Progressives applaud themselves for many things, but none more enthusiastically than the fact that we no longer burn heretics at the stake—or even entertain such false dichotomies as orthodoxy and heresy. We are beyond them (as we are beyond right and wrong); and what we are beyond we are entitled to despise. That is why as a society we are so instinctively repelled by fundamentalist religion, whether in its Christian or Muslim guise. Leave aside for the moment that Christians of any denomination no longer persecute or even notice heretics, while militant Islam seems obsessed with them. These are quibbles. It is the idea of heresy and orthodoxy that we repudiate.
But here as so often the complacent modern deludes himself, unaware that the atavism he thinks he has put away has merely recrudesced in a novel form. This is veritably a psychological law. Today, the most zealous anti-racists are also enthusiastic proponents of affirmative action, which, being state-sponsored and coerced, is the most “systemic” form of racism imaginable. In the late nineteenth century, Marxist theorists announced that mankind had transcended religion, and in the twentieth, the socialist utopias founded on such brave new principles revived the heresy tribunals of the Inquisition. In show trials all across the communist world, millions of citizens suspected of harboring the slightest doubts about Marxist orthodoxy were forced to issue public confessions and recantations, before being sent off to the Gulag for their moral and ideological rehabilitation. Concomitantly, the leaders of these officially atheist workers’ paradises demanded such unquestioning and reverential obedience from their subjects as had not seen since the days of the Pharaohs. (Come to think of it, the Pharaohs merely claimed to be the sons of Amon-Re, whereas the dictators of North Korea continue to insist on being venerated as the Supreme Father.) It is a fantasy to think that the human race is “beyond” anything. As Jung has observed, everything that is primitive and embarrassing to us merely gets consigned to the shadow side, where it ceases to offend our sight, but thereby wreaks unlimited moral and psychological havoc for being unconscious.
This is true above all of what Jung has called the “religious function of the psyche”, an innate and indelible endowment of the human person that is wholly autonomous of officially codified creeds or rituals. As a political movement, nation, or civilization, we may well “transcend” religion, but the religious function of the psyche is hardly repealed thereby. It merely finds other channels through which to assert itself.
Today, with the exhaustion of faith in traditional religious postulates, all the urgency and fervour that had formerly attached to them has duly spilled over, like so much surplus energy, into the “non-religious” realm. And while organized religion is officially debarred from the public square, religious passions and certitudes strictly regulate every nuance of public discourse.
The indispensable term “political correctness” describes the situation nicely; but what it describes is an attitude that is not political in the least, but primordially religious: the reflexive disposition toward virtually every opinion on every question of the day as either orthodox or heterodox, motivated by pious devotion to the “correct” cause, or stiff-necked infidelity.
Secular modernity is awash in orthodoxies and heresies, and it is a wonder that they don’t stink in our post-religious nostrils. Point out that there is a correlation between the spread of AIDS and the peculiar modality of homosexual “sex”; observe that abortion in the majority of cases is a form of birth control for those who wish to enjoy the convenience of extra-marital congress without the inconvenient byproducts; suggest that the “wage-gap” is the effect, not of discrimination, but of biological and psychological differences between the genders; argue that immigrants ought to accommodate their cultures to that of the native population rather than the other way around; question the wisdom of rewarding people with cash for choosing not to work; ask whether global warming is in fact man-made, and you might as well have poked fun at the Law before the Sanhedrin.
Such opinions are affronts to today’s regnant dogmas (environmentalism, multiculturalism, “gender equity”, and so on). And as dogmas, of course, there is no more need to demonstrate their veracity or reasonableness than there is for believers to demonstrate the rationality of the Resurrection or Virgin Birth.
For the sake of illustration, I’ll have to confine myself to a single current example. (It would take a book to document the phenomenon adequately. Indeed, dozens of such books have been published, but apparently without effect.)
In the past year, on campuses across the country, a number of pro-life organizations have been denied club status and funding by their student governments. The justification offered by one Gilary Massa, vice-president of the York University Federation of Students, is instructive. Student clubs will be free to discuss abortion in student space, so long as they do so “within a pro-choice realm”. Ultimately, “you have to recognize that a woman has a choice over her own body”. This is not, as Ms. Massa stipulates, “an issue of freedom of speech”. “No, this is an issue of women’s rights.”
There it is. Freedom to discuss the issue so long as it’s within the bounds of pro-choice orthodoxy (“within a pro-choice realm”). But why discuss it? What is there to discuss, within the “realm” that Ms. Massa defines as permissible?
It obviously doesn’t trouble Ms. Massa that many Canadians do want to have a discussion, inasmuch as 70% of us have consistently called for at least some restrictions on abortion. But I prefer not to get into the argument here (on this Ms. Massa and I agree). I’m more interested in the peculiar psychology of pro-choice orthodoxy that can apparently confer upon its evangelists the repose of certainty in the midst of a raging controversy.
For them, a “woman’s right to choose” is a revealed truth, beyond the “realm” of rational human investigation. There is no point in inquiring into it, anymore than there is in inquiring into the nature of the Divine, which, as Plato remarks in the Timaeus, is “beyond knowing or expressing”. The absolute right to abortion is an inscrutable mystery. For feminists, it is the magnum mysterium (with apologies to Christianity); and those who raise questions about its truth or moral rectitude are trespassing on sacred ground.
Ms. Massa’s views are reflective of a generalized exaltation of human “rights” to metaphysical status. Calling something a “right” (the “right” to an education, to medical care, to a “living” wage, to same-sex “marriage”, and, of course, the ubiquitous right not to be offended) confers upon it a kind of magical potency, which is one reason why utterly novel “rights” like a woman’s over her own body have been breeding like flies lately.
But let us grant, for the sake of argument—not that Ms. Massa would be open to argument–that there is a “right to choose”, even if no Canadian Parliament has enacted it, and not even Canada’s activist Supreme Court has recognized it.
In non-totalitarian states, citizens possess many “rights”, but none of them comes with the included right to immunity from criticism. Rights don’t have rights and never have had—not even the traditional ones that have been on the books since Magna Carta. We have long had the right to private property, but that does not prohibit socialists from inveighing against it, and advocating its abolition. Even in the nineteenth century, when Americans enjoyed the right to own slaves, emancipationists were at perfect liberty to call the legal practice pernicious. Presumably, even Ms. Massa would have been happy about the evanescence of that right. No right is insulated from rational judgment. Only eternal laws handed down from on high lay claim to the privilege of sacrosanctity.
It’s not merely, therefore, that Ms. Massa and her co-religionists have decreed that, at York and other universities, opposition must be crushed and non-conforming points of view silenced. On campus, this is nothing new. By now we all know that universities, once sanctuaries of free thought and untrammeled debate, have of late become Zimbabwe’s without the violence. Universities proudly merchandise themselves as perfect little jewels of diversity–by which their administrators mean diversity of race, country of origin, religion, and “sexual orientation”, but absolute uniformity of thought.
In the academy, this is more or less an open secret. Students know that if they submit essays propounding views that go beyond the “realm” of acceptable opinion, they can expect a poor grade. For the sake of self-preservation, they learn, like all political and religious dissidents, to suppress their own doubts, and observe the proprieties. Professors know that if they fail to do the same in the classroom, their students might denounce them as racists, sexists, fascists, homophobes, Islamophobes, Euro-centrists, or anti-choice bigots, in their end-of-year course evaluations, which can spell the end of their careers. So professors, too, sensibly reduce the risks by staying within the “realm” of acceptable opinion. It’s a tacit, mutual undertaking to dissemble, such as one often finds in totalitarian societies. And it works. Which is not to say that in the academy there aren’t the usual disciplinary committees and tribunals charged with enforcing adherence to “speech codes” and the like, and censuring those who violate them. But there is little need for them, when the system of self-repression functions so efficiently.
Of course, the university is not the only theocratic institution in our officially secular world; only the most suffocating one. The same “smelly little orthodoxies” (to recall Orwell’s pungent phrase) delineate the bounds of speech, thought, and action in most departments of modern life: in the workplace, the news media, the legislature, the literary and arts community. Go beyond the “realm” of orthodox opinion in any of these contexts, and you might well end up before one of Canada’s busy human rights tribunals.
One is grateful, certainly, that such tribunals do not have the authority to burn heretics at the stake; merely to get them dismissed from their jobs, fine them, imprison them, or deport them, while sullying their reputations, forcing them to issue spurious but nonetheless humiliating apologies, to surrender their presses to their ideological opponents, or open their private reception halls for the sport of those who offend their most deeply held moral convictions.
But then I thought we were “beyond” all that.