The Cost of Purity
September 30, 2012
Or, Less Information is a Good Thing in an Argument, Yes?
From Theodore Dalrymple’s latest collection of essays, Farewell Fear. On dictatorial urges:
It is difficult now to imagine a modern university intellectual saying something as simple and unequivocal as “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” He would be more likely to think, if not actually to say out loud or in public, “I disagree with what you say and therefore rationalise to the death my right to suppress it.” In public, he would be more circumspect, presenting a suppression of freedom as an actual increase in freedom; that is to say of real freedom, not the kind the leaves everyone free to sleep under a bridge. But he would know perfectly well in his heart that what he was after was power: the greatest power of all, that to shape, mould and colour indelibly the thought of others, a power to which he believes that he has a right by virtue of his superior intellect, training and zeal for the public good.
Actually, some of our budding intellectuals do declare their censorious urges out loud and in public, as if such urges confirmed their own unassailable righteousness: “We no longer need to listen,” say these mighty radical thinkers. Nor will they permit others to listen to ideas and arguments they, our betters, deem improper - on our behalf, of course.
Recently, I was reading for review a book by a woman, a “resident scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Centre at Brandeis University,” about the problem of ‘ageism’ in America… What is so striking to me about the author’s proposals for dealing with the problem is that she does not recognise that they conflict with freedom, and pose problems for the rule of law... If I wish to employ someone but cannot hire whomever I choose, for whatever reason that I choose, whether good or bad, I am not free: I must hire according to criteria that are not my own. The author might certainly argue that her goals are more important than that of freedom, and that fairness in one sense or another, in one field or another, is now more precious than freedom; but it is at the very least necessary to recognise that one is subordinating freedom to some other desideratum, or one will end with tyranny by default, as each enthusiast or monomaniac seeks to curtail freedom in his pursuit of his favoured goal.
Very rarely do we find someone who is a university intellectual saying that “X is indeed a desirable goal, even a highly desirable goal, but the cost to freedom of achieving it is simply too great.” It would be an excellent thing in the abstract if no-one ever drank to excess (much less violence, cirrhosis, etc.), but a system of surveillance in homes to ensure that no-one did so would be odiously tyrannous. The author of the book to which I have referred would like to have all ‘ageist’ language expunged from films, radio, books, daily speech and even minds, on the grounds that many people have felt humiliated by it, that it reinforces stereotypes, and that stereotypes lead to bad treatment of the old. Even if this were empirically true (which might be doubted), what is being demanded as a principle here is language so anodyne that it could offend no-one, lead to no stereotyping, etc., for there is no reason to limit the cleansing of language to ageism. The attempt to rid the world of stereotyping is as totalitarian as it is in theory incoherent: for of course it relies upon the stereotyping of stereotypers, namely all of us. Show me a man without stereotypes and I will show you a man in a coma. But mere impossibility has never stopped intellectuals from proposing their schemes.
The eliminationist zeal of much leftist rhetoric has been noted here more than once. Some of you will have seen this recent pantomime of activism – invoking “free speech” as a right to silence others - and its censorious consequences. Apparently, when the subways “belong to the 99%” no-one will be offended. Because controversy will not be allowed and then, hey, we’ll be happy. Some readers may remember the experiments in thought correction at Delaware University, where an acclaimed and coercive programme of “social justice education” was described by its proponents as a “treatment” – one intended to “leave a mental footprint on [students’] consciousness.” Others may recall Tufts University’s perversely named Islamic Awareness Week, which led to institutional censorship and denial of reality, with factual statements – none of which were challenged - being outlawed as “harassment.”
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