Friday, March 21, 2014


Our freedom of speech is threatened not by brutal government policies but by common outrage.  Outrage replaces civil discourse in any number of areas.

Years ago Lawrence Summers as president of Harvard expressed the possibility that young men were naturally more gifted in STEM subjects than young women.  According to the Harvard newspaper, he said that underrepresentation of women in sciences “may stem in part from ‘innate’ differences between men and women, although two Harvard professors who heard the speech said the remarks have been taken out of context in an ensuing national media frenzy.”  In science this is known as a hypothesis, a guess at reality that should be tested before it’s accepted as true.  Set up an experiment, do a survey or otherwise look into it to see if the facts support it.  Was this the way his statement was treated? – Of course not.  Instead the women’s rights groups went ballistic, demanding an apology, demanding his resignation, setting off a “media frenzy”, all due to his expressing a thought that was “taken out of context”, easily refuted logically and did not necessarily reflect a personal opinion.  Using the weapon of outrage, his critics managed to shut him up, forcing him to apologize and quite possibly affecting his later career.

This came to mind as I read about a more recent example.  An AP story tells of University of Iowa President Sally Mason who has taken serious steps to reduce violence on campus.  She hired “an administrator to coordinate help for victims and mandated prevention training for employees.”  Years ago she even personally experienced an incident as an undergraduate.  “Yet one statement she made last month - that ending sexual assault was probably unrealistic ‘just given human nature and that's unfortunate’ - ignited a firestorm.”  Is this a woman who hates women, or could she merely have been expressing some degree of frustration with the enormous job of trying to guarantee everyone’s safety on campus?  No time to find out.  Outrage erupted with accusations of hurtful speech and insensitivity, causing uproars among activist groups “from California to Massachusetts.”  Critics even went so far as to complain that the university “put too much focus on the victims by warning women not to walk alone or to binge drink – and not enough on perpetrators.”  Is that any more insensitive or uncaring than reminding people not to leave their cars running in the driveway or to lock their doors when leaving the house because there are bad guys out there?  Of course she too was forced to apologize.

It’s not only women’s groups who use this tactic.  Minorities, religious groups, animal rights activists and many others use it to squelch conversation, to put their opponents on the defensive, to win an argument without presenting a counterargument.  As a result things are never resolved and others feel intimidated to express an opinion or make a controversial hypothesis for fear of getting the same treatment.  Firestorms and media frenzies don’t solve problems; they bury them.

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