think is to differ.
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 “single most violent
nation on planet Earth.”
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.
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 “will control the scourge
of humanity. We’re looking forward to a huge collapse.” 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 “terrorist” threat.
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.
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
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?
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, “I am not interested in conspiracy theories;
I am interested in the facts of conspiracies.” 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
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 “truth?” Will they be castigated as
“racists” because they do not adhere to the slavery explanation?
will be the future of the debate over “creationism” versus “evolution?”
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
Can we expect
self-styled environmentalists to call upon the state to prohibit
the expression of views that deny the threats of “global warming”?
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 “people should have no more than two children?”
Will the wearing of fur – like the smoking of cigarettes – become
subject to fines and/or imprisonment?
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 “B” 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.
in this Panglossian “best of all possible worlds,” 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 “the good, the true,
and the beautiful.” 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.
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.