Here’s what’s scariest about the last week’s incident at Middlebury College, where protesters shouted down the social scientist Charles Murray and injured a professor who was escorting him from the venue: It felt like an everyday event. So common has such odious behavior become that it’s tempting to greet it with a shrug.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 2016 saw a record number of efforts to keep controversial speakers from being heard on campus — and that’s just in the United States. To be sure, not all of the attempts succeeded, and the number catalogued, 42, is but a small fraction of the many outsiders who give addresses at colleges and universities each year. The real number of rejected speakers is certainly much higher, once we add in all the people not invited in the first place because some member of this or that committee objects to their views, or because campus authorities fear trouble. But even one would be too many.
I could write a paean to the vital importance of dialogue, both on campus and in a democracy, but I have done that before, sometimes at considerable length. I could remind the loud and increasingly violent mobs of campus censors that the university should be a space where even outrageous ideas are treated with respect, and the mode of opposition is rational dialogue. I could warn them that their fits are increasing the chances of President Donald Trump’s re-election. Or that people not blessed with the opportunity to attend an elite college might begin lining up behind Trump’s impish suggestion after the Berkeley riot that campuses where invited speakers are turned away be denied federal funds. And I might point to the risk that states will adopt such rules as the Campus Free Speech Act, allowing someone whose speech was restricted to sue colleges and universities for damages.
But I won’t. I will assume that the downshouters, as we might as well call them, are aware of the risks, and that they have no more interest in the traditional purpose of the campus than they have in the man in the moon. I have no reason to suppose that anything I say will dissuade them from acting so deplorably.
Instead, I want to say a word about the ideology of downshouting. Students who try to shut down debate are not junior Nazis or proto-Stalins. If they were, I would be content to say that their antics will wind up on the proverbial ash heap of history. Alas, the downshouters represent something more insidious. They are, I am sorry to say, Marcusians. A half-century-old contagion has returned.
The German-born Herbert Marcuse was a brilliant and controversial philosopher whose writing became almost a sacred text for new-left intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays, his best-known work is the essay “Repressive Tolerance.” There he sets out the argument that the downshouters are putting into practice.
For Marcuse, the fact that liberal democracies made tolerance an absolute virtue posed a problem. If society includes two groups, one powerful and one weak, then tolerating the ideas of both will mean that the voice and influence of the strong will always be greater. To treat the arguments of both sides with equal respect “mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society.” That is why, for Marcuse, tolerance is antithetical to genuine democracy and thus “repressive.”
He proposes that we practice what he calls a “liberating” or “discriminating” tolerance. He is quite clear about what he means: “tolerance against movements from the Right, and tolerance of movements from the Left.” Otherwise the majority, even if deluded by false consciousness, will always beat back efforts at necessary change. The only way to build a “subversive majority,” he writes, is to refuse to give ear to those on the wrong side. The wrong is specified only in part, but Marcuse has in mind particularly capitalism and inequality.
Opening the minds of the majority by pressing one message and burdening another “may require apparently undemocratic means.” But the forces of power are so entrenched that to do otherwise — to tolerate the intolerable — is to leave authority in the hands of those who will deny equality to workers and minorities. That is why tolerance, unless it discriminates, will always be repressive.
Marcuse is quite clear that the academy must also swallow the tough medicine he prescribes: “Here, too, in the education of those who are not yet maturely integrated, in the mind of the young, the ground for liberating tolerance is still to be created.”
Today’s campus downshouters, whether they have read Marcuse or not, have plainly undertaken his project. Probably they believe that their protests will genuinely hasten a better world. They are mistaken. Their theory possesses the same weakness as his. They presume to know the truth, to know it with such certainty that they are comfortable — indeed enthusiastic — at the notion of shutting down debate on the propositions they hold dear. Marcuse, as I said, was a brilliant philosopher, but on this question he was simply wrong. My own old-fashioned view is that a “truth” that will not debate is a truth that deserves to lose.
Of course the actions of the downshouters might be a signal instead of weakness and uncertainty, not confidence. Perhaps when they object to the airing of views they find disagreeable, they are worried that the other side would outstrip them in a set argument. If so, they should find ways to strengthen their case.
Either way, Marcuse lives. The downshouters will go on behaving deplorably, and reminding the rest of us that the true harbinger of an authoritarian future lives not in the White House but in the groves of academe.
Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.