Fashions in Forbidden Speech - Commentary

The temptation to politicize nearly everything is nearly universal, at least among the ruling elite in America. “We live in a time in which those who want to advance in the professions must pretend to believe what we all know to be untrue,” the Hillsdale College historian Paul A. Rahe wrote on Saturday over at Ricochet. As an example, he repeated the story of Dr. Lazar Greenfield, an emeritus professor of surgery at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, who was bounced from the editorship of Surgery News for daring to suggest—on Valentine’s Day, no less—that “there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected,” and the bond appears to be biologically rooted.

Dr. Greenfield submissively apologized, but the gods of social constructionism were not appeased. Yesterday he resigned as president of the American College of Surgeons after two months of predictable “controversy” and “outrage.” His breezy and cheerful editorial, which Rahe conveniently reprints in full since it has been proscribed by Surgery News, “outraged many women in the field, some of whom said that it reflected a macho culture in surgery that needed to change,” the New York Times reported.

How the merest suggestion that the bond between men and women might run deeper than social custom “reflects a macho culture” is left unexplained, but that’s the point. Offenses against moral fashion require no proof. Accusation suffices—so long as the accusers have a moral status granted to them by their quickness to take offense. Dr. Barbara Bass, a surgeon at Methodist Hospital in Houston, told the Times she was glad that Greenfield had stepped down. His resignation, she said, shows that the leaders in the field “understand the continued challenges women face as they join and mature in the surgical profession.”

I doubt that’s what most people will understand about Dr. Bass. That she has no sense of humor, that she is prepared to wreck a colleague’s career over an abstract ideological point, that her social faith trumps science as much as for any Soviet Lysenkoist—all this is clear about her, and about many like her who are shocked, shocked, by the very thought that perhaps there is a natural connection between men and women.

Professor Rahe concludes by saying that the “totalitarian temptation” on display in the Greenfield case may never go away. But I’m not so sure. Moral fashions are little different from fashions in clothing. They come and go, like tie-dyed tee-shirts. As Sam Schulman pointed out in a brilliant article in the Weekly Standard last month, it was once unsayable in 19th-century America to describe black slavery as evil, at least among the cultural elite. That the current bans on some speech are passing fashions which will cause later generations to snicker or shake their heads is invisible to nearly everyone, especially the offended.

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