Critics have taken to calling the leftist agitators who are running roughshod over university campuses hypocrites. The reasoning is that these self-described social-justice warriors, by shouting down speakers, silencing dissent on social media, and forcing resignations from those they accuse of “injustice,” are betraying the very toleration that allows them to speak freely. Unfortunately, the charge mischaracterizes, not just campus crybullies, but also campuses themselves. Agitators from various radical campus groups, like their predecessors of the 1960s, are not pursuing or even advocating tolerance as a core value (though they may take advantage of those who offer it to them). Rather, they are pursuing power. What is more, those expecting toleration to bring sanity back to campus are placing their faith in the wrong principle. Toleration is a highly useful tool for ordered liberty, but it is far from sufficient for ordered liberty. In practice, toleration is what those in authority give to dissenters; it is not a condition of equal respect for all opinions. Indeed, all societies value some perspectives over others, and to pretend otherwise is to leave the door open for the most radical among us to tear down our society in the name of “progress.”
The progressive myth of an ever-expanding openness to diversity of opinion always has been at best unrealistic and at worst a falsehood uttered in bad faith. The idyll it presents is perfectly suited for the preening of progressive academics, who see their campuses as, properly, neutral spaces within which Truth is pursued by calm, civil, rational individuals concerned only with testing ideas and hypotheses for improving society. The idea is that one can have a community in which there are no orthodoxies, only the free exchange of ideas. Of course, the myth of a neutral square is a particularly false and dangerous orthodoxy, for it puts debate into the straightjacket of scientism (a false sense of what empirical reason, divorced from first principles, can accomplish) and leaves the public square less neutral than open to explosions of emotivism. By pretending that the public square can do without authority, those who actually exercised it for several decades—progressive rationalists—undermined their own already suspect legitimacy, opening the way for the latest round of radicalization.
Our universities abandoned tolerant, civil discourse long ago in favor of a soul-numbing emptiness. The emptiness was sold to us as “free inquiry,” but actually was an attempt to eliminate traditional norms in favor of a caricatured version of the scientific method that purports to value reason above all else. As it has succeeded, this campaign has been replaced by a more vigorous movement to replace supposedly value-neutral faux-scientism with raw emotion and politics. Today’s students and their enablers among professors and administrators seem far more dangerous than their scientistic predecessors. But in truth they are their logical successors and are no more intolerant than those who paved the way for their ascendance.
Historically, to tolerate something has meant literally to allow it to exist, even though it is considered wrong or bad. The Latin root word, tolerat means to endure, as in suffering through something painful. In the past Americans have put up with, or endured, speech and even conduct we found painful. And the expectations as to what shall be tolerated have been exponentially expanded. An indicative example from the relatively recent past would be the protections afforded American Nazis who insisted on marching, in uniform, through the town of Skokie, in which many survivors of the Holocaust resided.
Tolerance in this sense, of putting up with openly hateful expressions despite the pain they cause observers, has not always been unlimited in the United States. Moreover, associations did not always tolerate demonstrations of dissent everywhere. Campuses in particular were considered places of learning and decorum rather than adolescent rantings, and expressive rights were limited there, as more generally, by the rights of various communities and recognition of both the goal of a university and the normative requirements of society as a whole. Neither the right not to be offended nor the right to offend was paramount. Rather, civil discourse within an understanding of the humane purposes of the university was upheld as a standard for all to follow.
Toleration is neither freedom nor virtue. It is a protection afforded marginal groups by those in positions of authority and political power. It is entirely consistent with an unnatural, unfree, and unwise social order such as that called for on campuses today. Today, unfortunately, we inhabit a culture in which supposed adults find expressions of traditional norms and beliefs so unjust as to cause pain. It seems likely that this orthodoxy, over time, will succeed in banishing any meaningful defense of American traditions, properly understood, from campus, if not the entire public square. The result will be enforcement of a radical, destructive ideology. But, so long as there is no overt punishment (as by arrest) of dissenters, the resulting regime still may exhibit some degree of toleration. It will just so happen that those being “tolerated” by being allowed to exist on the margins of society will be those who value ordered liberty above emotion and government reorganization of society to favor groups based on race, sex, and sexual orientation.
Perhaps the most enlightening example of how toleration works is presented by the 1689 Act of Toleration in Britain. This legislation, enacted after the Catholic King James II fled England, allowed dissenting protestants to have their own places of worship as well as ministers and teachers, subject to taking an oath of allegiance. The dissenters would be tolerated—they would be allowed to exist and carry on their religious lives—provided they subscribed to a substantial list of political and religious precepts that excluded, most prominently and intentionally, Catholics and Unitarians.
Thus, the toleration provided by this Act was distinctly limited—it did not include those who “owed allegiance to a foreign prince” (the Pope) or who failed to acknowledge the triune nature of God. Moreover, while dissenters would be allowed to exist, they would not enjoy the same privileges or political/legal status as professing Anglicans. Toleration was limited in its depth as well as its breadth. Toleration does not necessarily mean full acceptance, let alone acceptance on an equal footing.
Contemporary Americans tend to conflate toleration with openness and indifference, at least in the sense of differing doctrines being accorded equal status by the relevant authorities. For most Americans, to “tolerate” someone’s opinion is to defend its expression and even promulgation. Today most Americans believe that all political views have a kind of right to a hearing, particularly on university campuses, which supposedly are dedicated to fostering free intellectual inquiry. (Thus, those currently in charge of Catholic universities like Notre Dame host pro-abortion activists on campus and even grant them honors.) In general, we are told, diverse viewpoints should be welcomed unless they present a clear and present danger to public safety. On this view it would be hypocritical to claim that one is a defender of liberty unless one were willing to listen to all points of view on any given topic. To say that some viewpoints should not be heard, then, is to engage in some version of “McCarthyism,” by which is meant an ugly campaign of character assassination aimed at silencing unpopular opinions.
As the choice of the term “McCarthyism” indicates, today’s misunderstanding of toleration has its origins in twentieth-century conflicts over the nature of acceptable public discourse. The conflicts predate the McCarthy era by several decades, however. Indeed, it was Woodrow Wilson who, as in so much else, transformed American universities and with them eventually Americans’ perceptions of the rights of dissent. Already in the late nineteenth century, on taking over as President of Princeton University, Wilson faced what he considered an entrenched, lazy, and pseudo-aristocratic establishment that failed to take seriously what he asserted is the duty to help transform public life. He worked to replace the liberal arts with more immediately practical studies, promote research over teaching, and model the role of the professor as public intellectual committed to affecting public policy.
The result in the Wilsonian era was a kind of civil religion in which universities, like the military, were to help expand democracy and progress throughout the land and beyond the sea. To this day the mainstream academy sees itself as the engine of progress in science and the humanities, though the professors have overwhelmingly rejected Wilsonian notions of duty to nation in any political sense. Instead, the goal is to transform society through supposedly scientific knowledge of human nature and the social order, undermining unjust institutions, beliefs, and practices and rejecting “outmoded” ways of thinking that take account of religious beliefs and norms.
From early on the Wilsonian gospel of progress had its detractors. Defenders of humane learning were quickly marginalized in the name of progress and in the face of crises like the Great Depression and the two world wars; they retreated to religious institutions and smaller colleges devoted to the liberal arts, where they hung on for some few additional years. But there also was a more radical opposition, dedicated to progress of a kind more radical than Wilson’s. This movement gained adherents and influence throughout the early 20th century, finally bursting onto the scene in the radical movements of the 1960s. To give the radicals their due, the scientism against which they rebelled was indeed empty. The reduction of humane studies and so-called “social sciences” to the crunching of numbers and drawing of graphs to “predict behavior” provides little for the mind or soul.
Radicals rejected the myth of a “neutral” science, a neutral point of view allowing academics to judge institutions, beliefs, and practices. They rejected as well the neutral, naked public square that remained when traditional learning had been banished. These student radicals and their academic mentors favored “direct action” of various, sometimes violent, kinds.
Today’s crybullies are not so different from the radicals of the 1960s. More infantile and ignorant, perhaps, they retain the arrogance and hostility toward established authority of their predecessors, many of whom now hold positions of power in the university. Having banished norm-based education from the university some decades back, and having banished all but a tiny remnant of those committed to such education from the university, today’s academic elites have trouble seeing themselves as “the enemy” their radicalized progeny claim. To be frank, these struggles are of little importance, for the “neutral” university had already become a hopeless ground of ideological infighting by the 1980s and was in any event a misconceived experiment in rootless self-indulgence.
It would be foolish to cry for the tenured and administrative radicals currently suffering the fate they visited upon their own elders. The university is, indeed, becoming an even worse place for learning, let alone development of decent, educated adults. But it is a matter of degree rather than of kind. As for toleration, it can provide only limited protections. The problem with our universities began when elite institutions jettisoned their core values in favor of “relevance.” Today, unfortunately, the vast majority of even religious universities have followed suit.
Most observers simply want our campuses restored to some semblance of peace and civility. The problem with this desire is that the reigning orthodoxy on campus—progressivism—provides no basis on which to maintain peace and civility. Subjecting all institutions to a simple-minded rationalism that rejects faith, tradition, and normal human sympathies, it is an empty shell of pseudo-learning, liable to all kinds of disruptions from those whose minds it promises but fails to nurture. As for the new, emerging orthodoxy of aggressive grievance, it by nature rejects peace, instead proclaiming “no justice, no peace” under circumstances where it recognizes no justice to exist.
A restoration of peace and civility cannot be had under such circumstances, for civility is not a product of tolerance, but commonality of understanding. The old progressive university sought to transform universities from communities of normative value into empty institutions in which individuals would pursue “truth” as they chose to define it. Only a restoration of real communities of learning, each guided by a common mission it seeks to follow and uphold, can return civility to the university. Without it, progressives had best get on board the grievance bandwagon (as many already are). Otherwise they will have to get used to a marginalization akin to that already visited upon more traditional groups and the remaining few institutions whose adherence to traditional norms renders them, in the crybullies’ eyes, “racist, sexist, and homophobic.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.