Last week at Forbes.com, Maureen Sullivan published an article on the latest developments regarding free speech at an American university campus. In this case, it was Georgetown, the Jesuit university in D.C.
The events she describes conform to what is now a standard pattern. Many of the predictable banalities are there. Accusations of racism and sexism, a groveling public apology by the guilty parties (along with the compulsory self-flagellating reference to checking privilege), various calls for formal and informal re-education of offenders (and even potential offenders, if the proposed core course on ‘diversity awareness’ becomes a reality), and lurking in the background an outfit called the ‘Free Speech and Expression Committee.’ O tempora, o mores—that such a title today sounds so sinister.
The incident is indeed a concatenation of the favored clichés of those who plead victimhood but are in practice the politically powerful and truly privileged of this present age. It is also a fine example of the left’s increasing inability — or unwillingness —to speak with any moral subtlety. The philosophical basis lies in the fact that the very notion of what constitutes oppression and persecution has now been subject to trivialization by the bien pensants of the West for over a generation. The key move was made in the 1950s and 60s by Marcuse and company who turned oppression and liberation into psychological categories. The left has since shifted the language of political morality accordingly, with significant results for all of us. Any act deemed psychologically oppressive (e.g., any statement of opinion which does not conform to whatever are the current chosen ethical canons of the left) is to be treated as being evil, and that without nuance or qualification. Extreme outrage is not simply the default setting for engaging opinions which contradict the left; It is increasingly the only setting.
In fact, those who deploy language of extreme outrage for any apparent slight, fumble or misstep, are complicit in the linguistic and moral manipulation of society. In effect, they deprive themselves and indeed the rest of us of the language we need to articulate appropriately calibrated responses to real acts of oppression. As a result, we who oppose the kind of political righteousness which the Georgetown incident embodies need to be careful that we do not fall into the same pattern.
It is tempting to reply to the Georgetown nonsense by making a more or less univocal connection between the public humiliation and penitential obeisance of the enemies of the people and the carefully-scripted confessions of the victims of Stalin’s show trials. And the very title ‘Free Speech and Expression Committee’ is so rhetorically close to the ‘Committee of Public Safety’ that some reference to the likeness is irresistible. But to keep our own moral compass we need to make such comparisons with a certain irony. After all, I assume that nobody at Georgetown is going to be shot in an underground cell or enjoy the favor of Mme. Guillotine. That the hard left lacks irony is perhaps one of its most egregious—and most dangerous—traits.
The social and political cost of this simplistic linguistic world is likely to be very high indeed. If our moral vocabulary allows for no distinction in degrees of moral outrage, then a tasteless cartoon becomes as bad as genocide—or, to make the problem more obvious, genocide becomes no worse than a tasteless cartoon. In such a world, intelligent moral discourse and discussion are practically dead. It is a shame that it is the privileged moralizers in the universities who appear to be in the vanguard of killing it.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.