Campus intellectual intolerance is back

In 1976, I was a student at Duke Law School. One of the campus speakers that year was Milton Friedman, who had recently received the Nobel Prize in economics. Prior to his talk, leftist student groups posted signs around the campus protesting Friedman’s appearance on the grounds that since he had once given some economic advice to Pinochet’s government in Chile, he was therefore complicit in that regime’s repression.

Now, this was a classic case of protesting just for the sake of protesting. Friedman is as much against repression as anyone could be. Linking him to Pinochet’s bad human rights record was preposterously silly and unfair.

My point, though, is about what did not happen rather than what did. Students engaged in some moronic antics, but I heard of no faculty members leading or encouraging them. Duke had plenty of hard-left professors then, but to the best of my recollection, they did not urge students to stay away from Friedman’s lecture, or to go and shout him down, or to steal and burn copies of his books. To be sure, there were intellectual battles fought at Duke and other universities a quarter century ago, but for the most part, the faculty took up only intellectual weapons.

How things have changed. The radical students of the ‘70s are today’s tenured faculty members, and many seem to recognize no dividing line between appropriate and inappropriate modes of disagreement. Campus protests are now often led by professors who do not hesitate to display their intolerance for those who disagree with them.

Last year when David Horowitz’s famous ad on why paying reparations for slavery is a bad idea caused tumult on campuses nationwide, professors eagerly led the attack on Horowitz. Instead of employing their academic skills to calmly argue against Horowitz’s points (not to assume they all possess such skills), many faculty members instead responded by making demands on their schools for reprisals against the student newspapers that had “dissed” them. Great example for young people.

Another man whose very presence on campus can lead professors to fly off the handle is psychologist Arthur Jensen, who has the temerity to say that he thinks there is a link between intelligence and heredity. That view is intolerable to Marxists who claim social environment determines all. At many campuses where Jensen has been scheduled to speak, professors have led attempts to keep him from appearing and used rowdy, disruptive tactics if he did.

And earlier this year, when Clarence Thomas gave a speech at the University of North Carolina Law School, a group of black law professors prominently announced their refusal to attend because of their disagreement with Justice Thomas on various cases and issues. Of course, they’re entitled to their disagreements, but what message does it send to students when their teachers signal that the way to deal with disagreement is to petulantly refuse to listen to the other side?

Examples of professorial intolerance are a dime a dozen these days and are evidence of a disturbing decline in civilization. It has often been observed that there is only a thin veneer of civilization covering and restraining our primitive, animalistic nature. Throughout most of human history, disagreements were settled with clubs, swords, and guns; dissenters from “proper thinking” were fortunate to avoid prison or the gallows. Gradually mankind has made some progress against those impulses, enthroning reason and turning from violence and intolerance.

The trend on American campuses, alas, is in the opposite direction.