Since Inauguration Day, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have gone up; worried folks are looking for a parallel between Big Brother and our Chaos President. But another parallel comes to mind, and I thought of it again when reading today’s Forum piece in the New York Times. Allison Stanger, the liberal poli-sci professor who invited conservative Charles Murray to speak at Middlebury College- and as a result suffered whiplash and a concussion at the hands of violent protestors- points out that freedom of speech and assembly protect everyone, especially minorities. During the Vietnam War and early days of the civil rights movement, many liberal, idealistic young people, myself included, had to struggle for the right to demonstrate peacefully and to speak our minds. The Constitution backed up our view that we were all created equal, and therefore had equal rights. That historical struggle for freedom of speech and assembly, says Stanger, “has been a means to greater inclusivity and social justice.” From firsthand experience, I agree.
Now I see similarly liberal, idealistic young people preventing those with a different opinion from gathering or speaking, in the name of inclusivity and social justice. It’s just as ironic as George Orwell’s punchline from Animal Farm: yes, we are created equal, “… but some are more equal than others.” Violent rejections of invited speakers have erupted at Middlebury, UC Berkeley, McMaster University and elsewhere. Even setting aside the educational imperative- the argument that college should be a “battleground for competing ideas,” that we “benefit from civil engagement with those with whom we disagree”- these illiberal eruptions, often involving people clad all in black and wearing masks, are profoundly disturbing, raising a specter of tyranny through righteous zero-tolerance.
Maybe this is no longer about safe spaces, or about clarifying our own beliefs by inviting other, challenging points of view. Maybe it’s about the lessons of Psych 101. There seems to be an opportunistic, tyrannical streak in human nature, one that pops up under the right circumstances (especially when participants are incognito), no matter which side you’re on. As a writer, I feel the need to point out this regrettable human trait, which shapes many aspects of the dystopian future in Fourth World. As an old protestor, though, I hope that George and I have gotten it all wrong. I invite readers’ comments.