Professor of Government Charles Kesler in the Spring 2015 Claremont Review of Books laments that "The culture of free discussion and debate is declining, and with it liberty, on and off the campus." He is right to be offended by the new culture of 'trigger warnings' and 'microaggressions,' but I wonder if his analysis is quite right.
What’s behind the decline? There are many factors, but among the most influential is that dead-end of modern philosophy called postmodernism, which has had two baneful effects. By teaching that reason is impotent—that it can’t arrive at any objective knowledge of truth, beauty, and justice because there is nothing “out there” to be known—postmodernism turns the university into an arena for will to power. All values are relative, so there is no point in discussing whether the most powerful values are true, just, or good. The crucial thing is that they are the most powerful, and can be played as trumps: do not offend me, or you will be in trouble. If we say it’s racist, then it’s racist. Don’t waste our time trying to ask, But what is racism?
Second, postmodernism devotes itself to what Richard Rorty called “language games.” For professors, especially, this is the most exquisite form of will to power, “a royal road to social change,” as Todd Gitlin (the rare lefty professor at Columbia who defends free speech) observes. So freshman girls became “women,” slaves turned into “enslaved persons,” “marriage” had to be opened to “same-sex” spouses, and so forth. Naming or renaming bespeaks power, and for decades we have seen this power rippling through American society. Now even sexual assault and rape are whatever the dogmatic leftists on and off campus say they are.
No truth, then no way things are; power decides
Kesler's analysis is largely correct, but it could use a bit of nuancing and as I like to say exfoliation (unwrapping). First of all, if there is no truth, then there is nothing to be known. And if there is neither knowledge nor truth, then there is no one 'way things are.' There is no cosmos in the Greek sense. Nothing (e.g., marriage) has a nature or essence. That paves the way for the Nietzschean view that, at ontological bottom, "The world is the Will to Power and nothing besides!" We too, as parts of the world, are then nothing more than competing centers of power-acquisition and power-maintenance. Power rules!
This is incoherent of course, but it won't stop it from being believed by leftists. It should be obvious that logical consistency cannot be a value for someone for whom truth is not a value. This is because logical consistency is defined in terms of truth: a set of propositions is consistent if and only if its members can all be true, and inconsistent otherwise.
Don't confuse the epistemological and the ontological
To think clearly about this, however, one must not confuse the epistemological and the ontological. If Nietzsche is right in his ontological claim, and there is no determinate and knowable reality, then there is nothing for us, or anyone, to know. But if we are incapable of knowing anything, or limited in what we can know, it does not follow that there is no determinate and knowable reality. Of course, we are capable of knowing some things, and not just such 'Cartesian' deliverances as that I seem to see a coyote now; we know that there are coyotes and that we sometimes see them and that they will eat damn near anything, etc. (These are evident truths, albeit not self-evident in the manner of a 'Cartesian' deliverance.) Although we know some things, we are fallible and reason in us is weak and limited. We make mistakes, become confused, and to make it worse our cognitive faculties are regularly suborned by base desires, wishful thinking, and what-not.
Fallibilism and objectivism
It is important not to confuse the question of the fallibility of our cognitive faculties, including reason in us, with the question whether there is truth. A fallibilist is not a truth-denier. One can be -- it is logically consistent to be -- both a fallibilist and an upholder of (objective) truth. What's more, one ought to be both a fallibilist about some (not all) classes of propositions, and an upholder of the existence of (objective) truth. Indeed, if one is a fallibilist, one who admits that we sometimes go wrong in matters of knowledge and belief, then then one must also admit that we sometimes go right, which is to say that fallibilism presupposes the objectivity of truth.
Just as a fallibilist is not a truth-denier, a truth-affirmer is not an infallibilist or 'dogmatist' in one sense of this word. To maintain that there is objective truth is not to maintain that one is in possession of it. One of the sources of the view that truth is subjective or relative is aversion to dogmatic people and dogmatic claims.
One cannot be a liberal (in the good old sense!) without being tolerant, and thus a fallibilist, and if the latter, then an absolutist about truth, and hence not a PC-whipped leftist!
And now we notice a very interesting and important point. To be a liberal in the old sense (a paleo-liberal) is, first and foremost, to value toleration. Toleration is the touchstone of classical liberalism. (Morris Raphael Cohen) But why should we be tolerant of (some of) the beliefs and (some of) the behaviors of others? Because we cannot responsibly claim to know, with respect to certain topics, what is true and what ought to be done/left undone. Liberalism (in the good old sense!) requires toleration, and toleration requires fallibilism. But if we can go wrong, we can go right, and so fallibilism presupposes and thus entails the existence of objective truth. A good old liberal must be an absolutist about truth and hence cannot be a PC-whipped lefty.
Examples. Why tolerate atheists? Because we don't know that God exists. Why tolerate theists? Because we don't know that God does not exist. And so on through the entire range of Big Questions. But toleration has limits. Should we tolerate Muslim fanatics such as the Taliban or ISIS terrorists? Of course not. For they reject the very principle of toleration. That's an easy case. More difficult: should we tolerate public Holocaust denial via speeches and publications? Why should we? Why should we tolerate people who lie, blatantly, about matters of known fact and in so doing contribute to a climate in which Jews are more likely to be oppressed and murdered? Isn't the whole purpose of free speech to help us discover and disseminate the truth? How can the right to free speech be twisted into a right to lie? But there is a counter-argument to this, which is why this is not an easy case. I haven't the space to make the case.
Getting back to the radical Muslims who reject the very principle of toleration, they have a reason to reject it: they think they know the answers to the Big Questions that we in the West usually have the intellectual honesty to admit we do not know the answers to. Suppose Islam, or their interpretation thereof, really does provide all the correct answers to the Big Questions. They would then be justified in imposing their doctrine and way of life on us, and for our own eternal good. But they are epistemological primitives who are unaware of their own fallibility and the fallibility of their prophet and their Book and all the rest. The dogmatic and fanatical tendencies of religion in the West were chastened by the Greek philosophers and later by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. First Athens took Jerusalem to task, and then Koenigsberg did the same. Unfortunately, there has never been anything like an Enlightenment in the Islamic world; hence they know no check on their dogmatism and fanaticism.
Defending the university against leftists and Islamists
The university rests on two main pillars. One has inscribed on it these propositions: There is truth; we can know some of it; knowing truth contributes to human flourishing and is thus a value. The other pillar bears witness to the truth that we are fallible in our judgements. Two pillars, then: Absolute truth and Fallibilism. No liberal (good sense!) education without both.
The commitment to the existence of absolute truth is common to both pillars, and it is this common commitment that is attacked by both leftists and Islamists. It is clear how leftists attack it by trying to eliminate truth in favor of power. That this eliminativism is utterly incoherent and self-refuting doesn't bother these power freaks because they do not believe in or value truth, which is implied by any commitment to logical consistency, as argued above. (Of course, some are just unaware that they are inconsistent, and others are just evil.)
But how is it that Islamists attack objective truth? Aren't they theists? Don't they believe in an absolute source and ground of being and truth? Yes indeed. But their God is unlimited Power. Their God is all-powerful to the max: there are no truths of logic, nor any necessary truths, that limit his power. The Muslim God is pure, omnipotent will. (See Pope Benedict's Regensurg Speech and Muslim Oversensitivity.)
The subterranean link
Here is perhaps the deepest connection between the decidedly strange bedfellows, leftism and Islamism: both deny the absoluteness of truth and both make it subservient to power.