In 1984, George Orwell wrote: “The two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought. When people ‘disappear’ no one is allowed to mention it, no one is mourned, no one person is important, only the Party and Big Brother are important.”
Today, Orwell’s Thought Police are, rather ominously, everywhere. There is a definite intellectual chill in the air. Reason and civility are all but gone in the public square. In its place, we have insults, shaming, censorship and self-censorship that is meant to “pass” for thought. Hotly internalized propaganda rules the day online. We have met Big Brother, and he is us.
In my view, people seem to develop some kind of psychoanalytic transference to their Listserv groups. In a way, the connection is an umbilical one. The darker side of this connection isn’t hard to find. Internet Listserv groups bully and purge dissident members—this has happened to me and to many others. Sometimes, a small group of people (teenage “mean girls” and their mothers, academics, journalists,) attack the same person over and over again, day after day, for months, even for years. Meanwhile, hundreds of onlookers remain silent. No one stops the attacks or calls for a more civilized fight.
My esteemed ally and sister Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been disinvited from lecture dates and awards ceremonies many times; her dishonorable disinvitations have sometimes been spearheaded by feminists. I have also been dishonorably disinvited, more than once. The point of these de-platforming rituals, of course, is to demonstrate the difference between a Thought Crime and the Party Line. Over and over again, universities and institutions that are supposedly devoted to the free exchange of ideas fail this basic test, strengthening the extremists and the censors by handing them the victories they seek.