Ever since the Atlantic ran a piece on the Intellectual Dark Web several weeks ago, I have been infatuated with Quillette, a freethinkers online magazine focusing heavily on intellectual orthodoxy in the academy. The appeal is partly that I appreciate reading anything with an academic tone and standard of rigor that demands critical reflection rather than unconscious acquiescence. But, if we’re being honest, the love affair likely has more to do with my own sense of disenfranchisement; I have always known–when I was at a small conservative school and a large research university–that my beliefs and my research interests are often too heterodox for the public sphere. I think too many things that are “bad to think.” I’m a conservative with all the wrong priorities. I’m too unreliable, too imperfect an ally for progressives. I’m too religious for the secularists and too undogmatic for American evangelicals. A heterosexual, white male without an intellectual home. (Cue the violins.)
As such, the articles on Quillette–especially those that speak to the dangers of even limited intellectual candor in the Academy–are almost therapeutic for me to read. Not because they speak to my experience but because they speak to my anxieties. I was not unaware of this disparity, but I was gratified to see a recent article in which a Canadian professor related a similar perspective. The assaults of academic freedom and free speech are personally worrisome but somehow still foreign. The author struggled to argue from experience these following dissonant truths:
Quillette contributors have done an admirable job of documenting recent cases in which free expression is no longer truly free at institutions of higher education[.]
I have been teaching at my university for almost 20 years, yet I cannot recall a single instance in which my students protested the expression of an offensive idea.
I have only been teaching for a quarter of the time the author has, but my experience and the experiences of those in my immediate orbit are the same. We hear about assaults on academic freedom and free speech, we decry them, we agonize about them, and then we go back into our classroom and say basically whatever we want to say without any great fear of reprisal. I have my students read (and form their own opinions) about articles from Breitbart. I propose (and advocate) an evolutionary view of the development of certain features of domestic gender economics. I even once (thoughtlessly) had my students play a game where they guessed the race of people described by early modern Chinese racial slurs. (Afterward, a student commented, “That was dangerous.” To which I replied, “But what does it say about you that you guessed them all right.) Still (and likely to remain) non-tenured faculty, I play a surprisingly dangerous game with my career prospects.
All of this only made me appreciate Quillette more, since freethought invites dialogue with contrary opinions. There’s nothing particularly controversial about the suggestion that assaults on free speech in the academy are a concern but not an epidemic. As with PC culture in general, it might even be worth someone making an argument that they are a problem but not the problem of our age. But all of the nuance in Quillette’s articles disappears in the comments. The article, titled provocatively (as Quillette articles often are), “Much Ado about Free Speech,” did not receive a particularly warm reception. The thoughtful readers of Quillette instead launched into a mocking debate about why the author had bothered in the first place:
What was the point of this article anyway? I couldn’t find it… Oh! Here it is: we just all need to be more reasonable and and everything will be fine.
The Quillette motto.
“What was the point of this article anyway?”
How about: “It’s not happening here to me, so it’s not a big deal.”
The motto of the German public, circa 1939.
“What was the point of this article anyway? I couldn’t find it… ”
If we work on this as a team, I’m sure we can find (or manufacture) a point in there someplace.
I cast my pottery shard for: “My psychology degree gave me absolutely no grasp of human nature, a talent for the obvious, and a mighty suit of denial.”
“What was the point of this article anyway?”
Challenge ACCEPTED! The author’s point was simple: MEEEEEE!
This last criticism is particularly juvenile and particularly telling. I’ll be revisiting this point in a forthcoming book review, but the author’s argument from personal anecdote would in fact be problematic except for the fact that much of the counterargument on Quillette is similarly anecdotal. The accumulation of shocking case studies is meant to depict a generalized picture of the academy based on volume rather than anything like scientific rigor. And it’s effective, but only insofar as it speaks to our pre-existing beliefs or experiences.
For this Canadian professor, though, it is difficult to drink too deeply of the fear Kool-aid when his experiences don’t bear out the apocalyptic framing set up by the victims of thought-police brutality and their advocates. Of the between five and ten thousand higher education institutions in the US (depending on how you define and count), how many have been implicated in these sorts of scandals? Where is the data to provide scientific heft to these colorful narratives? Are the statistics different in Canada, a key assertion that the author makes–again anecdotally? These seem like fair questions, and I ask them honestly because my level of concern should be carefully calibrated to these facts. (Otherwise, how am I different than the outrage caricatures so often pilloried on Quillette?)
They are not, however, questions that the readership of Quillette seems interested in hearing or answering. At least not the vocal readership active in the comments section. This, for me, raises more concerns than even the most disagreeable and argumentative articles in the magazine. If “freethought” attracts only a particularly petulant and aggressive form of counter-victims, to what extent does that call into question the ideology, the mission, the values of vehicles like Quillette? My faith teaches me that a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, so what do I do with all these bad apples?
I’ll decide for myself. And in the meantime, I’ll try to avoid eye-contact with the comment section on Quillette.