The invitation from Middlebury College to speak about my book The Demon in Democracy came last year. I was pleased to receive it, as it seemed to indicate that the book resonated in American academic circles. Middlebury was the sixth or seventh university in America to have issued such an invitation since the book appeared in 2016.
The Demon in Democracy puts forward the rather strong thesis that, in many important respects, liberal democracy increasingly resembles communism. The argument is complex, but it amounts roughly to the following: Both communism and liberal democracy aim to politicize the whole of society, interpreting every aspect of social life—culture, art, intellectual pursuits, religion, family (and in liberal democracy, even sex and toilets)—in light of a power struggle, and insisting that the struggle be resolved in accordance with one political ideology. In the communist system, everything had to be communist; in a liberal democracy, everything has to be liberal and democratic.
Middlebury College seemed to me a good place to discuss this thesis. Two years ago, Charles Murray, who had been invited there to lecture on his book Coming Apart, was shouted down by student zealots, and a professor accompanying him, Allison Stanger, was physically attacked and suffered injury. Some of the students were reprimanded; others were mildly punished. None of them were expelled.
This incident, unfortunately not an isolated one on American campuses, is reminiscent of similar practices by communist students in the early years of communism. They likewise shouted down “bourgeois” professors, accusing them of spreading reactionary views and being hostile to progress. That particular parallelism could have been, I thought, a good starting point for debate and for examining the thesis of my book.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. A few days before my arrival, a group of students and professors circulated a petition with the intention of organizing a protest. In the petition, I was called all possible bad names: a homophobe (“f*cking homophobe” on Facebook), a racist, a misogynist, a sexist, a bigot. A Middlebury professor told me that the protestors probably would not disrupt my lecture but would express their anger outside the building by staging a “protest dance” (I had no idea what that meant), by calling me what they thought I deserved to be called, and by wearing offensive T-shirts to “shock my conscience.” I was not concerned by this information, particularly because, as someone told me, the row would quadruple student attendance at my lecture, allowing me to reach more people with my arguments.
But when I arrived in Middlebury, I was informed that the lecture had been cancelled by the college president, Laurie L. Patton—who had not bothered to inform me of her decision, explain it, or apologize. I would have thought that a university professor and E.U. parliamentarian coming all the way from Poland deserved some such consideration.
But something like an explanation could be found in a letter that was later sent to students, signed by the provost, Jeff Cason, and a vice president, Baishakhi Taylor. The letter stated that the lecture had been cancelled because the college “would not have the capacity to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks at either the lecture or the counter event.”
The cancellation of my lecture was announced only a few hours before I was scheduled to speak. Soon thereafter, I was approached in my hotel by two students who told me they were unhappy with the president’s decision and were determined, together with others, to defy the administration. They asked me to give a lecture in an “underground” format. I immediately agreed and was driven to the campus in a big American car. The students told me that a political science professor had invited me to his seminar. We entered through a back door and joined the seminar.
When I started my talk, there were about twenty students, but soon others began coming in. When I finished, there were more than forty. My talk was followed by questions, all of them sensible and to the point, to which I responded as sincerely and clearly as I could. The whole session resembled a standard university talk, like countless other talks all over the world, except that at the end, news reached us that the radicals had found out about our clandestine meeting and it was unclear what they were going to do. Fortunately, nothing happened. In the evening about forty students and two or three professors met for a dinner during which, in a friendly atmosphere, a civil conversation continued. This is, I think, a fair reconstruction of the facts.
This was the first time in my entire academic life that I was prevented from speaking because of my views, and the first time I was openly insulted by students with the tacit approval, or at least a désintéressement, on the part of the school authorities. There was, of course, a certain comedy in my being smuggled into a college building through the back door—an echo of my youth under the communist regime. There were also grounds for optimism, as the students, supported by some professors, defied both the cowardice of the administration and the aggression of the student zealots. Fortunately, I was spared such direct contact with the zealots as Charles Murray and Allison Stanger endured. Reading insults about oneself is not the same as hearing them shouted in one’s face and being physically threatened or assaulted.
Yet the whole incident was instructive. It helped me to enter into the minds of those who represent the forces of academic conformity today. I was struck by what the provost and the vice president wrote, namely, that the college could not respond effectively to the “security and safety risks at either the lecture or the counter event.” For one thing, the fact that in an institution of higher learning a professor who wishes to deliver a lecture faces “security and safety risks” is in itself a scandalous violation of the principles by which these institutions stand or fall. The last time I thought of such risks at a university was under the martial law in communist Poland.
Plus ratio quam vis (“reason is superior to force”)—this old Roman admonition is the motto of my alma mater, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. The Middlebury administration has allowed vis (force) a role on campus, effectively legitimating it as a part of academic life. Cason and Taylor’s letter confirms it. The provost and the vice president thought that there were two academically legitimate “events” complementing each other: the first, a lecture by the author of a theoretical treatise on the ills of modern society; the other, a protest dance, a hurling of invectives at the invited guest, and a show of offensive T-shirts. Ratio was placed on a level with vis. Discussing arguments was put on a par with heckling and caterwauling.
A careful reading of the letter reveals something worse still. The college authorities not only accept force as legitimate in college life, but have some sympathy for its exercise. They write:
We recognize that students worked hard and transparently to plan a non-disruptive event that would remain within the bounds of our protest policy. We also recognize that students, staff, and faculty planning to attend and critically engage with Ryszard Legutko’s lecture lost the opportunity to do so.
The protesters were thus praised for “working hard” to plan “a non-disruptive event.” Translated into English, this means that the students were to be commended for not behaving like full-fledged hooligans, which implies that in order not to behave like a full-fledged hooligan at Middlebury College, one must “work hard.” But this is hardly persuasive. The administration must have feared that the protesters had not worked hard enough and would treat me as they had treated Murray—otherwise the cancellation made no sense.
The provost and the vice president also regretted that since the lecture had not taken place, the students and professors could not “critically engage” with what I had to say. In English, this means that the provost and vice president were sorry that a homophobic, racist, sexist bigot had not been taken to task in public. What the provost and vice president did not regret was that an intellectual event had been cancelled and the students had lost an opportunity to learn something. This consideration is completely absent from the letter, and I must say I find its absence shocking. The provost and the vice president, so eager to cozy up to the protesters, never acknowledged those who had wished to attend the lecture and were prevented from doing so by the ideological hooligans.
Contempt for the intellect and disregard for intellectual curiosity were conspicuous in the statements made before and after the incident. A campus publication noted that one of the instigators of the protest was Kevin Moss, a “Russian Professor . . . who studies gender in Eastern Europe.” Moss was quoted as saying, “Through my colleagues in Poland I became aware of what else [Legutko] had said, and what his views were, and it turned out that the ‘demon’ in democracy that he is referring to is tolerance.”
Now, it is clear that the “Russian Professor who studies gender in Eastern Europe” has never read my book. This did not stop him from condemning it and mobilizing students against it. To say that the “demon” of the title refers to tolerance is as accurate as saying that it refers to gravity or high blood pressure. The first two pages of the introduction are sufficient to give one a general idea of what the book is about. Even that minor intellectual effort was too much for this expert on gender in Eastern Europe. As for the protesting students, why should they read the book, when their professor had denounced its author? So much for “critical engagement” at Middlebury.
Ignorance kills the life of the mind. But ignorance is only a symptom of what ails Middlebury, not the disease. One is struck by a number of—to use an Orwellian phrase—“thoughtcrimes” I am supposed to have committed, the same thoughtcrimes that haunt the modern political and moral conscience. Homophobe, misogynist, xenophobe, Islamophobe, sexist: These are but a few of the titles Middlebury students and professors bestowed on me. And the list is far from complete. Contemporary discourse has many more: transphobic, binarist, Eurocentric, ageist, logocentrist, white supremacist, and many others of which I lost track a long time ago.
The communist system generated thoughtcrimes, but liberal democracy has generated far more, and it generates still more every year. The result is that the space in which the human mind may safely roam gets smaller and smaller. One is constantly in danger of crossing the red line. More and more topics are dangerous territory. A reflection, an insight, a clarification, or an argument may be taken for a criticism—which is not allowed. One cannot express even the mildest doubts about, say, feminism or homosexuality, without being accused of grave transgressions against political morality, so grave that the most humiliating apologies will not atone for them.
The policing of thoughtcrimes is deadly to the intellect in another way as well: It corrupts the language in which we communicate with each other about reality. Take the statement issued by the Middlebury protesters after the incident:
Our intention for the protest was to create an affirming, nonviolent space for marginalized people (particularly those impacted by Ryszard Legutko’s hateful rhetoric) to celebrate themselves and each other. . . . We planned to create a non-disruptive, respectful counter-space to create a place of healing and inclusivity in the face of prejudice.
It does not require great intelligence to see that the quoted passage is gibberish, composed entirely of the clichés that litter our political language today. Whoever uses this language—“respectful counter-space,” “celebrating themselves and each other,” “a place of healing and inclusivity”—condemns himself to intellectual impotence.
Yet there is method in this gibberish. By comparing the clichés with the realities they supposedly describe, we find that the aim of this language is to reverse the meanings of words. “Marginalized people” are not people who are marginalized, but people who set the college’s agenda and can get away with just about anything, including physically assaulting their professors. “Respectful and non-disruptive counter-space” means subjecting a lecturer to insults and humiliations. “Inclusivity” is the systemic censuring of people and ideas. I don’t know what “healing” is supposed to mean, but I suspect it might refer to the joy a hooligan feels in his acts of vandalism.
Am I exaggerating? Am I unjust to the students and their faculty mentors, people who may be misguided but are sincere in their desire for a better world? Let us see what their better world would look like. Here is one of the demands that the SGA (Student Government Association) at Middlebury made after the incident:
Any organization or academic department that invites a speaker to campus will be required to fill out a due diligence form created by the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in coordination with the SGA Institutional Diversity Committee. These questions should be created to determine whether a speaker’s beliefs align with Middlebury’s community standards, removing the burden of researching speakers from the student body.
I learned from this statement that Middlebury has two offices (at least) to monitor diversity, equity, and inclusion at the college. Student activists seem to find it an undue burden to have to do the work of policing invited speakers. They insist that the institution do their bidding. And Middlebury is not an anomaly. Similar bodies are everywhere, at every college, university, and corporation in the U.S. and many European countries, all of them surveilling the words and actions of their members and implementing ideological directives with bureaucratic ruthlessness.
The growing power of these offices would not be possible without the corruption of language. Diversity, equity, and inclusion have ceased to mean what they always meant and now mean the opposite. They now mean rigidity, dogmatism, conformity, intimidation, control, arbitrariness, and censorship. The offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion are in fact guardians of the regnant ideology—“Middlebury’s community standards”—and their job is to censure all “beliefs” that do not “align” with those standards. In Orwell’s world, war was peace, freedom slavery, and ignorance strength. At Middlebury, diversity is monopoly, equity bias, and inclusion censorship.
Pars pro toto; Middlebury is representative. The corruption of language, the omnipresence of stifling ideology, and the triumph of power over reason are not exclusive to this otherwise charming town in Vermont, but have infiltrated public spaces throughout the West. But I would not like to finish on a pessimistic note. Having experienced life under totalitarianism, I know that change begins when people cease to fear the system. The fact that a group of students at Middlebury got fed up with the ideologues’ opportunism, cowardice, intimidation, and dogmatism, and had the courage to say no and to stand by their principles, is a sign of hope. Perhaps their stand will mark the beginning of the end of our present Dark Age, which has for too long kept too many in intellectual and moral subjection.
Ryszard Legutko is professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.