Silencing Dissent

Aug 31, 2023 2:00:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CEA CAPA Education Abroad's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, Dr. Woolf talks about how disagreement and debate are at the heart of learning processes. He highlights the importance of being open to diversity of thought and how education abroad facilitates that.

An Arid Echo Chamber

We silence or ignore opinions judged to be offensive or objectionable in several ways; strategies for not hearing others range from brutal repression to more subtle techniques that empower us to discredit dissenters. Ideologues create an ethos of intolerance which contradicts principles of diversity and inclusion. If those concepts have real meaning, a prerequisite is a commitment to creating inclusive space for a breadth of opinion and a variety of voices.

Disagreement and debate are at the heart of learning processes. In education abroad, an objective is to enable students to encounter new ideas in unfamiliar situations precisely so that assumptions are challenged, disrupted by difference. If all we listen to are those voices that enforce what we already believe to be true, we remain in an arid echo chamber, impoverished by the absence of new perspectives.

White tape in an "X" formation taped over a person's mouth 
Keeping them quiet.
(Photo by solidcolours on iStock)


Mechanisms for repressing dissent depend essentially upon power structures. A vocal group of students, with little institutional authority, may, nevertheless, deny space to speakers of whom they disapprove. This is temporary disruption; a refusal to listen or to allow others to listen. It is uncivil behavior and subverts a basic educational process in which opinions are contrasted and contested.

Towards the other end of the power spectrum, the political machinery of the state may classify certain views as illegal. In extreme situations, such power may be used to eliminate dissenters by imprisonment or execution. Less extreme mechanisms might focus on the opinions rather than the body of the dissenter. Censorship by law is an obvious example of that process. Certain artistic creations, for example, may be judged to be obscene, according to the subjective taste of society at a given point in time.

D. H. Lawrence’s tedious Lady Chatterley’s Lover was long considered to be an affront to public taste. Establishment objections were based on explicit descriptions of the intimate relationship between the aristocratic Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper. Offense was taken at both the sex and, perhaps even more significantly, transgression of a class barrier. At the trial in 1960, prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones suggested to the jury that the novel was an affront to British society, a subversion of male authority and class conventions: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” Legalized publication of the novel is often seen as an iconic event in the liberalization of Britain: a step on the road to the “swinging sixties.”

However, there is no progressive momentum towards greater tolerance. There are American comedians in the decades following the 1960s—George Carlin, Mort Sahl, Bill Hicks, Redd Foxx, even Richard Pryor—who would find life difficult in the current censorious environment wherein offense is more easily taken. There are authors also, Philip Roth comes to mind, who have become subject to a new kind of righteous solemnity. Satire has become less acceptable as a means of undermining convention. Humor is a powerful political weapon. The space in which it is permissible has narrowed.

A revisionist view of Philip Roth offers an instructive example. His work has fallen under the withering gaze of the righteous. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is cited as a novel that denigrates women, caricatures Jewish mothers, and trivializes sexual exploitation.

When the novel first appeared, it generated admiration and hostility, particularly from two directions, rabbis and feminists! However, it appeared when dissonant Jewish American comic voices on the stage, in books, in the cinema, and on television offered an implicit critique of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant narrative of American identity. Portnoy’s Complaint belongs within an explosion of Jewish American satirical creativity which includes Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Bruce Jay Friedman, Wallace Markfield, and a host of other lesser lights.

A comparison with the Harlem Renaissance in the first decades of the 20th century is appropriate. African American writers and performers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, among many others, demonstrated that the artistic life of America could not be constrained within the boundaries of a White tradition. These creative figures, Jewish and Black, demonstrated the breadth and depth of American creative diversity.

This has not protected Philip Roth and Portnoy’s Complaint from indignation. Only a brave professor would teach this book in the current environment. I do not intend to offer a detailed analysis but, rather, selective perspectives, some of which are relevant to the defense of other works of art currently subject to disapproving scrutiny.

Firstly, and most obviously, Portnoy’s Complaint is an extended monologue: a first-person narrative that invites the reader to recognize both anguish and comic dissonance between public status and private neuroses. Laughter is a weapon against pompous self-righteousness. It dramatizes human fragility.

Furthermore, creative writers invent characters. Confusing the fictional character with the author is an obvious error of judgement. Nobody confuses Shakespeare with Othello. Portnoy is not Philip Roth as even a cursory reading demonstrates. Portnoy is ill—an unreliable narrator. The entire novel, as the ending makes clear, is narrated from a psychiatrist’s couch: “So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” Roth repeatedly requires the reader to distance themselves from the views of the protagonist. Author and fictional invention are clearly distinct. A novel is not a biography.

That there is no progressive route towards greater tolerance was vividly (even ridiculously) demonstrated by events in March 2023 at Tallahassee Classical School in Florida. Some pupils were exposed to Michelangelo’s 16th-century statue of David (and his genitals). In most of the world this work is considered to be one of the key masterpieces of the Renaissance, but not in Tallahassee. Parental complaints about pornography forced the principal of the Christian charter school to resign.

A statue with its left hand resting under its chin to reflect a state of thinking 
David made respectable.
(Photo by Fresh Tr on Pexels)

The case of David’s genitals demonstrates the absurdity of censorious bigotry. In short, because I do not want to see, hear, or read something, it should not be seen, heard, or read by anyone else.

The Plight of the Naysayers

Iconoclasts and naysayers generally have a rough time of it. Challenging the dominant ideology is rarely a comfortable experience. Deviance from religious orthodoxy, for example, has carried significant health risks. The Spanish Inquisition offers a precise illustration. The version of Catholicism initiated by the papal decree of Pope Sixtus IV in 1478 aimed brutally to enforce an ideal of religious conformity, partly intended to drive the infidels (Jews and Muslims) out of Spain and its growing empire. For some 300 years, the Inquisition exemplified what we now recognize as a “single story” or “grand narrative.”

These terms describe a comprehensive and universal filter or theory through which past, present, and future realities can be understood: a single story that explains the world. Intolerance is innate in this concept. If something is comprehensively the truth, the space for disagreement inevitably shrinks. There is little room for doubt, or liberal pluralism. Deviance is self-evidently wrong. Grand narratives are deaf to dissent because they own the truth; they inhabit a world of righteous certainty.

19th-century engraving of heretics burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition 
19th-century engraving of heretics burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition  
(Photo by NSA Digital Archive on iStock)

In 20th-century history, Naziism interpreted the world through a hierarchy of race rather than religion. White Aryans represented a superior elite destined to rule over lesser forms of humanity. Victims were insignificant obstacles in the way of destiny. In contrast, Soviet Communism offered a comprehensive theory based around economic dynamics, and class conflict. As Joseph Stalin put it, a consequence is that: “the proletarian State is a machine for the suppression of the bourgeoisie” (1924). [1]

Deviance from the dominant set of beliefs is not always as fatal or painful as it was under Chief Inquisitor Torquemada, Hitler, or Stalin. However, challenges to orthodoxies will almost always have negative consequences. Dominant establishments create mechanics to silence dissent—the gulag, concentration camp, lunatic asylum, prison cell: walls of repression, fences of fear.

Over 30 years ago, John E. Becker, Director of the Core Curriculum at Fairleigh Dickinson University, noted that “there is no room for the hesitations of reason in matters of faith.” [2]

More recently in a March 2023 article, Ilana Redstone, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has argued that:

Certainty has at least two implications...one is that it leads us to stop asking questions...this forecloses our ability to create or access new knowledge. The second...is that it leads us to conclude that there are no questions to be asked, by anyone. And this changes social norms. It changes what we think is socially acceptable and what isn’t, leading us to view dissenters and contrarians as moral abominations who deserve to be punished.

How We do it These Days

Staying Safe—Self-Censorship

The health and safety of students is a primary responsibility of educational institutions at home and away. It is a heightened imperative in education abroad because, it is imagined, students are at greater risk in unfamiliar environments.

However, what we mean by safety has expanded beyond physical security, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note in The Coddling of the American Mind: “gradually in the 21st century...the meaning of ‘safety’ underwent a process of ‘concept creep’ and expanded to include ‘emotional safety’”(p. 24). [3] Thus, students need to be protected from ideas “that they believed could jeopardize their mental health by... making them feel unsafe” (p.8).Danger is not only a physical threat but derives from opinions that disrupt students’ preconceptions. The concept also seems peculiarly inappropriate in the context of academic studies: “is safety versus danger a helpful framework for discussing reactions to literature?” (p.7).

Expanding the notion of safety beyond physical security challenges the basis of all education, and international education in particular. Displacement is at the heart of education abroad. High impact learning derives from encounters that disrupt assumptions. There is no point in students coming abroad (or perhaps attending university at all) if what they are taught simply enforces what they already know. Educational organizations who seek safety through self-censorship of challenging materials are leaving students to drift aimlessly in a sea of contentment.

The essence of education abroad is to challenge received opinion. Socratic education is based upon the critical examination of ideas in conflict or contradiction. Requiring students to examine their assumptions is a critical intellectual benefit of education abroad. Safety is not the objective.

The Committee on Academic Freedom of the American Association of University Professors summarize the consequences of “safety”:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement...politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.

The current ethos may, thus, lead teachers towards nervous self-censorship. Students, protected from the messy discomforts of discordant reality, occupy the impoverished space imagined by the poet, Adrian Mitchell, in “Maximum Security Girl”:

Then she’ll be safe...
Safer than insurance
Safer than the dead...
the safest person
In this dangerous dangerous world
Maximum security girl.

Marginalizing Dissent

We are not more tolerant of naysayers than the generations that preceded us. It is simply that our customs and practices tend less frequently to involve the burning of bodies. Instead, metaphorically at least, we burn books with righteous fervor. Zealots of right and left seek to silence, shame, ridicule, marginalize dissent.

One strategy is to discount disagreement as an inherent characteristic, instead of as a credible perspective. In short, alternative views are products of conditioning, rather than autonomous thought. Unconscious bias offers a mechanism for discrediting opinions with which we disagree. I am not suggesting that the concept has no validity. As a tool for introspection, it may help individuals identify sources of their own assumptions. It is also reasonable to assume that we are all shaped by a convergence of identities, some of which we are aware, others of which we may be less aware.

A paradox arises if one group is assumed to have unconscious bias while another is imagined to be relatively free from such conditioning. This becomes damaging when that distinction is racialized. An embedded assumption is that skin color is the most potent influence upon the self, more so than nation, age, class, gender, religion, region, education, and so on. 

Taken to a logical conclusion, the idea of unconscious bias permits one group to ignore the views of another. In its extreme form, it may also suggest that some groups need to be “re-educated,” conditioned to align with a dominant truth. In this, there is a whiff of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, of McCarthyism, of Stalin’s terror, of George Orwell’s nightmare in 1984. No room exists for creative discourse. Dissent is literally or metaphorically treasonable.

There is a profound danger to pluralism in assuming that one perspective is free from conditioning while another is not. It empowers one group to dismiss the opinions of another, to discredit counter views. For religious fundamentalism, atheism is not a product of individual reason. Marxist orthodoxies may characterize criticisms as a bourgeois failure to understand the forces of history. Virulent nationalists, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Henry Ford, define cosmopolitanism as a symptom of Jewish dislocation. Dissent is collective delusion, a symptom of who you are, not a product of independent thought,

Stereotyping is a consequence: a means of reducing the individual to a representative figure. Crude versions of unconscious bias are part of the architecture of bigotry. They assume that your opinion does not matter, is not worth listening to, not because of what you say but because of who you are. In short: I am deaf to people like you. Whatever you say is irrelevant. You are merely a product of your inherited identity.


“Whose voice is heard?” is a vitally important question driven by the recognition of the traditional dominance of White Christian male heterosexual perspectives. An imperative, therefore, is to challenge that orthodoxy. The principle of inclusion acknowledges the importance of alternative voices, discourse enriched by diversity and pluralism. However, “Whose voice is silenced?” is an equally critical question. We do not create an inclusive learning agenda by discarding history. That is the paradox explored by T.S. Eliot in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919):

Someone said, “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

The ambiguity of the word “critical” resonates in this discussion. Critical means highly important, even essential. To be critical, however, may refer to a habit of skeptical thought that could well challenge the notion of what is “critical.” “Critical history” could mean new perspectives on traditional interpretations, reinterpretation of assumed realities. It may also signify the near opposite, events that are thought to be essential to understanding a particular version of the past, iconic events and myths embedded in national identities: investigation and analysis in contrast to ideology and faith.

Two current controversies indicate the potential for a collision between analytical thought and ideological faith: the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory. On the 400th anniversary of slavery in America, journalist and civil rights activist Nikole Hannah-Jones launched the 1619 Project in The New York Times (August 18, 2019):

The year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true “founding fathers.”

This offers an important perspective; it raises consciousness that there are American histories, rather than a single narrative. It relates to pluralistic readings of national experience including the hidden dynamics of class.

Critical Race Theory, developed in the context of legal studies, argues that systemic racism in key American institutions sustains social, political, and economic inequalities. White privilege is, thus, embedded in the fabric of American society.

Whatever response you have to these ideas, together they invite a valuable debate about America’s past and present. Theory means hypothesis; a proposition that could be taught alongside, and in conjunction with, other theories of social, economic, and political organization such as Marxism, capitalism, feminist thought, Durkheim’s functionalism, etc. The 1619 Project offers an insight applicable to other histories. Collectively, these ideas offer tools for analyses and debate of power structures and histories within America and elsewhere, opening diverse ways of understanding national identities.

That is not what usually happens. Instead, these propositions become acts of faith for progressive proponents and anathema to sections of the conservative right. Nothing is really discussed or learned. Instead, a clash of irreconcilable ideologies leads to political conflict marked by closed minds, deaf to diversity of opinion.

Diversity is a principle of education abroad. Whatever else it may mean, it must embrace the notion that we can learn from listening to views with which we may disagree. If we only speak to those who share our assumptions, all we can achieve is confirmation of our own biases. So, I offer a utopian vision: an ideal space, a vast debating chamber perhaps, in which conflicting voices interact in civil discourse, in which it is possible to disagree without hate or scorn. In this blessed space, the silencing of dissent and canceling of disagreement is recognized as a form of violence, authoritarian prejudice, an act of bigotry. It condemns us to reside in an arid echo chamber.



[1] Joseph Stalin. The Foundations of Leninism. Moscow: Pravda, 1924.

[2] The New York Times. Dec. 9, 1990. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/09/weekinreview/nation-campus-forum-multiculturalism-opening-academia-without-closing-it-down.html

[3] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. London: Allen Lane, 2018.


Thanks, Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CEA CAPA Education Abroad's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. All comments and opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other staff members or CEA CAPA as an organization. Dr. Woolf is the editor of the CEA CAPA Occasional Publications series, and we are currently accepting submissions for the Occasional Publication #11.


Topics: London, England, Dublin, Ireland, International Education, Sydney, Australia, Florence, Italy, Barcelona, Spain

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