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Jewish World Review Oct. 13, 2003/ 17 Tishrei, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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Lighting the fire for free speech | Everybody's in favor of freedom of speech as long as it's his own. Often the most educated are the most easily offended "sensitive" men and women who want to kick in the First Amendment when they don't like the speech it protects.

That's what happened at the University of Alabama, when a student put the Confederate battle flag on his dormitory door. The administration didn't like it, so it drafted a ban to forbid any public display "inconsistent with accepted standards or University policies."

The administrative powers figured that such a wide-ranging ban would give them the authority to say what was free and what was forbidden. But a group of Alabama students who thought the First Amendment actually means what it says, with the help of several like-minded professors and civil libertarians, called 'Bama's bluff. They displayed a veritable forest of flags and international symbols, waving them at a vigil for free speech, challenging the university to look for offenses.

After four months of protests, the university authorities decided to honor the Constitution. Free-speech advocates, naturally, are pleased.

"There is no need for any codes that ban speech - even speech that offends - on public university campuses," said Thor Halvorssen, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that revels in the acronym FIRE because it tries to turn up the heat on anyone who tries to melt down the guarantees of free speech.

Attacks on free speech in the name of political correctness have proliferated on and off the college campuses for more than two decades. The attempt to ban public displays at the University of Alabama was so blatant and so crude that it was relatively easy to galvanize opposition to it. A more censoring atmosphere lurks in the larger society, inhibiting debate and inflicting great harm because it operates under the radar of public consciousness. This is true particularly true of public and private opinions about blacks and women.

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When Rush Limbaugh suggested that Donovan McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, was "over-praised" because the league and its handmaidens in the media are eager for a black quarterback to succeed, Rush was labeled a racist.

His opinion of Donovan McNabb's abilities may or may not be correct, and the quarterback's performance the following week against the Washington Redskins suggests that it wasn't. But so what? What's wrong with expressing an opinion? Football fans argue about everything else, so why not about race?

Not so long ago, several editors and reporters at the New York Times thought Jayson Blair was "over-promoted" to choice assignments because he's black, but were uncomfortable (or even afraid) of saying so because race was a taboo subject. As a result, what could have been the sacking of one dishonest reporter brought down the executive editor and the managing editor.

Society misses fresh ideas when a pervasive ideology imposes self-censorship. In "The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain," Simon Baron-Cohen discusses how hardwired the in-born differences are between the sexes, and how this determines differences in behavior. He details how politically correct feminism prevented him from publishing his "radical" findings for nearly a decade.

"The topic was just too politically sensitive to complete in the 1990s," writes the professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University. He postponed going public because he believed feminists would kill an honest debate. Nor did he relish being labeled a "sexist" by those who appear to believe that anyone who investigates sexual differences is a male chauvinist creep.

The professor senses a change in the intellectual climate and believes his book can get a fair hearing today. His theories will certainly test that opinion. After 20 years of research on male-female differences and the study of autism (which is mainly a disease of males), Simon Baron-Cohen emphatically states that female brains are predominantly hardwired for "empathy," the ability to identify with another person's emotions and respond in an appropriate way. Male brains are predominantly wired for analyzing, exploring, "understanding and building systems."

He argues, persuasively to my mind, that his research can be put to work for the equal benefit of men and women. But it's easy to see how certain feminists will find his thesis patronizing at the edges: Women, with a dominant female brain, make wonderful counselors, nurses, therapists; and men, with the dominant male brain, make wonderful scientists, architects, mechanics.

Men or women with a balance of both qualities usually make good doctors and communicators. The professor's findings shred the idea that all "gender" differences are culturally determined.

For years we have been deprived of the research described in this book, and cheated of the opportunity to debate the merits of his study. We should light a FIRE where it will do the most good.

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