When I was growing up, one of the core values of this country was freedom. We celebrated it as a citizen’s natural right, embodied in the Bill of Rights, which was the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. While the Constitution itself is mostly a procedural for how the government will operate, the Bill of Rights describes those operational necessities that remain with the citizen or those actions that the government is forbidden to perform.
It’s not hard to understand why my generation would value freedom. Our fathers had just fought a long and bitter war against cultures that seemed to celebrate tyranny over the individual. And our generation would be fighting—in spirit if not on an actual battlefield—a cold war against oppressive cultures that wanted to force their values on the rest of the world. Freedom of individual conscience was considered a uniquely American value, but it was one derived from the long history of democratic government in Western Civilization, going back to the Greeks and Romans.1
But it’s a wonder that in just two generations, the forty years or so since I was a young man, the core value has shifted from freedom, which is now considered dangerous, to compliance, which is considered to be safe.
“Compliance” in this sense means that the individual is supposed to surrender his or her personal choices about thought and action to the direction and approval of the group. School campuses have—and the students there loudly and actively enforce—speech codes intended to prevent causing others distress or offence. They operate a separate system of justice regulating interactions between the sexes, or rather, governing how males may touch, communicate with, or even look at the females around them. They promote gun-free zones, of course, but the surrender goes even further in that a student is not supposed to defend him- or herself in any physical or verbal attack but instead seek protection and arbitration from the school’s overriding authority.
And none of this—the limits on speech, action, and defense—is left to the perception, conscience, and direction of the individual. My parents raised me not to give intentional or unintentional offense to people, to think before I spoke, and to be mindful of the feelings of those around me. They taught me to be a gentleman in my dealings with women, to treat them with respect, and not to pressure or bully them with unwanted attention. They taught me to stand up for myself, to stand my ground in an attack, and meet force with necessary force. But none of those precepts would be adequate on today’s campus.
The issue is that compliance with codes of speech and action is not self-directed. It matters not at all what I as an individual might think would give offense to another person. Nor how much I tried to be a gentleman to the ladies around me. Nor that I had a general live-and-let-live policy, but that the freedom of others ended at the tip of my nose. Those would be my values, not those of the larger group.
These days, what is offensive or inappropriate is not left to common sense, good personal judgment, or individual perceptions of fairness. It is governed by a narrow segment of the local society: those with the most anxiety, anger, or insecurity. And where individuals in that delicate class may be too timid to speak up, the dictums are prescribed by a political viewpoint that has a built-in bias favoring anyone who can claim a past history of oppression or present him- or herself as the underdog in the argument. Because such persons by nature tend to represent minority positions in American society—people of any race or cultural heritage not derived from the Caucasian or European, or from an economic background not identified as middle class and above, or subscribing to a sexual orientation not heterosexual male or female2—this bias is dictated by and protective of a small segment of society and hostile to the larger portion of that society. The goal, whether intended or not, would seem to be making the larger part of our country feel outcast, isolated, and in terms of 1960s Transactional Analysis “not okay.” As such, this is an attack on the uninvolved majority by the offended minority and—in some cases, such as the more convoluted sexual orientations—by statistical outliers.3
The existence of these codes of speech and action—and ultimately of thought—renders the individual powerless. Freedom is no longer the state of being able to evaluate and choose for oneself from a limitless variety of possibilities about what to say, do, and think. Freedom is now reduced to the meager opportunity to harm, to offend, to act out, and to violate the directives of the group. That is, to not comply.
Of course, freedom is messy. A society that lets people think for themselves will have a large fraction—perhaps even the majority—thinking and choosing wrongly and adopting absurd, ineffective, and provably false beliefs. A society where people can say anything they want will have a large number of disagreements, hurt feelings, and even a few fistfights. A society where people can do whatever they choose will have a large number of accidents and occasionally ruined lives. It takes resourcefulness, determination, skill, and guts to grow up and function in such a society. The survivor will develop a hard intellectual and emotional shell, a measure of distrust of his or her fellow human beings, and not a little cynicism.
The alternative is the beehive or the ant colony, where individuals function cooperatively, sedately, serenely, and safely because most choices have been removed from their lives and from their minds. It was the sort of society that the National Socialists and the Soviets tried to create and operate. These were societies where the only choices and opinions that mattered were those of the Fürher, the Number One, the queen of the colony.
This is not a society worthy of fully functioning human beings.
1. Greeks, Romans, Western Europeans, French, and Britons—they all had their own versions of democracy. But most of them, at least at some stage in their histories, relied on the voice of the common man, the “strength of the people” (δημοκρατια or demokratia in Greek), to direct the government. In order for this voice to have meaning, the common man must have freedom of thought and action. Slaves can only support tyrants.
2. One of the great accomplishments of this political bias has been to conflate women as a group—who represent half of the population—with the minority position.
3. It matters not at all that, when parsed and defined too exhaustively, the sum of these minority positions generally constitutes a majority of the population. The proponents of this political bias tend to use the prefix “cis”—as in “cis-gendered”—in a pejorative way to mean “normal.” This is a political viewpoint that revels in the unconventional, the “other,” and the outré. It is designed, in the words of newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”