Culture is always changing, this evolution is in itself neither good nor bad. Developments in recent years however, may be a danger to social cohesion and progress in science.
What seemed to be an American phenomena is now sweeping across the Atlantic. Leading British academics warned of the changes currently happening in Universities across the country. While the creation of “safe-spaces” is the pinnacle of this development, it is neither new nor unexpected.
In recent years, universities, which have been more or less leaning to the left or what might be called progressivism, have become more and more ideologically homogenous. Instead of debating contrasting views, certain topics are avoided altogether due to concerns that people may be made to feel uncomfortable. Safe-Spaces go even further and prohibit anything that could be interpreted as a microagression (a kind of violence without malicious intent), e.g. asking someone where he’s from or stating, that the most qualified person should get the job.
As the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes; humans are “really really good at disconfirming other people’s ideas and terrible at checking or testing our own.” With the rise of social media, we are both able to acquire more information than any previous generation, but are also at risk of withdrawing into factions.
Nowadays we can live in a “bubble”, in which we only get confirmation of our views and biased reports on the opinions of others with whom we disagree. The current state of the political discourse in the United States shows this particularly well. Factions are a good thing if they engage with each other, but are a liability to social cohesion when rational discourse is dropped in favour of obvious confirmation-bias.
If Universities, where the best ideas and theories, irrespective of biases should win, are now the most likely places to restrict freedom of speech, the future may not look so bright. A stable, thriving society must not avoid discourse.
We should be careful to do everything in our power to protect freedom of speech and support fiery debates and discussions. After all, it was Adam Smith who pointed out that freedom of speech goes beyond mere prohibition on certain opinions by the state. A culture in which debates are avoided, because they might make someone feel uncomfortable is unable to produce sophisticated citizens and tackle serious problems, which necessarily require disputation.
Let us narrowly define a conservative as someone who is sceptical of ideological panaceas. A conservative does not have a fixed ideology that dictates him how to evaluate research and data, which is a necessary precondition for rationality and science. And, despite the natural human disposition to confirm your own views, a rational person should never be afraid to discuss and have his own views falsified. One should only support policies if they are backed by sufficient research and evidence, irrespective of ideological bias, which no one is exempt from.
Progress in history was made through disagreement. The people in academia we value most today, were not conformist, quite the contrary. In the end, the better arguments were able to win. The enlightenment provided humanity with a way to advance at an accelerating rate with the use of reason.
Suppressing disagreement creates a people unable to cope with others, unable to reason and unable to grasp reality. Such a devil's circle will create a self-reinforcing environment where scientific progress is impossible, perhaps might even be reversed as epistemic standards are exchanged for the confirmation of personal or political biases. Such a society will not sustain itself, as rational discourse is the precondition for social cohesion and cooperation even among the most heterogeneous group.
As Thomas Jefferson said:
“This institution (University of Virginia) will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Walter Veit is an Intern at the Bow Group