Having spent most of the pandemic in the United States, I have been in Europe for about two months.
And it was only two weeks ago that I suddenly realized something. In all the time I’ve been here, no one has expressed any harmless political opinion that diverges slightly from the prevailing consensus in major newspapers and magazines and then casually added, “Of course I’d never say that in public.” It’s a stark contrast to the United States.
When I arrived in America, I really liked how free and broad political discourse in that country was.
But that reality has changed radically in the last five years. While Donald Trump’s rise has made it possible for a president to incite hatred and sow disinformation, the space for what can be tolerated in the so-called “respectable” environments in which I move and write—including university campuses and the pages of American newspapers—shrank with appalling rapidity.
The multiple cases of people who lost their jobs or had their reputations destroyed due to minor or non-existent infractions capture part of this reality.
But no one so far has been able to quantify the crippling effect they are having. The self-censorship regime has been advancing faster than I thought was imaginable.
A recent new case suggests that things could be about to get even worse.
Dorian Abbot is a geophysicist at the University of Chicago. In recognition of his research on climate change, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) invited him to deliver the John Carlson lecture, held annually, which aims to “disclose new and exciting results of climate science to the general public”.
Then began a campaign to cancel Abbot’s lecture. On Twitter, some students and professors asked the university to withdraw the invitation made to him.
Said and done: MIT relented, becoming yet another important institution in American life to show that the commitment to freedom of expression it trumpets on its website disappears as some shrill voices on social media ask for the head of a speaker.
Is Abbot someone who denies climate change? Or has he committed some heinous crime? No — he just expressed in the pages of a national magazine his opinion on how universities should select their students and hire their professors.
In August, Abbot and a colleague at Newsweek magazine criticized affirmative action and other means to favor college or job applicants based on their ethnic or racial identity.
Abbot defended a system he described as being based on Merit, Impartiality and Equality (MFE), in which candidates are “treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous, unbiased process based solely on their merit and their qualifications”.
This, he pointed out, would also entail “the end of advantages granted on account of family ties or sporting achievements, advantages that significantly favor white candidates.”
Whether right or wrong, the fact is that Abbot’s position on affirmative action coincides with that of the majority of the American population. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 74% of Americans think that when making decisions about hiring people, companies and organizations should “only consider qualifications, even if that results in less diversity.”
Only 24% agree that they too must “take race and ethnicity into account to increase diversity”. Similarly, in a 2020 affirmative action referendum, 57% of voters in California — a very liberal state in which ethnic and racial minorities happen to form the majority of the population — voted to continue to ban affirmative action. .
In recent years, American campuses have seen many campaigns to cancel public appearances by controversial figures. I am against all these campaigns, regardless of my opinion of the speaker in question. As Nicholas Christakis put it succinctly, “There is no right to be invited to speak at a university.” “But once a person is invited, the university must never give in to pressure to withdraw the invitation.”
But there is an important qualitative difference between many of these past controversies and MIT’s cowardly decision to cancel Abbot’s talk. For not only are Abbot’s opinions much more moderate, they have nothing to do with the topic he was invited to speak on.
MIT did not rescind its invitation to Abbot because it anticipated that he could reiterate its positions on affirmative action. No — he was uninvited to attend one of the most important research universities in the world because it would not tolerate a scientist being allowed to speak of his non-controversial research after having dared to express an opinion on an unrelated topic, which, although it was controversial, it happened to coincide with that of the majority of the American public.
This fact makes the principle explicitly endorsed by MIT especially worrisome. This principle represents, in practice, a severe restriction on the ability of Americans to diverge from a specific set of political ideas without running the risk of no longer being able to carry out their non-political work. This, in effect, would prohibit all academics — and eventually, perhaps, professionals in other highly visible fields — from expressing controversial political positions.
The MIT decision is therefore not just another in a long series of campus controversies. It reflects a social environment that is already shockingly illiberal. It sets a precedent that, if not strongly resisted, will pose a serious threat to the preservation of a free society.
PRESENT LINK: Did you like this text? Subscriber can release five free hits of any link per day. Just click on the blue F below.