The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Democrats’ “shut up” impulse explained

From the perspective of conservatives, the left is not merely seeking to win debates but also to silence critics of liberalism. What conservatives refer to as the “totalitarian temptation on the left” — exemplified in speech codes, political correctness, the constant resort to charges of racism and misogyny against those with differing views on quotas or legislation, an overarching welfare state — is becoming more of a habit than a temptation. That complaint is not unreasonable when you understand a series of events from the perspective of intellectual freedom and diversity. Is the left seeking to promote or even tolerate differing views, or is it seeking to quash them? Too often, the answer is the latter.

The recent scandal at Brandeis University is a case in point. The Volokh Conspiracy notes that the Jewish-sponsored university in the past gave an honorary degree to Tony Kushner, who “was not only known for his hostility to Israel in general, but for making inflammatory statements such as ‘The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community,’ a direct insult to Brandeis’s many faculty, students, alumni, and donors who are strong supporters of Israel.” However this week:

Brandeis University has decided to withdraw its planned award of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsa Ali, a well-known defender of women’s rights in the Islamic world. A university statement explains: “She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” (Ali, who was raised Muslim but now identifies with no religion, has often criticized Islam, sometimes quite harshly.)
If it’s true that the university wasn’t aware of Ali’s well-known public statements about Islam before it decided to grant her an honorary degree, that’s rather embarrassing. Worse yet, juxtaposing the Kushner and Ali situations, it turns out that the university DOES award honorary degrees based on the potential honoree’s opinions. And apparently, while expressing hostility to Islam conflicts with Brandeis’s “core values,” engaging in vile insults against American Jews who support Israel does not.

So much for challenging students with new or even controversial information.

The incident is not isolated, conservatives point out. The Obamacare debate is “over,” declares the president. It’s rare that a president takes it upon himself to draw the contours of acceptable debate. But this one does. Then there is the Internal Revenue Service, which, if allegations are correct, was involved in a concerted effort to intimidate and ultimately shut down non-profit groups on the right who pursue conservative issues. (The latest report concerning Lois Lerner adds weight to the allegations that the IRS selectively targeted conservatives to, well, shut them up.)

So, too, is the campaign against the Koch brothers evidence of the effort to shut down conservatives. Singling out private citizens who do precisely what rich liberals do is not merely perceived as an effort to smear Republicans; rather it is a warning shot, conservatives believe, to other rich conservatives: If you generously fund the right you’ll be smeared. The Senate majority leader will designate you as “un-American.” The Supreme Court, of course, has decided political spending and donations are “speech,” so here we have, yes, another instance in which conservatives understandably feel the left is trying to silence them in the political process.

The left’s effort not to engage but to disable the other side goes to the central values in a democracy, which include respect for  the minority and tolerance of political diversity. In the age of information cocooning and high-decibel political combat, neither side should attempt destroy the other’s political legitimacy. Yuval Levin explains in a must-read debunking the left’s (almost) comical claim that only conservatives suffer from confirmation bias:

Instead of assuming a position above society from which different claims can always be objectively adjudicated, the [Constitution] system seeks to counterbalance those differences and to channel them through complicated institutions, to prevent any faction from gaining too much power for too long, and to force any party that seeks to deploy significant public power to construct a coalition broad enough as to most likely restrain its worst excesses.
I personally think the sources of our party differences lie at least as much in different philosophical outlooks as in different material interests or natural dispositions (though those do matter, surely). I think our Left and Right, very broadly understood, are each implicitly attached to a different set of ideas about human perfectibility and human limits, different notions of what the shape and purpose of society are, and different understandings of what kinds of knowledge could be available to us to address social problems. . . . But I think these different outlooks incline us to emphasize different kinds of questions and prioritize different kinds of goods in the effort to improve our society, and that this means the Left and Right often talk past one another in our political debates. It also means that both are very deeply vulnerable to confirmation bias. . . . American progressives have long contended that as social science enables us to overcome some of the limits of what we know, it should also be permitted to overcome the constitutional limits on what government may do. They take themselves to be an exception to the rule that all parties see only parts of the whole, and therefore an exception also to the ubiquity of confirmation bias, and so they demand an exception to the rule that no party should have too much raw power.

And if the other side is “wrong” and persists in its wrongheadedness, it must be not merely be ignored but called out and accused of all manner of dishonesty and bias. Put simply, if you think you have a monopoly on truth, you can tell the other side to shut up.

It is not surprising that the left feels anxious with its liberal-dream president falling, his historic “achievement,” Obamacare, addled and terribly unpopular and the Senate ready to tip to the Republicans. But trying to shut up the opposition and using the stature of the Senate, the bureaucracy or the Ivory Tower bespeaks a movement that is in panic mode. It should be. These antics are making the liberals’ predicament worse.