Defending “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”

Having just finished reading Dorian Lynsky’s wonderful Ministry of Truth, a biography of George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty Four, a recent headline from The Times newspaper caught my attention.  The Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker was accusing his critics of “launching an Orwellian attack” on his reputation.  Following back this story connected for me a few important threads about the dangers increasingly being faced in American public culture, and to a lesser degree in our own UK higher academy, about the growing illiberalism of liberals. 

Pinker, a leading American public intellectual, was the focus of a recent open letter from more than 500 academics calling for his fellowship at the Linguistics Society of America to be rescinded.  The letter accused Pinker of a willingness to “dismiss and downplay racist violence”, citing half a dozen tweets posted by Pinker in the past few years.  The signatories accused Pinker of behaviour “not befitting” of a public academic or as a “representative of our professional organization”.

This led me back to one of the triggers for this denouncement and black-listing, namely an open letter published on the Harper’s Magazine website on the 7 July, signed by 153 public writers, scholars, academic and commentators, including J. K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Fareed Zakaria, Malcolm Gladwell and Pinker himself. 

This letter condemned the rise of a culture characterized by “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”  The letter to Harper’s argued that the “forces of illiberalism” are gaining strength across the political spectrum, beyond the radical right and the supporters of Donald Trump, as writers and thinkers face severe professional consequences for “perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

Although I am not on Twitter, my understanding is that this letter has provoked a proverbial Twitter storm in response.

Which took me back one more step to Robert Boyers 2019 book The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy and the Hunt for Political Heresies, which I finished reading a few months ago.  Boyers, a professor of English at Skidmore College, and a significant public intellectual and progressive liberal, was interviewed in The New Yorker last autumn about his book and the interview gives you the gist of his growing concern about the shadow of hyper-liberal censorship stalking the American academy.

Boyers asks, “why are a great many liberals, people who should know better, invested in the drawing up lists of enemies, driven by the conviction that on critical issues no dispute may be tolerated?”  In The Tyranny of Virtue, Boyers comes to the conclusion that an unwillingness to hear non-progressive points of view, an obsessive focus on “privilege” (a term he thinks is being used indiscriminately), and an unwarranted concern about the idea of cultural appropriation are occurring across the United States.  And that they pose a danger to the ideals of the academy.

Echoing Boyers, the Harper’s open letter draws attention to the “weakening norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”.  Although this liberal intolerance of dissent may be somewhat weaker here in the UK, there is a danger we are heading the same direction.  On a whole range of political, social and ethical issues, liberals expect there to be only one correct – and therefore only one acceptable – view to be voiced.  Anyone breaking this code is to be black-listed, silenced or ignored.

In my own field of climate change, I have witnessed – and in a very modest way experienced myself – a growing trend for public and on-line ‘policing’ of what can and cannot be said about climate change in relation to risk evaluation, public policy and politics.  The journalist Keith Kloor explored this a few years ago and wrote about it in 2017 in Issues in Science and Technology.  “On highly charged issues, such as climate change and endangered species”, said Kloor, “peer review literature and public discourse are aggressively patrolled by self-appointed sheriffs in the scientific community”.

But as I first showed in Why We Disagree About Climate Change back in 2009, there is no “blinding moral certainty” about what should be done about the “complex policy issue” of climate change.  This is one issue where all voices need to be heard, all ideas debated in free and public combat.  It is no time to be black-listing or denigrating through accusations of moral weakness those who happen to disagree with you. 

As the signatories to the letter to Harper’s concluded, “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”  And as Orwell so presciently observed in the 1940s, and warned us about in Nineteen Eighty Four, it is only a few short steps from the intolerance and suppression of free speech to the totalitarianism of Ingsoc.  And this spectre can start from the Left as much as it can from the Right, as Orwell very well knew and spent the latter decade of his short life writing incessantly about.

Orwell wrote in an unpublished preface to his 1945 novel Animal Farm, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.  This applies to liberal and conservative reactionaries alike.  And it is a right we must defend at all costs.

Mike Hulme

University of Cambridge, 24 July 2020