‘Wrongthink’ and other issues at liberal institutions


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Further to professors Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro’s argument for classrooms as a venue for the “unending exchange—and testing—of ideas”, here’s a fairly nuanced piece on the issue of illiberal liberalism.

Sahil Handa, a Harvard student who’s working on a book about the campus conformity crisis, has commented on Persuasion about liberal institutions’ allegedly illiberal behaviour. Click here to read the whole piece. If you don’t, the highlights are below:

** Traditional liberal media and universities are increasingly criticised for “deeply illiberal behaviour (such as) firing staff for wrongthink, caving into indignant mobs, and blithely mocking the values and interests of large swathes of the United States”.

** They are increasingly said to act “out of a mixture of weakness and stupidity” in the face of “a humourless, identitarian ideology” on the part of the students. But, says Mr Handa, this narrative is “somewhat misleading” because the subtext is that all would’ve remained unchanged had liberal institutions resisted the illiberal activists.

** But, he points out, that argument reckons without the massive change that has swept across the journalism landscape. Traditional publications no longer have geographic monopolies, “newspapers are no longer the only public square in town… news is transient (and has lost) much of its economic value”. The result is that advertising dollars go to news aggregators and social media and savvy news organisations were perforce moved along to a subscription model. Mr Handa argues that this has profoundly changed the news business from “selling the product of ‘being informed’ (to) selling the identity of being an ‘informed person’.”

** Overall, this has meant a big shift in the focus of traditional outlets such as The New York Times. Subscription means the number of people who will actually pay for the paper is far smaller than the number of people who used to read it. That in itself makes the paper profitable but also “at the mercy of its tribe”.

** Mr Handa discerns something similar at his Harvard university, which he sees as “focused on pleasing a tiny base of customers (who now) demand ideological, rather than demographic, uniformity”.

** This tendency to cater to “fashionable ideological tastes” unites institutions such as the NYT and Harvard. It’s become “the only way to survive in a market far less oriented around geography”.