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Liberal Orthodoxy and the New Heresy

I teach college in a small city in Arkansas, deep in the American Bible Belt. I am a historian of Africa and in my department that means that I also teach a world history survey. I always start with the expansion of modern humans out of Africa and their encounter with other types of humans: Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Denesovians and what seems like an ever-growing list of newly discovered human-like creatures. It’s less the case now, but when I started twenty years ago this part of the course was initially met with polite but firm resistance, which gradually gave way to a sort of furtive curiosity. I eventually realized that even my cleverest students knew very little about human evolution except that it was false and that they were supposed to reject it. They came to the university having been taught that evolution was part of a larger attack on their faith and values, but they had never really been exposed to anything but a sort of parody version of it. A small number of them accepted evolutionary theory, but being a Darwinian in rural Arkansas was usually more about youthful rebellion and non-conformity than it was about informed, rational consideration of evidence. 

Once we got past the denunciation or acceptance of evolutionary theory as a form of tribal affiliation, I found students to be deeply curious about it. It was such a taboo subject that their high school teachers had only skimmed over it and often with some careful personal distancing from the material. So the opportunity to delve into the details of this forbidden knowledge was intellectually thrilling for them. Despite the excitement engendered by the topic only a few changed their minds; most did not.

My students had grown up in communities where evolutionary theory was so wrong, so contrary to the accepted worldview of all decent people, that the only acceptable way to talk about it was to denounce it or reject it. The result was that most of my students rejected evolution, but getting a chance to learn about it was profoundly exciting, even if most of them were too conformist (these were Honors students after all) to change their positions.

If you are now rolling your eyes at how benighted rural Arkansans are and congratulating yourself on the open mindedness of the academic world, it’s worth considering a couple of recent news items.

The University of California, Los Angeles is now going to require an equality, diversity, and inclusion statement (EDI) as part of all applications for faculty positions and for promotion. Some of the criticism of the use of these statements has compared them to the loyalty oaths of the 1950s. I am not sure that is an apt comparison. The EDI is not government imposed like the loyalty oaths were, rather they are self-imposed by the universities that choose to require them. What they more closely resemble are the statements of faith that Christian colleges often require of their job applicants. EDIs are meant to show that applicants share, or at least do a compelling job of claiming to share, academe’s current orthodoxy on diversity.

As much as we might like to think that we are open to a broad range of viewpoints and perspectives, we too have areas that are as unchallengeable and as closed to debate as a Christian college’s faith requirements.

If you doubt that, consider that no less a figure than Peter Singer, a guy with a named chair at Princeton which is as close to complete job security as one could hope for, thinks the world needs a Journal of Controversial Ideas where people can not only publish peer-reviewed articles on controversial subjects, but they can do so anonymously.

As the use of EDI statements and Singer’s journal show, academics are expected to hew to a sort of general liberal orthodoxy and the consequences of not doing so are such that people are tempted to publish controversial work anonymously. This affects the public sphere but it also intrudes into more mundane aspects of teaching and scholarly discourse. Our unwillingness to talk in serious ways about controversial subjects risks creating a situation similar to what I saw with my history students 20 years ago. Some students will embrace those controversial ideas just to be unconventional and even those who accept the reigning orthodoxy and reject them will probably still be deeply curious about them.

I have seen this play out in my classes. Last year in a world history class a student asked me about lactose tolerance in adulthood. This may seem like an odd question to have come up in a history course, but the evolution of lactase persistence (lactase is the enzyme that lets you digest lactose and it normally stops being produced after childhood) in northern and central Europeans in the last 7500 years, has become an important issue to white supremacists. I don’t think the student who asked this question was a white supremacist, but I suspect his inquiry reflected honest curiosity prompted by an encounter with some sort of white supremacist material.

I had not mentioned lactase persistence during our discussion of animal domestication because it seems so uncomfortably close to Nazi-era, racialized interpretations of history. That student’s question forced me to address the issue and now I routinely include it my lectures. It’s a tough one to deal with because it forces us to acknowledge that although some or most aspects of race are social constructions, there are non-trivial genetic differences between human populations (not the same as races) and that evolution can occur on a historical and not just a geological timescale.

As the product of a humanities Ph.D. program where the constructed nature of race was an article of faith, this was as uncomfortable for me as doing a science fair project on Neanderthals would be for a Baptist preacher.

The growth of the alt-right, which draws heavily on college-age people, is explicable in part because it offers explanations (false explanations in my view) to questions we hesitate to raise. These topics don’t come up, they would argue, because the academy is beholden to political correctness. An example of this can be seen in a post-Charlottesville video in the Chronicle of Higher Education that has an excerpt from a white supremacist recruiting video that makes explicit reference to material excluded from textbooks and lectures.

Of course, these types of intellectual “no-go” zones are hardly confined to the genetics of people’s diets. Whole categories of inquiry about race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and identity can only go so far before the enquirer exercises prudent self-censorship or is shut down as racist, sexist, or x-phobic.

These lines of inquiry are judged so out of bounds that they don’t require a response based on evidence or argument. Rather it is sufficient to identify them as falling into a particular category (sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic/racist or socialist/collectivist/globalist/secularist depending on context and one’s politics) to discredit them. Once the appropriate category is identified, one is freed from the need to counter the argument or debate the point. It might be called refutation by categorization.

The best analogy I have found for this type of thinking is religious heresy. Heresies are ideas that have been judged to be false by religious authorities. Once an idea is judged heretical the faithful need no longer engage with proponents of that idea. The idea is heretical and the person who advocates it is himself a heretic and thus not just incorrect or wrong, but wrong in willful defiance of the truth as defined by authoritative consensus. Heretical ideas, and the heretics who espouse them, should not be ignored in their wrongness; they should be suppressed lest the innocent be harmed by the heretic’s falsehoods. It is even possible to dismiss someone’s ideas because similar ideas have been espoused by known heretics.

The logic of heresy depends on being certain of the truth. Does anyone think that the people at UCLA advocating for the EDI are any less certain of their rightness than are the creationist pastors of Arkansas? 

An ideal of academic life has always been that we question orthodoxy. Certainty is always the enemy of free enquiry. There are real costs to abandoning that ideal. The strident reactions that greet heretical thought keep people from exploring ideas that might challenge the orthodoxy, but they also lead to lesser omissions like my reluctance to talk about lactase persistence.

It makes an interesting exercise to watch the video I linked to above and to mentally substitute “heresy” for “hate” and  “heretical speech” for “hate speech.”

Middlebury students acted to prevent Charles Murray from speaking on the relatively benign subject of the travails of the white working class because he had previously written work that some have categorized as racist.  That label meant that they need not grapple with the substance of his earlier book, but it also meant that as a known heretic his subsequent work was likewise tainted.

The young people at Middlebury who shouted down Charles Murray and assaulted a faculty member who had tried to engage him in civil debate were, in effect, suppressing the ideas of a heretic. After all, a heretic’s ideas are too dangerous to be heard.

Dangerous ideas are, of course, interesting ideas, especially to young people. When we fail to address dangerous ideas in our courses, we add to their mystique. When activists shout down or assault heretical speakers they send two messages. The first and intended message is a display of righteous disapproval. The other, unintended message, is that there is something so menacing about the idea being expressed that it cannot simply be laughed off or even argued with, rather it cannot be allowed to be spoken.

Consider how that looks to someone who is starting to question the premises of the liberal orthodoxy on race, gender, diversity and so on. Why, our alt-right curious person might wonder, are there some ideas that are so laughably false that one need not even mount a counter argument (a flat earth or the financial benefits of college athletics), some ideas that are considered contentious but still open to debate (supply-side economics), and some ideas that are so outré that they can only be met with back turning, shouting, or by punches to the face?

Might it be, our waverer must wonder, that these people don’t want me to hear this idea because they don’t have a good answer to it?

When my students hungrily lapped up information on evolution, it was because they were genuinely interested in hearing what to them was a heretical idea. When people complain about political correctness, it’s not always because they are seeking a license to offend. That complaint sometimes reflects an honest desire to be able to ask the unaskable, speak the unspeakable, and ponder the imponderable.

When we as academics avoid those uncomfortable questions, we unwittingly invite others to answer them for us. When activists try to suppress rather than debate speech they find loathsome, they should know they are adding to its mystique.

Forbidden ideas have an appeal that orthodoxy never does-just ask Martin Luther. In fact, the parallels between the rise of the alt-right and the Reformation are interesting. In Luther’s world the printing press had recently created new and difficult to control ways for people to share subversive ideas. Early forms of capitalism led to the rise of new social classes and fueled resentment against traditional elites and traditional forms of authority. There were even early forms of the meme. Long before Pepe the Frog was coopted by the alt-right, drawing donkey ears on images of priests was a way of provoking the powerful.

It’s surely the case that some of the speech that activists and university administrators seek to suppress poses a much more direct threat to real people than does a debate about supply side economics or evolution, but it’s worth remembering that to the Church, the Lutheran heresy was a real threat too. It posed a mortal danger to the eternal souls of people who were deceived by its falsehoods and rejected orthodoxy. I doubt that the Inquisitors felt any more qualms about deplatforming Lutheran heretics than did the activists at Middlebury.

As the Church learned, simply suppressing heresy cannot guarantee that it will go away. If anything, meeting heretical speech with violence or disruption just adds to its allure, confirming in the minds of the already convinced that they are right and leading the fence sitters to take another, perhaps more sympathetic, look. Dismissing heretical speech because it falls into a category that is rejected by the orthodox is not that much more effective a strategy.

We can do a lot to keep things from getting to the sort of highly contentious encounters like the ones at Middlebury and Berkeley, just by addressing uncomfortable issues with evidence rather than just categorization in our courses. Next time you are tempted to sidestep contentious issues in your class or to dismiss a student’s question because it falls into a forbidden category, don’t.

In the long run we can’t win an argument by avoiding it.


Erik Gilbert is professor of history at Arkansas State University, where he teaches African and Indian Ocean History. He blogs at

Feature photo by jorisvo / Shutterstock.