Ideologies, Ideologues, and Academic Freedom

Max J. Skidmore
Political Science
Univ. of Missouri-Kansas City

Note: This paper was given at the Second Annual Conference on Intellectual Freedom, April 1996, Montana State University-Northern

The American academy is under attack from without and within. We all are familiar with works, some lurid, that vilify the professoriate, condemn the students, and seek to undermine the university. Nor have elementary and secondary education been exempt (1). Most of these attacks have come from outside, although not all. Classic Platonists from within have joined forces with laissez-faire economists, rightist writers grinding their axes, and assorted profscamwrights from without.

I was startled to discover my own institution identified in one of these books as having caused a professor to leave because it refused to permit good teaching. Although I was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, I had never heard of the professor. Curious, I looked into the situation, and discovered that she had been a part-time, temporary, lecturer employed to teach one course, one time, some semesters previously. Hardly anyone remembered her. Ironically, she had taught her course in a department known for its concern for quality teaching.

Critics of higher education have become adept at misrepresenting the academy, and portraying some genuinely outrageous situations--created by some often outrageous and sometimes simply silly people--as characterizing the whole of higher education. They encourage conservative politicians--often already skeptical of public higher education and sometimes hostile to public services in general--to reduce support for colleges and universities.

This is not to say that there is no substance at all to charges from the right. There have indeed been attacks on academic freedom from within the academy itself. These have taken many forms, including repressive speech codes, retaliation for statements by both students and professors in class and out, and failure to provide a modicum of justice to those accused of improper conduct. Along with all this is a new Victorianism that has emerged to put the original in many ways to shame. The genuine Victorians at least maintained a large measure of respect for the visual arts.

Yet however harsh the critics may appear, certainly some of them from all varieties of the political spectrum, and from both inside and outside the academy, are people of good will, people seeking to improve matters as they see them. Most of their goals are laudable. Who could not endorse a reduction in the rate of pregnancy among unmarried teenagers? What thoughtful person could quarrel with the idea that racism is wrong, that hate speech is evil, that sexual harassment should be eliminated, that religious discrimination should have no place in American life? Unfortunately, the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Although it would be folly in this vale of tears to expect perfection, surely intelligent people of good will can devise ways to improve the situation without threatening intellectual freedom. If not, there is no hope, because threats to intellectual freedom subvert the very values that the critics seek to inculcate. A cursory glance at works reflecting the long tradition of nonviolent thought and experience--not to mention the train of thought that culminated in the Declaration of Independence--should be sufficient to convince all but the most zealous observer that coercion of conscience, however well intended, is counterproductive (2). Those who are most zealous resemble nothing so much as religious fundamentalists whose religion leads them to believe that they, and they alone, represent the truth. Such zealots may not think of their concern as religious. Nevertheless, as I have written elsewhere, fundamentalists of all kinds "are likely to attempt to impose their particular version of the truth upon others. When this happens, religious ideology becomes political ideology." In this instance, in a reverse twist, it is political ideology that virtually becomes religious ideology. Regardless, as so often happens, the political ideology that is related to fundamentalism, religious and otherwise, leads directly to human misery (3).

Those critics from the right may intend to endorse "family values," or otherwise to improve the quality of life. Many of the critics from within the academy seek to improve conditions for the oppressed and afflicted, to comfort and protect those whom they believe to be victimized by society or by ruling elites, and otherwise to uplift the downtrodden. Such concerns lead these academicians generally to consider themselves--and lead observers also to consider them--as leftists. For most, this is appropriate. Nevertheless, the more extreme among them have taken on right-wing (indeed Fascist) overtones--advocating repression by the state, demonizing a specific group under the guise of protecting others, stressing the primacy of power relationships and seeking power for themselves so that they can become the controllers, and denying the human worth of those who disagree. To be sure, not all are so overtly extreme. However, virtually all the critics attack the principle of free expression, implicitly if not explicitly, and work to undercut the protections central to the vigor of America's intellectual life, the protections of the Constitution and its First Amendment.

At least in principle, few Americans would disagree with Henry Steele Commager's ringing endorsement of freedom of expression nearly forty years ago:

To insist on orthodoxy and penalize ideas or arguments that deviate from that orthodoxy--even ideas and arguments that in Justice Holmes's great phrase are "loathsome and fraught with death"--is of course to set up prior standards by which to judge all ideals and arguments. How are we to know what ideas are dangerous unless we know what is "safe?" And who is to establish the criteria of danger and safety? How are we to recognize "extreme" statements," unless we have some standard of "moderate" statements? How are we to recognize those who "deviate" unless we know what is the norm? Is it possible to obtain agreement on any such standards? Clearly it is not. What the Senate of Minnesota would consider a moderate and normal statement on human rights, the Senate of Mississippi would consider extreme and dangerous [certainly, there has been vast improvement in Mississippi; this statement, happily, may no longer be valid]. What Unitarians would regard as a common sense statement on evolution, members of Jehovah's Witnesses would consider erroneous. What a Quaker...would consider a moderate statement about nuclear disarmament, the American Legion would regard as un-American [one would hope that there might have been enough change to call this statement into question also, although it would be unwise to count on it].... As Justice Jackson said in the second flag-salute case: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." (4)

On matters of specific application, however, many Americans would disagree very definitely. The old adage might now be revised to become: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but 'only words' can harm me--in fact, they are worse than sticks and stones, because words are certain to harm me mentally as well as physically, and to destroy my very personality." This is less catchy, but the idea seems at least in some circles to have superseded the original. The operative assumption appears to be that the human personality (at least when possessed by victims, however defined) is simply too fragile to withstand challenges. Moreover, there is such a shortage nowadays of the kind of rhetoric that Commager employed--rhetoric drawn specifically from American political thought--as to make his passage readily identifiable (sad to say) as coming from an earlier period.

How can this be? What factors encourage some people of intelligence and good will to try to advance ends by using means destructive of those ends? A key to understanding the paradox is an understanding of the nature and role of ideology. Before examining the phenomenon of ideology, it will be helpful briefly to consider the situation as it now exists.

Neil Hamilton has produced an impressive compendium of the history of what he calls zealotry in higher education (5). Unfortunately, he speaks from personal experience, having been attacked by those within the academy who would require all speech to conform to their standards. Nadine Strossen, in her courageously and aptly titled study, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights (6), similarly offers an enormous catalogue of attempts--many successful--to repress speech, and other forms of expression, and to regulate opinion both within the academy and outside it. She demonstrates the damage that such attempts inflict upon the very principles generally professed by the groups that employ them. These and many other works make it unnecessary to provide numerous examples here. We all know that they exist, and that they are too frequent.

We must recognize, however, that repression in the academy is far from universal. Much academic freedom does remain. That it does so, unfortunately is not necessarily a tribute to the faculty. Hamilton notes that "faculties often publicly defend academic freedom of alleged heretics poorly during a period of zealotry" (7).

During the McCarthy period, many among the professoriate were hounded from their positions without support from their colleagues. Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins University, one of the senator's prime targets, "discovered that the university professor stands in an exposed salient when the winds of zealotry are blowing." There was no need for proof. A smear alone could cause loss of position under conditions that made it difficult to find employment elsewhere (8). Most academicians were reluctant to take public positions that might suggest sympathy toward communism.

Strossen demonstrates that academicians under the influence of writers such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin may react in a manner similar to reactions of their predecessors during the days of McCarthy. In both periods, many colleagues found themselves unwilling to protest for fear that they would be considered deviant, and others agreed with the charges. One of the more inexcusable examples occurred in the fall of 1992 at the University of Michigan, where MacKinnon teaches law.

Student organizers of a symposium on prostitution had the previous spring invited Detroit artist Carol Jacobsen to curate an exhibit on the subject at the symposium, including her own work. The students had assured Jacobsen that the conference would not be dominated by MacKinnon's influence, although "in fact the symposium turned out to be exclusively for speakers with that perspective, including Dworkin and MacKinnon themselves." The students ultimately admitted to Jacobsen that the symposium had shifted from a discussion of prostitution into a forum for the "antipornography movement" (9). Shortly after the symposium opened, some of MacKinnon's student followers complained to her about the substance of Jacobsen's exhibit. She, in turn, brought the complaints to the attention of the student organizers. The ultimate result was the removal of Jacobsen's exhibit (10).

MacKinnon denies that she asked that the exhibit be removed, and students leaders agree that she played no part in their decision. Some angrily charged that the exhibit "could incite men to rape," and that in fact it was the artist who "interfered with their freedom of expression" (11). Yet Strossen reports that one student "confided to Jacobsen that she felt pressured by MacKinnon," and in any case the action was certainly consistent with MacKinnon's teaching and with her frequently expressed opinions. Other students argued that the issue was not censorship, but student belief that the exhibit "would be a threat to their safety" (12).

As for such tactics being counterproductive and playing into the hands of the far right, Strossen says in strong terms that:

This ugly episode demonstrates that the feminist antipornography movement will inevitably suppress not only works that are especially valuable to women and feminists because they deal with the centrally important topics of sex and gender, but also works that have broad-ranging artistic and political value. Important issues examined in the censored tapes included police abuse, prison conditions, poverty, and homelessness. It is nothing short of Orwellian that such works, in many respects as compelling artistically as they were politically, could be peremptorily confiscated as "pornography" that threatened conferees' "safety." That this action happened at a prestigious law school and was defended by a dean [Lee Bollinger] who has written books about the First Amendment, heightens its nightmarish quality. As [feminist anthropologist from Columbia University] Carole Vance concluded, "This case...shatters the illusion that restricting sexual imagery for feminist purposes is distinguishable from fundamentalist censorship--either in method or consequence." (13)

As for a repeat of the McCarthy period's conspicuous reluctance of faculty to speak out in defense of free expression, the episode reveals a shocking timidity. After all, echoing the earlier reluctance to do anything that would be thought sympathetic to communism, it is rare in this neo-Victorian time for anyone to risk being thought sympathetic to "pornography," however difficult or impossible it might be to define it.

Where were Jacobson's defenders? Did this top ten law school cough up any homegrown Alan Dershowitzes, First Amendment zealots bellowing about the marketplace of ideas? Well, no. Jacobsen says she received not so much as a Hallmark sympathy card, much less an amicus brief, from Michigan faculty, though one art professor did help her take her exhibit down. Noting the "deafening silence" of the people who are paid by the state to educate the taxpaying citizens of tomorrow, Carole Vance ventures that "no one wanted to cross Catherine MacKinnon." (14)

There have been many, less heralded, precedents. John Preston has written of his experience in 1970 directing the country's first gay/lesbian community center, Gay House, Inc., in Minneapolis. Andrea "Dworkin used to run a lesbian discussion group in the center. One of her favorite antics back then," he wrote, "was to deface any poster or other material that promoted male homosexuality. THIS OPPRESSES WOMEN! she'd write all over the place." Preston admittedly had not expected Dworkin's reaction, thinking "in those innocent days, after many heated discussions with women about male sexism," that if men "were all that bad, then women should be happy to have us...go off and inflict our sexuality on one another rather than on members of the opposite gender.... Dworkin never bought that, and I've come to understand that it's the expression of any male sexuality that she feels fuels the oppression of women in our society" (15).

He described Dworkin's departure from the "world of small lesbian discussion groups" to join "up with MacKinnon, a law professor, to develop theories that would eventually lead them to promote laws that in any form would have undermined the First Amendment." Their argument that "speech is action" caused turmoil in Minneapolis, where a restrictive ordinance fell victim to a veto by the mayor, and subsequently in Indianapolis where they "used a highly divisive strategy of allying themselves with the Christian right to promote the same bill...," which also ran afoul of the First Amendment. In Canada, though, with no such amendment, they succeeded--with unanticipated consequences. A reactionary high court, in the now notorious Butler decision, adopted their reasoning that speech could "oppress women." There was no effect upon companies with substantial resources, including the publishers of Playboy and Penthouse, magazines that were among their intended targets. Instead, the most common victims were small lesbian bookstores. Even some of Dworkin's own works have been banned in our neighbor to the north (16). Canadian sociologist Thelma MacCormack, has said that "The Butler decision belongs to the right. The Supreme Court of Canada doesn't give a damn about gender equality. It is concerned about control, and was pleased to have a feminist gloss put on it" (17).

We have learned too little from such examples, and from our own history. Often, administrators who fear "the most fractious forces on campus,...silently (sometimes vocally) endorsed by a comatose and complicit faculty...are ceding their mission to educate--and to lead--and allowing overwrought twenty-year-olds to determine what can and cannot be displayed on a college campus." Failing to respond adequately to real issues of sexism, they "will snap to when someone says that a film or work of art is offensive." Carole Vance says wryly (and perceptively) that "It's a relatively inexpensive way for an administration to show its concern" (18).

Strossen's reference to Orwell in discussing the Michigan incident is appropriate--suppressing expression becomes not censorship, but a public-safety measure. Such episodes suggest echoes from Kafka, as well. The critics from the right who express such concern about "political correctness" would not see "PC" in this instance, at all. Instead, they likely would believe the real issue to be "public safety," even though an impartial observer should detect it immediately as spurious. They thus would portray censorship in this instance as enhancing "family values." Sadly, those of their allies from within the academy who fear the closing of the American mind and argue that quality has suffered from student dominance of the curriculum, seem not to see the danger to quality from student censorship.

In response to the constant repetition that "feminists" endorse censorship, Strossen reveals clearly that many feminists, herself included, reject the "MacDworkinite" approach (19). Still, "academic freedom is a fragile concept in the United States. Our society, to the extent that it is free and open, is susceptible to platitudes and slogans" (20). Marjorie Heins, director of ALCU's Arts Censorship Project and a student of censorship, has remarked that "students are increasingly seduced by these code-word excuses.... There's a tendency to describe anything you don't like in a work of art as sexual harassment, so that it becomes a civil rights violation" (21). We live in a world of sound bites, commercials, and short attention spans: one made to order for purveyors of ideologies.

Those who attack academic freedom, whether from inside or outside the academy, form a strange mixture. Each group unwittingly supports the other. The odd nature of "antipornography" groups that include radical feminists alongside zealous religious fundamentalists whose essential view of women is that they should be home, "barefoot, and pregnant," is obvious. Other groupings may be equally odd, but far less obvious. Conservative politicians attacking academic freedom believe that those whom they label the forces of "political correctness" are in the grip of sinister political ideologies that govern their actions. Their antagonists within the academy, actively attacking academic freedom as well, view the politicians as right-wing extremists, also under the sway of pernicious ideologies.

It thus is essential, as mentioned above, to examine ideology itself (22). Early in the century, totalitarian movements deliberately--and openly--propagated ideologies to advance their own ends. This association with political extremism of both right and left understandably has bequeathed to most of us a discomfort with the whole notion of ideology, especially political ideology. Much of that discomfort, however, results from misconception. In truth, we all have such ideologies, and they exist in, and motivate, every society. We cannot escape them, nor should we if we could.

Ideologies provide mental cohesion by specifying a view of reality. Political ideologies guide conduct, define social roles, and provide identification with the group. They help human beings make sense of the world by suggesting--or asserting--answers to humanity's most fundamental questions.

What is human nature? Why are things as they are and how should they be? What is desirable and what is possible? What is the nature of society? Can it change, and if so how so? How should the state function? What should be the relationship between group and individual? What is "the good life?" What arrangements should exist regarding property? In pursuing political ends, what means are appropriate?

Questions such as these are at the basis of human existence. A record of the searches for appropriate answers would form a chronicle of much of the experience of our species. It is political ideology that makes it possible to pursue those answers. It does so by justifying existing institutions and specifying the means appropriate to protect them--or by justifying attempts to revise those institutions and specifying the means of revision. Those means may be gradual or sudden, gentle or violent. Ideologies thus underlie the most contrary of human actions: human liberation on the one hand, mass murder on the other; torture and imprisonment on the one hand, works of high culture on the other.

Hardly any two authorities on ideologies agree precisely upon the specifics of a definition, but there are certain characteristics that most definitions incorporate. The broadest definition offers the greatest utility, as does one that seeks simplicity as opposed to philosophical sophistication. Such a definition as the following permits recognition of the ideological nature of much activity that a more restricted definition fails to consider:

First, a political ideology is a reasonably coherent pattern of ideas about politics and government. This means ideas about the purposes of collective life, about the ways to attain social goals, about the relationship between the individual and others, and about how resources are to be developed and distributed. Second, a political ideology succeeds in simplifying these ideas considerably. To do this, it relies heavily on verbal and nonverbal symbols. Finally, a political ideology provides a program and incites action. This will necessarily involve strong emotional appeals. A one-sentence definition might therefore be: "Political ideology is a form of thought that presents a pattern of complex political ideas simply and in a manner that inspires action to achieve certain goals." (23)

Any society sufficiently cohesive to exist will have a political ideology thus defined, although its members might not recognize it as such.

It thus is not ideology in the abstract that is the danger, at least not in the sense that we should attempt to avoid ideologies. There is, however, a twofold peril. The first is that an ideology unrecognized as such is less likely to be questioned. Failing to understand the nature of one's own ideology can therefore lead to the assumption that anyone of intelligence and good will must be in agreement; those who are not, are fools--or knaves. But a knowledge of the workings of ideology makes it possible to accept the existence of diverse views, which can lead to tolerance of opposing opinion.

The second peril is the ideologue. Although all people turn to ideology in one fashion or another, their reactions are many and varied, depending upon individual psychology. Some are overwhelmed; when an ideology ceases to be merely a guide, it can become instead an all-consuming passion. When an ideology entirely supersedes a person's critical abilities, that person has become an ideologue.

In the hands--or minds--of ideologues (or those cynically catering to the whims of ideologues), ideologies may have consequences that produce the opposite of what the ideology would seem to encourage. Practice and consequence frequently differs from principle. We are all familiar with religious ideologies based on notions of peace and inclusion of all humanity that have led to war and brutality. We recognize that ideologies of freedom and individuality can lead to repressive "red scares" and "McCarthyism." We know that ideologies of liberation can lead to enslavement.

Many ideologies display their pernicious features quite candidly. Stalinism or Nazism would immediately repel any consistent advocate of liberal democracy. But not all ideologies are so open. Many are subtle, and can be persuasive if they appear to incorporate attractive values, although their consequences might be incompatible. Yet even the best of ideologies, whatever their character, can be corrupted by ideologues. Unfortunately, there can be corruption even without an ideologue. Any ideology can become corrupted if it goes unquestioned, or if it destroys the ability to change one's mind. Under certain circumstances, if it is taken too fervently or too literally, even an ideology of independence could destroy independent thought (24).

Whatever their motivating ideology, the critics of intellectual freedom should attempt to look openly and dispassionately at the alternatives. We can be apprehensive at what may happen to freedom of discourse in Hong Kong, a vigorous and thriving intellectual community, when the Chinese assume authority on midnight of June 30, 1997. Already, newspapers, radio, and television there increasingly are practicing self-censorship so as not to offend the powerful neighbor and future ruler.

At home, we are free from an impending takeover from outside, but many of us have become conscious of a hardly less overt censorship from within. In some states, teachers avoid discussion of evolution. Many high-school history texts fail to discuss the New Deal because of pressures from groups that consider it to have been "socialistic." In universities, some of the faculty may consider it too risky to use certain examples, or to discuss certain topics, however significant they may be, for fear of giving offense to someone.

Who suffers? To be sure, the faculty does suffer to some extent. But those with the most to lose are the students who are denied the full range of intellectual exploration that is so vital to mature mental development. Ultimately, it is society that suffers.

Unacceptable actions should be punished, and this certainly includes acts of intimidation. As for speech or symbolic representation, it is not possible to protect every person from being offended. If it were possible, it would be doing no favor; it would not be providing adequate preparation for the rigors of life beyond the academy. Developing a sense of humor and the ability to keep things in perspective is essential for that life. What is essential is for administrations, faculties, and students to strive jointly to establish a climate of courtesy and civility. Hate speech, speech that demeans, should be recognized as socially unacceptable. It is a serious issue, but censorship is not the answer. Censorship has definite consequences; empowering the powerless is not among them. Increasing the coercive powers of those in control can never lead to improvement in the situation of those who are controlled.


(1) See, e.g., John S. Simmons, ed., Censorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, Thinking (Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 1994), passim, esp. the Preface, ix-xi.

(2) See especially Mulford Q. Sibley, The Quiet Battle (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co. Anchor Books, 1963) and Judith Stiehm, Nonviolent Power: Active and Passive Resistance in America (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1972).

(3) Max J. Skidmore, Ideologies: Politics in Action, 2nd ed. (Ft. Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), 252.

(4) Henry Steele Commager, "Is Freedom an Academic Question?" Saturday Review 21 June 1964: 54-56.

(5) Neil Hamilton, Zealotry and Academic Freedom (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995).

(6) Nadine Strossen, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights (New York: Anchor Books, 1995).

(7) Hamilton, 235.

(8) Ibid. 22.

(9) Strossen 212.

(10) See Ibid. 212-214.

(11) Liza Mundy, "The New Critics: MacKinnonites. Race Men. Angry Consumer Advocates," Lingua Franca Sept./Oct. 1993: 29.

(12) Strossen 214-215.

(13) Ibid. 215; Vance quoted from "Feminist Fundamentalism: Women against Images," Art in America September 1993: 35-39.

(14) Mundy 30.

(15) John Preston, "Whose Free Speech?" Censorship News: A Newsletter of the National Coalition Against Censorship No. 50 (Issue 4, 1993): 3; reprinted from Boston Phoenix (8 October 1993).

(16) See Ibid. 3-4.

(17) Quoted in "MacKinnon/Dworkin 'Theories' Flunk Reality Test," Ibid. 1.

(18) Mundy 27.

(19) See, e.g., Ibid. 32-35.

(20) Jack L. Nelson, "The Significance of and Rationale for Academic Freedom" in Anna S. Ochoa, ed., Academic Freedom to Teach and to Learn: Every Teacher's Issue (Washington: National Education Association, 1990), 26.

(21) Mundy 27.

(22) See Skidmore for an in-depth examination of political ideologies; the next few paragraphs draw upon material in the Introduction.

(23) Ibid. 7.

(24) See Ibid. 308-315; in contemporary America this phenomenon is especially notable in economic thought, with the more extreme of the free-market ideologues easily matching the radicalism and irrationality of their opposite numbers, the more extreme of the Marxists.

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