The Unwritten Rules

May 5, 2005

I recommend a fascinating article in the current New Criterion. By Roger Kimball (author of Tenured Radicals, Revised: How Politics has Corrupted Our Higher Education), the article provides an analysis of the causes of the current crisis in higher education and provides potential solutions. While I recommend the entire piece, the following segment struck me as particularly insightful:

Academic life, like the rest of social life, unfolds within a frame of rules and permissions. At one end, there are things that one must (or must not) do; at the other end, there is rule of whim. The middle range, in which behavior is neither explicitly governed by rules but is not entirely free, is that realm governed by what the British jurist John Fletcher Moulton, writing in the early 1920s, called “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” It is a realm in which not law, not caprice, but virtues such as duty, fairness, judgment, and taste hold sway. In a word, it is the “domain of Manners,” which “covers all cases of right doing where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.” A good index of the health of any social institution is its allegiance to the strictures that define this middle realm. “In the changes that are taking place in the world around us,” Moulton wrote, “one of those which is fraught with grave peril is the discredit into which this idea of the middle land is falling.” One example was the abuse of free speech in political debate: “We have unrestricted freedom of debate,” say the radicals: “We will use it so as to destroy debate.”

The repudiation of obedience to the unenforceable is at the center of what makes academic life (and not only academic life) today so noxious. The contraction of the “domain of Manners” creates a vacuum that is filled on one side by increasing regulation—speech codes, rules for all aspects of social life, efforts to determine by legislation (from the right as well as from the left) what should follow freely from responsible behavior—and on the other side by increased license. More and more, it seems, academia (like other aspects of elite cultural life) has reneged on its compact with society.

Kimball is precisely on target. During my law school education, as professors continually made snide comments about conservatives and Christians (I’m both) and as condescension replaced argument as the most common response to dissenting viewpoints, I can remember thinking, “this behavior isn’t really illegal—it’s, well, rude.” (And if you think that is a petty critique, then you haven’t grown up in the South.) If professors wonder how they can prevent state intervention to “balance” the classroom, perhaps they should begin to remember their manners. This sounds simplistic, but it is actually critically important. The systematic denigration of opposing viewpoints doesn’t persuade, it enrages, and this rage can lead to overreaction and censorship.

As a generation of conservative students encounters administrative and professorial contempt—contempt they know to be arrogant and immoral—the temptation to search for legal solutions to systematic abuse becomes overwhelming. “After all,” they point out, “didn’t the left legislate their own vision of manners and morality with the advent of the speech code?” My advice to students of all political stripes who are left outside the shrinking “domain of Manners” is simple: save the legal solutions for true deprivations of civil liberties, but use the bully pulpit to expose violations of this important social compact. Use your academic freedom to expose and shame condescension and mockery. Make professors justify in public the contempt they demonstrate in private. The “domain of Manners” should be restored rather than replaced by the domain of the state.