K.B.: Your book criticizes an intolerance among the cultural Left toward those with dissenting viewpoints. You give many examples of how the “illiberal Left,” as you call it, is not just disagreeing with but discriminating against those with different views. What are some of the most powerful examples of this from your research?Powers is correct about this. The Left was on the vanguard of the free speech movement throughout much of the twentieth century and especially from 1960 to 1990, but during this time they were a minority seeking to change the establishment. Now they are the establishment and free speech is as much a threat to them as they were to the establishment two generations ago. Thus free speech is now being defined as hate speech, as violence, and is to be suppressed and punished. This is the Left's modus operandi throughout history. They use the democratic system to destroy the system and then, once they're in power, they impose a totalitarian conformity on everyone else. George Orwell vividly illustrates how this strategy works in his novel Animal Farm, which every intelligent person should read at some point in their education.
K.P.: There were an endless number of examples, to the point that I had to cut a couple chapters. If I had to, I’d say the absolute worst [example] is one in which a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara physically attacked pro-life demonstrators who were doing a peaceful demonstration. It’s a prototype of these cases, not in the fact that it was violent, because that’s unusual, but her argument is typical: Disagreement is treated as an attack and even violent in and of itself. The act of expressing a point of view they disagree with is an act of violence. This came up over and over in the police reports when the professor was arrested. She was the victim, even though she was the persecutor. She had been harmed, they [the protestors] made her unsafe, and she has a right to go to work and feel safe and they made her feel unsafe.
This actually just happened, so it's not in my book: [Scholar] Christina Hoff Sommers has been on campuses lecturing about feminism for the past 20 years, and she’s a critic of gender feminism and talks instead about equity feminism. In April, at two different events, one at Georgetown and one at Oberlin, she had to have campus security protection because the students were posting things that had the administration so alarmed for her safety. She has been a critic of the rape statistics that are cited to show there’s an epidemic of rape on campuses, so she’s been deemed a "rape apologist," even though she’s obviously not denying rape; she’s talking about statistics. Some Oberlin students wrote a letter to the editor before she came and said, “There’s nothing we can do to stop her from coming here, so let’s stand together in the face of this violence.” And she hadn’t even spoken yet.
Traditionally liberals in the United States have valued free speech as enshrined in our Constitution, have recognized that dissent can be good and shape public policy in important ways, and that the freedom to say what we think and feel is an important element of democracy.
K.B.: Why is free speech such an important value, and what’s the cost of losing it?
K.P.: Our conception of free speech in this country comes directly, indisputably, from liberals. We would not understand free speech the way we do today if not for—and I’m sorry to say, conservatives who don’t want to hear it—the American Civil Liberties Union, and liberal Supreme Court justices who charted the course of expanding the view of the First Amendment, and activists during the Vietnam War. So this is a core part of American liberalism. So we have people who call themselves liberals on the Left of the political spectrum, acting in complete contradiction of their values and the arguments that underlie them.
KB: Is the dynamic we're seeing simply political correctness run amok, or is something more insidious at play?There's much more at the link. Powers is one of a vanishing breed of liberal that used to be typical in the 50s and 60s. She's someone who believes that being liberal means that one stands for freedom. Today being liberal is too often very close to being fascist. Those who stand for freedom in our contemporary politics tend to be conservatives and libertarians.
KP: I don’t refer to the dynamic as political correctness, because that downplays what’s going on. It’s something much deeper. In the book I don’t diagnose why it’s happening, I’m simply trying to establish that it is happening.
But what struck me while writing the book is that the illiberal Left reminds me of religious zealots, except of a secular religion. The average religious person has their beliefs, but they’re not trying to get people fired who don’t have their beliefs. But zealots do do that. It’s not enough for them to believe it; they can’t tolerate other people who don’t believe what they believe, and they have this absolute certainty that they’re right. It’s self-sanctifying. They have to establish that they are morally superior to people who disagree with them. It’s social signaling: “My identity comes from the fact that I’m pro-gay marriage and pro-choice and believe in climate change and oppose charter schools.”