The Intoxicating Power Of Moral Superiority

drunk-with-powerA while back some of us were discussing the problem of political correctness on university campuses, freedom of thought and speech, and speech codes. If universities were meant to be places of open enquiry, where theories may be proposed and debated, then speech codes would seem to be antithetical to the academy. Nevertheless, speech codes have gained widespread acceptance on college campuses in the USA and they appear to be spreading abroad. When I was studying in the UK in the early 90s I was struck by the contrast between my experience there and my experience on a university campus in the late 70s and early 80s. In the UK seemed to be able to say almost anything, so long as one was prepared and able to defend the proposition. That was not the case even when I was in university. There were unstated speech codes. Since that time, however, the American speech codes have become codified, more restrictive, and punitive. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has been documenting the rise and effect of speech codes on American campuses for several years. I googled “egregious examples of speech codes” and one of the first results was FIRE’s “speech code of the month” feature, which, this month, describes the new dormitory speech code at Salem State University (15 miles north of Boston) that prohibits “actions or omissions” that have the effect of denying anyone “his or her rights to equality” etc. It would be one thing to restrict an act that denies equality—but how that happens in a dormitory among students hard to know—but it is quite another to seek to restrict speech and particularly an omission that qualifies as discriminatory. An OMISSION. Yes, I just typed in all caps. This means that someone did not do or say something that someone else judges they should have done and for that omission one is subject to penalty. How chilling is that? How is one supposed to know what someone else might consider an omission? The possibilities for transgression are endless.

Clearly there has been a massive power grab in recent decades by university bureaucrats at the same there has been a large infusion of cash into the universities as they’ve become a sort of choke-point for economic security in, ironically, what appears to have become a part-time economy. The question is why have people allowed and perpetuated such a system? People tend to respond to incentives. What is the incentive to sacrifice free thought and expression on university campuses (and elsewhere)? For what benefit would people trade their freedom?

One of the most seductive goods for which people have often traded their freedom is security. Another is power. In this case, however, I fear that students, teachers, and others have traded their liberty to think and speak according to truth and conscience for an illusory power but apparently a quite seductive power: the power of feeling morally superior. How else does one explain the speed with which speech codes took hold on campuses? Remember when the adjective liberal used to mean “tolerant”? Speech codes are the antithesis of toleration. By their very nature they enforce intolerance and of a sort that only fascists could appreciate. They create a climate of fear and suspicion. Conversations that might be deemed by someone, for some reason known only to them (“I am offended!”) as incorrect, must be held in hushed tones, in out-of-the-way places.

The feeling of moral superiority is truly intoxicating, it dulls our senses, it makes us wobbly on our feet, it makes a little sloppy, but we feel good. A drunk can be freezing to death of hypothermia and not know it because he feels warm because of his blood-alcohol level. He is out of touch with objective reality. He thinks he’s driving well when, in fact, he’s crossing the center line. In his autobiography the great Boston Celtics center Bill Russell told of the time he took an “upper” before a game. It seemed to him that he was playing above the rim, that he was having a great game when, in reality, he was playing poorly. So it goes with intoxication but that disjunction from reality is exactly why people become intoxicated.

The sense that one is just a little bit better than one’s fellows is so intoxicating because it’s not really true but it would be so great (we think) if it were true. This is why the Pharisee prayed, “I thank you Lord that I am not like that fellow.” On its face it’s an absurd thing to say to God but he said it because he felt superior. He thought it was true and it made him feel great. The intoxicating quality of the feeling of moral superiority, that we are just that much better than the other guy, helps explain why people do things that, on reflection, are contrary to their real self-interest, why they are willing to diminish their own liberty on a college campus or why they are willing to trade in their civil or religious liberties.

Speech codes (and attempts at thought control) are a genuine problem. They’ve been in effect long enough a great number of university students have cycled through and now may take them not as a profound and fundamental corruption of the nature of the university but as normal, as the way things ought to be. They are also, however, a symptom of a deep human problem that their removal cannot change. The Pharisee did not know the greatness of his sin and misery. He was out of touch with reality. That’s the first job of God’s law, to sober us up, to put us back in touch with that most basic reality after the fall, and to crush our pride and false sense of superiority. It is only when we see ourselves as we really are that we will see the beauty of the liberty that Christ has purchased for all those for whom he laid down his life and for whom he took it up again.

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