In 1850, Bowdoin’s very own Nathaniel Hawthorne published “The Scarlet Letter,” a novel set in 17th century Puritan New England. Hawthorne’s portrayal of the Puritan character remains the image most people have in mind when they think of what a Puritan must have been like: stodgy and conservative, highly intolerant of other religions and denominations, disdainful of pleasure and committed to very strict standards of orthodoxy.
It hardly needs saying that this profile no longer applies to today’s New Englanders. Some three and a half centuries on, your average Yankee is more likely to consider him or herself liberal, open-minded and welcoming of diversity. This is especially so in those old bastions of liberal learning spread out across New England, including the school we have the privilege of attending. Bowdoin may have been religiously and culturally conservative in the past, but today it prides itself on its liberal values of diversity and free speech that challenge cultural norms once held sacrosanct.
But at one of our fellow NESCAC schools, this caricature of old-style New England Puritanism has reared its head once again under an extremely different guise. I refer to the recent events at Middlebury, where libertarian scholar Charles Murray was silenced by a large group of students protesting his talk and then set upon by a mob following the event. You have doubtless already heard the details, so I don’t think they bear repeating here.
It may seem strange to refer to these protestors as the modern-day heir to Puritanism. How exactly do these students, who protested a man they described as a racist, conform to the image of the conservative Puritans of yesteryear? Andrew Sullivan argued in a recent article in New York Magazine that these protesters advance a new sort of orthodoxy that functions very much like a religion. It controls the language of and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue—and is obsessed with upholding it.”
In the case of Charles Murray, the students were able to label him a sinner—one who once dared to write about race in a way deemed unacceptable—and the only response was not to debate the merits of his argument but to shut him down completely. Never mind that most students had never read his book in question, “The Bell Curve.” If they had, maybe they would have seen that his alleged racism comes from one chapter that is rather tangential to the book’s main argument. Indeed, they probably could have used rational arguments to debunk his contention that there is a genetic component to racial differences in IQ, just as a symposium in The New Republic following the book’s publication has done already.
But instead of doing any of this, which they say would have legitimized his racism, the protestors shut him down completely. They followed the standard campus Puritan playbook: zero in on one transgression, expose the offender as a horrible human being who deserves nothing less than to be shunned from polite discourse, and take whatever steps necessary to make sure that he or she is sufficiently shamed. What does it matter that a professor gets violently assaulted in the ensuing chaos, as long as campus orthodoxy remains unchallenged?
But my comparison may be a bit unfair to the Puritans. For contrary to popular perception, they were actually capable of the virtues of love and mercy, even if they could be a bit stern at times. But in today’s college student variety of Puritanism, there can be no mercy for the likes of Charles Murray. He belongs to the city of the damned for his original sin of racism, and so no matter what he has to say today, he will always bear the scarlet letter of his past transgression. But in this case it is not a badge of penitence, but of ostracism, marking him as forbidden from the realm of polite discourse. Unlike Hester in “The Scarlet Letter,” today’s Puritans foreclose the possibility of redemption at the end of his story.
There is a world of difference between objecting to a person’s opinions and registering that through vigorous public debate and shunning the offender so thoroughly that he or she has no opportunity to respond to the charges. The former is consistent with the aims of a liberal education to grant a hearing to a wide variety of perspectives and the latter is nothing but an irrational and inflexible response to disagreement. I am glad to say that the former sort of protest has largely prevailed during my time at Bowdoin. But we would all do well to take a warning from Middlebury’s situation and avoid the kind of intolerant and rigid mindset that led to those ugly and counterproductive protests.