Fatal Abstraction: When Dialogue Turns to Dogma

January 2022

Dialogue is the lifeblood of democracy. Just as an artist requires a palette of many colours or a musician requires the ability to play in different keys, so too do democracies require diverse opinions and free-flowing and open discussions.

This is why free speech is the ne plus ultra of democracy. The freedom of individuals to express themselves candidly and openly is the bulwark against groupthink, irrationalism of various kinds, and authoritarian diktats emanating from across the political spectrum. What, then, happens when free speech gives way to cancel culture, de-platforming and doctrinaire rhetoric? What happens when an invidious, dogmatic ideology captures a nation’s key institutions, including its universities, preventing citizens from openly expressing their sincerely held views?

This is more than a rhetorical question, and we know at least a good part of the answer. Tragically, the war-ravaged previous century should raise the alarm bells of what happens to a nation in thrall to an ideology. Whether it was the Russian revolution’s “bloody-minded professors,” the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, or the brutalities of Pol Pot in Cambodia, the 20th Century bore witness to entire populations and once-civilized nations being terrorized and slaughtered in the name of an ideology.

In his final book, This Bloody Century, the late British historian Robert Conquest cast a critical eye over the rise of ideological thinking during the twentieth century and its consequences. Conquest was an ex-communist who knew a thing or two about suppressing the truth in the name of ideology. He had wanted to call his book “I Told You So, You Effing Idiots.”

What Conquest thought was most striking about these ideologies, whether emanating from the political left or right, is that they embrace a utopian ideal intended to improve the human condition, especially the lot of the poor and oppressed. They share with religious cults the aspiration that by cleverly engineering the human soul, we can bring about a new dispensation, one which can endure for all time and, at long last, bring about paradise on earth. Ideologists believe that if only we are clever enough, we can alter human nature by re-arranging society, thereby conquering poverty, inequity and scarcity, and paving the road to the New Jerusalem.

But abstract utopias invariably lead to living hells. In Cambodia, for example, the Khmer Rouge, in establishing their workers’ paradise, slaughtered approximately a third of the population, or about 3 million souls. When the soldiers ran out of bullets, they would bludgeon their victims to death using an entrenching tool or bury them alive by sealing them in caves. Land mines they planted still kill about a dozen people every year and continue to blow the legs off of wandering elephants. All this slaughter and misery was justified, naturally, to bring about a better, more equitable and more humane world. It was done in the name of an ideology.

Ideologies occupy a curious place in the intellectual firmament. No thinker has examined them more carefully than Hannah Arendt in her 1952 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

For Arendt, the ideologies of the 20th Century were something new that lay outside the categories of western philosophy. What makes them unique is that they make claims about the world that are immune from falsification by either experience or logic. For example, she notes that the word “race” in racism does not signify any genuine curiosity about the human races as a field for scientific exploration but is the all-encompassing idea by which the movement of history is explained as one consistent process.

Ideological thinking is contemptuous of the empirical realm. As Arendt puts it, ideologies establish a “functioning world of no-sense.” Facts and the lived world of experience are seen only through the lens of an a priori, ideological explanatory theory. Ideologies start from “an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything else from it…. Ideological argumentation [is] always a kind of logical deduction.”

And herein resides the steely logic of ideological thought. Like the closed, axiomatic systems of logic or mathematics, ideologies are exempt from reality, history, and the lived world in which human life occurs. Arendt sums it up this way: “Ideological thinking … proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality.”

But what is the ultimate purpose of an ideology? According to Arendt, ideologies aim high. They are not about the mere transformation of society, “…but the transformation of human nature itself” (my emphasis). She writes, “[in totalitarian thought] there is only one thing that seems discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous.” Here, then, is the ultimate nightmarish aim of totalitarian thought: to render men superfluous.

In Arendt’s analysis, Nazism and communism—the two most prominent forms of 20th-century totalitarianism—were something new and different from all previous forms of authoritarian rule: “Totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression…. Wherever it rose to power, it destroyed all social, legal, and political traditions of the country” (my emphasis).

By definition, then, ideologies are immune from either argument or evidence. Nothing can sway the committed ideologue, so we need to be wary and constantly guard against allowing ideologies to take root. In the name of ideology, any truth that casts doubt upon the ideology or otherwise disturbs the committed ideologue must be suppressed, ridiculed, censored and cast aside.

Ideologies are anathema to democracy. The bland, a-historical assumption that the totalitarianism spawned by the hateful ideologies of the 20th Century can be safely confined to history is belied by contemporary zealots of various stripes, many of whom have found their way into the university.

Wokeism and the University

This leads us to ponder the parlous state of western universities, which have been captured by a fashionable and intellectually deadening ideology broadly referred to as “wokeism.” Wokeism promotes “social justice” and claims to be working on behalf of the oppressed victims of an inherently racist society. Its central premise is that all white people have privilege and power, which, historically, they have used to oppress people of colour, who are, by definition, oppressed, victimized by the systematic racism within western society.

The new orthodoxy advances a politics of identity. Every member of society is seen not as an individual but as a member of one or another collective, identified by their race, ethnicity or gender. Identitarianism, that is, embraces an essentialist view of the individual, making immutable characteristics central to one’s identity, locking us all into preordained cages. By this metric, blacks can never escape their victimhood, just as every white person cannot escape being a racist member of the oppressor class.

This postmodern reversal denies the ideal that we can judge a person by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. Indeed, it asserts that to strive for a colour-blind society of the kind envisioned by, say, Martin Luther King Jr., is merely to perpetuate the racism that is built into the very fabric of society. What is required is rebuilding society’s institutions to end white privilege by creating affirmative action programs to ameliorate the historical injustices suffered by marginalized groups of people. Or, as Arendt might have it, social justice demands a fundamental transformation of the “social, legal, and political traditions” of what is, in the end, an inherently racist country.

In sum, wokeism advances a historical view that bifurcates society into oppressors and victims based on race, gender or other immutable characteristics. Like many, I find this a contorted and tendentious reading of history, one which obscures more than it illuminates. Also, as per ideologies in general, its central premise – that white people are inherently privileged and racist – is unfalsifiable. No amount of argument or evidence can sway the committed ideologue that not all white people are racist, or that some white people are themselves oppressed, or that some black people have lives of privilege, or are themselves oppressors. For example, as the new Doyenne of “white privilege”, Robin D’Angelo tells us, if a white person denies they are racist or advances evidence to that effect, this is merely further evidence of their built-in racism.

The point in laying this out so baldly is that the university is the critical institution in a society where scholars and students can and should disinterestedly examine such provocative historical accounts. But to do so demands that the academic community – professors, students, administrators – speak freely without fear or favour. They need to be able to advance reasons and evidence supporting their views while listening respectfully to the views of those who disagree. All discussants need the broadest possible latitude to examine their views without pronouncing their thoughts heretical or morally suspect or beyond the pale. Put simply, we need to have a rational discussion.

Universities and the Need for Free Speech

Not too long ago, the requirement to question everything – including the orthodoxy du jour – was seen as a rather unexceptionable aspect of university life. Today, universities are in thrall to wokeism, an all-encompassing, totalitarian dogma. To question wokeism is to adopt the role of the heretic and be cast on the auto-de-fa carefully prepared for heretics, non-believers or simple skeptics. While Liberal thinkers were once proud to be seen as guarantors of free speech, in today’s university, thinkers who fail to conform to the current doctrines of the woke are denounced, de-platformed and run the risk of losing their career.

Historically, western universities were institutions devoted to the pursuit of truth, a quest grounded in the belief in the universality of rationality, and guided by Pascal’s dictum that “we know too much to be skeptics and too little to be dogmatists.” Until recent years, there was a tacit agreement about intellectual norms, including the spirit of generosity. One listened respectfully to intellectual adversaries, conceding when they had a better argument or better evidence.

But universities are in the service of the broader society, and there is no necessity that society wants their universities to pursue truth. Societies may choose to use universities as simple vocational schools. They may become centres for indoctrination, ensuring ideological compliance, so that students emerge from their university years imbued only with the “correct” opinions.

However, if we accept that the university’s prime mission remains the dispassionate and disinterested pursuit of truth, it is apparent that woke ideology has deeply harmed our universities and undermined their academic mission. For example, many universities now see it as part of their remit to further the ends of diversity, inclusion and equity (DIE), aims that are inconsistent with the disinterested pursuit of truth. When, for example, a university hires a candidate on non-academic criteria such as race or gender, as they are increasingly doing, academic values suffer yet another blow. The larger polity might desire, say, gender equity in various professions. But conflating democratic desiderata with academic values corrodes the academic mission.

It needs to be emphasized that universities are not democratic institutions. They may incidentally promote democratic norms, but that is not why they exist, nor what we want of them. They exist to promote university norms and values. To phrase it tautologically, academic institutions exist, or ought to exist, to promote and advance academic values, not democratic ones. What then are these academic values?

At the centre of academic values lies the notions of truth-seeking and individual autonomy. Autonomy demands that individuals hold the views they do based exclusively on the best reasons and evidence available. No professor or student should subordinate their views to goals irrelevant to this overarching aim. Whatever the aims of social justice, or the aims of the broader democratic polity, they are simply not germane to the quest to find out how things, in fact, are, which is to say, to ascertain the truth of the matter. Academic ethics demands that individuals hold their views solely on reason and evidence.

Universities do, however, share with democracy the need for free speech. Both demand tolerance for viewpoints one disagrees with finds offensive or thinks importantly dangerous or wrongminded. That professor Jones advances theory X, while Professor Smith thinks theory X is delusional, demented and dangerous is grist for the academic mill. Within a university, everyone should be free to articulate their ideas, no matter how partially formed or ill-founded such ideas might be. It is only in the attempt to formulate our ideas and in their public critique that we come to know the truth.

Equally important is the mundane (if frequently overlooked) truth that it is only in our attempts to articulate our thoughts, no matter how jejeune or ill-conceived, that we come to know our minds. This is true for all of us, but it is especially true for students who encounter new ideas, new understandings of their world, and new understandings of the human condition. They need the assurance that they can freely speak their mind in their attempts to wrestle with these new ways of apprehending reality. This is why speech codes, trigger warnings, safe spaces and all the other scaffolding of the woke university are anathema to the academic mission, as students self-censor for fear of offending.

The crucial importance of free speech is captured in the idea of liberal learning, which, as the name implies, has as its core mission the task of “liberating” or “freeing” the individual from the contingencies of their birth. Liberal learning seeks to foster the individual’s potentialities, despite the limitations of where one happens to be born, who one’s parents happen to be, one’s sex, the burdens of poverty or the burdens imposed by society. Ultimately, the universities’ turn against freedom is an abandonment of the promise of liberation.

Within the university, no idea is sacred, and every idea and orthodoxy needs to be critiqued. No thoughts lie outside the realm of rational debate. Free speech is essential to this sharing and critiquing of ideas. It is a founding principle of the university and a crucial component of its DNA. To curtail freedom of speech is to have only the living corpse – at least as we have historically understood that institution.

Universities have become dangerous places for those who reject or question the prevailing woke orthodoxies. Like a neutron bomb, wokeism leaves in place the scaffolding of the historic university: students, professors, classrooms, courses, syllabi, lecture halls, administrators, etc., even as it destroys academic careers, undermines university norms and enervates university culture.

But without freedom of speech, what we cannot have is an institution devoted to the pursuit of truth, where all ideas are investigated and critiqued, and where students come to learn of the intellectual inheritance of the race free from the idolatry and destructiveness of woke ideology. It’s time to return the university to its historic norms and embrace the first principle of university life: the unapologetic and unfettered pursuit of truth.