For decades, liberal society has been obsessed with multiculturalism and tolerance. Generations of children have been raised to believe that it's good to accept everyone, celebrate differences, avoid value judgements, and affirm "authenticity" in all its forms. "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll die defending your right to say it" has been the credo of liberal societies the world over. In recent years, however, the notion of what it means to be "tolerant" has changed radically. Now, instead of merely tolerating my neighbor's differences, I must refrain from saying, doing, or even thinking anything that threatens my neighbor's ideology or makes him/her feel "uncomfortable." Tolerance, that most liberal of virtues, has become an illiberal tool used to bludgeon and intimidate anyone deemed a threat to the total success of progressive social project. "You're either with us, or you're against us," might be the new credo of liberal illiberalism.
The Spectator's Brendan O'Neill recently penned an article describing his numerous run-ins with illiberal liberals on the various university campuses of the U.K. He refers to them, ironically, as "Stepford students." "Have you met the Stepford students?" he asks cheekily. "They’re everywhere. On campuses across the land. Sitting stony-eyed in lecture halls or surreptitiously policing beer-fueled banter in the uni bar. They look like students, dress like students, smell like students. But their student brains have been replaced by brains bereft of critical faculties and programmed to conform. To the untrained eye, they seem like your average book-devouring, ideas-discussing, H&M-adorned youth, but anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in their company will know that these students are far more interested in shutting debate down than opening it up." (http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9376232/free-speech-is-so-last-century-todays-students-want-the-right-to-be-comfortable/)
The Stepford students O'Neill discusses in particular are of the feminist variety. On numerous occasions he has incurred their wrath for undermining their "mental safety," "security," and "welfare." All this, by daring to engage in public debate about issues such as abortion and religion, and for suggesting that "manly culture" doesn't breed rapists. Unbeknownst to him, O'Neill violated the cardinal sin of contemporary campus culture: Thou Shalt Not Make Anyone Feel Uncomfortable. This is particularly troubling since the university used to be the place that young people went to have their ideas challenged, to learn how to think well, how to fully explore an idea and articulate an argument. This kind of intellectual growth and development cannot occur in an environment where free inquiry and expression are stifled in the name of political correctness.
Turns out, today's young progressives aren't as keen on multiculturalism and tolerance as their predecessors were. The fires of righteous indignation and moral zealotry burn just as brightly in them as in the most ardent right wing ideologue. They truly believe that their worldview is right – not merely right for them – but right for everyone. Thus anyone who disagrees with them is not merely misguided or ill-informed, they are a positive threat to the common good that must be neutralized and marginalized to the greatest extent possible.
But as O'Neill points out, the robust exchange of ideas is a good and necessary thing for society. It inspires healthy introspection, self-examination, reassessment, and sometimes, redirection. It prevents society from settling into a tyranny of orthodoxy. This new brand of "tolerance" means that people are exempted from defending the propriety of their conduct or their views. Their right to be comfortable allows them to indulge themselves in any way they choose without engaging in any form of critical thinking about whether their beliefs and conduct are ultimately good for themselves or society at large. They subscribe to the idea advanced by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who famously said that if you repeat a lie long enough and with an air of certainty, eventually people will come to believe it. In the case of the new Stepfords, if you protest loudly enough and long enough and with the appropriate level of put-upon moral outrage and the properly curated social media campaign, you can browbeat your opponents into silence and effectively shut down debate. This trend, if allowed to continue, will produce citizens who are intellectually flaccid, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, and dangerous for their willingness to persecute perceived threats to the reigning orthodoxy – not good traits for sustaining a free, robust society.
It is good that old guard liberals like O'Neill are speaking out against this new brand of campus activism. Contrary to what the Stepford's assert, the right to be comfortable does not rank among the venerated self-evident truths perceived by democracy's forefathers. The attitude expressed on campuses across the U.K. – and here in the U.S. – is more reflective of the politics of the Soviet Union or Red China than of a free society. Or, as O'Neill says, "At British [universities] in 2014, you don’t just get education – you also get re-education, Soviet style."
The good news is, progressive intolerance is going to hang itself by its own rope. When you become so extreme that you end up violating your own core principles, that's a good sign that your ideology has started to crumble. As far as I'm concerned, this can't happen soon enough. I care more about the preservation of a free society than I do about mine or anyone else's ideological "comfort."