Catastrophic Anthropogenic Censorship: Part II

September 2018

“At the core of all well-founded belief lies belief that is unfounded.” – Wittgenstein

The potential catastrophic consequences of human-caused censorship, both on and off campus, were outlined in Part I (SAFS Newsletter, April 2018). Academics, organizations and government efforts to suppress free speech on the topic of global warming/climate change were discussed, including aggressive calls for prosecution and imprisonment of global warming sceptics. The general climate on college campuses was described using, in part, recent survey data (Gallup–Knights Foundation) from over 3,000 students that indicate an acceptance of greater limits on free speech, a greater reluctance to express opinions and support for actions such as shouting down speakers and even violence. (A study by the Brookings Institute suggest support for violence may be as much as twice (20%) that reported in the Gallup–Knights Foundation study.) Such threats to free speech, the quintessential foundation of democracy, are a consequence of emergent controlling practices now widespread among universities in North America. Those practices, although initially well intentioned, have emerged, sheltered under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion. Their effect has been inimical to free speech and, if allowed to continue, will be catastrophic to its survival.

Political conservatives are the students most likely to question the claims of human-caused climate change; they are also least likely to voice those opinions openly. Combining the above-mentioned findings from the Gallup–Knights survey, with another of its results, namely, that students now view diversity and inclusion as more important than free speech (53% vs. 46%), suggests not simply a correlation but a causal connection. CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming) advocates accuse sceptics of ignoring the facts of global warming and claim that, if a majority of citizens were to agree with such opinion, great harm would be done to the health and well-being of others. Such accusations place sceptical opinion at odds with humanitarian concerns, violating the diversity and inclusion mantra. The punishing consequences of violating that mantra are strongly suggestive of why conservative and even moderate student opinion is increasingly suppressed.

If substantial numbers of students seek out “safe spaces” and run to “cry closets” when conservatives are invited to speak on controversial topics and, if much more vocal, aggressive and disruptive students try to prevent those speakers from being heard, what are less engaged students to think and do? (Introduced at the University of Utah to help “stressed out” students cope with finals, “cry closets” are specialized “safe spaces” that can be used to cope with a variety of different stressors.) With the current lack of push-back from faculties and administrations to aggressive and disruptive actions, students become even more reluctant to express their opinion for fear of being personally targeted, intimidated and threatened. For some, that has already happened.

Beyond censorship efforts of shouting down speakers, disinviting others, accusations of student insensitivity and temporary and permanent dismissals, universities support other sanctions against those with conservative and sceptical opinion and those who wish to hear them. The growing tolerance for violent student protests creates barriers to those whom university authorities ironically accuse of being catalysts for violence. For example, there are claims that administration officials deliberately leak lists of upcoming speakers to groups hostile to their message. The groups then openly announce their intention to bring violent protesters to campus, which “cause” those same administrators to obstruct and then cancel the events out of safety concerns. One only need look at the letter sent to the Berkeley administration by the Berkeley Patriot when they were forced to cancel Free Speech Week in September of last year.

Another type of obstacle placed in the way of invited speakers is the demand that they and their student sponsors pay for security. Such costs are often prohibitive and force cancellations by campus groups unable to afford them. Over the course of a month of free speech events at Berkeley the reported cost for security was $4M. More effective, much less costly solutions to the security problem can easily be imagined, e.g., forcing protesters to remove masks or be arrested (see “Is It Illegal to Wear Masks at a Protest?”), ousting protesters at meetings who repeatedly shout down a speaker preventing him from being heard, arresting protesters who destroy property or physically attack another person, following existing university policies of suspensions and termination of student privileges etc. Unfortunately, many universities are not yet willing to embrace such obvious methods that would help preserve the peace and allow for civil discourse on campus.

Inflammatory speech can serve to incite violence and rhetoric surrounding the global warming debate has added to the campus temperature. An often effective albeit dishonest rhetorical device is to accuse those with whom one disagrees of what one is doing oneself. When violence occurs, protesters will often accuse their victims of being the violent ones. In the case of violent protests against speakers who question the global warming “consensus,” CAGW proponents have adopted such Orwellian language as “climate change is violence,” perpetrated by “carbon barons” and their supporters. In the academy those “supporters,” more often than not, are conservative students.

Outside the academy, the first major legal efforts to close down sceptical speech have already begun. In September 2017, San Francisco and Oakland along with NYC filed separate lawsuits against the top five oil and gas companies over what they allege are the costs they will incur from climate change, specifically in the case of those cities, sea-level rise. Imagine a warning label on every gas pump that reads: “The EPA has determined that the use of fossil fuels may be overheating the planet, melting glaciers, causing devastating sea-level rise and killing polar bears.”

In similar actions, six other California cities and counties are suing big oil for damage they claim will arise from climate change: the cities of Richmond, Imperial Beach and Santa Cruz and the counties of Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz.

A positive outcome for any of the plaintiffs in these cases could serve more aggressive legal actions like RICO. If that happened, the next step, as Michael Kraft suggested, could be to use RICO to prosecute “think tanks and advocacy groups” sceptical of human-caused global warming. How long, then, would it be before individuals would face legal threats, including students who voice doubts about aspects of CAGW, much less calling it a hoax?

In 2017, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Right in Education) arranged with YouGov to survey expression at American colleges, the results of which underscore those of the Gallup-Knights Foundation survey and the Brookings Institute, above. A few key items from the FIRE/YouGov survey are:

  • Almost one-third of students (30%) have self-censored in class because they thought their words might be considered offensive to their peers.
  • A majority of students (64%) agree to having changed an attitude or opinion about an issue after listening to a guest speaker.
  • Almost half of students recognize that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Of the 46% of students who recognize this, 31% think hate speech should not be protected.

The findings of these surveys are not encouraging and comparisons with previous survey data suggest that free speech is being sacrificed in the name of diversity, largely defined, at least within the university setting, as a prohibition against giving offense. The irony of this state of affairs is difficult to overstate, as any legitimate claim to diversity depends on the free expression of diverse social and political opinion. Such opinion always runs the risk of giving offense and courage is necessary when the opinion offered is at odds with popular belief. A formidable illustration of this point occurred recently in an interview with Canada’s Jordan Peterson by the BBC’s Cathy Newman.

Such courage is necessary if an individual is not to live in unreasoned fear and, more importantly, is not to be co-opted into persecuting those who do have such courage. When college students are coddled, encouraged to take offense and urged to act to silence those with different opinions, is it surprising to find courage in retreat and free speech imperilled? Sensitivity to others is desirable and can complement free speech but in the extreme forms it is taking in our universities, the former is clearly becoming a threat to the survival of the latter.

Part III will examine outcomes of attempts to prosecute the fossil fuel industry and individual sceptics of CAGW. Suits brought by Michael Mann against Canada’s Tim Ball and, separately, against Mark Steyn are examples of the latter. The suit brought by the Young America’s Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans against Berkeley, in which the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest, represents an interesting counterpoint. Also considered will be whether the U.S. government will convene a Red Team to debate human-caused global warming and consider a broader range of possible causes?