It is widely known that many American college students are so intolerant of opinions that clash with their own that they feel justified in shouting down speakers they are certain they dislike. For example, Charles Murray was just shouted down by angry protesters at the University of Michigan and students at William & Mary shouted down Claire Gastañaga of the American Civil Liberties Union, who had been invited to discuss freedom of speech on campus.
Faculty members seldom get involved in such blatant displays of anti-intellectualism as that, but they have their own ways of trying to silence people with whom they disagree. One is to have writings they dislike expunged. We have just witnessed a case of that involving Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State.
Last month, the journal Third World Quarterly published an essay by Gilley entitled “The Case for Colonialism.” Academic journals rarely get many readers – articles typically get at most a few hundred views. But shortly after Gilley’s appeared, thousands of professors signed online petitions demanding that the article be retracted – more than 16,000 at the time Peter Wood (president of the National Association of Scholars) wrote an essay for Minding the Campus about the uproar entitled “The Article that Made 16,000 Ideologues Go Wild.”
Had all of those scholars read and analyzed Gilley’s article? Of course not, but once they received a petition written by a professor with good leftist credentials telling them that a white professor had written something intolerable – a piece defending colonialism! – and asking them to sign, they did so in droves.
The scholars who signed the petitions were not disagreeing with Gilley. They were demanding that he be silenced.
They also wanted apologies from both him and the journal. Just as totalitarian regimes of the last century insisted that dissidents acknowledge their errors before being sent off to “re-education” camps, so do our contemporary progressives insist that people who say or write “offensive” things bow down before them.
Those are not the actions of scholars looking for the truth. True scholars would never demand that an article or book they disagreed with be retracted or destroyed. They would want to have it around for intellectual jousting. I have never heard of an economics professor who, when faced with an article he or she found mistaken and filled with scholarly errors, demanded that it be expunged. Rather, they want it around because one way of advancing good arguments is to show the holes in bad ones.
But, so far at least, economics departments have not been taken over by intolerant leftists.
None of this is to say that Gilley’s article is impervious to scholarly criticism. Some people were able to write attacks against it before Gilley and Third World Quarterly caved in to the pressure and pulled it. Cato Institute Research Fellow Sahar Khan, for one, found it unpersuasive and badly marred by scholarly mistakes. (See her piece here.) That is how intellectuals respond to arguments they find weak – with thoughtful criticism.
Why did those 16,000 plus scholars immediately rise up in anger and insist that Gilley’s article be expunged? Because the Left, now that it has power, prefers to wield it rather than make rational arguments (which others might then dispute). As Lord Acton wrote, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Shouting speakers down and demanding retraction of “incorrect” writings are the hallmarks of authoritarianism. It is deeply disturbing to see how far it has spread into our higher education system.