The Silence of the Lambs

“Disinvitation season” used to be a season — when student activists worked to disinvite usually conservative commencement speakers.

Now it’s “cancel culture” — a year-round 24/7 pursuit to muzzle all who fail to embrace ideological purity.

The internet enables people with too much time on their hands to vet not only speakers but pretty much anyone for politically incorrect thoughts. Once a damning quote is unearthed, Twitter can broadcast it to the world and another voice is extinguished.

Lee Jussim, who leads the Social Perception Laboratory at Rutgers, calls the phenomenon “academia’s political purity spiral.”

Anyone can be a target, as Dorian Abbot well knows. A geophysicist who teaches at the University of Chicago, Abbot was invited to deliver a scientific lecture at MIT last year. Then he was disinvited because he had publicly criticized affirmative action policies.

Affirmative action supporters are free to disagree, but many apparently don’t know how to or won’t counter with fact-based arguments. One student wrote, “I don’t feel safe when you object to my premises.”

“Safe” apparently means not having their sensibilities challenged.

Abbot accepted the Hero of Intellectual Freedom Award from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni last week. I used the occasion to ask him when academia stopped being a hotbed of debate and what percentage of students and faculty want to squelch free speech.

His answers: The change hit big in 2014. One in 20, or, at most, 1 in 10, want to police the speech of others.

Why 2014? “The rise of the social media mob,” attorney Samantha Harris offered from the audience.

“If it weren’t for Twitter,” Abbot said, his invitation to MIT would have been the topic of conversation among “a dozen students grumbling in the coffee room.” And it would end there.

It takes seconds for the mob to create a hashtag — #FireProfessorX — that can go viral on Twitter.

A platform that was supposed to bring people together serves to shut people up.

An ACTA survey found that 41% of students think it is always or sometimes acceptable to shut down a speaker “to prevent them from speaking on campus.”

A 2016 paper, “Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology,” looked at 7,243 professors and found 3,623 to be registered Democrats and 314 to be registered Republicans. In journalism and communications, the ratio was 20 Democrats to 1 Republican.

Faculty registration researchers Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain and Daniel B. Klein found the Democrat-to-Republican ratio grew since 2004 and looks to be growing.

Diversity? The holy trinity in college HR departments — DEI for diversity, equity and inclusion — is not about diversity. If academics truly believed in diversity, they’d hire people who think outside their box. But they don’t.

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Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute's Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Contact her at

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