Our understanding of censorship is plagued by a common misunderstanding: that its most potent form is enforced from above. In reality, the most concerning threat to liberty does not take the form of draconian legislation introduced by our political institutions; it is more insidious than that. Censorship in the West now stems from the kind of bottom-up forces that keep birds from straying from a flock, or fish from their school.
In complexity theory, the term ‘emergence’ is used to describe a complex, higher order that arises out of the seemingly uncoordinated behaviour of individuals. The principal threat to liberalism today is an emergent authoritarianism, not a top-down form of the kind we find in China or Turkey.
Consider the case of Kathleen Stock, a philosopher and feminist who defends the right of women to restrict access to some women-only spaces to those who are biologically female. Stock was last week forced to resign her position at the University of Sussex after being subjected to a campaign of harassment from trans activists and their fellow travellers. Her decision to quit was not preceded by a demand by her bosses to step aside. Instead, a number of her colleagues at Sussex, as well as students and administrators at the university, created the toxic environment that forced her out.
Having experienced a milder form of the same treatment for criticising the excesses of ‘anti-racist’ activism, I completely understand why she left. Even though the university belatedly stood up for Stock’s right to free speech, pressure from her peers — especially when combined with an activist-led disciplinary process — creates a repressive climate for those who dare to dissent.
This is, of course, not confined to the UK. Across the Anglosphere, cancellation campaigns are soaring: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)’s ‘Scholars under Fire’ database records a fivefold increase in attempts to terminate American academics between 2015 and 2020, with students often leading the charge. But what makes the news is just the tip of a vast iceberg when it comes to hostility and self-censorship.
My own work shows that in North America and Britain, around three quarters of academics in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) are on the Left. Three-quarters of SSH faculty in Britain endorse political correctness because it protects minorities, while just a fifth oppose it for stifling free speech. In the struggle between what Teresa Bejan calls ‘equal speech’ and free speech, many come down in favour of the former.
Even though it’s likely that most academics have been horrified by Dr Stock’s treatment, they still have an instinctive sympathy for disadvantaged identity groups — including those she is alleged to have hurt. So when activists smear Dr Stock as a transphobe, they make her radioactive to an important share of colleagues and students, who pull away out of a combination of moral disapproval and fear of guilt-by-association. Even in anonymous surveys, I have found that barely 1 in 3 North American and British academics are comfortable sitting down to lunch with a female academic who supports banning trans women from women’s shelters.
Cass Sunstein writes that the more one’s workplace doubles as a social community, the stronger its ability to force dissenters to conform to sacred values. And it is this which partly explains why Dr Stock was so vulnerable in the first place. Collegiate interaction and collaboration are a staple of academia. ‘Being a good colleague’ is not just an informal norm; it is often part of an academic’s formal appraisal. Peers review our presentations and papers, as well as the applications for grants and promotion that can make or break our career. Fellow academics also populate most levels of university governance, from a departmental teaching coordinator to the faculty Senate.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that biases and taboos pervade the system. Since over 40% of American academics wouldn’t hire a Trump supporter and a third of their British counterparts wouldn’t hire someone who voted to leave the European Union, the unorthodox keep their views to themselves. 70% of American conservative SSH academics say they self-censor, as do a third of British academics overall. The situation is similar in other ideologically-slanted industries such as journalism or the arts — if anything, academics, once you control for their ideology, are more pro-free speech than others.
That, however, is not saying much. There can be little doubt the campuses remain ruled by what Sunstein terms ‘outrage entrepreneurs’, the secular preachers of today’s cultural socialism — an ideology which holds that cultural narratives and signifiers reproduce group inequality. These outrage entrepreneurs compete to spot signs of the devil (i.e. racism, transphobia, sexism) all around them. Often this takes the form of redefining innocuous words, such as ‘master bedroom’ or ‘spooky’, as racist, while competing to erase the memory of ‘problematic’ historical figures.
In this sense, it is far from a new phenomenon. Just like the fundamentalist preachers who drove the Great Awakenings of American Protestantism or the Azusa Street Revival in the early 20th century, a new priesthood is powering cultural socialism’s Third Great Awokening.
And they are succeeding beyond the wildest imagination of illiberal leftists such as Herbert Marcuse or the censorious student radicals of the Sixties. FIRE’s huge survey of 37,000 American university students shows that 75% of those in Liberal Arts colleges believe that shouting down a speaker with whom they disagree is sometimes acceptable; 70% of all students think a professor who says something that offends them should be reported to the administration.
Given censorious attitudes like these are so pervasive, it seems unlikely that they will grow out of their illiberalism. Indeed, this seems almost certain given the findings of a recent academic paper on white liberal Americans and their approach to toleration. The General Social Survey has been asking the same questions since 1972 about who should have the right to publicly speak. While American ‘liberals’ remain more tolerant than conservatives overall, the trend toward rising toleration — in relation to platforming racist speakers — began to go into reverse around 2000. Since the turn of the millennium, toleration has been steadily dropping. As Sean Stevens notes, Smith College students in 2000 and 2016, filling out the same survey, became 20-30% less favourable to free speech.
It is somewhat baffling, then, that classical liberals are optimistic about the future; they have taken to congratulating themselves lately because much of the mainstream media is largely onside, while new organisations such as the Academic Freedom Alliance or Free Speech Union are doing excellent work defending victims of cancel culture.
But these are more a palliative than a cure. The demographic momentum of decades of cultural socialist control over education shows no sign of waning. The treatment of Dr Stock surely demonstrates that things will get worse before they get better.
In order to turn the tide of emergent authoritarianism, the Government must step in when institutions violate the laws and values forged during the West’s period of expanding liberty. Legislation such as the UK’s Academic Freedom Bill is required to proactively uphold civil liberties and guard against political discrimination. Beyond this, governments must restructure school curricula to ensure that students learn as much about the struggle for liberty and the evils of utopianism as they do about the fight against prejudice.
But even this is not sufficient. Ultimately, emergent authoritarianism will continue to spawn new outgrowths until we recalibrate the taboos around race, sexuality and gender that have been widening for decades. Taboos activate our disgust reflex, leading to a black-and-white approach that is anti-intellectual, and must give way to a more nuanced and proportional form of social sanction of the kind we apply to those who mistreat people on the basis of other characteristics.
This means applying the principle of charity in interpreting people’s intentions, allowing for second chances before doling out the maximum penalty, and creating space for forgiveness. Until we achieve this, there will be plenty more Kathleen Stocks in the coming years.