather than trust in their
capability to filter ideas, the students demand protection against
ideas that their emotions say are ‘harmful’. Cancellation of speakers
is one easy method for providing such protection. The whole process
turns the fragility of the student mind into a desirable state that
needs to be guarded against blows from ‘them’.

Colleges and universities were conceptualised as havens for
free-flowing ideas and even for the apparent absurdities of today that
may turn out to be pearls of wisdom tomorrow. Instead, these are
becoming bubbles in which students seek safety from ‘thought
pollution’. Students’ minds are becoming fossilized into binary
thinking, a symptom more associated with those who suffer from severe
anxiety. This issue was raised before Obama when he was President. His
response was straightforward. “I’ve heard some college campuses where
they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or
they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to
African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women.
… I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have
to be coddled and protected from different points of view. …  you
should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by
saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you
have to say.”

In the book “Cancelling the American Mind”, co-authored with Rikki
Schlott, Lukianoff sums up the fixed ideas in the echo chambers that
used to be halls of learning reverberating with competing ideas, going
through the convulsions of the Hegelian triad of
thesis-antithesis-synthesis. “Bad people like you only have bad
opinions!” screams one side at the other that responds, “No, only good
people like me have good opinions!” The malady is not confined to the
campuses anymore as students of yesterday are the components of civil
society at various levels today. It has permeated politics, research
institutions, science and business. Bipartisanship in politics is
taking a back seat and more often research starts with conclusions
looking for evidence and not vice versa. Issues of what constitutes
gender, when is a foetus viable and whether parents are important in
bringing up the child are being discussed from across rigid dividing
lines. Political correctness is the new business of Hollywood and
comedians often face cancellation, accused of tripping over the myriad
red lines. The ‘us’ believe that ‘them’ have undergone Kafkaesque
metamorphosis into a disgusting life form, co-existence or
communication with which is unthinkable. Freedom of dissent has
mutated into freedom from speech.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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