No second opinions
You may have seen this. At York University in Toronto, Professor Cameron Johnston, in the course of an introductory social sciences lecture, said that there is a difference between acceptable and unacceptable opinions in public discourse. For example, he said, you simply cannot say, “All Jews should be sterilized.” At that, a student, Sarah Grunfeld, walked out of the lecture hall and filed a complaint of anti-Semitism.
When the context was patiently explained to her, her response was “The words ... still came out of his mouth.” When it was explained to her that Professor Johnston is himself Jewish, she expressed skepticism that he is a Jew. She has received support for her preposterous accusation, though Gawker.com and the news media have made fun of her, which she thinks is unfair.
Writing at Language Log, Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum sees this wretched little episode as an example of our sanctification of opinion: “Some undergraduates today seem to think that when something is their opinion, that automatically gives them a right to say it and have it accepted respectfully.”
Not just undergraduates. In our public discourse, we see repeatedly how people seek to extend their right to hold an opinion to an imagined right of freedom from contradiction.
If you believe that all Creation was assembled in a week in October 6,015 years ago, I will never contest the sincerity of your belief or your adamantine right to hold and espouse it. But when you and those who share this opinion band together to find an imbecilic and compliant clutch of legislators—always a safe bet in the United States of Moronia—to legislate this opinion into the science curriculum of the public schools, you are stepping over the bounds.
We see this phenomenon over and over. We see candidates for high office make provable erroneous statements of fact, then refuse to back down. We see people reject empirical evidence about climate change and the place of the president’s birth and grow angry when they are challenged. In the little realm of discourse in which this blog participates, we see how warm people grow when their linguistic shibboleths are called into question.
Professor Pullum sums up the controversy that Ms. Grunfeld triggered: “This is not a funny story, and not a serious story about free speech or anti-Semitism either. This is a sad little anecdote about kneejerk hypersensitivity, intellectual immaturity, and gross irresponsibility.”
And that, even more sadly, describes a good deal of what we see every day in the world beyond the university.