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Freedom of Expression, Populism, and Universities

Harald Beyer.
Rector Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez Santiago, Chile. Á - N.3

Until 2005, according to data from Freedom House, civil and political rights were growing. Democracies had consolidated worldwide, in an advance without precedent since the mid-80s. It seemed to be an irreversible trend. Nevertheless, from that moment those rights have not stopped declining, surprising the most diverse communities and, indeed, the experts. Together with this phenomenon, new political leaders and movements have arisen that were unthinkable only a little while ago. Perhaps the most emblematic case is Donald Trump, who swept into the Republican primaries, pulverizing the pillars that had held up that party and silencing its most representative leaders. Later, he won the presidential election, defeating a candidate (setting aside her faults) as exceptional as Hillary Clinton.

His discourse was clearly of a populist tint and related with other phenomena occurring in other latitudes. In effect, “iliberal” democracy is an expression that for some time has been strongly resounding in our ears: a political order where the governments are duly elected, but which then run administrations of an authoritarian character on the basis that there are some groups with more of a right to develop their initiatives than others. The latter must be silenced and denounced. The media, and sometimes the experts, are a source of fake news or unable to understand the citizens. In these contexts opponents are tolerated, “but all possible means, legal and illegal are used to reduce the abilities of adversaries to function and to reduce competition in politics and the economy”.[1] Incidentally, where institutions are stronger opponents are denounced or accused of spreading lies and not having the moral authority to participate in the deliberation processes of democracies.

Behind this phenomenon, it is clear that democracies or their workings are subject to severe questioning. The relative rise of populism cannot be completely separated from this reality. Mudde and Rovira define populism as “a weakly organized ideology which considers society to be ultimately divided into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people” and “a corrupt elite” and which argues that politics must be an expression of the volonté générale of the people”.[2] Being ideologically weak and representing merely a handful of ideas, populism is flexible and can adapt itself to hard ideologies. It is not strange, therefore, that it can align with movements of the right and the left. It is easy to visualize in this conception the possibility that populism become authoritarianism (beyond the way of electing populist leaders). Particularly, because it demands from politics the task of respecting the will of the people at any cost. Thus it would be legitimate to limit the actions of those who “break away” from the representation of this general will. This approach is perhaps the most risky for democracy. There is little sympathy for pluralism, particularly because this accepts different viewpoints and argues that nobody can set themselves up as the only true representative of the people. The implicit idea of this vision of political community is very impoverishing. As Isaiah Berlin said, “the kinds of ends which can be achieved by being in a society […] are so general that it leaves open the question of what kinds of life or behaviors embody them. No society can be so ‘monolithic’ that there is no gap between its supreme purpose and the means by which it is attained”.[3]

Populism dispenses with this view, because it undermines its position. The idea that the people might not be monolithic is extemporaneous and doesn’t fit with the discourse populism offers. It’s interesting to note that that one could still believe that there is a corrupt elite —whether or not Berlin or other authors would argue in those terms— but the pretension to a pure and homogenous group remains weak. Therefore it is not uncommon, as Müller has argued, that “populists always morally distinguish between those who truly belong and those who do not (even if this moral criteria is ultimately nothing more than a form of identity politics)”.[4] There are good guys and bad guys, and that’s why moral discourse is so easily used to ignore those who don’t share populist stances. Thus, for example, Hillary was dishonest, the media spread fake news, and whoever dissented was part of a corrupt elite, or beholden to it. For this reason, “the real problem with populism is that its negation of diversity means, in practice, the denial of free and equal status to some citizens…[5] Populists immediately personalize and moralize the political conflict: the others, they insist, are simply ‘corrupt’ and ‘dishonest’”.[6] So, this moral confrontation that populism tries to establish seems to have a more generalized character in contemporary political debate. In a recent article Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, reminds us of our brain’s ability to distinguish, in a fraction of a second, between members of our group and strangers, and how it incentives us to be friendly to the former and hostile to the latter. These biases are automatic and unconscious and emerge at a very young age. However, we have the ability to control these instincts, although that doesn’t mean that the psychological basis of tribalism disappears.[7]

The propensity of the human mind for thinking that distinguishes between us and them could have deep roots. What’s more, “At every opportunity human beings make morally charged, automatic judgements about social groups”.[8] This leads to our fundamental commitments being related to family, and to other groups being seen, at least initially, with skepticism, fear or hostility. Of course, this doesn’t mean that human beings cannot moderate themselves toward others, but “doing so is usually a secondary corrective step”.[9] Now, these classifications that distinguish between us and them are arbitrary and apparently very fluid. Thus, the us vs. them discourse might not be necessarily linked to permanent human characteristics like a person’s ethnicity or origin. Of course, this fact also makes social context potentially relevant and the divisions between us and them, to a certain extent, manipulable. Sapolsky sees evidence for this phenomenon in the appeal to nationalism, because it is a lucid way of taking advantage of this tribalism in our psychology. But the modern society in which we live creates communities of a different nature and it is possible to imagine that this tribalism will emerge in unexpected ways, and that this will not necessarily be the result of a manipulation but the spontaneous grouping of the different tribes that one can imagine make up that society. The dynamic observed in social networks is a good example of this phenomenon, but it certainly transcends them. Thus, coexistence becomes more complicated, weakening the possibility for controlling the increasingly frequent emergence of us vs. them discourses, though surely as sporadic rather than permanent phenomena, if Sapolsky is right. But, sure, in some circumstances these can acquire unusual strength and even violence. Emotions, and the moral categorizations that accompany them, exacerbate conflicts. Some of this seems to be becoming reality on university campuses, with serious risks to freedom of expression. Of course, there is a broader context that the following section will attempt to describe.

The Recent Evolution of Politics: The Importance of Identities

Populism has always been present in the political development of nations. For this reason, its presence on the political scene is not surprising. It is surprising, on the other hand, the relative success that is has had in diverse nations, some of which are quite developed, celebrated for their institutional and cultural development. This success has been accompanied by an appeal to nationalism which, in general terms, is a part of the globalization we’re experiencing and, in particular, the migratory phenomena observed in many countries and which, there’s no reason to hide it, have made various social groups who inhabit these countries uncomfortable. But this is a development particular to the political evolution of the last two decades. Many nations, in other periods, have received significant migrant influxes which don’t seem to have caused the same political effects. And globalization, rather than a disruptive or unexpected process, is of a continuous character and has been several decades if not centuries in developing. Of course, technological development has made it increasingly visible, but not more surprising. In this sense, there are other social, economic and political phenomena that help understand this reality. A basic one seems to be the emergence of identity politics that has gained much in force. Francis Fukayama’s analysis is interesting in this respect.[10] But before getting into that, its good to remember that this preoccupation with rescuing the identities of different social groups is, in large part, what one would expect as a consequence of the evolution of liberal democracies and their interest in recognizing all citizens as equal in rights and dignity. Democracy has been consolidated by articulating the broader recognition of different groups This only reaches its fullness if all the institutions created by human beings to articulate and improve common well-being open up to the recognition of those groups. This opening is not always complete. The recognition of the right to vote, for example, has historically been easier to expand than access to education, itself easier than the recognition of same-sex marriage. Of course, these are some of the planes upon which recognition can occur, but there are many others that can be imagined.

The demand for recognition sometimes takes on an aggressive tone, motivated by the moral idea that the authentic internal characters that we have are not sufficiently recognized, that the society in which we live represses them. Thus, if the recognition is not satisfactory, the corresponding denunciation, while natural, might possibly exacerbate us vs them discourse, according to Sapolsky. It is very possible that in liberal democracy, this risk of “confrontation” will grow, since it doesn’t work perfectly and it is inevitable that many groups will be treated, despite the best efforts, in such a way as to be deemed unequal. But if, furthermore, these alignments of us vs them are effectively quite fluid, the lived experiences of a society as complex as ours can produce increasingly atomized groups. It makes sense, therefore, when Fukuyama posits that “each person and each group experiences disrespect in different ways, and each seeks its own dignity. Thus, identity politics engenders its own dynamic, through which society is divided into increasingly smaller groups in virtue of their own particular ‘lived experience’ of victimization”.[11] In Fukuyama’s opinion, the visibility of some groups almost inevitably leads to a decrease in the status of those groups which are displaced, generating a politics of resentment and a negative reaction. It should be added that those who receive recognition want to defend and consolidate it, and so might do everything in their power to maintain that situation. In such a scenario the possibility of deliberation and collective action would be reduced. Somehow, we would have to try and neutralize this dynamic by appealing to people’s shared values and those aspirations that transcend their narrow groups. Fukuyama believes that this is possible and that this is the way functional democracies can be maintained. However, the methods he proposes are not totally convincing. In addition, as he himself states, “contemporary identity politics are motivated by the intense search for equal recognition by groups who gave been marginalized by the societies in which they live. But this desire for equal recognition can easily translate into a demand to recognize the superiority of the group. This is relevant to the history of nationalisms and national identities, as well as to certain forms of extremist religious politics”.[12] But clearly this reality can also occur in other contexts and with other sensibilities. If so, the solutions are not obvious. Therefore, he sees in “the growth of identity politics in modern liberal democracies one of the main threats that these face, and unless we can reconstruct a more universal understanding of human dignity, we will condemn ourselves to perpetual conflict”.[13]

The real challenge will be to construct political projects that, somehow, unite more than they divide, Undoubtedly this doesn’t mean ignoring the importance of “incorporating” those groups into the fullness of democratic life, recognizing that they have an equal dignity that can be expressed not only in speech but in concrete actions that make make their aspirations a reality. However, democratic life cannot only be about this. If the focus is only there, the risk increases that psychological predispositions will awaken to the call of the tribe. Fukuyama holds progressive sectors especially responsible for this trend. “The problem with the contemporary left is in the particular forms of identity that they’ve decided to celebrate. Instead of building solidarity around great communities… they’ve focussed on small groups that are being marginalized in very specific ways. This is part of a bigger story.. in which the principle of equal and universal recognition has mutated into the special recognition of particular groups”.[14] In this approach, the individual loses relevance and his specific liberties and rights can be subordinated to the interests of groups. This is certainly not a welcome trend. Freedom of expression, for example, is a prime candidate for limitation. There is always the risk of making others uncomfortable, and one might believe that the vindication of these marginalized groups demands prudence of expression. This is a mistake, but it is happening, as we will see in the following section, in American universities and in other institutions in developed countries. These phenomena, like many others, globalize rapidly and, therefore, it would not be strange if we see them on our university campuses, earlier rather than later. Some of this we’ve already seen, although very focussed on political leaders. The phenomenon is more general in other latitudes. It would be an error to limit freedom of expression in order to broaden our current understanding of identity. This weakens the rational discourse proper to the deliberative processes that come along with democracy. It makes no sense to try to control everything that might be found disturbing.

The left’s mistake in focussing on identitarian demands is explored from within by authors like Mark Lilla.[15] Shocked by the election of Donald Trump, he attempts an explanation of the relatively poor performance of the Democrats.[16] And he believes that that this was influenced by the Democratic Party’s inability to construct a discourse that brought together all American citizens: “The liberals lost the habit of taking the temperature of public opinion, building consensus and gradually moving forward”.[17] Lilla’s feeling, therefore, is that the Democrats have stopped putting forward a common project, historically the source of their political success: “they have lost themselves in the tangle of identity politics and developed a rhetoric of divisive and resentful difference in order to embrace that”.[18] The problem for Lilla is not that these identities flourish. “The focus of attention was now less on the relation between our identification with the United States as democratic citizens and our identification with different social groups within it. Citizenship dropped out of the picture. And people began to speak instead of their personal identities in terms of the inner homunculus… The only meaningful question became a deeply personal one: what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?”.[19]

For various reasons that we lack sufficient space to address, the New Left, very active in the public space of the 60s and 70s, made the decision to retire to the universities, in Lilla’s opinion. And that generation imparted a particular conception of politics to students which, after their graduation, became a source of influence in the development of today’s Democratic Party. Not necessarily an intended influence, but with effects relevant to the evolution of the American left: “if you want to be a political person you should begin, not by joining a party, but by searching for a movement that has some deep personal meaning for you”.[20] In the light of these developments, “The study of identity groups now seemed the most urgent scholarly/political task […] also encouraging an obsessive fascination with the margins of society, so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present…”.[21] In this context, a student “will first be taught that understanding herself depends on exploring the different aspects of her identity… An identity which, she also learns, has already been largely shaped for her by various social and political forces…from which she is likely to draw the conclusion that the aim of education is not to progressively become a self through engagement with the wider world. Rather, one engages with the world and particularly politics for the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is”.[22] The space for creating widely shared agendas is shrinking. The obvious risk is that politics becomes eminently tribal. In this context, not only do different visions emerge regarding subjects of interest to a community, but dialogue can even cease completely, because coalitions arise which perceive themselves to be in different moral categories, without equal rights to express points of view. Lilla himself argues that “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals [in the American sense] become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate”.[23]

Now, beyond whether Lilla is right about the origins of this tendency in the universities, its predominance surely transcends ideological boundaries. If my identity determines all, what real opportunities are there for that dialogue upon which all political communities, and universities, are based? What place does persuasion have in this worldview? There are more settled issues than there are arguments. “Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, are allowed to speak on certain matters.”[24] It’s difficult not to see exaggeration in Lilla’s arguments. The explanations must be more complex, but there is a point in his outlook that ought to be considered. In the preoccupation for minorities and accompanying identity politics, there is effectively “a turn away from contact with much of the country and many of the people whose views are not exactly our own on every issue… that doesn’t mean there is some hidden, homogeneous ‘silent majority’ whose views are more important or virtuous than those of others… rather that by getting so focused on themselves and the groups they felt they belonged to, identity liberals acquired additional disdain for ordinary democratic politics because it meant engaging with and persuading people unlike themselves. Instead they began delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit.”[25] In this approach, instead of being brought together, the population is separated; “us” and “them” come into the debate, the possibility of bridge-building declines, arguments go unquestioned and polarization is exacerbated and becomes permanent. Of course, in universities this can be exacerbated. Less-experienced young people often assign a moral character to the issues that concern them. There are greater possibilities for fanaticism and, consequently, for its encroachment on the space usually given to the reasoned debate of various issues. Only some arguments are acceptable and others lack the moral credentials to be accepted into the public sphere. It’s a short and almost automatic step from there to condemning all those who have expressed those arguments at some stage in their lives.

Universities and Freedom of Expression

Harvey Mansfield, a distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Government Department at Harvard, was recently (February 2019) invited, and then uninvited, by Canada’s Concordia University to give a commencement address to the graduating class at their College of Liberal Arts. Like many Colleges, Concordia educates its students on the basis of the Great Books and the Western way of thought that those books contain. Professor Mansfield is one of the most recognized political philosophers in this field.He’s authored well-regarded studies of Aristotle, Edmund Burke, Machiavelli, de Toqueville, and Hobbes, among others. He seemed to be the ideal speaker.

However, his conservative thought had led him to issue, on a few occasions, very arguable and unsubstantiated judgements to the effect that gays, because they cannot have children, are therefore less socially responsible. He also wrote a book, Manliness, where he defends gender roles from a moderately conservative point of view, lamenting that contemporary society values masculinity so little. The book was a modest defense of masculinity, but cautious, since it can be a positive or a negative thing. However, the book also contains some very debatable assertions and included some biases and even poorly-presented citations.[26] Beyond the wrong arguments that Mansfield might have, it’s difficult to understand why his invitation had to be retracted to an activity surrounding subject on which nobody can doubt he is a recognized authority. It’s difficult to believe that his presence alone could be grounds for offense.

Erika Christakis, a distinguished expert in early childhood education and an adjunct professor at Yale University since 2016, wrote an email to the students of Sillman College, where she was a co-master with her husband (a noted doctor and sociologist, also a professor at Yale), where she invited them to reflect on whether they ought to take seriously the university authorities’ recommendations regarding costumes for the 2015 Halloween season. She wrote from the perspective of a development psychologist and invited them to make a reasoned decision and discuss with their classmates if anyone objected to a student’s costume choice. The Atlantic, a respected American magazine, declared that the email she sent was a well-thought out and relevant model of civic engagement. Nevertheless, it generated a wave of interrogations and letters signed by professors and students demanding that the couple be removed from their posts as co-masters. The author and her husband were accused of being racists, or at least insensitive to the discrimination that various minority groups had suffered. The protests against them turned aggressive. The people who criticized them, particularly the students but also some professors, asserted that the couple had no right to freedom of expression, because their arguments created a space for violence to occur on campus. Both ended up resigning from the co-master position and Erika Christakis left the University. The email, aside from The Atlantic’s evaluation, effectively did contain elements which revealed some naïveté or insensitivity regarding the offense the costumes could cause to historically marginalized groups. But she wrote it in good faith. She stated an opinion that, beyond an involuntary error of emphasis, was not offensive, let alone violent. Silencing her, on the other hand, was an act of simple intolerance.

Charles Murray, the controversial coauthor of The Bell Curve, was violently impeded from giving a talk at Middlebury College in March 2017, since his conservative positions, and that book in particular, had offended students who had a history of exclusion from institutions like Middlebury. The book contained certain important errors in the interpretation of the information it collected. In particular, one of the theses that pointed to effective differences in intelligence measurements between whites and African Americans could not be empirically verified. In general, the information available at that time, like the information of today, does not allow us to know the causes of these gaps.[27] Now, the talk was not on this topic, but on social developments that had occurred since the publication of his book Coming Apart. A book which, in general, was well received by academia and considered one of the 100 most notable books of 2012 by the New York Times. There is no doubt that this was interesting material for university students and that it could generate an interesting discussion. However, the occasionally offensive character of his earlier book, and the sensibilities that Murray might offend, made him an uncomfortable choice.

These stories, although one might question their protagonists, illustrate the threat to freedom of expression emerging in the universities of developed countries. There was nothing in these activities that could really hurt a student from a selective university. There was no hate speech, and nobody was defamed. All involved opinions that are perfectly debatable in the university sphere. Moreover, such deliberation would possibly be very welcome, and useful. However, many ask if universities should be a place where all ideas can be expressed. Freedom of expression, including controversial expression, is central to education. Of course, in physics labs not every idea is acceptable, what’s at stake there is not freedom of expression, but the correct way to do science. However, the idea that universities must be places open to freedom of expression, particularly because they prize open investigation and that natural curiosity which is indispensable to their labors, is not always considered a good argument. Jeremy Waldron, reviewing several books that touch on the freedom of expression situation on college campuses, asks “Is the free research of mathematicians, philosophers or physicists really put at risk by the way a group of students responds to the invitation of Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopolous? The vast majority of freedom of speech issues have nothing to with the classes, research and seminars that academic freedom covers.”[28] Many of the activities that create controversy are related to the politics of university students and it is hard to understand, Waldron argues, the connection between them and the research being done in the schools and departments of a university. Of course, this approach is somewhat tricky. These activities are not aimed at those researchers. In general, they are part of university life and seek to confront students with different points of view which, we can agree, are not always particularly enlightening. The education of students is enriched by different points of view. This is the characteristic that we want to highlight when we assert the need not to censor the expression of ideas. Of course, the main debate is not about Coulter or Yiannopoulos, but about the situations described at the beginning of this section. The acceptance of these characters is matter of prudence, because discarding some and allowing others obliges us to draw a difficult line. The position of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago is more reasonable: “it’s is not the proper place of a University to try to protect individuals from ideas and opinions that are unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive… worries about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification to shut down the free exchange of ideas…” The Committee adds that this does not mean that “individuals can say anything they want, anywhere. The University can restrict expressions that violate the law, falsely defame a specific individual, constitute genuine threats or harassment, unreasonably invade an individual’s privacy or confidentiality, or are incompatible with the functioning of the University.”

Here is a division that seems sensible and uncontroversial. It is, nevertheless, sometimes accepted with reservations. Thus, some argue that “we have to caution that the protection of freedom of expression can be used as a cover to intimidate those with less power”.[29] In the same direction, it’s pointed out that “the decision regarding what really causes harm is political”.[30] But politics does not seem to be a good guide for discerning what opinions and expressions have a place on a university campus. One might insist that “much of what has been said of higher education in recent years points to how campuses react when high-profile speakers visit. These reactions (many predictable) have little to do with the educational projects underway. When provocateurs flirt with (or directly embrace) a discourse of hate, we shouldn’t be surprised if their speeches aren’t successful”.[31] The problem with this statement is that the people being questioned are often far from representing hate speech. This is certainly not the case of Charles Murray, for example, beyond his trajectory and his publications. For that reason, I think that Roth makes a mistake when he declares that “the free market approach to expression is not the solution. If certain expressions are amplified in contexts which are historically prejudiced against particular groups, by histories of racism and sexism, real harm occurs… the task of universities is not to produce anger and disdain, but to promote research together with critical and creative thought about diverse ideas”.[32] The problem with this approach is that institutions and their administrators start to define who is certifiably provocative or not. This is a slippery slope, and it’s hard to know where it leads. Roth himself realizes this and urges university leaders to be proactive in creating intellectual diversity on university campuses. But since he’s calling for it, apparently it hasn’t happened. Why should it happen in the future? The only way it can occur is through a defense of freedom of expression.

This sensitivity to opinions, however offensive they may be, has several explanations. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt believe that since 2013 a culture of “safety” has emerged in American universities.[33] The book tries to make sense of this sustained phenomenon, and posits that the trend is based on three big lies. The idea that children and young people are fragile, the assertion that one has to follow one’s intuitions, and the idea that debates on some issues eventually come down to the moral quality of the participants (good vs. bad). A point of view influenced by these lies can cause some problems in our lives. We could end up facing many of the situations that confront us with cognitive distortion, and life is full of completely unexpected events. If we have limited prior exposure to these types of events, it is likely that we will find it difficult to navigate them. Dealing with them would not be a particularly complex task, because our brain’s cognitive processes are trained to do so. But chances for success are reduced if it doesn’t “practice”. In the absence of stimuli, our brain can become rigid, weak and inefficient, because it is not challenged to respond vigorously. Therefore, we require a space in our early development that allows us to face risks and be stressed, rather than having our exposure to these things limited. If this does not happen, we could read a set of social interactions improperly, distortedly, and in particular we could perceive that ideas that we haven’t confronted, or which don’t reflect what we are, as an act of aggression against us. The extreme sensitivity with which students react to arguments that make us uncomfortable has its explanation in this phenomenon. In particular, aggression would be a defense mechanism in these situations. Fukuyama seems to endorse this view. He recalls the interrogation he suffered in 1988, during a course he taught on Western Culture to students at Stanford University. The protests were led by presidential pre-candidate Jesse Jackson, and they demanded the cancelation of the course, basically for its concentration on white male authors. A legitimate debate, but which rests on arguments of mental health. Thus, for example, the President of the African American Students Association argued that concentrating the course on certain ideas “is crushing the psyches of those to whom Locke, Hume and Plato say nothing… mentally and emotionally harming people in a way that isn’t recognized”.[34] Empirically, however, it’s hard to distinguish between this hypothesis and those which privilege the protection of specific identities and which see in their recognition a priority that cannot be put at risk. Both explanations might intersect.

Isaiah Berlin, in his essay on “Intellectual Life in the American University”, written 70 years ago (1949), notes a sort of moral guilt in the American academic (and this could be present elsewhere in the world) with regard to his work, making him doubt its value. With so many problems in the world, how can he go about his activities without guilt? Therefore, he runs the risk that this work will start to be subordinated to other objectives. He may resign, then, from a true academic life. Thus, for example, the renunciation of freedom of expression might be tolerated in order to achieve some other objective, but this plants a very destructive seed in the soil of university life. In particular, it can shut down dispassionate curiosity, so fundamental for the generation of knowledge and understanding of social phenomena.

In Conclusion

Public life is a constant conversation that has no end. Complex individuals are discredited if people are seen according to simplified categories and assigned to a given tribe. Populism, to some extent, takes advantage of the simplification usually done by members of a political community. But those simplifying categories transcend that context. The politics of identity, which can translate into a predilection for the rights of some or preference for the group over the individual, sometimes commits the same error. Certainly, the reflections behind identity politics are more complex than those behind populism. In addition, identity politics incorporates a view that agrees with liberal democracy: the expansion of recognition and equality in dignity of groups that, for various reasons, have not been sufficiently included in the community. It is in the universities where the weight of identity politics has been most strongly noticed. But in a way that has not always been fruitful for community life. Sometimes freedom of opinion has been curtailed, according to a supposed desire to prevent harm to marginalized groups. But that rests on the idea that such damage can be as damaging as physical aggression. Universities cannot accommodate this tendency. They must be able to have a conversation about ideas, no matter what the character of those ideas, without shutting down debate.

Of course, behind these ideas there are value judgements which are not always shared, and are often difficult to accept. Pluralism, in fact, is uncomfortable. But, as Berlin has asserted, “it seems to me a truer ideal […] because, at least, it recognizes the fact that ends are multiple, that not all of them are commensurate, and that they are in perpetual rivalry with one another.

To suppose that all values can be placed on different grades of a single scale, such that one only needs to look at it in order to determine which is superior, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents, and posits that moral decisions can be represented as operations that, in principle, can be performed according to the rules of calculus”.[35] Trying to control freedom of opinion in universities by claiming that these might lack respect for certain groups exactly supposes that there is some possible calculation that could determine who can opine and who must be censured. This affects pluralism and tolerance. The university cannot survive without both, and neither can democracy. The conflict between us and them is exacerbated and the possibility of appealing to widely-shared projects vanishes. That is not a path that contributes to community life, and universities cannot give up, because the responsibility they have to their communities is to be a space where ideas flow completely freely.

[1] On this see, for example, Applebaum. A. (2018). “A Warning from Europe: The Worst is Yet to Come”. The Atlantic. October.

[2] Mudde, C. and Rovira, C. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[3] Berlin, I. (1983). “Existe aún la teoría política”. Conceptos y Categorías. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica. Page 248.

[4] Müller, J-W. (2017). What is Populism? New York: Penguin Books. Page 80.


[5] Ibid. Page 82.

[6] Ibid. Page 105.


[7] Sapolsky, R. (2019). “This is your Brain on Nationalism. The Biology of Us and Them”. Foreign Affairs. March/April. Volume 98. N. 2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10]I refer to Fukuyama, F. (2018). Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.


[11] Ibid. Page 154 (loc 2293 of 3562).

[12] Ibid. Page 154 28 (loc 410).


[13] Ibid. Preface.


[14] Ibid. Page 88. (loc 1305-10 of 3562)

[15] Lilla, M. (2017). The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. New York: Harper Collins.

[16] Relative, because Hillary Clinton got almost three million more votes than Donald Trump. However, as American elections are indirect, these results say little about the electoral strength of each candidate. In key states, Trump had a clear advantage.

[17] Lilla, M. (2017). The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. New York: Harper Collins. Page 37.

[18] Ibid. Page 59.

[19] Ibid. Pages 66-67.


[20] Ibid. Page 82.


[21] Ibid. Page 83.


[22] Ibid. Page 84.


[23] Ibid. Page 90.

[24] Ibid.


[25] Ibid. Pages 111-112.

[26] Nussbaum, M. (2006). “Man Overboard”. The New Republic. 22 June

[27] One contemporary line of research that points to environment, particularly the stress levels that children experience in very disadvantaged environments, offers an interesting avenue of exploration. High levels of cortisol, associated with recurrent stress, negatively affect the cognitive development of children who live in these situations. Regarding this, see, for example, Piccolo, L.R., and Noble, K.G. (2019). “How can poverty shape children’s brains? Insights from a cognitive neuroscience perspective”. Handbook of Infant Mental Health.

[28] Waldron, J. (2018). “Brave Spaces”. The New York Review of Books. 28 June. Coulter and Yiannopoulos are far right people of very little interest, whose presence on university campuses has been inflammatory.

[29] See Roth, M.S. (2019). Safe Enough Spaces. New Haven: Yale University Press. Page 32 (loc. 428 of 2155).


[30] Ibid. Page 101 (loc 1360 of 2155).


[31] Ibid. Page 120. (loc. 1585 of 2155).


[32] Ibid. 122-23 (loc 1614-1620 of 2155).


[33] In their book Haidt, J. and Lukianoff, G. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind. New York: Penguin Random House.

[34] See Francis Fukuyama, op. cit., p. 100 (loc 1484 of 3562).

[35]See Berlin, I. (1988) [1949]. Cuatro Ensayos sobre la Libertad. Madrid: Alianza Editorial. Page 242