THE BLOG

Tolerance and Totalitarianism

05/21/2015 11:56 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Co-authored by Frank Turek

A disturbing trend is sweeping across American colleges and universities under the guise of protecting students from allegedly offensive speech -- defined differently by different interest groups -- with demands for everything from "trigger warnings" to banning speakers from campus.

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Trigger warnings are supposed to be issued to students before readings, classroom lectures, or public talks on such topics as sex, addiction, bullying, suicide, sizeism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, slut shaming, victim-blaming, and who-knows-what-else, thereby infantilizing students instead of preparing them for the real world where they most assuredly will not be so shielded.

Banning speakers includes the recent wave of "disinvitations" of controversial figures after waves of protest from students and faculty. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 257 such incidents have occurred since 2000, 111 of which were successful in preventing the invited speakers from delivering their speeches. In this theater of the absurd students from U.C. Berkeley -- birthplace of the 1960's free speech movement -- attempted to disinvite the comedian and social commentator Bill Maher, who delivered his commencement speech nonetheless, pointing out that apparently irony isn't taught in college any longer.

What may have started out as well-intentioned actions at curbing prejudices and changing thoughts with the goal of making people more tolerant has now morphed into campus thought police attempting to impose totalitarian measures that result in silencing dissent of any kind. The result is the very opposite of what free speech and a college education is all about.

Case in point: On April 16 of this year the two of us -- one an atheist (Shermer) the other a theist (Turek) debated at Stony Brook University on "What Better Explains Morality: God or Science?" The event was widely publicized, we had a standing-room-only crowd of 650 people and another 200 outside watching on closed circuit televisions, and the event was live-streamed to thousands more. A lively audience split roughly half and half for each of us, responded vigorously to our various arguments and the hosts seems pleased with how the evening turned out.

Imagine our surprise, then, when a group called the Graduate Queer Alliance (GQA) published a letter in the campus newspaper The Statesman demanding "an apology from the administrator(s) involved in bringing Dr. Turek and his homophobia to campus." The letter continued with a list of grievances, starting with the assertion that some ideas are "harmful, and at a liberal educational institution, injurious ideas are rightfully criticized and not given an unquestioned platform to be presented. A different mechanism of presentation is required if ideas are deemed potentially harmful."

First of all, who determines which ideas are harmful or injurious? Should colleges allocate resources for setting up an Injurious Ideas Committee (IIC) to evaluate all talks, lectures, and readings on campus? And who should be on such a committee? Members of every organization with a political or ideological ax to grind? Such viewpoint discrimination would be unconstitutional anyway in light of the Supreme Court's Southworth decision.

Second, the event was debate where both sides were represented. Hardly an "unquestioned platform"!

Third, the GQA failed to mention that it was Shermer, not Turek, who brought up the topic of gay rights and same-sex marriage, and that Shermer mounted such a spirited defense of the LGBTQ community that numerous Christians in the audience booed and hissed his passionate casus belli! Dr. Turek also cited clear arguments in favor of keeping marriage between a man and woman, which made for an engaging cross-examination period (see the entire debate here).

Yet, instead of attempting to counter Turek's arguments with better arguments, the GQA attempted to smear his character and dismiss his arguments as "nonsense" and "propaganda" that is "so far from the truth that it should be self-evident in the 21st century and especially to the millennial generation that currently attends Stony Brook that a speaker who holds these beliefs should not be given such a prestigious platform to speak in the first place."

Wrong. If it were self-evident then the same-sex marriage debate would not be the hot-button issue of 2015 that it is. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in March of 2015, 59 percent of Americans said they support same-sex marriage. This means that for 41 percent of Americans same-sex marriage is not self-evidently true. And even if only a tiny percentage of the nation were against same sex marriage that would not be a reason to shut down debate. At one point only a tiny percentage were for same sex marriage, but people were still free to advance the idea.

GQA and groups like it on campuses around the country are not interested in facts and arguments, only in silencing those with whom they disagree. That's not tolerance. That's totalitarianism. (Note to the GQA and similar groups: In order to "tolerate" something you must disagree with it!)

If there's one thing a free people cannot tolerate, it is a totalitarian mandate to silence all opinions that dissent one's own. It is an intellectually lazy, intolerant and unconstitutional position. This atheist and Christian agree with same-sex marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan who wrote against this totalitarian impulse this way: "If this is the gay rights movement today -- hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else -- then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us."

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Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is The Moral Arc.

Frank Turek is a Christian apologist, public speaker, and the host of the American Family Radio show CrossExamined. He is the author of Correct, Not Politically Correct.