Book Review: ‘The Tyranny of Opinion’

Russell Blackford has written The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism, which explores the conflicts between freedom of expression and political correctness (PC). Much has been made of the PC phenomenon by commentators on both the political left and right. Steering clear of blind partisanship, Blackford is careful to explain the many nuances of such complex issues as Internet privacy, the 1st Amendment and hate speech.

Blackford starts with an in-depth analysis of John Stuart Mill’s classic On Liberty. Mill fiercely wrote about freedom of speech, expression and thought, arguing that these liberties should be respected by not only government’s, but society as a whole. The main reason to curtail these rights, argues Mill, is the harm principle. People should be shielded from threats and libel.

How exactly the law should define threats and libel can be a tricky process, however. People have argued that slurs, especially racial slurs, threaten the mental wellbeing of their victims. Certain ultraliberals argue that even academic discussion of controversial topics, such as sexual orientation, can be threatening. Libel, if anything, has, as a definable term, experienced the opposite problem. In the West and especially the US, libel is notoriously hard to prove in court. Since the authoritarian Sedition Act expired in 1801, the American press and private citizens have had almost absolute power to make unflattering and even unsubstantiated statements about individuals and institutions, under the protection of the 1st Amendment.

Blackford is generally supportive of the harm-principle standard for censorship, but stresses that harmful statements must be defined under very narrow criteria. In terms of threats, Blackford seems to find only direct threats of violence, doxxing, revenge porn and explicit epithets (which he write de-humanize whole groups of people and thus pave the way for persecution and violence) as necessitating censorship in the name of protecting citizens’ wellbeing. On the issue of libel, Blackford agrees with the legal standard that a statement must be found to be both false and malicious in order to be found libelous. A newspaper can’t be shut down for publishing an honest mistake, since that would create a chilling effect that would neuter a lot of bold reporting.

Such caution with regards to censorship is warranted by Blackford’s citations of history. When people and journalists don’t feel safe to speak their mind, this can stifle social and scientific progress. Blackford cites a Victorian Englishman who knows of many individuals who privately support gay rights, but are too afraid to speak up. When well-intentioned people are muzzled by the status quo, Blackford concludes, injustices can continue and erroneous beliefs can continue to be treated as fact.

For this reason, Blackford argues that religious fundamentalism may be fundamentally at odds with not just free expression, but free society as a whole. Theocratic societies have traditionally cracked down on any perceived dissenters, from the Spanish Inquisition to the imprisonment of the revolutionary scientist Galileo. If eternal salvation through observing divine law is the ultimate goal of life, then civil law would appear inconsequential by comparison, points out Blackford. Small wonder then that evangelical groups devote decades and countless of millions of dollars trying to erode established legal protections for reproductive and gay rights. Blackford writes extensively about the 1989 fatwa demanding the assassination of author Salman Rushdie, issued by the theocratic government of Iran, as being the logical endpoint of the conflict between faith and freedom.

Much of the book is devoted to how political correctness (PC) is used as a cudgel by people from both sides of the political spectrum. This is an important point to make, since the mainstream media mostly focuses on the PC of the political left. Countless news stories are devoted to ultraliberal PC culture on college campuses. Meanwhile, the PC of people who refuse to bake cakes for gay couples or who demand that NFL players be fired for peacefully protesting institutional racism is never called out as being political correctness.

‘The Tyranny of Opinion’ by Russell Blackford. 256 pp. Bloomsbury Academic

As previously mentioned, rightwing PC culture usually centers on forcing religious values onto corporate and law codes. By contrast, leftwing PC culture generally revolves around enforcing cultural sensitivity in society. Ultraliberals are obsessed with virtue signaling via exposing statements that in any way are insensitive to women, LGBT or ethnic minorities. Frequently, liberal social justice warriors cannibalize their fellow liberals, such as Bret Weinstein. The Evergreen State College professor was mobbed by hysterical college students after he (correctly, yet civilly) pointed out a case of hypocrisy by racial activists on campus and was eventually forced to resign. The book also cites the case of Erika Christakis, a professor at Yale who was, like Weinstein, mercilessly harangued by students, to the point of resigning. Her offense: writing a thoughtful email exploring the nuances of cultural appropriation and policing of controversial Halloween costumes. Ironically, the whole point of Christakis’ email was stick up for the students’ freedom of expression.

Modern PC culture largely seems to be facilitated by social media. Every unflattering sound bite or allegation can immediately permeate across the Web. Tweets and Facebook posts, which encourage spontaneity, can encourage people to post now and think about the repercussions later.

The nature of social media algorithms creates an echo chamber that only shows users content that agrees with their political sensibilities. As Blackford warns, this leads to group polarization, wherein likeminded people amplify each other’s beliefs, causing everyone in the group to become more radical than they were before joining. This psychological phenomenon is particular evident in the far-Left, where people constantly feel the need to publically pass ideological purity tests, which they then subject to other people.

I wish Blackford had written more about how PC affects academic research. Many biologists, sex researchers and psychologists have spoken out about how studying contentious matters of race and sexuality can be major taboos in academia. Blackford touches on Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, which is about several modern scientists who came under fire for producing controversial, yet scientifically sound research. Dr. Sandra Soh and Dr. Brian Hanley, among many others, have spoken out about the intense culture of self-censorship in the life sciences when it comes to researching issues relating to human sexuality. Prof. Vernellia R. Randall is one of many who has risked being called a racist for pointing out documented medical disparities between people of different ethnicities, when it comes to maladies like heart disease and sickle-cell anemia.  In my own research, I’ve found cultural relativists who try to downplay the severe physical harms that female genital mutilation causes, in politically correct deference to non-Western cultures.

I also wish Blackford had conducted some research into the quantitative, as opposed to qualitative, reach of PC attitudes across society. Due to the media’s frenzy in reporting incidences of PC on (mostly elite, blue-state) college campuses, the problem may seem much larger than it really is. According to the US Faculty Termination for Political Speech Database, only 45 professors were fired between 2015-2017 for political speech…out of the estimated 378,865 full-time professors currently teaching in American universities! Multiple surveys conducted over several years by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation find that teenagers equal or even surpass adults in their support for the 1st Amendment. I suspected that a silent majority of Americans are opposed to many, if not most, of the most extreme positions of social justice warriors. Almost all of the coverage and analysis of PC by the media is negative, which would further suggest that PC is not a movement with widespread support in civil society. Hopefully, Blackford will produce some clarification via quantitative data in future editions of the book or a whole separate book.

The Tyranny of Opinion is a very impartial book on the implications of political correctness in a free society. Blackford outlines the framework of freedom of expression through analysis of philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Frederick Schaeur. He then explores many concepts of psychology and sociology, such as information cascades, group polarization and the research of psychologists like Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram. The book does a good job at exposing the illiberalism of both liberal and conservative social justice warriors. Through historical and empirical analysis, the book both prescribes the dangers of self-censorship in society and offers reasonable solutions. Anyone who has felt chills after watching a news story about crazy SJWs on a college campus or witnessing a PC mob on Twitter should read this book for a more nuanced understanding of political correctness and the 1st Amendment, in general.