The Age Of Un-Enlightenment

Kirsten Powers Fox News Contributor
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The following is an edited excerpt from Kirsten Powers’ new book, The Silencing.

The illiberal left isn’t just ruining reputations and lives with their campaigns of delegitimization and disparagement. They are harming all of society by silencing important debates, denying people the right to draw their own conclusions, and derailing reporting and research that is important to our understanding of the world. They are robbing culture of the diversity of thought that is so central to learning and discovery.

It’s sadly ironic that so many of the illiberal left view themselves as rational, intellectual, fact-based thinkers and yet have fully embraced a dogmatic form of un-enlightenment. Deviating from lefty ideology is equated to heresy and academic inquiry is too often secondary to ideological agendas. The illiberal left insert ideologically driven statistics into the media and academic bloodstream and then accuse anyone who questions them of diabolical motives. When researchers make discoveries supporting the wrong ideological conclusion, the character assassination and intimidation begin.

In a 2011 speech, then-University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who describes himself politically as a “liberal turned centrist,” explained, “If a group circles around sacred values, they’ll evolve into a tribal-moral community. They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.”

The illiberal left likes to accuse conservatives and religious people of doing this, but ignores the central role it plays in their own determination to reinforce their ideological beliefs. Haidt pointed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was labeled a racist for a 1965 report he produced as assistant secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration. The report rang alarm bells about the rise of unmarried parenthood among African Americans, and called for government policies to address the issue. “Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the Black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed,” Haidt said. “Only in the last few years have sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along. Sacralizing distorts thinking. Sacred values bind teams together, and then blind them to the truth. That’s fine if you are a religious community… but this is not fine for scientists.”

Haidt believes that the fact that conservatives are underrepresented by “a ratio of two or three hundred to one” in social psychology “is evidence that we are a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering.” Allowing for more diversity of ideological thought would lead to “better science and freer thinking,” concluded Haidt. This argument doesn’t just apply to academia. It applies to any facet of society where non-liberal views are deemed out of bounds.

When people are afraid to express their opinions because they’ve seen other people treated as deviants deserving of public shaming or worse, they will be less likely to speak freely. This already happens in newsrooms and academia, where people hide their religious or political views in water cooler conversation for fear of discrimination, or ultimately just opt out of the hostile work environments altogether. “We are hurting ourselves when we deprive ourselves of critics, of people who are as committed to science as we are, but who ask different questions, and make different background assumptions,” Haidt noted.

In preparing for his speech, Haidt searched for conservative social psychologists to interview, and was only able to find two, both of them graduate students, who came close to fitting the bill. “Both of them said they are not conservative, but neither are they liberal, and because they are not liberal, they feel pressure to keep quiet,” Haidt reported, noting that one of the not-liberal social scientists was in the room as a participant in the conference. Haidt shared an e-mail from one of the heretics: “Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, thereby, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.”

These stories are commonplace, as is the desire for the academics to remain unnamed. Conservative and orthodox Christian professors have told me chilling stories of intimidation, harassment, discrimination, denial of tenure, and more, but they are not included in this book because all were too fearful to go on the record lest it further alienate them from the members of the illiberal left who hold their academic and professional futures in their hands.

This is not the kind of world we want. Educated people, noted Harvard psychology professor and bestselling author Steven Pinker in extolling the virtues of free speech, “should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and  appreciate that people who disagree with them are not necessarily stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.”

But as this book will demonstrate, the left’s commitment to free speech is collapsing. In its place, the illiberal left is executing a campaign of coercion and intimidation. I call it “The Silencing.”

Kirsten Powers is a Fox News contributor and columnist for both USA Today and the Daily Beast.