Robert Boyers has written an excellent analysis of the power of ideas. In particular, he has explained how ideas are trafficked on college campuses today. He argues that when universities create safe spaces, spaces designed to protect students from dissonant and dissenting ideas, they are stifling intellectual inquiry and damaging students’ abilities to think rationally.
His idea, dare I say, is unimpeachable. He is also suggesting, without quite using these words, that the thought police that patrol college campuses are really agents of cults. Ideas are one thing. The question is: who is thinking the great ideas when we are not? The answer must be the gods and goddesses who are associated with the ideas. When we bow down to an idea we are joining a cult that worships the god or goddess. Multiculturalism, I have occasionally argued, is a return to pagan idolatry. As you know, Greek gods and goddesses are all associated with big ideas. Apollo with reason; Athena with wisdom or science; Aphrodite with sensuality; Hermes with communication; Dionysius with spring break.
Boyers expresses the notion thusly:
A friend of mine told me, not long ago, that passionate intensity was overrated, and conviction too. I knew what she meant. People with convictions are much of the time tedious. Moreover, they are intent upon achieving a grand consensus and, not incidentally, bringing everyone else to their knees. They want the rest of us to feel free to express ourselves, as they like to say, but only on the condition that we find them and their convictions irresistible and keep our mouths shut when we don’t. No surprise that passionate intensity seems often to belong most insistently to the commissars of correctness and their inflamed camp followers, who have as little use for real argument as they have for genuine difference or diversity.
People with passionate intensity and fervent convictions are cult followers. They want to bring us to our knees, not merely metaphorically and not merely in an attitude of submission. They want us on our knees worshipping the god associated with the idea.
When you worship an idea with passionate intensity and are convinced beyond reason that it represents a higher truth, you become a member of a cult. The more intense your conviction the more status you have in the cult. How better to prove your conviction than sacrificing yourself for an idea. That is what we are seeing on campuses today.
To underscore the point: holding the right beliefs does not fill your life with meaning. It makes you a member of a cult where everyone thinks the same way and where you are allowed membership in a space where you are never being forced to listen to any ideas that do not echo your own. Narcissism, anyone?
And yet, Boyers sagely notes, ideas are not fixed entities. They shift over time. His point will be easier to understand if you think in terms of word usage. Words do not have fixed meanings. Their meanings change in the marketplace of language usage.
With ideas or with the words that supposedly convey them, something slightly different happens. Rather than have the meaning of words change with usage, certain words are taken over by ideologues who try to impose one usage on everyone else. We can call it the fetishization of ideas, if you like.
In Boyers’ words:
Though people hold them or dismiss them, promote them or disparage them, ideas often seem unstable. Often we think we are debating an idea only to discover that it no longer means what we thought it meant. We proclaim our affection for equality, autonomy, liberation, authenticity only to find that the meanings of those words and the concepts they name have changed into something unrecognizable. Those of us who have long been wary of big ideas, ideas that mobilize infatuates, find that even modest ideas are routinely appropriated for purposes that can seem astonishing. This is a time when students and their mentors at major universities declare themselves endangered by the "unsafe and hostile" environment created by a professor — call her Laura Kipnis if you like — who had the nerve to publish a so-called offensive essay. Thought you understood terms like "unsafe," "hostile," and "endangered" and knew more or less what diversity of outlook or opinion might entail in an academic environment? Think again.
Ideas have always been in flux. The standard, unfavorable sense conveyed by the word "prejudice" was consistently challenged, over centuries, by thinkers like Edmund Burke and, later, T.S. Eliot, who saw in prejudice the goal you hoped to arrive at if you were to have a foundation for your thoughts and any hope of conducting a serious argument. MacIntyre changed the way we think about "identity" by asserting that rebellion against one’s own inherited identity is often a powerful way of expressing it. Herbert Marcuse, by no means alone in this, stirred a generation of radicals to consider whether tolerance might itself be an instrument or symptom of repression, thereby converting the benign idea celebrated by John Stuart Mill and other liberal thinkers into something else.
When ideas have been fetishized you need to take care that you do not misuse an idea. Doing so constitutes a thought crime and opens you to assault. Since no one ever knows with certainty what you really believe, all cult members are especially sensitive to anything that seems to reveal deviant thoughts. When you get it wrong, you have not just offered an opinion. You are threatening someone’s group (or cult) membership:
And yet, in spite of this long history of instability in the domain of ideas, it is now harder than ever to argue about ideas without first ascertaining that you and your antagonist share even rudimentary assumptions about what exactly is intended when a concept is invoked. Is judgment an exercise of discrimination or, as Montaigne had it, "an expression of habit"? Is "the other" to be understood as external to oneself or as a part of oneself? Is perfectibility to be understood as a delusion or, as Rousseau contended, that which principally distinguishes us from animals?
Once ideas function within a cult, they become dogma. Or, as Boyers says: their status becomes “all but unimpeachable:”
We have long supposed that so-called liberal societies are worth defending precisely because they are committed to pluralism and the clash of ideas. And yet on several fronts our liberal societies are advancing toward what a number of thinkers, from Isaiah Berlin to John Gray, call "missionary regimes" promoting what they take to be "advanced values." These values are informed by ideas whose status is — or is felt to be — all but unimpeachable.
How has it happened? Boyers names the principal culprits:
More and more in such settings, the learning agenda is controlled by cadres of so-called human-relations or human-resources professionals and their academic enablers, who, as the Yale English professor David Bromwich has described them, regard "learning as a form of social adjustment," and believe that it is their business to promote "adherence to accepted community values." Ideas thus are esteemed only insofar as they ordain a safe and accredited direction that we can learn, all of us, to follow. Dialogue is encouraged so long as it is rooted in approved suppositions and clearly headed where we must all want it to go. The atmosphere has about it, as Bromwich sharply observes, the qualities of "a laboratory that knows how to monitor everything, and how to create nothing" and "a church held together by the hunt for heresies."
It is inevitable. If you believe that cults hold together when people all adhere to the same doctrines and believe in the same dogmas, you will need to institute inquisitorial practices to figure out whether people really believe what you want them to believe—that is, whether you have full control of their minds—or whether they are faking it.
Boyers then uncovers the contradiction that underlies the current acadmic mania about safe spaces. An academic culture that proclaims the value of diversity demands ideological conformity:
Bizarre that a culture officially committed to diversity and openness should be essentially conformist, and that the hostility to the clash of incommensurable ideas and even to elementary difference should be promoted with the sort of clear conscience that can belong only to people who don’t know what they’re doing.