Diatribes Have Replaced Dialogue on College Campuses

“On a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be —should never be based on skin color.”

Helen of Troy had a face that launched a thousand ships. Professor Bret Weinstein’s seemingly innocuous words launched a thousand protests. Evergreen College has now been shut down for the third straight day and Professor Weinstein has been forced off campus in fear for his personal safety. And all because he stated his anodyne opinion that an event asking white students to leave campus sends a fundamentally bad signal.

Is it the ‘wrong’ opinion? I’m not exactly sure who wants to be in the business of arguing that people, regardless of skin color, aren’t created equal. Is there perhaps a difference between what the event’s creators were trying to achieve and Professor Weinstein’s reasonable view that a white-free day could be seen as “a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” Absolutely.

But students weren’t willing to engage in a conversation with Professor Weinstein to get to the bottom of his, and their, concerns. Instead, they formed a mob and demanded his resignation.

“There’s a difference between debate and dialectic,” Weinstein ended up pleading with the raucous crowd that surrounded him. “Debate — wait a second — debate means you are trying to win; dialectic means you are using disagreement to discover what is true.”

“We don’t care what terms you want to speak on. This is not about you. We are not speaking on terms—on terms of white privilege. This is not a discussion. You have lost that one,” one student replied.

Sadly, the ongoing incident at Evergreen is far from the only recent demonstration that runs counter to free speech. Hundreds of students walked out of Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony to protest Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks. A few days earlier, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was booed during a commencement address at Bethune-Cookman. In April, a speech at Claremont McKenna by Heather Mac Donald was moved, and then ultimately shut down by police, after angry protests sprung up on campus. And in March, a planned debate at Middleburg College between conservative Charles Murray and liberal faculty member Allison Stanger, led to threats on his life and left her in a neck brace.

Against this backdrop some unlikely voices are beginning to speak out. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria warned on his show that “conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely.”

“American universities these days seem to be committed to every kind of diversity – except intellectual diversity,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said. “Conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely.”

“It’s an attitude of self-righteousness that says we are so pure, we’re so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea with which we disagree,” he said.

That attitude was perfectly reflected at Evergreen. After fielding a verbal barrage of questions, he’s finally able to ask the swarm of students, “Would you like to hear the answer or not?”

“No!” they shouted.

And it’s that attitude—the one that suggests that there is no longer any room to solemnly and respectably discuss our disagreements—that threatens the foundation of higher education, and risks hollowing out liberalism more generally. There are no constructive outcomes from shouting down anyone who disagrees, no forward progress from shutting down a conversation, and certainly no converts made by casually tossing out harmful slurs. As the left-leaning Frank Bruni writes for the New York Times:

I asked Bridges about the epithets hung on Weinstein. He said that such terms are being deployed too readily and casually.

“Using the word ‘racist’ halts the conversation,” he said. “It just ends it. It doesn’t explore the beliefs, the values, the behaviors that comprise individuals.”

Isn’t he, too, being characterized as racist?

“Of course,” he said. “It’s just the way discourse goes these days.”

Of course? What a sad state of affairs. And what a retreat from anything that we could really call “discourse.”

A sad state indeed.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Moo