Life on the Academic Animal Farm

“Do not try to teach a pig how to sing.” That was a piece of advice given to me when I was a young man, by a witty and cavalier drag queen, someone who never had the benefit of reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The closest thing to intellectualism in our lives, circa 1991, was that we hung out in the smelly Bronx park in front of the historic cottage where Edgar Allan Poe had lived.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of wisdom in his advice. There is something frighteningly bestial about people who think they are very clever but who can do little more than grunt and snort. You know this type: someone dumb who gets together with other dumb people and somehow gets his hands on resources, influence, and power.

Evil geniuses are scary, but at least they’re interesting. And, as the great philosopher Hannah Arendt once noted, often exceptionally evil people are not the ones who do the most damage. It’s the simpletons who can really do serious harm. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt reflects on Adolf Eichmann, noting:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

This idea of the “banality of evil” is useful in analyzing the smaller psychoses that take over seemingly innocuous milieus—even if we have little reason to fear concentration camps in the near future. Eichmann’s flaw was his bureaucratic tunnel vision, a combination of procedural jargon, petty red tape, and knee-jerk sanctimony.

So what do we do with such people? The “pigs” in the drag queen’s allegory are intriguing, as metaphors go. When pigs oink and writhe in their slop, don’t they probably think they’re right and their sty is wonderful? Who are we to correct them? Giving up on pigs is a comforting course of action. We can take a break from the exhausting exercise of trying to talk reason into someone unreasonable, and we also reserve a small part of our conscience for the self-justifying belief that it’s still the other person’s fault for being a pig rather than a rational human being.

The Bronx drag queen was only partly right, though. The problem, as George Orwell predicted in Animal Farm, and as we are seeing in campuses across America, is this: Pigs are never content with simply not learning how to sing. They end up taking over institutions and imposing their irrationality on everyone as nasty totalitarianism. They resort to the bureaucratic sadism that Hannah Arendt perceived in Adolf Eichmann. They inevitably become censors. They prevent speech from happening lest they be forced to do something other than oink.

Dehumanization through Censorship
In the closing paragraphs of Orwell’s classic, the reader finds out that “After that it did not seem strange when next day the pigs who were supervising the work of the farm all carried whips in their trotters.” The unforgettable closing lines of the book read:

Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Because they are essentially boring and uncreative, they end up, so often, dehumanizing and demonizing people they can’t converse with.

The greatest, most insidious form of dehumanization is the refusal to let people speak. To impose silence, to take away language and expression from human beings, is to violate one of their most fundamental human rights. More importantly, it discounts their very personhood. This is precisely what mobs on college campuses do when they rally, petition, picket, and scream, preventing a scapegoated individual from speaking. Disturbingly, these tactics have become more and more common.

Aayan Hirsi Ali, for example, was too harsh for Muslim students at Brandeis. Those who protested her planned graduation speech seemed convinced that African women are great for diversity unless they didn’t have a good experience with Islam. In that case, they ought not to let people know their stories exist.

Similarly, Condoleezza Rice worked for George W. Bush and didn’t have the foresight to turn down a job as the National Security Advisor or Secretary of State. That she didn’t have the magical ability to stop war, enhanced interrogation, or Bush’s mispronunciation of the word “nuclear” is infuriating. Didn’t she know that one day such crimes against humanity might cost her a trip to New Brunswick, New Jersey? Isn’t it every statesman’s dream to speak to the hung-over graduates of the country’s “14th biggest party school”?

Just to keep up with Massachusetts and New Jersey, protestors at Pasadena City College forced Dr. Eric Walsh, the city’s public health director, to back out of delivering the commencement speech. He is, after all, a Seventh-Day Adventist and said something negative about homosexuality at some point. Or something.

Are you lost yet? Overwhelmed? There’s more.

Occupation and Rationalization
Robert J. Birgenau was the chancellor at UC Berkeley when Occupy Wall Street came to his campus. Haverford College, outside of Philadelphia, made the grave faux pas of inviting him to be their commencement speaker. The Inquirer reports:

Haverford President Daniel H. Weiss announced on Tuesday morning that Birgeneau has declined the college’s invitation to speak and receive an honorary degree. Birgeneau is known for his support of undocumented and minority students, but became controversial when students, as part of the Occupy movement, held non-violent protests and were subject to force by university police.

I’m not clear, exactly, why “occupying” other people’s spaces by setting up tents and busing in thugs to block sidewalks and scream at people is considered “non-violent.” One might pose this query to the petitioners at Smith College, who intimidated International Monetary Fund manager Christine Lagarde based on her non-military use of global finances to oppress people in poor countries. As the New York Times reports:

For years, critics of the I.M.F. have charged that in providing economic aid to poor nations, it has imposed conditions that favor Western nations and businesses, and propped up oppressive governments. “The I.M.F. has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries,” said an online petition against Ms. Lagarde’s appearance at Smith, a women’s college. “This has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

So let’s get this straight: It’s fine to set up a tent city on campus and demand that the government write off hundreds of thousands of student loans. Even if this is literally called “occupation,” it’s good. What’s bad is asking those people to leave and pay their bills instead of expecting tax-paying laborers across the country to pay back their loans for them. Setting up a world bank offering loans to poor countries? That’s bad too.

One can find a splendid range of rationalizations from academics who justify such censorship. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, sanctimony abounds. They’re sanguine, even delighted, to see speakers barred from campus events. Here is a gem from the comment section of Jackson Lears’s column, “Rutgers U. Should Not Honor Condoleezza Rice”:

Prof. Lears objects to honoring Rice by giving her a prestigious forum and granting her an honorary degree; my guess is that he’d be perfectly happy to have her speak at a university sponsored colloquium where the traditional academic practice of give-and-take discussion and debate could allow for a more thorough and nuanced consideration of the issues.

This defense, though common, is nonsense. First of all, just as much controversy and censorship happen at lower-stakes speaking engagements. As an easy reference point, take yours truly. I won’t go down the long, long list of thwarted attempts I made to engage “across the aisle” on my state university campus, but this essay should give the reader a taste of what happens when someone challenges campus orthodoxy.

You get the wacko protestors harassing presenters, online petitions, grandstanding at department meetings, and no nuanced consideration of anything you say. If you’ve become such a public scandal that pro bono lawyers admire your heroism and pitch in to help, you may survive the tenure-review process. If nobody off campus knows about it, the censors will exploit your obscurity and self-imposed silence. You’ll be getting a “no” at tenure-review time and will be dumped on the job market as just another desperate academic looking for work.

Room for Discussion and Debate?
On April 5, 2014, there was a conference scheduled by Stanford University’s Anscombe Society. Ryan Anderson, Kellie Fiedorek, and I were invited to speak at the event. This is precisely what the apologists for commencement censorship claim exists as an alternative: bring in opposing voices at events designed for debate instead of ruining kids’ graduation day with politics. Right?

Wrong. The Orwellian academy would not let us sing. According to “queer” students (who apparently have little understanding of the originally defiant and transgressive implications of “queerness”), Ryan, Kellie, and I would cause delicate and unstable homosexual students to kill themselves. This, in spite of the fact that Ryan has spoken to Stanford’s law school in the past without incident, and I am a flaming queer who writes racy novels about gay life.

But these students were eager to demonize me, the Afro-Caribbean Sino-Malayan queer Army veteran raised by a divorced lesbian in blue-collar Buffalo, who survived homelessness and cancer, then climbed out of a world of crime and abjection to become a world-traveled polyglot delivering speeches about children’s rights to hundreds of thousands of people in Paris. When do I get to be that inspiring story of overcoming adversity?

Thanks to the courage of Stanford’s Anscombe Society President Judy Romea and the assistance of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Stanford event was not derailed. One thing that differentiates the Stanford event is the fact that Kellie, Ryan, and I chose not to leave the pigpen undisturbed. All three of us “faced the music” and went to Palo Alto to present, even in the face of student protests and hostility. The experience leads me to conclude that the wrong choice is simply to avoid the groups that attempt to censor opposition. The speakers who have been targeted bear as much duty to defy resistance and speak, as the academic community bears to engage in the activity that Arendt believes makes human beings unique: listening and “thinking.”

I would explain the ins and outs of Stanford’s controversy, including why certain passages of the university code were cited first by the censors, then by the anti-censors, but that would require a much longer essay and life is short. As we see in all these censorship campaigns, the details are long and convoluted, and they grow more so, as the grunting pigs cite bureaucratic rules, safety regulations, student committee bylaws, funding provisos, and mission statements, to claim that they’re legally justified in dehumanizing other people and preventing them from speaking. Bureaucratic sadism thrives among those afflicted with intellectual cowardice.

While conservatives can certainly be priggish and uptight, it is largely liberals who populate the plush pigsties of Orwell’s Animal Farm these days. The left has become so comfortable that they think this—this distasteful caballing and snickering and demonizing—is the way things ought to be. And unfortunately, they have the power to shape campus culture.

I hope they like the pigpens of their own making.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared May 20, 2014 on Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute, and is reprinted with permission.

Robert Oscar Lopez


Robert Oscar Lopez is author of the Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman (University Press of America, 2011). Lopez is also the author of three fictional works about gay life. He is the editor of English Manif.

  • JERD2

    Here is the issue for me: Are there any speakers that should be banned from campus? Are there persons who are just so offensive – an avowed racist for instance – that they should not be permitted to engage in campus intellectual discourse?

    I tend to think not, because the animus and ignorance of such a presenter will be on display to be refuted by better argument.

    But I can see the other side of it too. Does the invitation by the university in some sense and in some cases serve as an endorsement of the speaker’s view?

    • Guest

      If they give the speaker an honor that is an endorsement. If they are there just to argue ideas that is different.

    • fredx2

      I suppose there are speakers who are so out of it that they should not be given a platform. However, they are far and few between, and they don’t become Secretary of State, as Condoleeza Rice has done.
      The University has become so obviously hypocritical that it hurts – they insist on “Academic freedom” when it comes to left leaning ideas, but then right leaning ideas are “beyond the pale” and “offensive” and “hate speech”
      It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

  • Fred

    Maybe we should just not say anything except have a nice day and have a nice life, however, you define that to be. That way nobody will be offended, or maybe not because someone will surely contest and say what’s so nice about it. If it weren’t so sad it would be laughable at what our universities have become, breeding ground for indoctrination and expulsion of the truth. Your article here was quite clever and I thouroughly enjoyed reading it, thanks.

  • ColdStanding

    This article is a classic example of the get-the-ball-rolling tactic. All the devil needs is a bit of movement of the will to get an ensnarement stratagem to work. The plan always begins with a the presentation of a small display of vulgarity or innuendo. These days such things are so common, well, even good Christians don’t get too “uptight” over them. Right? Nobody wants to be thought of…oh, how unfashionable… an “uptight Christian”. Makes his evil work easier when your concerned more about keeping in the good graces of human opinion than being in God’s good graces. Oh, sure, it won’t be a “mortal” sin. No, no, it’s only just a tiny venial sin. “God will forgive you that,” gets whispered in your ear. And you agree. Then, a little more string… and Wham! He hits you with it. You’d better have a good prayer life. But then, if he has gotten you this far, you’d better realize it isn’t as good as you thought. Oh, we are complacent!

    This piece is weapons grade psyops. It is positively radioactive.

    • Augustus

      Not quite sure what you mean. If you are referring to the drag queen reference in the first paragraph, all that does is remind people that Lopez knows about all things gay and therefore has the credentials to take on the Gay Lobby–which he does regularly. He is now married with children. Don’t read too much into what he says. You’ll get sidetracked. Crisis has reprinted several pieces by him including an autobiographical essay against so-called gay “marriage.”

      • ColdStanding

        The first part I have let stand because I feel we, as Catholics (it could just be me), have largely lost our caution when it comes to the teaching about occasions of sin. But my comment proves that sin (missing the mark) can occur in a variety of arenas, not exclusively because of below-the-belt issues. I daily pray to “I will watch over my words that I may not offend with my tongue.” Clearly I have failed here.

        But that is the point. It illustrates the get-the-ball-moving tactic. Scandalized by one thing, I have left myself vulnerable on another flank. This failure was promptly rewarded with a fall.

        • Ruth Rocker

          Unfortunately, in today’s environment of victim, anything, everything or nothing that is said is cause for grave offense. If dueling was still in fashion, bodies would litter the countryside.

          • The Truth

            In the end times people will be easily offended. Just being offends people.

  • Tony

    Let’s be clear about something here. The Anscombe Society seeks a return to a saner world, in which the virtues of continence, purity, chastity, and fidelity are honored. To oppose them so violently must be evidence of guilty knowledge … People who are SURE that what they are doing is good do not worry about their opponents in this way. I have a friend who is the pastor of a non-denominational gathering of Christians, who believes that it is an evil thing that I attend the Catholic Mass. It causes me to lose not one millisecond of sleep. We get along fine, in fact. The people who hate the Anscombe Society hate the virtues that the society represents. It hurts them to be reminded of their dissolution, even if it is only indirectly.

    • TommyD6of11

      Please tell us that “continence” was a typo.
      Seriously, I think we can safely assume near universal support for continence and that even atheists pray for a world free of incontinence.

      • Tony

        You don’t know what the word means. Only very lately, by euphemism and analogy, has “continence” come to mean “ability to hold one’s bowels.” The virtue of continence — lesser than the virtue of purity — refers to one’s ability to “contain” disordered sexual desires, to refrain from acting upon them. It is not the high virtue of purity, because it must be exercised in confrontation with evil that one is still too weak to root out of the soul. A young man is continent if he manages to keep himself from self-abuse and fornication, but that still does not mean he is chaste or pure.

  • It’s regrettable what the author has experienced. However, I have trouble empathizing with him. He has a job and now job security.
    He writes (in the linked article) about years of abuse while employed and how it is amazing he finally received tenure. In my experience, us little people in “at will” states get fired for one conversation without recourse to lawyers.

    • asmondius

      When a powerful and well-known executive is forced to resign for making a contribution to a pro-marriage cause, none of us are safe. When the IRS is caught illegally passing donor lists to radical homosexual activists, none of us are safe.

  • droolbritannia

    “When do I get to be that inspiring story of overcoming adversity?”

    Somehow I blinked and read that line as, ‘When do I get to be that inspiring story of overcoming DIVERSITY?’ In the context it seemed completely appropriate:

    ‘But these students were eager to demonize me, the Afro-Caribbean Sino-Malayan queer Army veteran raised by a divorced lesbian in blue-collar Buffalo, who survived homelessness and cancer, then climbed out of a world of crime and abjection to become a world-traveled polyglot delivering speeches about children’s rights to hundreds of thousands of people in Paris. When do I get to be that inspiring story of overcoming…?’

    • Funbud2

      “When do I get to be that inspiring story of overcoming…?’

      Giving up the wallowing in self-pity would be a start.

      • droolbritannia

        Exactly who are you addressing, Funbud2?

        • Augustus

          Funbud2 is addressing Lopez and in doing so, he’s missing the point. Lopez is exposing Leftist hypocrisy by using himself as an example. IF the left REALLY believed in diversity, then they would not be trying to silence him or others like him. He used this example after listing numerous other examples of censorship. If the article was only about Lopez, then Funbud2 might have a point. Furthermore, Lopez admits that he has OVERCOME adversity. So he’s not wallowing in self-pity but instead pointing out his good fortune while recognizing that others have not been so lucky.

  • droolbritannia

    Just to throw something into the discussion, where do Catholic universities fit into this context when they do not admit a pro-abortion speaker to speak at a commencement or to give such a person an honorary degree?

    I’m asking for a serious distinction to be made here, not trying to inflame anyone. It comes down to the question, “When is it appropriate to ban or bar or rescind an invitation to a speaker because s/he has fundamental values which conflict with the core values of the institution?” If a Catholic institution has (or should have) as one of its core values ‘reverence for the sanctity of life’ or ‘acceptance of Catholic moral teaching,’ are not these intolerant universities (mentioned above) in a way stating their own core values when they reject someone who does not adhere to current political correctness? I know, Catholic teaching is eternal, and not a passing fad. But other than that…? Help me out here.

    • Scott W.

      Fair question. I do remember Bishop D’Arcy saying this when Notre Dame tried to host The Vagina Monologued:

      “Catholic universities cannot present things that imply that Catholic teaching is one option competing among many……what makes a Catholic university distinctive is the conviction that in the search for truth, we do not start from scratch; we start from the truth that has been revealed to us in the Word of God, the person of Jesus Christ, and the teaching of his church. The notion that truth will emerge from a discussion in which many points of view are represented both disrespects revealed truth and separates the search for truth from the certainty of faith…”

      • droolbritannia

        OK, Scott, that’s a beginning. But the sentence, ‘The notion that truth will emerge from a discussion in which many points of view are represented both disrepects revealed truth and separates the search for truth from the certainty of faith’ causes me a problem. It seems that the fundamental premise of the essay above is that a university should be a place where ‘truth will emerge from a discussion in which many points of view are represented.’

        So I’m still kind of scratching my head. I absolutely believe that no Catholic institution should HONOR someone who lives a life of public sin, especially a Catholic who publicly flaunts the teaching of the Church. So honorary doctorates are out for pro-abortion politicians (for example) from a Catholic university.

        Of course, no Catholic university should support vulgarity, pornography and degradation of the human spirit as ‘art.’ So the Vagina Monologues is out.

        But how can a Catholic answer the question, ‘Why do Catholics assert that they should not welcome pro-abortion speakers, even if that person is not coming on campus to talk about abortion?’ If secular universities will not allow a publicly pro-life person to speak because of that person’s religious/political views, how do we differ here?

        Suppose someone who is an expert on foreign policy or Etruscan artefacts – and who is also very publicly pro-abortion and is an ‘out’ practicing homosexual – were proposed as a speaker at a Catholic university. Many people (myself included) would say, ‘This is not a person whose moral choices we want to support, so we should not have this person as a speaker.’ But if the person was talking about foreign policy or Etruscan artefacts, why would the person’s public lifestyle matter? And how would it be different from the secular university, devoted to the zeitgeist of far-left political correctness, saying that they don’t want a pro-life, anti-gay-marriage general to come and talk about the situation in the Middle East?

        Aren’t we both saying, in effect, ‘This person’s public and private life is so repugnant to the values of this community that even though s/he may have valuable expertise in his/her area, that expertise is outweighed by the person’s morally unacceptable lifestyle?’

        I’m still groping for the difference. I naturally want to protect young people from the example of morally offensive people (especially if those people are made personally attractive by being experts in their field; my college students are very quick to ‘forgive’ horrible sins on the grounds that someone is ‘good at what he does’ professionally). But it would seem that that’s what the secular universities above are also trying to do – using their criteria for what is morally offensive (conservatism, pro-heterosexual normality, pro-life, etc.).

        • RK in Denver

          By the way, you’ve made a common language error here, but it tends to undermine your credibility just a bit — the word you wanted to use is “flout” as in “…who publicly flouts the teaching of the Church.” Flout means to defy or break a rule openly and without shame. ‘Flaunt’ means to show off something by displaying it openly to arouse envy in others — “she flaunted her wealth by having a different designer bag for every day of the week”, for instance.

      • The Truth

        Chesterton, said once you know the truth you close your mind to anything else. Because everything is else is not the truth. The Catholic church seems to teach so as not to offend anyone.

        • Scott W.

          The Catholic church seems to teach so as not to offend anyone

          Sometimes I see stories where a parish church was vandalized with anti-Catholic graffiti. I usually remark that if your church isn’t getting vandalized at least every few months, you are doing it wrong.

          We also see the reality of not offending anyone from diocese to diocese. A diocese that hews closely to tradition and Gospel teaching usually has good attendance and enough vocations. Contrast that with the Diocese of Rochester which, under Bishop Clark’s 33-year reign of liberal terror, was at the bottom of the list in attendance and vocations.

          • The Truth

            If you are not being “crucified” for your beliefs, odds are your beliefs are that of the world.

    • ForChristAlone

      Abortion is not a matter of a personal opinion. It strikes to the heart of a basic human right – the right to life. Abortion is NOT a “Catholic issue.” A Catholic college could no more allow someone to advocate the killing of Jews or the enslavement of Africans, than the taking of human life by abortion. I would guess that no pagan college would allow speakers to advocate killing Jews or enslaving Africans. Some day these pagan schools will realize that abortion is no less a denial of a civil right than are the other two examples I give.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        “I would guess that no pagan college would allow speakers to advocate killing Jews”

        Don’t you believe it. I have heard Pro-Palestinian speakers whip up their audience with « Mort aux juifs ! Égorgeons les Yahoud ! » [Death to the Jews! Cut the Yahouds’ throats!”] at the Sorbonne, of all places, during the 1987 Palestinian Intifada.

  • cestusdei

    Ironically it is liberals who demand academic freedom but deny it to others. Maybe it isn’t really irony, but intentional.

  • Paul

    Our education system is dictated by a tyrranical, liberal agenda that obviates free speech and debate. This is nothing more than a culture founded on anti-rationale and the need to constantly re-invent & recreate itself for its own survivability as it has killed & burried God a long time ago.
    Oddly enough, the paragraph that begins with “The greatest, most insidious form of dehumanization … these tactics have become more and more common.” is often the same argument used by the LGBT to justify & politicize their cause.

  • Tony

    I think that in the matter of killing innocent people, Catholic colleges should not play the game of pretending that there is anything to debate. Or if they do want to host a debate on the issue, let it be because they believe that it’s the right strategy, given their peculiar circumstances.
    If you are bringing someone to campus to talk about foreign currency, who happens to be pro-abortion, that’s not relevant to the invitation; but if the someone is notorious in his support for abortion, that is relevant, regardless of the subject matter. The stench fills the hall.

    I hate to say this, but the content of what the guest supports really can be decisive. What’s wrong with the public institutions that won’t invite Professor Lopez to campus is not that just that they are utter hypocrites, but that they are offended by virtue. Or put it this way: someone who supports a grave moral evil comes to campus, and his speech or his very presence as an honored guest implies that the evil is permissible. That is very different from someone who says that something the professors and students believe is permissible is not in fact permissible (and was never considered permissible until two minutes ago, historically speaking). You cannot then say, “They can do grave harm to people in the audience,” because at the worst they would be discouraging people from doing something that is permissible (fornication) but by no means necessary or even, given college life, advisable. The principle applies, in modified form, to Ms. Rice also: she does not appear on campus as recommending an evil action to students with the immediate opportunity and perhaps the inclination to engage in it; she simply represents the other political party.
    Remember also that these visits cost money — a lot of money, in the case of celebrities.

    Perhaps the problem lies there — why should political hacks, journalists, television bimbos, and suchlike be brought to campus for commencement speeches, at exorbitant cost? What can they possibly have to say that should interest anybody?

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  • Howard

    “That she didn’t have the magical ability to stop war….” Kind of like Eichmann didn’t have the magical ability to shut down the death camps? Oh, wait. She was a bureaucrat who actively supported the war in Iraq, just like Eichmann was a bureaucrat who actively supported the system of death camps. No, the war in Iraq, though wrong, was nothing like as wrong as the death camps, but it undermines your argument when you hold up the bureaucratic enabler as victim.

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