We're Creating a One-Narrative Country, and It's Incredibly Dangerous

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. 
-JS Mill, On Liberty

You're 9 times more likely to find a Marxist in the social sciences than a Republican.

Reflect on that a moment.

A New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof, called "A Confession of Liberal Intolerance," has a number of studies and surveys that show that there is active discrimination against hiring conservatives on academic campuses. Jonathan Haidt, one of my favorite authors, shows that the share of conservatives in academia has plummeted precipitously. 

The students may be worse than the faculty. University campuses in the US are experiencing an epidemic of students with left-wing viewpoints shouting down dissenting opinion. This is not something that's due to simple misguidance: young liberals have constructed a moral philosophy that demands dissent be shut down, because it is offensive or actively harmful to hear something you really disagree with. They're demanding that administrative and faculty heads roll if, god forbid, someone with a conservative slant is chosen as a speaker, or if the faculty doesn't suppress some seemingly-offensive form of speech. It's gotten so bad that the President, who I'll remind is not a conservative, is intervening in the hopes of restoring the shattered right to free speech on campus. His impassioned speech is worth reading or listening to. 

It's terribly ironic that some 40 years ago, students on campus were protesting for the right to have dissenting views, against a largely conservative faculty that suppressed it.

They were arrested for it, beaten for it. Now, they're demanding that these very authorities prevent their ears from hearing anything they don't already agree with. They're demanding that "free speech walls" be taken down because the speech is too free. Amherst students are demanding that administrators "apologize for signs that lament the death of free speech."  And yes, it's really all about oppressing views that don't fit the liberal narrative. How the times have changed. 


It's also been revealed that Facebook has been actively suppressing conservative news from its "trending news list:" that is, just outright removing it because they didn't like it. 

And yes, American media has a left-wing bias. There are a lot of studies that support it, and the New York Times (probably not known for having a right-wing bias itself) has a great article about its dangers

In my admittedly-limited experience (though I live in the People's Republic of Cambridge, MA), I believe I used to hear people deny that there was a pervasive left-wing bias in academia and media. Now I hear them say, "the truth is liberal." 

We've got a problem, America. A big one. Those in intellectual power and in control of popular traditional and online media are actively suppressing the capacity for anything but their own narrative from being disseminated. The US is turning into a country where only one political narrative is considered legitimate by the very institutions that were designed to encourage and proliferate critical and independent thinking, explore new ideas, and break people out of the stranglehold of mindless dogma. Now they hold the noose.

This isn't about who's right. Let me emphasize that point: it's not. Those who believe they're right should have all the space in the world to make their case and convince others. But if you think that your belief in your own correctness of the case means it's right, good, or helpful to prevent others from making their own, you are leading the country down a very dangerous path.

Maybe you're a liberal and today you're quite happy that you don't have to listen to or engage anyone that disagrees with you. You might be thinking life is quite peachy because your narrative is structurally positioned by intellectual elites to dominate the US landscape.

But, my friends: times change. A line from the Protomen, my favorite band, goes like this:

Emily, the crowd is gathered here, but once again they fail to see:
You can't just set the world at someone else's feet, and not get trampled underneath."

Institutions, when they absorb certain power, are unlikely to give it up, even if for purely altruistic reasons. They believe that with power they can do good. So we're actively demanding that the intellectual leaders of the country--media and, most especially, universities--take on the power to protect us from hearing disagreeing positions. We're asking them to snuff out all narratives but our own, so we can finally reach the peaceful state where everyone is right, because they agree with us, and of course we are right.

But let's just say, for argument's sake, that we've got it all figured out. We'll ignore the fact that the left-wing notion of what's good and right keeps changing as we learn: now, we've finally nailed it. So we're happy to give power to intellectual and media elites to squash all those wrong people.

30 years from now, they'll still have that power. There are two outcomes if we extrapolate:

1) We all end up thinking the same thing and no longer have our opinions challenged

John Stuart Mill made the most compelling argument here in On Liberty, which I think should be required reading. But start with Chapter 2, "On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion." One of my favorite quotes:

the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race... if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

In short, if we all hear only the same message, we become dogmatic and lose our capacity to think critically. We become dumb. 

2) The opinions of intellectual authorities change, and they're able to manipulate us

Conservatives have complained for a long time about media manipulation of the public. Some Bernie Sanders supporters are now doing the same in the context of the primaries, so we've got a much more politically diverse group that believes there's a problem. It's been pointed out that most media outlets are owned by a few people. If we accept and lay down to their power to suppress what we don't agree with, a simple change in leadership can find us suddenly being oppressed, ourselves.

At the university level, it can happen as well, although it's likely to be slower. Universities haven't always been liberal--as mentioned earlier, they were quite conservative 40 years ago. What happens to liberals when the tide turns? Perhaps at some universities there are or will be more conservative thinkers in faculty and in the student body. If we create a culture of demanding suppression of thought, well, we might just find that we or our children find themselves in a situation where their thoughts are suppressed.

Terrible tyrannies have never existed in societies where speech was free and open. The Nazis, Soviets, Chinese Communists, North Koreans, Iranians, radical Islamists, etc, all thrive in, and can only thrive in, societies where there is a broad suppression of free speech, and a single narrative. If people were allowed to openly discuss, say, a pogrom of Ukrainians, there might have been an upswell of dissent. Suppression of free speech is the soil for the tree of tyranny. 

So this is where I implore you to do something about it. I don't actually think the America you want is one with a single narrative and no place to disagree. No, the US does not throw people in jail for saying the wrong thing, but as Mill points out (again in On Liberty), suppression by public opinion is likely even more dangerous than suppression by the government itself:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.

So what can you do? In short, you can stand up for freedom of speech and thought in society. The government cannot help you here. You can't get someone else to do it.

If you're on a university, especially if you have the credibility of being a liberal, maybe it's time to have a discussion with your feverishly-angry protesting friends that maybe it's a bloody good thing to hear a speaker whose opinion doesn't just tell you what you already believe. Maybe you take the class with that professor who is a "right-wing crackpot" and have your ideas challenged. When the student body government is voting on whether to demand censure or expulsion of someone who said something "offensive," maybe you go there and say, "maybe we should just talk to them and change their mind rather than making it clear that if you say something we don't like, we're going to literally exile you."

If you're an alum that donates money, now's a good time to write the university corporation to tell them that your donation is predicated on the university actually standing up for free speech, rather than paying it lip service and then crushing it.

If you use Facebook, maybe you write a support ticket: "Hey, my news feed is broken: it seems to be washing out conservative news, and I don't want to be brainwashed!"

Maybe it's time to give a little less devotion to Huffington Post and maybe pick up The Economist or The Wall Street Journal. 

Your options are endless and they don't require you to rise to the top of a university and take the reins. But whatever your political persuasion, the future of America depends on you to fight actively for free speech, and not be the source of its demise.

I'll end with a quote, a call to arms, from the incredible writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, from The Friends of Voltaire:

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." 

Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.