Neo-Puritanism: The Erosion of Free Speech and Dissent

George Eliot’s Middlemarch reminds us that there is a “strong assumption of superiority in…puritanic toleration.”[1] More than seventy years later, in 1945, H.L. Mencken describes the Puritans as being known for “the lingering strength” of their “prudery,” unflatteringly comparing them to the “pioneers who trekked westward during the half century between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.”[2] Those pioneers who, he writes, believed they “knew precisely what was right and what was wrong, not only in such gross and public matters as speech, but also in the most minute details of private conduct…were not, perhaps, as vicious as the Puritans.”[3] Now, seventy years after Mencken’s comparison, a more ubiquitous and similarly humorless faction of neo-Puritans is swiftly emerging in the Cultural Left.

It is crucial to distinguish between neo-Puritanism and the Political Leftism, not because neo-Puritans are entirely distinct from the Political Left — in fact, the latter is the fundamental incubator of the former. But because the erosion of the division between politics and culture is relevant in its role as the fuel that is firing itself. This sort of perversion of politics and culture is nothing new. In 16th century Italy, following the Catholic Church’s spreading of “her forgiving wings over the pagan proclivities of the Italian people,” Will Durant describes the rise of Puritanism as a Calvinistic “calling upon the world to fetter itself in a puritanism that threatened to exile all the gladness and spontaneity from life.”[4] While this sounds like a battle between faiths, it is important to remember that in the mid-16th century, the Catholic Church was the State and, originally, the Protestant Reformation was believed to be a mere cultural uprising within the Church.[5] So too, then, we can analogously view neo-Puritanism as a cultural uprising within the Political Left State.

The neo-Puritan reformation is additionally similar to its namesake’s in two important ways. First, just as the religious Puritans’ initial desire to reform the Catholic Church evolved into an attempt to revolutionize the religious and political leanings of outgroups, so to has the neo-Puritanical wish to reform the Political Left evolved into an attempt to also reform the Political Right, and rather counterintuitively — and certainly counterproductively — itself. Second, the neo-Puritanical reformation has degenerated from a dialectic amongst peers into a fractured and violent faction bent toward a self-devouring appetite for a culture war. While superficially benign, these similarities are realistically setting America up for a potentially disastrous turn for the worse in politics, academia, culture, and any other arena in which the neo-Puritans may feel threatened and so respond by adjusting the narrative to focus on the pejorative and capricious -ism of the day.

The Belligerents

Traditionally, wars are fought between two distinguishably identifiable belligerents. State v. State; or State v. Revolutionary Actor; or State v. Terrorist Actor; each side identifies its own as the good, and identifies the other as the bad. However, the neo-Puritans are employing two counterintuitive tactics (possibly) designed to shift the nature of the modern American culture war into one unwinnable for anyone involved. First, they are perniciously identifying their enemy as the war goes on. Second, they are relying on victimhood as a means to victoryhood. Neither of these tactics are standard, but both seem to be proving effective.

At every turn of the page there is a new story detailing a neo-Puritanical proclamation that they have a new enemy. Individually, these so-called Social Justice Warriors are no more than spoiled incompetents with an illusory view of reality and cooperation. Collectively, as with any movement, additional adherents birth increasing force. And, with this particular group, their ever-shifting perception of the out-group as evil-doers increases that force exponentially. Anyone can be an aggressor, at any time, at any place, without warning. One-on-one these Warriors may be talked to, reasoned with, or compromised with. However, given the relative comfort of perceiving oneself as a victim, the group is growing at a terrifying and dangerous rate, now effecting more change than awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversations about what one’s first-year Sociology professor taught about what Columbus really did when he landed in the Bahamas. The individual has necessarily given way to the group, and the group is counterproductively destroying its host: academia.

Probably the two most concerning — at least most recent — examples of neo-Puritanical self-destructive aggression are obvious in the scandal surrounding the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia and the growing, yet almost inconceivable controversy at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Hypatia, which has long been generally regarded as a respected peer-reviewed academic journal, is now undergoing a shift in its editorial process in order to appease the a group of neo-Puritan academics who decided that, while progressive, the journal is now an enemy because it is not progressive enough, nor is it progressive in the right way. At Evergreen, an angry mob of neo-Puritanical students with misplaced anger overtook the campus, both physically and ideologically, in response to an anti-racist stance by a faculty member.

The Battles

In Hypatia’s Spring 2017 issue, the feminist philosophy journal ran a peer-reviewed (and obviously peer approved) article by Rhodes College philosophy professor Dr. Rebecca Tuvel, called “In Defense of Transracialism.”[6] Dr. Tuvel’s apparent sin was investigating whether “considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism.”[7] An open letter complaint to the Editor and Associate Editors of Hypatia derided the journal for, among other things, failing “to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of ‘transracialism’.”[8] The 830 neo-Puritans who signed the letter demand “a statement taking responsibility for the failures of judgment associated with publishing this article and apologize for the initial uncritical response posted on Hypatia’s Facebook page,” and a call for the journal to “[o]pen its general editorial norms and procedures to scrutiny moving forward.”[9]

Jesse Singal, of New York Magazine, rightfully defends Dr. Tuval, calling the reaction to her article “a massive internet witch-hunt, abetted in part by Hypatia’s refusal to stand up for her.”[10] Singal further explains that Dr. Tuval is no enemy of the pitchfork wielders, but is, in fact, one of the Left’s own. Not only does Dr. Tuval not question the validity of transgender identity, she carefully makes “a very specific, narrow argument about identity in an academic philosophy setting, all while noting, every step of the way, that she believes trans people are who they say they are, and that they should be entitled to the full rights and recognition of their identity.”[11] The neo-Puritans, however, do not view the article as simultaneously inclusive and exclusive enough for its own taste.

Hypatia’s editor, Dr. Sally Scholz, firmly upheld her decision to print Dr. Tuvel’s article, arguing “that a community of scholars should contest concepts and engage in dialogue within the pages of the journal to advance our collective project of educating — students and ourselves.”[12] The rest of Hypatia’s editorial staff, however, found no such solace in the defensive stance of its applause-worthy commander. Two weeks after Dr. Scholz reaffirmed her position on the puzzlingly provocative article, Hypatia’s editorial Board issued a statement acknowledging that the “objectionable features of the particular case, considered in isolation, seem too minor to outsiders to warrant the degree of outrage focused upon it,” however, “[s]uch dismissal reflects ignorance of the cumulative history of marginalization, disrespect, and misrepresentation of oppressed groups.”[13]

Apparently then, for neo-Puritans, Dr. Tuvel’s proposed query into potential similarities between transgenderism and transracialism cannot be philosophical. Also apparently, disagreement with a hypothesis cannot be merely a difference of opinion. Instead, according to the neo-Puritans, instead of being a boundary-pushing progressive feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia is now a dangerous publication in which dissenting stances are viewed as merely ignorant, disrespectful, and misrepresentative. This is not the Left eating its own. This is the Left turning Puritanical and deciding that its own is a new enemy in need of reformation; the commencement of a fracturing that leaves no winners; only newly rivalrous factions destined to view itself as the new victim.

At least in Hypatia’s case, the nouveau outrage du jour was launched by academics at other academics, defamatory or otherwise. Such is not the case at Evergreen State College, where biology professor Bret Weinstein’s seemingly uncontroversial anti-racist stance led to a campus shutdown, threats of physical violence, and an obsequious wavering of academic rigour by the supposed adults in the room. In a piece for the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Weinstein elaborates that the impetus for the student-driven outrage was an objection to his rejection of “a planned ‘Day of Absence’ in which white people were asked to leave campus on April 12.”[14] Historically, students and faculty of color absented themselves from Evergreen’s campus in order to highlight the underappreciated importance of their presence. This year, however, “it was decided that on Day of Absence, white students, staff and faculty (would) be invited to leave the campus for the day’s activities.”[15] Dr. Weinstein, “in an email to all staff and faculty” dared respond that, “[o]n a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.”[16]

Upon Dr. Weinstein’s anti-racist objection to the proposed change to Evergreen’s Day of Absence — as well as his objection to a campus reform which called for “an ‘equity justification’ for every faculty hire” — a neo-Puritanical mob of students surrounded the professor’s office and demanded his resignation, swearing at him and calling him a racist for acting like an anti-racist. Classes at Evergreen were canceled for three consecutive days, prior to which Dr. Weinstein held his class at a local park because campus police informed him that they could not protect him.[17] Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that numerous faculty members have called for “disciplinary investigation” of Dr. Weinstein, for endangering “faculty, staff and student” by “making them targets of white supremacist backlash by promulgating misinformation in public emails” and in the press.[18]

Unlike Hypatia’s neo-Puritans, Evergreen State’s neo-Puritans are keeping their disagreements out of peer-reviewed journals, preferring instead to air their grievances in person. Despite describing themselves as adults, Evergreen’s neo-Puritans can be seen shouting a man out of a room simply because he’s white, mocking the college’s President into putting his hands down, repeatedly yelling “Black power” and “fuck the police,” as well as screaming that “whiteness is the most violent fuckin’ system to ever breathe.”[19] Ironically, the immediate target of the majority of the neo-Puritan aggression is the college President, Dr. George Bridges, the driving force behind the equity based practices with which Dr. Weinstein initially took issue.

Neither Hypatia’s or Evergreen’s neo-Puritans have picked up physical pitchforks. But, in academia, physical aggression can be more easily dealt with that the erosion of free speech and dissent. Physical aggressors can be arrested, trespassed, or otherwise restrained. Ideological pitchforks, such as those wielded in the Hypatia and Evergreen cases, are traditionally preferable because fighting ideas with ideas is a nobler and safer mode of truth-seeking, but this relative safety relies on three assumptions. First, the dissenting voices, while they have a right to be heard, will be accepted as a necessary oppositional force to keep groupthink from overtaking genuine academic integrity but not at the cost of drowning out truth with noise. Second, the dialogue will not turn violent. And third, if the dialogue does turn violent, there will be some price to pay for that violence.

The Endgame

In Middlemarch, Miss Dorothea Brooke demonstrated a puritanic toleration not present in the oblique displays of assumed moral superiority in today’s neo-Puritans. There was no such toleration in the Hypatia Editorial Board’s witch hunt of Dr. Tuvel or the racist protestors at Evergreen demanding Dr. Weinstein’s resignation. At least in those instances, the culture battles have been idealistic and non-violent. Gravely, however, just as the religious Puritans eventually shifted from idealistic dissent to brutal violence against both others and their fractured selves, numerous other Neo-Puritan culture battles, such as those at Middlebury College and UC-Berkeley, have been trending from verbal battles toward physical altercations.[20],[21] It should be clear that this is analogy between religious Puritanical violence and neo-Puritanical violence is simply a statement of fact, not a declaration of moral equivalence. Unfortunately, a key tactic of the Neo-Puritans is not burying the lede, but finding one where there is none.

As suggested earlier, at least in some circumstances, physical aggression is more easily dealt with than the erosion of free speech and dissent. Crucially, this idea relies the assumption that, should the erosion of free speech and dissent turn violent, there will be some price to pay for the violence. However, as of this writing, no indictments have been made following over 20 arrests of UC-Berkeley protestors (at least 10 of which were violent offenses).[22] And the Middlebury Police Department has more recently admitted that “[n]o criminal charges will be filed following an investigation into a violent incident that took place after a talk at Middlebury College.”[23] This is not a matter of Democrat v. Republican. This is bigger than a standard partisan issue. It is a criminal issue, and a threat to the academic, cultural, and personal freedoms of anyone on the Left or Right who may unknowingly be the next ally-turned-witch to be hunted by the neo-Puritans.

What, then, is the endgame? What is to stop the Neo-Puritans from continuing to decide that some Progressive friend is now a Conservative foe to be shouted down and violently attacked if the shouting is not effective?[24] What is to keep the neo-Puritans from skipping the shouting, opting directly for violent aggression toward someone with whom they newly disagree?

Dr. Tuvel thought she was working toward the best interests of the Progressive Left; and she was. Dr. Weinstein believed he was standing up for anti-racists; and he was. Dr. Charles Murray and Dr. Allison Stanger believed they were cultivating an arena of truth-seeking; and they were.[25] And the student group at UC-Berkeley who invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak thought they were augmenting the campus’s historical image as a beacon of free speech; and they were.[26] But a growing group of neo-Puritans, believing that victimhood is victoryhood, turned on all of them; because they thought they were going to be able to drown out freedom in favor of the strong assumption of moral superiority in puritanic toleration. And they did.


[1] Eliot, George. Middlemarch. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

[2] Mencken, H. L. The American Language, Supplement One. New York: Knopf, 1961. Print.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Durant, Will. The Reformation, A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300–1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957. Print.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defense of Transracialism.” Hypatia. N.p., 29 Mar. 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1efp9C0MHch_6Kfgtlm0PZ76nirWtcEsqWHcvgidl2mU/viewform?ts=59066d20&edit_requested=true

[9] Ibid.

[10]Singal, Jesse. “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.” Daily Intelligencer. New York Magazine, 02 Apr. 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[11] Ibid.

[12] http://hypatiaphilosophy.org/Editorial/index.html (Entry dated May 6, 2017)

[13] http://hypatiaphilosophy.org/Editorial/index.html (Entry dated May 18, 2017)

[14] Weinstein, Bret. “The Campus Mob Came for Me-and You, Professor, Could Be Next.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 30 May 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[15] Manchester, Chloe Marina. “Day of Absence Changes Form.” Cooper Point Journal. N.p., 10 Apr. 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[16] Weinstein, Bret. “The Campus Mob Came for Me-and You, Professor, Could Be Next.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 30 May 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[17] Richardson, Bradford. “Evergreen State College Shuts down after Receiving ‘direct Threat to Campus Safety’.” The Washington Times. The Washington Times, 01 June 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[18] https://docs.google.com/document/u/1/d/1zwPLnekTcjlmwO_0IyS7qF33sa40ufi2zAMEP-MU3IE/mobilebasic (accessed June 5, 2017).

[19] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO1agIlLlhg at 4:48, 3:35, 6:18, :18, :38, and :46, respectively.

[20] Buchanan, Daniel P. “Tares in the Wheat: Puritan Violence and Puritan Families in the Nineteenth-Century Liberal Imagination.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 8, no. 2, 1998, pp. 205–236. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1123939.

[21] See: https://heterodoxacademy.org/problems/

[22] “Berkeley Police Release Names Of People Arrested At Trump Protests.” CBS San Francisco. CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service, 17 Apr. 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[23] DeSmet, Nicole Higgins. “Police: No Charges in Middlebury Protest.” Burlington Free Press. N.p., 23 May 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[24] Ironically, to some, a Conservative voice was the first to host Dr. Weinstein following his ordeal: “Professor Blasts Campus ‘Mob’ Calling for ‘Day Without White People’.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 27 May 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[25] Jaschik, Scott. “The Aftermath at Middlebury.” Middlebury Engages in Soul-searching after Speech Is Shouted down and Professor Is Attacked. N.p., 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.

[26] Public Affairs, UC Berkeley | January 26, 2017. “Chancellor’s Message on Campus Appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos.” Berkeley News. UC Berkeley, 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 05 June 2017.