The Courage of Dorian Abbot

February 8, 2021 Updated: February 8, 2021


Our cultural intelligentsia has commanded that in the name of social justice, certain beliefs about the world are infallible, never to be questioned. Such beliefs stand to our cultural moment as the ex cathedra pronouncements of a Medieval Pope: One questions such decrees only on penalty of excommunication.

Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, our world grows progressively “curiouser and curiouser.” We regularly encounter dubious and eccentric claims about what it means to be human; how, ideally, society should be ordered; and how history is to be understood. We are told to shut up and accept such claims uncritically, even as they assault our critical faculties and understandings of the world. Skepticism is verboten in the world of the woke.

When Alice reproached the Red Queen, saying that “one can’t believe impossible things,” the Red Queen quickly corrected her: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice … Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Like Alice’s, our age is one in which we’d better start practising believing impossible things.

For example, throughout the advanced democracies, race and racism have been re-introduced into the public square with a vengeance. In defiance of history, common sense, and the evidence before our own eyes, we are told that only white people can be racist. European people and their descendants are responsible for all oppression since the beginning of recorded history.

Moreover, the white race has “privilege,” while all non-white people (except for Asians) are “oppressed,” victims of the brutality visited on them by the white hierarchy.

It is difficult not to marvel at the provincialism and naivete of such assertions. I often think that it is only people who don’t travel who can cling to such a jejune view of the world. A quick tour of Asia, for example, would soon lay to rest the proposition that the white race has a monopoly on racism.

Yet from such dubious premises, it is argued that compensatory mechanisms in the form of racial quotas and preferences must be enacted throughout our institutions. Such initiatives are euphemistically referred to as “affirmative action,” “positive discrimination,” or “enhancing diversity.” They are intended to right history’s wrongs. Such initiatives are particularly prevalent in our universities.

Here is not the place to debate the merits of such programs. I only note that, A, there is a debate to be had, and B, it’s not immediately apparent that discriminating against individuals based on their race represents a moral advance.

But to question these programs’ sanctity is to bring down the wrath of the woke mob, as Dorian Abbot, a tenured professor in the department of the geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, recently discovered.

In a series of YouTube videos, Prof. Abbot questioned how “diversity, equity, and inclusion” had been implemented. He also suggested that a climate of fear is “making it extremely difficult for people with dissenting viewpoints to voice their opinions.” And in a moment of foolhardy open-mindedness, he dared to argue that the best way to advance social justice and the interests of under-represented minorities was for universities to hire and promote faculty based on academic merit rather than on factors external to the academic mission such as gender or race.

Such heretical thoughts cannot stand, and students and postdocs soon circulated a petition. They claimed that Prof. Abbot’s opinions “threaten the safety and belonging of all under-represented groups within the [geophysical sciences] department” and “represent an aggressive act” toward research and teaching communities. They sought to ostracize and shame Abbot while demanding that the department of geophysical sciences formally and publicly denounce his views.

Fortunately, the Free Speech Union launched a petition in his support. Robert Zimmer, the president of the University of Chicago, defended Abbot by evoking the Chicago principles, a set of values articulated at the university and intended to protect freedom of expression on U.S. campuses.

Abbott survived, but his tale is a cautionary one. Even a tenured professor defies the woke consensus at great peril to his well-being and career.  No one on campus is safe, as the tentacles of social justice reach into every corner of university life, shifting and changing in unpredictable ways. To coin a phrase, “You might not be interested in woke politics, but woke politics is interested in you.”

Spirited and free-thinking professors such as Dorian Abbott are becoming a rare breed at a time when our universities need them most. Three cheers for his courageous stance, and a tip o’ the hat to the Free Speech Union and Robert Zimmer for defending his right to speak his mind.

Patrick Keeney, Ph.D., is an academic, a columnist, and associate editor of C2C Journal. He is a member of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, an organization dedicated to maintaining freedom in teaching, research, and scholarship on Canadian campuses.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.