To think is to differ.
~ Clarence Darrow
Symptoms of a chronic and troublesome phenomenon have recently appeared in a more virulent form. This is the insistent demand, largely arising from within institutions, that the expression of unconventional opinions be subject to punishment. One such occurrence involved the Colorado high school teacher, Jay Bennish, who was suspended for comments made, in class, suggesting there were similarities in the tone of speeches by George Bush and Adolf Hitler. He also reportedly stated that the United States is the u201Csingle most violent nation on planet Earth.u201D
Another incident involved the forced resignation of Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, who had committed the sin of secular heresy. In January 2005, Mr. Summers suggested that the reason there were not more women in mathematics and the sciences might be due to genetic differences between men and women. In modern academia, such an idea will be as summarily dismissed as would the denial of the existence of God in medieval Europe. Had a faculty member at almost any major university sought research funding to prove that such differences are the product of male-dominated institutions seeking to suppress competition from women, such support would be readily forthcoming. But a contrary viewpoint has become heresy on most college campuses, as illustrated in this case. While most Harvard students supported Mr. Summers, the Arts and Sciences faculty voted, 218 to 185, their lack of confidence in the president, thus sealing his fate.
Another example arises from comments made by Eric Pianka, a University of Texas biology professor, who declared that the Earth would be better off if ninety percent of the human species could be eliminated. He was reported to say that disease u201Cwill control the scourge of humanity. We’re looking forward to a huge collapse.u201D His critics interpret his remarks as advocating the destruction of the bulk of human life. In the institutionally-generated paranoia of our time, it comes as no surprise that the FBI is investigating this man as a possible u201Cterroristu201D threat.
One need not agree with the statements of any of these men to see the danger inherent in punishing the expression of views that might be unpopular with given audiences. Mr. Bennish was doing nothing more than stating his opinions, something that teachers do in classrooms every day. If schools did a better job than they do to help students develop critical, analytical minds, such opinions would be challenged in the classroom instead of in administrative offices.
Mr. Summers’ statements are of an empirical nature, subject to being tested by the evidence. It is a sad commentary that a university that likes to imagine itself the pinnacle of academic respectability, should experience intellectual panic over the suggestion that the relative scarcity of women in math and science fields might be due to factors other than those dictated by feminist-inspired articles of faith. When the life of a university becomes driven by an insistence upon ideological conformity, its vibrancy is lost. A healthy skepticism in this arena, as in others, ought to take into account that when ideology confronts biology, it is smart to put your money on biology.
Let us imagine that we are intelligent, rational beings, and that someone makes an allegedly factual statement, the truth or falsity of which is subject to the marshaling of evidence. How ought we to approach such a statement, particularly if it conflicts with some firmly-established, strongly-held belief of ours? Would we not insist that this person substantiate his or her position with facts? Would we not have sufficient confidence in our mental capacities to be able to deal with an unpleasant or erroneous opinion? At the same time, would we not — as intelligent persons — want to know whether that statement was true?
Prof. Pianka’s comments, on the other hand, are normative rather than empirical in nature. He is making a value judgment, namely, that the Earth would be better off if only one-tenth of the present human population was consuming resources and destroying the environment. Again, if school systems did a better job helping students learn to develop their rational, analytical capacities — instead of emphasizing rote conditioning — people would be able to make intelligent responses to his statements. One might, for example, point out that political institutions are doing a remarkable job bringing about this man’s vision. Wars, genocides, and the unintended consequences of state regulation of economic activity have combined, in the past century alone, to destroy hundreds of millions of lives.
When we react with anger to statements of fact or opinions with which we do not agree, and demand punishments for such utterances, might our response not be due to an unconscious fear that the other person could be right? If I were to suggest to you that the earth is flat, or that the multiplication tables are erroneous, I doubt that you would feel offended or threatened by such remarks. Your confidence in your views on such matters would be so strong that I cannot imagine your willingness to have me punished for my views. But what if you hold a belief about which you might have some latent uncertainty, and I offer an opinion that challenges yours? Would you be as inclined toward tolerance on my behalf?
This collapse of the mind’s capacity to reason finds expression in many settings, with the continuing public support of Mr. Bush’s criminal war against the Iraqi people being a prime example. One finds further evidence of this trait in responses to conspiratorial explanations of events. The conditioned learning that causes people to react to rather than analyze politically-incorrect statements has produced a mindset that rejects all allusions to conspiracies. To categorically deny all conspiracies is to admit to being a poor student of history. Those who take such a knee-jerk position should be asked to explain why the World Trade Center buildings no longer stand: someone brought them down!
In the words of a late friend, u201CI am not interested in conspiracy theories; I am interested in the facts of conspiracies.u201D Anyone who advocates the existence of conspiracies should be put to the test of providing evidence for his or her claims. But, more importantly, if we are to live intelligently, each of us should be up to the task of listening to and evaluating such assertions. As we ought to have learned from the buildup to the war against Iraq, anyone can fabricate what, on the surface, appear to be facts, it being the task of intelligent minds to judge their authenticity. Had the minds of more Americans insisted upon such intellectual standards, the baseless conspiracy theories about Iraq advocated by the Bush administration and its neocon falsifiers, would have prevented the current atrocities in that country.
How far will this malignancy on the mind metastasize? As people increasingly identify themselves with racial, ethnic, nationality, gender, religious, lifestyle, or ideological interests, can we expect a proliferation of verboten opinions? Will truths and values be fought out in legislative halls, courtrooms, voting booths, and the streets, with competing power blocs amassing the force of numbers to impress their respective imprimaturs upon the minds of all?
Once different groups begin to see the benefits to themselves of calling upon the state to enforce their particular views of reality, you can expect all sorts of offenses to be added to the list of crimes and misdemeanors. For example, should the dominant view that the American Civil War was fought to end slavery become confirmed, by the state, as the only opinion allowed on the subject? Will those who believe that this war was a struggle between the forces of federal hegemony and southern independence be punished for denying officially-defined u201Ctruth?u201D Will they be castigated as u201Cracistsu201D because they do not adhere to the slavery explanation?
And what will be the future of the debate over u201Ccreationismu201D versus u201Cevolution?u201D Will each position — along with any others that might develop — be permitted open expression without fear of punishment from the state? Will the mass-picketing of schools become the means by which truth and falsity are determined? Will thoughtful minds be forced to hide prohibited texts from Guy Montag and his associated book-burners?
Can we expect self-styled environmentalists to call upon the state to prohibit the expression of views that deny the threats of u201Cglobal warmingu201D? Will it soon be a punishable offense to publicly deny the most exaggerated estimate of the numbers of species threatened with extinction? Will Prof. Pianka’s values be incorporated into laws declaring that u201Cpeople should have no more than two children?u201D Will the wearing of fur — like the smoking of cigarettes — become subject to fines and/or imprisonment?
What about religious groups getting in on this game? What if some vocal evangelicals were able to persuade a state legislature to make it a criminal offense for anyone to profane Christ or to deny the Holy Trinity, with punishments ranging from having one’s tongue bored, to burning a u201CBu201D into the offender’s forehead, to the infliction of the death penalty? If you regard this as an abuse of hyperbole, be aware that just such a law was in place in 18th century Maryland.
Perhaps, in this Panglossian u201Cbest of all possible worlds,u201D the statists will find themselves in need of an Orwellian Department of Truth, one of whose functions will be to put together a compilation of state-certified truths. In this way, people will be able to know what opinions it will be permissible for them to hold and express. No longer will college students — or their equally beleaguered professors — have to struggle to discover u201Cthe good, the true, and the beautiful.u201D Such answers will be provided them – in bold, black-letter formats — with pocket-parts at the back of the book to accommodate any updated statements of permissible expression. Those whose opinions deviate from such norms can, of course, be expected to suffer the kinds of penalties meted out to Mr. Summers.
Why are we so in fear of our minds that we want the state — or other institutions — to define the parameters of our thinking for us? It is to deny our own rational capacities to suggest that others should take care of our thinking. The horrors of the Inquisition ought to have taught us that people should not be burned at the stake — or imprisoned — for disputing established opinions, no matter how outrageous or offensive we find their words to be. The practice of fastening chains upon the bodies of men and women was only made possible by the creation and enforcement of chains upon their minds.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.