The New Puritans

In August 2021, the journalist Anne Applebaum, wrote an essay called “The New Puritans” about online speech. There are many things about the essay that are true! Online speech is complicated and many people behave really badly. And yet, I keep coming back to this thesis. After talking about repression in Turkey, Applebaum writes:

In America, of course, we don’t have that kind of state coercion. There are currently no laws that shape what academics or journalists can say; there is no government censor, no ruling-party censor. But fear of the internet mob, the office mob, or the peer-group mob is producing some similar outcomes.

That wasn’t true last August, given the wide range of state and local government actions banning speech, books, teachings, conversation, and so forth. It’s less true now. Here’s today “new puritan” news.

At the University of Idaho, faculty and staff have been advised that talking honestly about abortion or birth control (bolded, just because some folks scoffed at the notion that the Dobbs decision would lead to broader attempts at repression, as if banning abortion wasn’t bad enough), could be treated as a felony.

You can read the whole letter here.

From Jezebel (my bold):

“While the topic of abortion (including facilitating a miscarriage) are [sic] addressed under the discussion above, the scope of what is meant by ‘prevention of conception’ and to have ‘offered services by notice, advertisement, or otherwise…’ is unclear and untested in the courts,” the email said. “Since violation is considered a felony, we are advising a conservative approach here, that the university not provide standard birth control itself.” In other words, because the state’s near-total abortion ban is so new, legally, it’s all uncharted territory. Because it’s not clear what will or won’t land someone in prison, the university’s general counsel appears to have advised faculty to essentially not touch the topic of reproductive health at all.

There are any number of directions one could go from this letter. I’m especially interested in the ways that higher education pre-emptively over-complies with threats from state agencies. We saw this a lot around bans on “critical race theory” a year ago, when Deans started sending emails out to faculty about how to stay out of trouble, instead of protecting academic freedom.

But for now, I just want to say this:

But the new Puritans are the same as the old Puritans, give or take a couple hundred years, wielding state authority to silence in favor of overlapping oppressive ideologies around religion, race, gender, sexuality, reproduction, and more.

The new Puritans are the same as the old Puritans.

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