Law Quadrangle (formerly Law Quad Notes)


This article is adapted from a speech first delivered as the second annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom in April 1992. The lecture, sponsored by the University of Michigan Senate, recognizes three individuals who were deprived of their faculty positions during the McCarthy era because of thier refusal to explain their political beliefs to a congressional committee bent on uncovering subversive and seditious activities. It was later printed in the Michigan Quarterly Review (Winter 1993) and is reprinted here with permission.

Today our ears are filled with cries of alarm that we are about to be swept away by a new flowing of the sea of intolerance. Comparisons are even being drawn to the McCarthy era. As the problem has come to be characterized in the last few years, the present phenomenon of intolerance is posessed of a double irony. Where the McCarthy era involved the right wing of the American political spectrum victimizing the university (among others), now it is said to be the university itself, in the thralls of the left, devouring its own members.

The charge is that a political orthodoxy has arisen about issues that are reasonably debatable. There are, it is said, prescribed views about various subjects, but mostly relating to certain groups - blacks, women, gay and lesbian individuals, and so on. Indiscriminate charges of racism and sexism are said to be everywhere. Mere ideas are being equated with acts of discrimination. And an insistence on the dominance of a single ideological perspective is masquerading as protection of civil rights, just as the McCarthyites with willful blindness mistook political opinion for subversion and revolutionary action.

The new orthodoxy is supposedly enforced, as before, through defamatory accusations. In the McCarthy era, an indivdual was labeled a "sympathizer" or a "fellow traveler"; the person is now said to be "racist" or "sexist". In recent years, ideology is enforced also through official sanctions under university speech codes, ranging from coerced courses in "right" thinking to expulsion from the university.

My view is that there is, indeed, a serious problem of intolerance within the American university today, but it is not as simple as many believe. I do not think, however, that this is a problem, as many claim, that is exclusively, or even primarily, of the left. I see many intolerant people on the right and in the middle as well, perhaps especially among those who view themselves as preservers of the status quo. People increasingly view it as necessary and desirable to be committed to certain positions, to the point where discussion is virtually closed off or infected by hostility. Viewpoints are too quickly dismissed as nondiscussable. And positions are deliberately taken with a vehemence that augurs high costs for those who would disagree.