Universities are losing the battle on free speech
Examples of institutional pushback pale in comparison to broader trends
Is the era of woke censorship coming to an end on campus? The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, among others, are heralding a new epoch in which university leaders stand up to snowflake students. While it’s encouraging that progressive legacy media outlets are nailing their free speech colours to the mast, these are counter-wavelets on the surface of a rising swell. Progressive illiberalism is not going anywhere because it is baked into the demography of tomorrow’s professors.
The Post cites a number of examples of institutional pushback, including Cornell’s refusal to implement a mandatory trigger warnings policy on academic freedom grounds. The paper and others note the encouraging defence of liberalism at Penn and Vanderbilt, along with Harvard’s new Steven Pinker-fronted Council on Academic Freedom, a group of over 50 faculty members who have robustly lined up against the culture of progressive conformity on campus.
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The sceptic in me says it’s one thing to strike down a trigger warning for an innocuous book which doesn’t touch sacred progressive beliefs. Penn’s current trial of controversial law professor Amy Wax for legal speech will be a far more important barometer of the new administrative liberalism.
Still, the gradual emergence of a liberal centre willing to speak its name is cause for optimism. This came to broader attention with the Harper’s Letter in July 2020, continued with an Economist editorial in April 2021, and was followed by the first New York Times editorial in March 2022. Since then, the NYT has run a series of articles challenging campus conformity and has even been willing to court protests by running pieces sceptical of gender reassignment surgery. WaPo is late to the game, but confirms the trend.
Why the turnaround? Incentives explain a lot here. First, some of the energy in cancel culture has ebbed post-George Floyd, with the number of cancellation attempts dropping back to the (still high) levels of the mid-2010s (Figure 1). Second, the attacks on universities from the Right, encapsulated in Ron DeSantis’s campaigns against critical race theory and gender theory, permit liberals to use a “both sides” defence of liberalism. Conservative media attention also focuses centrist liberals on the need for internal reform rather than the prospect of further embarrassment. The Right has been a vital ingredient in the new liberalism.
But in the long run, liberalism is giving way to progressivism in elite spaces. The new cultural liberalism in the media reflects the views of senior staff members, and is opposed by affinity groups and young employees. That’s important, because surveys consistently find that “woke” values are twice as prevalent among younger Leftists than among older Leftists. Over 8 in 10 undergraduates at 150 leading US colleges say speakers who say BLM is a hate group or transgenderism is a mental disorder should not be permitted to speak on campus. What’s more, 7 in 10 think a professor who says something that students find offensive should be reported to their university. Young academics are twice as censorious as those over 50. These are the editorial teams and professoriate of tomorrow.
The steady erosion of free speech values is generational. Today’s young people are far more censorious than the young people of 1980 or even 2000, and they won’t grow out of it. While Zoomers are scared of being cancelled, figure 2 shows that they accept this risk as part of their political ideology.
Administrations’ occasional rebukes of student activists or adoption of high-minded academic freedom resolutions will make little difference to this speech climate. The situation in universities increasingly reflects a transformational current of illiberalism, guided by the generations who will one day form our elite.
The culture wars have transformed me from a cynic to an ultra-cynic. Here’s my ultra cynical interpretation of some of the facts reported in this article.
The author notes that, “While Zoomers are scared of being cancelled, figure 2 shows that they accept this risk as part of their political ideology.” That’s because their chance of being cancelled for taking a position consistent with progressive beliefs is almost zero.
So far as the NYT, and other left-leaning outlets, beginning to take a stand against the excesses of wokeism, I’d argue that’s a smoke screen. They put up a token defense of free speech and use their actions as a defense against accusations there is a widespread cancel culture. In reality, beneath the tepid pushback, nothing has changed.
The only hope I can see is that these young people will walk into the buzzsaw of reality when they graduate and compete in the globalized job market.
The only hope I can see is that these young people will walk into the buzzsaw of reality when they graduate and compete in the globalized job market.
Scant chance of that, I’m afraid: rather than the corporate world assimilating their new recruits, graduates have been busy remaking their employers in their own image for many years now. Sad to say, major corporations these days are likely to be just as woke as the leading universities.
I don’t know. I agree that public and quasi public institutions are permanently lost. But private sector institutions have to compete. Goldman Sachs didn’t become evil geniuses with a bunch of diversity hires. There will be competitive pressure on businesses to reject wokism – as the economy gets worse this will increase. I notice that the bloom is already off the rose for ESG. Finally – even universities will find that world class researchers will go to jurisdictions where they are free to hire whoever they want and aren’t subject to complaints from mediocre peers and students.
I agree. Ultimately, and thankfully, woke will be bvggered by the markets.
Businesses are discovering that the resentment of their customers, e.g. at being called
i. “racists” because they’re white, or
ii. “transphobes” because they think blokes in dresses shouldn’t be allowed in female-only spaces.
… has begun to translate into boycotts and loss of sales; q.v. the recent experience of Anheuser Busch, and I for one won’t be replacing my trainers with Nike when they wear out. Moreover, I anticipate that we’ll see a lot more of the likes of the watchmaker Egard, who have taken an explicitly and commendably anti-woke stance in their social values messaging.
Reality is that loss of sales is only temporary.
Why would anyone drink rubbish like Miller lite etc?
I think your hope is a forlorn one. These people are already in ‘the real world’ and are providing the internal pressure that’s behind corporate Wokeness.
Agreed. It will get much worse before it gets better. And it will take a long time.
But “the real world” is larger than corporate America. The ccp and Islamofacisim will bring more of a reality check.
University students are quickly becoming the Western equivalent of Mao’s Red Guard. As for China, they learned a hard lesson when the cultural revolution went too far. I hope we don’t have to see it here.
They are all going to be eaten by ChatGPT.
The impact of automation on these groups is already a major driver of wokism. I worry that as a greater proportion of graduates find themselves on the scrapheap of history, they’ll turn to more extreme means to survive.
Then they will get the proper cosh and knuckle duster from working class, hopefully.
The Left always make sure there’s lots of NGO and government and corporate HR make-work positions available for their useless but highly-indoctrinated graduates.
There will be no real-world buzz saw for the gender studies majors.
“The only hope I can see is that these young people will walk into the buzzsaw of reality when they graduate and compete in the globalized job market.”
Agreed. We also need to become habitually obnoxious in our dealings with the woke.
Bud Light sales are down over 26% after InBev-AB took a flier on Dylan Mulvaney, a 27 year old man who identifies as a teenage girl. Reality can still bite back. Like it or not, good ol’ boys are a big part of anti woke in the US. It’s the educated elites from Ivy League schools that are most of the problem. What’s needed is a bottom up blue collar revolution that defunds DEI.
It’s ironic to see NYT and WaPo depicted as advocates for free speech on campus. In the US they are known as bastions of government “suggested” censorship. They burried the Hunter Biden laptop censorship story, and refused to cover the Twitter Files documentation of FBI & CIA Interference in Big Tech social media. Since they won’t stand up for freedom of the press for themselves, it’s ridiculous to pretend they will stand up for free speech on campus. NYT & WaPo are propganda outlets of the Democrat Party in the US, run by Democrats who only identify as journalists. They don’t print anything that would embarrass the Party, but they will lie shamelessly at their Party’s call.
Anyone drinking Bud Lite when there are so many great breweries in USA has no taste…
Shouldn’t academics be required to defend free speech the way medical practitioners take the Hippocratic oath?
That’s an exceptionally good idea, which deserves many more up-votes.
I wish I could hit the thumbs up more than once!
At the moment they must write a diversity statement when applying for a position.
So the new professors will be predominantly woke!
It will at least give new intake of students something justifiable to protest against. Once woke becomes the new conservative orthodoxy any student seeking a cause and an orthodoxy to mock, deride and revolt against will find a readymade one with feet of nothing but clay. A positive pushover such is the intellectual vacuity of woke.
Universities are soon to become dodos. AI changes everything in the learning and development field. Predictions next 10 years: 50% cut in university numbers, virtually no UG degrees on campus, and PG with a research focus. Software will eat this progressive illiberalism in short measure. I watch my institution grappling with Chap GPT Beta version and feel as though we’re tinkering at the edge on a “case by case” basis. Some on the staff get it, but most don’t appreciate they may be on the Titanic. A view.
That’s a very good point. AI will eat so many jobs, including in my own field of law. I read an article pre-pandemic reporting on medical diagnostic software that already performed almost as well as an experienced physician. There are currently some forms of surgery, notably prostate surgery, which use robot arms controlled by a human being. I’ve read they’re working of fully automating that type of surgery. I strongly suspect few of us truly understand what’s coming down the road in the AI space.
Maybe whining about pronouns will be all that’s left for most real people.
I used to think I’d be dead before universities had to pay the price for their fecklessness. Now I am not so sure. I do think they are going to bear the brunt of the wrath of a populist political revolt – which is happening in Florida now. I am not sure they will be dead as dodos however.
If I was steering a child towards a university subject, I’m not sure what I would suggest now, in terms of a career safe from AI.
Don’t bother, train as a plumber and gas engineer, you’ll never be out of work!
Accountancy- that is an art no machine will ever grasp. Machines just add up and take away. Accountants create mystery.
I think there may just be some cause for optimism here. Whilst taking due note of comments about the cynical deployment of “free speech” articles by otherwise woke media, the simple fact it’s even considered worthwhile might give rise to – if not the turning of the tide – then a lessening of the storm surge which has swamped our institutions (both in the US & UK) for the past few years.
I’m not convinced that young people steeped in woke culture will necessarily take that forward over the course of their careers. If the tide continues to turn, i suspect they’ll turn with it. I think they all know very well how dishonest and self-defeating the whole woke business has turned out to be, and as their careers progress they’ll simply adjust with experience to do what it takes to continue making their way in the world, which – let’s face it – has always been a darned sight easier without having to watch every word you say or write.
Just how did these totalitarian nutcases manage to get the epithet “progressive”. It makes about as much sense as North Korea calling itself the Democratic Republic of Korea
Same reasoning. Call yourself something good to hide what you really are.
It is just one part of the attack on sanity through language manipulation.
the NYT has run a series of articles challenging campus conformity
Haha! But are they aware of, and challenging their own culture of conformity? Ask Bari Weiss!
Until the NYT publishes a long and specific apology for decades of propaganda masquerading as news, and hires numerous centrist and conservative voices, they will remain a fishwrap.
The NYTimes, (which is the most annoying publication ever), deserves some credit. Their editorial pages include columns by at least three genuinely conservative writers; Brett Stephens, David Brooks and Ross Douthat. And Douthat’s even a Latin Mass Catholic! Imagine that!
All three of them are great writers, especially Douthat. I just wish they would stop trying to get me to go to church/synagogue, get married and settle down.
The bifurcation of American society is inevitable at this point. There is no possibility of finding a middle ground in this scenario. Unfortunately, it will be extremists on all sides who dictate the terms of the divide.
The problem comes when ideology becomes superior to truth. DEI and anti-racism have become paramount. Truth, observations, in fact anything that contradicts woke ideology, is forbidden. Further, teaching the methods of math, science, technology and engineering has already been declared racist by some. Anti-racist discrimination against whites and Asians is increasing. Educating straight white and Asian males is already being discouraged. This ideological stew is a direct threat to modern civilization.
The fact is that you can’t build a modern engineering project, like a sewer system, based on anti-racist principles with no math or real engineering. With our academic institutions indoctrinating rather than educating, we won’t be able to run a modern economy. In particular, if we refuse to train all straight white and asian males, it cuts the available talent pool down a lot, even if we train everybody else. Given that we’re indoctrinating instead of educating already, things can get bad really fast. We will replace our current competent technical people with indoctrinated incompetents.
A question I’ve consistently asked myself for years, but especially since the dawn of the Woke Era: Why do the many who are subjected to woke attacks not employ the same methods that the Woking Class use in seeking to cancel people, implement discriminatory policies or disrupt legal processes (e.g. classes, talks, etc.)? Anti-racist legislation must surely now be a major weapon in the fight back for Whites and Asians who are now not only routinely discriminated against, but subjected to horrendous racial abuse (including genocidal language) that is officially sanctioned and seemingly never challenged?
Michael Levin’s 1997 book, ‘Why race matters’, contains a fascinating analysis of the sorts of issues featured in this article, to which he brings a razor-sharp logic; and which demonstrates that this woke’ revolution is very from from a recent development.
After rebuff by Newsom to the reparations committee recommendations, they are now recommending that the CA constitution be changed to legalize discrimination (against non-blacks in order to provide for these payments).
UK universities are paid for by tax payers. Student loans are not loans at all. A large part never gets repaid. They are just a post university tax for graduates. And the other tax payers pick up the unpaid loans. While the loan fund trousers the extortionate interest.
As Tax payers either Universities remember they are institutions for academic freedom – or we will stop paying for them and those who cancel others will starve.
It’s time to reduce the size of academia in favour of vocational and apprenticeship based education, where political activism is replaced by artisanship and civic duty, and where respect for others as individuals is paramount and more important than wholesale Critical Social Justice favouritism or demonisation of any identity group or groups. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned supporter of objective truth based Liberal Social Justice enlightenment and democracy.
Privatise the student loans company.
Have it so students borrow money from university department who in turn borrow from market. If student is unable to repay loan, university department loses money. This way only subjects and departments which provide well paid jobs will survive. Make it legally possible for students to become bankrupt and avoid paying back loan and normal bankruptcy laws would apply.
I read the New York Times every day, which is how I found out about this article and followed the hyperlink, via a subscriber only newsletter by the conservative author, Ross Douthat. I wanted to write a comment about that article, but it wasn’t an option, so I will copy-and-paste it here instead, but write an extended version as hopefully there is no word limit.
I like the “Great Awokening” as a play on the “Great Awakening”, the latter which refers to several periods of religious revival in American Christian history.
I have long believed that academic ideology is the present-day equivalent of Christian religion, albeit has obvious differences from religion, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise.
But for example, the belief that gender is a “social construct” is obviously contrary to common sense and is objectively false — in much the same way as are most religious beliefs — and yet it is fervently believed in by almost every academic regardless. Likewise it is believed by almost every university student who studies relevant subjects at uni., such as Women’s Sociology, or more broadly, the Social Sciences.
Indeed, it is the present-day equivalent of religious heresy to suggest that gender is NOT a social construct, and that rather, it is mostly a biological difference between the sexes. This is deemed politically incorrect, even though it is obviously the objective truth.
This is only vaguely acknowledged in the article by Eric Kaufmann when it is mentioned that it is heretical to believe that “transgenderism is a mental disorder”. But ideological or quasi-religious beliefs such as that gender is a social construct are precisely those that are most fervently enforced by “cancel culture”. This is so because as it is obviously false, it needs to be enforced in order for such a belief to be upheld as being the academic orthodoxy. You need to enforce it via the academic discipline of “cancel culture”, because otherwise people will realize that it is false, as the latter is common sense.
When young people listen to popular music, implicitly they do accept that men and women are different, and that this is a biological or sex difference. This is so, in the sense that the biological or sex difference is most emphasized in both the song lyrics and the visual imagery of popular music. Somewhat ironically, this is also what most appeals to the female audience, as they mostly like songs about sex, love and romance, in contrast to males who seem to mostly identify with music that is NOT about sex, love and romance. And yet, it is mostly women who are responsible for the ideology that gender is a social construct. What this suggests to my mind is that because sex, love and romance are so important to the female sex during puberty and the young adult phase of their life, their female lecturers believe that it MUST be delegitimized in Women’s Sociology, and in the Social Sciences more generally. This is so, because they want young women to believe in the feminist standpoint instead of sex, love and romance.
Liberalism was completely impotent in battling the “woke mind virus” and its death paroxysms listed in this article are just that. Sorry, Eric, but it’s not making a comeback.
No liberal institution has resisted Woke. Period. The reason is that they are the same, with the newer model proceeding at a faster speed toward the same destination.
Years ago a right wing radio personality wrote a book called “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder.” Today, with blue-haired teachers declaring their right to instruct children in deviant sex practices and professors spreading confusion about biological reality, history and mental illness, it is clear that he was right.
There’s a reason that in the US they’re all, liberals and wokesters alike, dedicated Democrats. Their goal unites them.
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