Those of us who sustainedly criticize the excesses of the Great Awokening are often told that we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. That the real problem is censorship not from the left but from the right. That censorship from the left is largely a matter of pile-ons by anonymous Twitter denizens or college kids expressing themselves, while censorship from the right involves menacing officials dedicated to eliminating, for instance, discussion of race in schools.
The characterization of the problem on the left strikes me as somewhere between uninformed and willfully blind. Yes, left-leaning students might demonstrate their free-speech intolerance within the cozy confines of their campuses, but one day they graduate into the real world and take that rehearsed intolerance with them. Superprogressive views may predominate in certain settings, but the presumption, held by too many, that their woke outlook doesn’t even warrant intellectual challenge in the public square is an extension of the broader “dis-enlightenment” I described back in October.
That said, I’m genuinely open to the idea that censorship from the right is more of a problem than I have acknowledged. The truth may be, as it so often is, in the middle, and a legal case from the past week has made me think about it.
Making sense of things requires synthesis, identifying what explains a lot rather than perceiving a buzzing chaos of people suddenly crazed, which is an implausible and even effort-light approach to things. In that vein, our problem today is illiberalism on both sides.
We will salute, then, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker, who last week ruled, in a 74-page opinion, in favor of six professors at the University of Florida who were barred by school officials from acting as expert witnesses in cases challenging state policy on issues ranging from restrictive voting laws to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attempt to withhold funds from schools with mask mandates. (There are also recent reports that U.F. faculty members have been cautioned against using the words “critical” and “race” in the same sentence to describe the curriculums they teach, apparently to head off discussion of critical race theory and its effects on education in a way that might draw a backlash from state legislators or others in the Florida government.)
Judge Walker analogized the actions of University of Florida officials to the removal in December of a statue commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre from the campus of the University of Hong Kong. He echoed the plaintiffs’ argument that “in an apparent act of vorauseilender Gehorsam,” or anticipatory obedience, “U.F. has bowed to perceived pressure from Florida’s political leaders and has sanctioned the unconstitutional suppression of ideas out of favor with Florida’s ruling party” — admonishing the defendants in a footnote that “if those in U.F.’s administration find this comparison upsetting, the solution is simple. Stop acting like your contemporaries in Hong Kong.”
The judge summed up by noting that “the Supreme Court of the United States has long regarded teachers, from the primary grades to the university level, as critical to a healthy democracy.” He added, “Plaintiffs’ academic inquiry ‘is necessary to informed political debate’ and ‘is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned,’” emphasizing that “when such critical inquiry is stifled, democracy suffers.”
Let’s not forget, either, what happened to the schoolteacher Matthew Hawn last summer: He was fired by school administrators in Tennessee for leading classroom discussions with high school juniors and seniors (in a course called Contemporary Studies; it’s not as if this had been a chemistry lab) on concepts such as white privilege and implicit bias, not long after passage in the state of a ban on teaching critical race theory. As I’ve argued, ideas rooted in that theory do, in refracted form, make their way into how some schoolteachers teach, and it’s legitimate to question the extent of this. But that hardly justifies Hawn’s getting canned for things such as assigning a widely read article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Hawn is pursuing an appeal of his dismissal, and if justice is on his side, he should win it.
I’m not doing a 180 here or letting those I term the Elect off the hook. The illiberal tendency on the left is just as oppressive and requires equal pushback: The University of North Texas music professor Timothy Jackson, a founder of his school’s Center for Schenkerian Studies, studies the work of the German Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker, whose early-20th-century work figures prominently in music theory. In a 2019 speech to the Society for Music Theory, Philip Ewell, a Black music professor at Hunter College characterized Schenker as a racist and wrote in a 2020 article for Music Theory Online (a publication of the Society for Music Theory) that “Schenker’s racist views infected his music theoretical arguments,” that “there exists a ‘white racial frame’ in music theory that is structural and institutionalized” and that by extension, music theory and even the academic field of musicology are racialized, if not racist.
In 2020, Jackson led the publication of an issue of The Journal of Schenkerian Studies dedicated to addressing Ewell’s case, publishing five articles defending Ewell’s case and 10 critiquing it. As The Times reported last year, Jackson was hardly gentle in his pushback, arguing that Ewell’s “denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black antisemitism” and partly attributing the dearth of Black classical musicians to fewer Black people who “grow up in homes where classical music is profoundly valued” and that fostering music education in public schools is the proper remedy.
The result was, by today’s standards, predictable: Hundreds of students and scholars signed a letter condemning the issue. After an investigation, the university relieved Jackson of his supervision of the journal and, according to Times reporting, didn’t rule out further disciplinary action.
The point here is less whether Jackson’s argument and the issue it appeared in were the quintessence of tact on race issues than whether he deserves to lose his career status and reputation because of them. Nor is the point whether Ewell’s argument was enlightened; one is (or should be) free to subscribe to it. Or not. My view is that while the field of musicology is correct, generally, in examining itself for remnants of racist bias, Ewell’s specific take is flawed.
No, the point is that the through line between Jackson’s treatment at North Texas and the treatment of the Florida law professors is that instead of their views being addressed as one side of heated, complex debates, their views were squelched as unutterable heresies.
Jackson has sued, and if justice is on his side, he should win. I could cite a great many cases similar to his.
To many, I suspect, what happened to the University of Florida professors and to Hawn is more frightful than what happened to Jackson. However, that sentiment is a matter of one’s priorities, not a neutral conception of what justice consists of. Too many of us suppose that people should not be allowed to express opinions they deem unpleasant or dangerous and are given to demonizing those who have such opinions as threats to our moral order.
On the right, even if you’re wary of critical race theory’s effect on the way many kids are taught, it is both backward and unnecessary to institutionalize the sense that discussing race at all is merely unwelcome pot stirring (and if that’s not what you mean, then you need to make it clear). On the left, illiberalism does not become insight just because some think they are speaking truth to power. Resistance to this kind of perspective is vital, no matter where it comes from on the political spectrum.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”