Over the weekend, the WSJ published an interview with Jonathan Haidt on the question of the cultural roots of campus rage. “When a mob at Vermont’s Middlebury College shut down a speech by social scientist Charles Murray a few weeks ago, most of us saw it as another instance of campus illiberalism. Jonathan Haidt saw something more—a ritual carried out by adherents of what he calls a “new religion,” an auto-da-fé against a heretic for a violation of orthodoxy.

“The great majority of college students want to learn. They’re perfectly reasonable, and they’re uncomfortable with a lot of what’s going on,” Mr. Haidt, a psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, tells me during a recent visit to his office. “But on each campus there are some true believers who have reoriented their lives around the fight against evil.”

“These believers are transforming the campus from a citadel of intellectual freedom into a holy space—where white privilege has replaced original sin, the transgressions of class and race and gender are confessed not to priests but to “the community,” victim groups are worshiped like gods, and the sinned-against are supplicated with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

“The fundamentalists may be few, Mr. Haidt says, but they are “very intimidating” since they wield the threat of public shame. On some campuses, “they’ve been given the heckler’s veto, and are often granted it by an administration who won’t stand up to them either.”

The heckler’s veto was deployed most recently against Jim Webb at the Naval Academy.  That was just for accepting an award, and one less accolade for Webb is not some great loss – he himself seems to care little about such things. But the heckler’s veto is much more meaningful when it silences those who say things that cannot be accepted as legitimate speech by a cohort of loud students. A wide variety of conservative speakers have experienced protest without significant violence – such protesters have always been there on campuses, and their objections to the presence of ideas with which they disagree can be heard without losing anything.

But Haidt is correct that there is a different tone to the current protest – a view that the students who seek to shut down speech are operating from a place of virtue, battling against evil by insisting that some speech is too unacceptable to even take place on campus. This idea is more dangerous, and we know where it leads: to an enforcement of thought policing that turns the mind into a walled garden where nothing wild can grow. Such limitation is only possible when people believe they are acting in the interest of themselves or their community by limiting what can be said, and by whom.

“lf the attribute of popular government in peace is virtue, the attribute of popular government in revolution is at one and the same time virtue and terror, virtue without which terror is fatal, terror without which virtue is impotent,” Robespierre once said. “The terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is thus an emanation of virtue.”

We have seen the danger in such virtuous motivations in the histories of other nations. They start with hecklers shouting, they grow with protesters marching, and they can end with the idea that the only thing that will finally shut up the annoying speaker is to silence them for good. Let us hope that the America academy is different. It has been. Will it be?

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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