Book Review: Unlearning Liberty

I just finished reading Greg Lukianoff’s excellent book Unlearning Liberty. Lukianoff, who is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (aka, the FIRE) has spent the last decade fighting attempts in higher education to stifle free speech, trample on free association and turn campuses to indoctrination centers.

I highly recommend the book. It’s four years old but it’s age is actually a strength. Over the last year, we have witnessed an explosion of illiberal, speech-crushing actions on college campuses. We’ve seen communications professors try to “muscle” the press. We’ve seen pro-Trump chalking decried as “hate speech”. We’ve seen students scream at a professor because he thought they could decided for themselves what Halloween costumes were appropriate. We’ve seen student demands less freedom, more censorship and the hiring of hordes of new administrators to teach sensitivity and fight racism (and then wonder why college costs so much).

This eruption of political correctness didn’t come from nowhere. It was built over two decades and Unlearning Liberty details how it was built. Lukianoff shows how speech codes (which afflict about half of college campuses) have been used to silence dissent and promote liberal agendas (and to silence critics of administrators and student government). He describes professors declaring certain ideas to be undebatable in their classroom. He details how universities will allow exclusively black or gay groups on campus, but fight against exclusively Christian groups. He details a maddening questionnaire incoming students are forced to fill out that asked them such things as whether they would have sex with someone of a different race. And then he details how refusing to answer such questions could earn mandatory sensitivity training sessions with crackpots teaching from “oppression wheels”.

Viewed through this lens, the current climate on campuses is not surprising. This is simply the poison hatching out after years of indoctrination (that really starts in high school). This isn’t just a generation of crybaby students. It’s a generation that has been taught from Day One that liberal ideas are right, that disagreement is hate and that further indoctrination is good.

(It has also empowered and enriched people who are, frankly, crackpots. When you read about what these people believe (or claim to believe) it’s crazy totalitarianism. Penn and Teller once had an interview with a “cultural auditor” who makes tons of money teaching about political correctness on campus. Every word this man said was garbage, a word salad of high-sounding nonsense. And the stuff he was teaching was frequently racist garbage, such as it was “insensitive” to expect black people to be on time for things.)

Lukianoff describes himself as a liberal Democrat but has admirably spent much of his time fighting for campus conservative and Christians with whom he disagrees. The book will give you an excellent contrast between a classical liberal like Lukianoff and what Andrew Sullivan has dubbed “the illiberal left” — a group of Left Wing advocates who have decided that free speech, free association and free religion can not be tolerated if it might disrupt their agenda.

One final thought that struck me when I finished the book: has political correctness ever solved a problem? Ever? I’m serious about this. Has all this nonsense with safe spaces and speech codes and affirmative consent and intersecionality and oppression wheels actually solved any of society’s problems?

I would argue that it hasn’t. In fact, I would argue that by depriving us of our ability to discuss issues of gender and race in frank terms, by stomping down ideas considered “incorrect”, by putting everyone on tenterhooks, political correctness has made things worse. It has created political paralysis on key issues. It has created armed political camps that lack the ability to discuss and debate issues lest someone be offended. It has left institutions of higher learning in the hands of cranks who have no idea what they’re doing. In fact, Lukianoff thinks the illiberalism on college campuses is a big reason why our politics have become so partisan: a generation of college students are coming of age who have never had to engage opposing ideas or consider that their own ideas might be wrong. They are used to retreating into ideological “safe spaces” where their ideas can not be challenged. And, of course, only talking to people with whom you agree has a tendency to make one even more extreme.

Look at a serious issue: sexual violence on campus. We can’t warn students about the connection between alcohol and sexual violence because that’s blaming the victim. We can’t have fair trials because the issue is too important. We push this idiotic model of affirmative consent which has little bearing on the realities of human sexuality. Brandeis, a university named a fierce civil liberties advocate, found a student guilty of sexual misconduct with no trial because his boyfriend decided after the relationship was over that some stuff had not been consensual. This process is becoming extremely expensive, driving up college costs and creating a virtual police state.

(Each link in that paragraph, BTW, is a must-read.)

But all this is necessary, we are told. All of this is critical to destroying rape culture and making campuses safe.

The problem: according to the Left, it’s not working. The Left claims that one-in-five women on campuses are victims of sexual violence. Let’s put aside that this number is almost certainly a wild exaggeration. If we accept it at face value, this means that all this political correctness has made things worse for women, not better:

Sexual violence in our society is down — way down. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, rape has fallen from 2.5 per 1000 to 0.5 per thousand, an 80% decline. The FBI’s data show a decline from 40 to about 25 per hundred thousand, a 40% decline (they don’t account for reporting rate, which is likely to have risen). RAINN estimates that the rate has fallen 50% in just the last twenty years. That means 10 million fewer sexual assaults.

Yet, for some reason, sexual assault rates on campus have not fallen, at least according to the favored research. They were claiming 1-in-5 in the 80′s and they are claiming 1-in-5 now. The sexual violence rate on campus might fall a little more slowly than the overall society because campus populations aren’t aging the way the general population is and sexual violence victims are mostly under 30. But it defies belief that the huge dramatic drops in violence and sexual violence everywhere in the world would somehow not be reflected on college campuses.

I explain how you can unbias the current research to show that sexual violence has, in fact, declined on college campuses. But if you accept the Left’s number, it has not. All that censorship, all that sensitivity, all those kangaroos courts. And, if you believe them, the result is that women are in more danger than ever.

Political correctness has also deprived us of our ability to recognize and deal with actual racism and misogyny. After all, when you’re kicking students off campus for just having a book about the decline of the KKK, how are you going to emotionally deal with, say, some racist asshole who goes into a black church and murders a bunch of people? When you’ve called the campus vice squad on someone for complimenting a woman’s appearance, how are going to deal with someone demanding sex for a promotion?

You have to be tough to deal with discrimination. And political correctness doesn’t make people tough; it makes them weak. It makes them incapable of dealing with ideas they don’t like without three college administrators holding their hands. I’ve had to deal with anti-Semitism from time-to-time. Would I be more or less capable of doing that if the mere sight of a Christmas decoration gave me a fainting spell?

I’m not saying that people should ignore “microagressions” or small acts of racism and sexism that many people experience very day. I’m saying we need to keep thing in perspective, to differentiate between things we can deal with by engaging other people and things we need to literally make a federal case over. Screaming racism and bringing the wrath of a college administration on someone over a racist joke is not going to solve anything. It’s going to make people defensive and entrench any discriminatory beliefs they have.

Even worse, a lot of the time, the dictatorial powers we have given college campuses are being used to silence and punish the very students they are supposed to help. See, e.g., Brandeis putting a black mark on gay student’s record without so much as a hearing.

If you were Mr. Evil Republican White Christian Male and wanted to maintain racism, sexism and bigotry in our society, you’d be hard pressed to find a better weapon than today’s political correctness. It makes people weak and hypersensitive. It brings debate and understanding to a grinding halt. And it’s spreading out from college campuses to infect the media, the workplace and our personal lives.

So what do we do about it? For one, keep calling it out. Young people especially need to be calling this out. On a political level, the federal government needs to stop supporting and even mandating this garbage through Title IX and other provisions. Even better, it could come out and make a bold statement against unconstitutional speech codes and indoctrination, declaring that it will always throw its weight on the side of free speech and free minds. If college campuses knew the Justice Department would side with a student punished for speaking his mind, they’d think twice about their ridiculous speech codes. Simply putting down the Federal foot down on the side of decency and respect would go a long way toward restoring some sanity to our campuses.

So, buy Lukianoff’s book. And better yet, support the FIRE. The last thing we need is this country is another generation of voters who retreat into their own navels when their ideas are challenged.

Comments are closed.

  1. InsipiD

    The term “microaggression” itself is a problem.  It lends credit to the idea that one’s perception is what’s most important, and assigning microaggression to something that someone else did or said makes what they did an actionable offense without any intent.  It make sure that someone else’s right to find you offensive is more important than any of your own rights, and that’s a dangerous precedent to allow a foothold.

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  2. CM

    The other huge negative is that many people use their hatred of political correctness as an excuse for being an arsehole. The leading GOP candidate being a prime example. They’re actually proud of it.

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  3. AlexInCT

    The last thing we need is this country is another generation of voters who retreat into their own navels when their ideas are challenged.

    The left will make sure this happens, again and again, because these are the people that form the heart and soul of the SJW movement: idiots that feel but can’t think.

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  4. AlexInCT

    People hate “Political Correctness” because it is a false idol and primarily a means to silence the opposition under the guise of something noble. As with everything the left does and pushes, “Political Correctness” is a construct that they expect others to abide by, but from which they absolve themselves.

    Look at how they talked about Boosh. Look at how they talk about Trump. Do you for a second think that if anyone on the other side dared to talk about Clinton or any other leftard that way that they would get a pass? Boosh was forced to walk a line and try, without ever succeeding, to appease these monsters. Trump realized that was not just a futile move, but basically admitting a loss, and has refused to play along, and that has made the scumbags on the left, especially those in the DNC controlled or legacy political machine controlled media, even more batshit crazy. In fact, their beef with Trump is precisely that he refuses to play their game and stick to the script they know would allow them to marginalize and destroy him.

    In fact, “Political Correctness” is the precursor to the very problem Hal is pointing out was the subject of this book, but here comes our resident leftist troll to tell us we should stick to it, because fighting this evil idiocy is wrong and bad.

    Never accept any standards that the left wants to define. They will never follow those standards. Sure they will defend them and pretend to do so when it helps them silence the opposition, but they will break the rules every single time it is convenient for them to do so. The only standards the left has are double standards.

    Fuck the lot of you.

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  5. CM

     but here comes our resident leftist troll to tell us we should stick to it

    Never said any such thing Alex. What I’m saying is that going too far (i.e. actual “political correctness gone made” as in the examples Hal provides) also has other consequences. Namely that arseholes consider their behaviour to be legitimised.

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  6. AlexInCT

    There is no case of political correctness gone bad, because political correctness is a bad thing period. Free speech and political correctness can’t coexist. In fact, you can’t have anything guaranteeing free speech, if what you want to have is political correctness. The two are mutually exclusive.

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  7. CM

    Sorry I meant ‘mad’ rather than ‘made’.

    You are right – much of what is sought isn’t “politicially correct” at all, it’s just seeking basic decency.

    But yeah I’m seeing it more and more – people revealing that they are arseholes but using this whole “pc gone mad” thing as some kind of cover. Again, Trump is a good example. Those who support him are too.

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  8. blameme

    CM, I know you have turned this into talking about Trump instead of the PC madness that is going on at college campuses today, but to get back on point, I disagree about “much of what is sought is basic decency.” That is NOT what is happening. What is happening is that any ideology, that differs from the liberal extreme left, is being shouted down, banned and outright punished. That is not basic decency, that is eliminating freedom of speech. For people to call writing “Trump 2016″ an act of violence with the need for counseling for those who were offended is ridiculous. Any thought is now considered an “act of aggression” unless it meets with the extreme left. This needs to stop, now.

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  9. CM

    CM, I know you have turned this into talking about Trump

    Nonsense, I just said he was a good example. It’s always good to provide examples.

    There is seeking basic decency (treat people with respect), and then there is going to extremes (such as in the examples Hal provides). Treating people with respect shouldn’t be an ‘ideology’ thing at all.

    I agree that it needs to stop, and that free speech cannot should not be curtailed. And an ADDITIONAL reason for this is that arseholes are getting away with being aresholes by portraying it as ‘fighting back against the pc bullshit’. If pc crowd stopped being so ridiculous, the arseholes wouldn’t have that cover. They’d be more clearly revealed as just being arseholes.


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  10. blameme

    Ok – that I can agree with. I do think that some of the “love for Trump” (whom I cannot stand) is the fact that he just speaks as he would normally, PC be damned. He may be an asshole, but he is an authentic one. Amazing that this is why he will be the GOP nomination. He has little in common with conservative values.

    I do wish decency would find it’s way back, but the only way to get there is for both sides to quit demonizing the other, try to find areas where there is common ground and work together.

    I’m also hoping for a winning lottery ticket. I don’t have good odds for either.

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  11. CM

    Amazing that this is why he will be the GOP nomination. He has little in common with conservative values.

    Perhaps it indicates that there are far fewer people with ‘conservative values’ than previously thought. And that there are more people who want an authoritarian leader (so long as he/she is aligned to their views of course).

    I’d have to buy a ticket for it to be a winning one. I think that’s a fairly large stumbling block.

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  12. blameme

    About the lottery ticket, I will buy 1 about once a year when the amount goes well over 100 million. Otherwise I can’t be bothered.

    I don’t think it’s that there aren’t many with conservative views, I think many with conservative views are throwing a tantrum.

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  13. CM

    I only ever buy lottery tickets or scratch cards for other people (and mostly because I’m lazy to think of something better).

    They can’t be strong views if they’re willing to ditch them so easily for this guy.

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  14. blameme

    I don’t think that is true about not having strong views. Anger is a strong emotion and can make people act irrationally.

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