In the summer 2017 issue of the magazine Modern Age, the English philosopher Roger Scruton takes scalpel, forceps, and vascular clamps—sans anesthesia—to the campus free speech issue, leaving the reader to exclaim, in spite of his surgical care: Yuck!
Yuck, indeed. An ugly sight, the modern torchlight search for heretics who disturb the claimed modern right to self-definition, “my” right to “become an object of choice, in which only I have the right of action, and nobody else has the right to interfere. Hence nobody now may impose upon me an identity that I myself have not chosen. My nature as a self-created being is inviolable. Your disapproval of my lifestyle is your problem, not mine. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia—all the isms and phobias that call down the damning tirades of the orthodox—are the residue of old and vanquished forms of life, last gasps of Western civilization in its vain attempt to cling to its empire among the living . . . so thinking the wrong thing, still more saying the wrong thing, is an act of aggression. . . . ”
To the extent the university cooperates with this weird project—by scorning or shutting down debate and discussion—it “renounces its calling in the matter of truth-directed argument” and becomes “a center of indoctrination without a doctrine, a way of closing the mind without the great benefit that is conferred by religion, which also closes the mind, but closes it around a community-creating narrative.”
Scruton “would like the university to be a safe space, but a safe space for rational argument about the pressing issues of our time,” free of “grotesque falsehoods.”
Alas, “We are wandering in a world of utter relativity but bound by orders that are absolutes –the order not to refer to this, not to laugh at that, and in the presence of all uncertain things to stay silent. In all this we are losing our sense that some things really matter, and matter because they are true and not just because some group of benighted people believe them, or some other group has decided to enforce them. If a university stands for anything, surely it stands for that idea of truth, as a guiding light in our darkness and the source of real knowledge.”
Yes: Yuck! Yet really . . . is the foregoing a problem just for universities? Who puts up with this nonsense, this shut-your-racist-mouth ethos, if not the society whose mind our universities shape subtly by disguising themselves as our deputed seekers of truth and wisdom? Alumni, editorial boards, degreed commentators of various sorts keep afloat the project of truth-suppression on campus through what looks like their essential agreement with it. Or their fear that the universities (“all those smart people”) will turn on them, and despise them, for speaking up.
A very, very smart non-academic—Roger Scruton—reminds us with pith and poignancy what is at stake when the academy closes down its mind. Truth is at stake. Life is at stake.