There is an astonishing amount of bullying going on right now—in academia and elsewhere—and it is imperative that people stand up to those who seek to intimidate them into either silence or, more appallingly still, the affirmation of beliefs they actually do not hold.
At the same time, we need to remember that the spirit of truth-seeking is a self-critical spirit, so we must avoid the temptation to insulate our beliefs from criticism by portraying and dismissing our legitimate critics as “bullies.”
To me, the distinction between a critic and a bully is not hard to draw, and actually I’m not personally familiar with many “gray” or “borderline” cases (though I can manufacture them as thought experiments of the sort I present to my students on exams).
A critic—even a forceful one—does business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse: presenting evidence, providing reasons, making arguments; a bully questions people’s motives and calls them names.
A critic wants to discuss an issue—to try to persuade you to change your mind or see things in a different light; a bully wants to shut down discussion.
A critic appeals to reason—your mind and conscience; a bully tries to induce fear–resorting to threats and shaming to frighten you into submission.
A critic permits you to make your case in the terms you believe appropriate, and doesn’t try to win arguments by dictating the language of the discussion in ways that beg the question; a bully does precisely the opposite.
A critic wants to disabuse you of an error; a bully wants to deprive you of your livelihood—both as a punishment for wrongthink and pour encourager les autres.
A critic is willing to be challenged as well as to challenge; a bully regards any questioning of his or her beliefs as a personal assault—for example, a “bigoted” attack on his or her “identity.”
A critic recognizes that you are entitled to your opinion, even if, in his or her judgment, it is erroneous; a bully insists that “error has no rights” and that those in error must be “re-educated” (via such things as ideologically inflected “training” in “cultural competency,” or “diversity,” or “unconscious bias awareness”) or cancelled.
A bully believes that dissent from his or her opinions is evidence of either stupidity (perhaps even mental illness) or malice (“bigotry”).
One thing, it seems to me, that cannot be relied on to distinguish bullying from legitimate advocacy (collective or otherwise) is the virtue of the cause. There are certainly good and bad causes. Good causes—even the best of causes—can be, and have been, advanced by people deploying bad means, including bullying.
The fight against communism—including Soviet tyranny and expansionism—was waged in a very good cause, namely, the cause of democracy and liberty. Some, however, sought to advance that cause by bullying. Senator Joseph McCarthy is, of course, the most notorious example, but not the only one. They brought shame upon, and in some circles discredited, a noble cause. Then, as now, the bullies sought to get—and too often succeeded in getting—people (including many academics) dismissed or disciplined for dissenting from beliefs that, in the passions of the moment, many people felt every decent person just had to affirm.
Listen to critics and engage them in civil, genuinely truth-seeking discussion; defy bullies and call them out.
Note. This blog was originally posted here on June 27 and reprinted with permission from the author.