The Pursuit of Intellectual Integrity

“To pursue examination with a mind free of contemporary or private preconceptions is extremely difficult.”—Moses Hadas

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal highlights the continued challenges to intellectual freedom in higher education. In its November 17 column, Zachary Wood, a black senior at Williams College, describes the infantile and abusive treatment of a guest speaker in his Uncomfortable Learning series. Invited to address the topic of modern feminism from a dissenting point of view, Christina Hoff Sommers was irrelevantly (but predictably) denounced as “a racist white supremacist.” Wood’s point—raised by many observers of late—is that real debate has been replaced by denunciation. While some in the college audience engaged the speaker in an intelligent manner, the event was dominated by the usual mob of bullies evincing a limited vocabulary.

Wood is understandably disappointed at the lack of meaningful diversity in the political realm. Tolerance only extends to approved viewpoints. In this regard the civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz has asked the question which most journalists have shunned: which is more of a threat, the “hard right” or the “hard left”?

Although I disagree with the Dershowitz on other issues, it seems undeniable that these forms of extremism pose asymmetrical dangers. The postwar “extreme right” has historically been the smaller but more lethal element, perhaps second only to Islamicist terrorism in its violent outbursts—not counting the unsuccessful attempt by socialist shooter James Hodgkinson to even the score somewhat. That said, Dershowitz is being realistic when he asserts that Hitlerites are unlikely to take over the country any time soon whereas increasing leftist intolerance is more widespread and more consequential.

The hard right is dangerous largely for what it has done in the past….  The danger posed by the extreme hard left is more about the future. Leaders of tomorrow are being educated today on campus. The tolerance for censorship and even violence to suppress dissenting voices may be a foretaste of things to come.

Apropos of this topic are remarks of Raymond Aron, the French philosopher and former socialist turned critic of leftism, whose writings have been mentioned in previous posts.

In Germany, after 1930, I began my intellectual career with a reflection on Marxism. An “advanced thinker,” like most of the intellectuals who came out of the Jewish bourgeoisie, I wanted to make a philosophical critique of my political convictions, which I felt to be naïve, dictated by the milieu, with no other foundation than spontaneous preferences or antipathies (Marxism and the Existentialists, 1965).

Aron speaks of observations that gradually led him “to the conclusion that Marxism was not true (although I had wished with all my heart that it was).” It is to be hoped that contemporary academics and students would be equally objective in their political explorations. But so far the trend is not encouraging.

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