The Theory Behind My Disinvitation

"The Theory Behind My Disinvitation," The Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2019.

Harvey Mansfield reflects on his recent disinvitation from Concordia University and what it reveals about intolerance in the university today.


Recently I was disinvited from giving a commencement address at the small Liberal Arts College within Concordia University in Montreal. My speech was to be on the study of great books, to which that college is devoted. The invitation was a surprise, and the rejection less of one, because I am a white male conservative professor. Though I teach at Harvard and lecture elsewhere fairly often, I don’t get invitations for occasions when universities put their principles on display. My last commencement address was for a private high school in rural California.

My relative lack of celebrity likely made me easier to disinvite. Most universities don’t ask a professor to speak at commencement, figuring that the professors have already had their turn. Students and parents prefer the relief of hearing something not worth remembering on which they won’t be tested.

Still, I had been invited and then disinvited. My reaction was more a sigh than a rush of anger at the manifest insult it was. Having devoted my life to teaching the great books, I was not going to be tongue-tied or at a loss as more specialized professors might be. Each of my classes is a commencement address. Thus the fear about my appearance at Concordia was not that I would speak badly. But what was the reason behind it?

It could not be found explicitly in the letter I received from Principal Mark A. Russell of the college. This was a performance too obviously clever to be clever. The principal regretted to inform me of a change of plan. His invitation committee had “acted in good faith but rather precipitously.” When it spoke with the entire faculty and some alumni, “we were unable to reach consensus as to what we wanted to achieve with this event.” Since he did not describe what had been discussed, nor disinvite me explicitly, he could say with apparent innocence that he was “sorry for any inconvenience that our decision not to proceed may cause you.”

No disinvitation, no insult, hence no apology except for inconvenience. Also, no broken promise, no suppression of free speech, and no violation of academic freedom. Mr. Russell and his college were guiltless and safe. To be magnanimous, they admit to having acted “rather precipitously” in inviting me.

What had taken place, I learned but not from him, was a faculty meeting prompted by a letter from 12 alumni that demanded a reversal of the committee’s invitation because my “scholarly and public corpus . . . heavily traffics in damaging and discredited philosophies of gender and culture.” Promoting “the primacy of masculinity,” apparently a reference to my book “Manliness,” attracted their ire. Though I was to speak on great books, not gender, this “trafficking”—as if in harmful drugs—disqualified me without any need to specify further. Such sloppy, inaccurate accusation was enough to move a covey of professors to flutter in alarm.

This is not the place to repeat or defend my thoughts on women and men, which are much more favorable to women than to feminism. When I die I wish it said that I gave my best to my female students. The new doctrine of feminism in which women are essentially the same as men, except that women have all virtues but no characteristic defects and men have no virtues and terrible defects, has little appeal to me either as fact or right. It does have relevance to my Canadian adventure, though.

Feminism is not so much an attack on “toxic masculinity” as on feminine modesty, the “feminine mystique” of Betty Friedan’s devising. To feminists, modesty diminishes women’s power and keeps them dependent on men. Yet it is to be replaced by the notion of a “safe space” that will protect women and liberate them from the need to defend themselves in the hostile environment presupposed by the so-called virtue of modesty. A moment’s reflection suggests a certain resemblance between the old-time feminine modesty and the newfangled safe space. In both, women are dependent on men to defend them—whether they are old-school gentlemen or sensitive men like Mr. Russell.

But feminism is not the only source of intolerance in the universities today—nor the only reason for my disinvitation. It is joined by the notion that free speech is an expression of one’s power rather than a contribution to truth or toward a reasonable settlement. In this notion, speech is more determined by one’s desire to get the better of an opponent or to defeat an enemy than offered as persuasion to an audience. Speech is like a gesture or wail of defiance, a rallying cry, or shout of triumph. It is defined as coming from within oneself against the hostility awaiting from others in the outside world; it is not defined by the need to address them, their needs and their opinions. Speech is irrational rather than rational, for this view regards reason as nothing but an instrument of power with no power of its own.

Thus understood, free speech is no longer possible or desirable. It is diminished by the view that seizes on the power of speech to manipulate and denies its power to enlighten. Speech is not an alternative to power but a form of power, political power, and political power is nothing but the power to oppress. A professor like me might trick gullible students and lure them to the wrong side. So it is quite acceptable to exclude speakers from the other side. Supremacy of the wrong side must be prevented by supremacy of the right side. The university cannot be an ivory tower, a force for good above partisanship. It must be what it has allegedly always been, either a battleground fought over or a redoubt of the winner. This is the idea of postmodernism, a present-day version of ancient sophism.

When I was much younger and a student in the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his allies went on the warpath against the universities, demanding that they exclude Communist professors. The universities defended themselves at that time, rejecting the spirit of what is still notorious as “McCarthyism.” I little thought that I would now in my old age be qualified for exclusion from Concordia University in our free neighbor to the north, not as the member of a conspiratorial organization serving an enemy power, but simply for holding opinions shared by half the American—and perhaps the Canadian—population.

Wall Street Journal