College Was Once a Place of Debate, It’s Now a Home for Dogmatism

Nearly every month now there seems to be another story of a would-be campus speaker getting shouted down by an illiberal mob. Most recently was Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who happens to be vocally critical of today’s feminist movement, which she argues has “taken a divisive gynocentric turn” and put an emphasis “on women as a political class whose interests are at odds with the interests of men.”

Criticizing feminist dogma has not won Sommers many fans among the progressive left. In a better time that would have sparked some interesting debate between opposing views of feminism. Most likely the feminist movement would be larger and stronger were it so. Unfortunately, this is not that time.

Instead, when Sommers attempted to speak at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, sign-wielding protesters did their best to prevent her from speaking. According to reports from Reason’s Robby Soave, a leader of the protesters wearing a jacket that said “stay woke” engaged in a back-and-forth chant with the demonstrators:

“Mic check. We choose. To protest. Male supremacy. Not give it. A platform. Christina Sommers. Has repeatedly. Delegitimized. The suffering of women. Worldwide. We believe. Our siblings. And our comrades. Women are not. Liars with victim mentalities. Rape culture is not a myth. Microaggressions are real. The gender wage gap is real.”

None of this was actually based on the speech Sommers gave. Instead, the protesters minds were made up well before Somers even appeared on campus. In an attempt to get the Federalist Society, who invited Somers to campus, to rescind their invitation a group of progressive leaders sent out a missive calling Sommers “a known fascist” and called the event “an act of aggression and violence towards members of our society who experience racial and gendered oppression.”

The charge that Sommers is a fascist is absurd. She’s a self-described “equity feminist,” who seeks to break down legal barriers to equality for women, but believes that distorting evidence on the wage gap, sexual assault on campuses and “male supremacism” actually sets the movement back rather than advances it. This doesn’t make her a radical. It makes her a researcher whose worldview is firmly within the mainstream of American political thought.

The response to the Sommers affair should be a chorus in support of free speech. Unfortunately, the increasing ubiquity of these incidents hasn’t united voices against those who would limit debate on campus, but has instead followed a rote cycle of a few commentators raising the alarm against PC culture and a flood of commentators arguing that there is no crisis.

Left-leaning columnist Jonathan Chait writes:

Mari Uyehara has a column arguing that too many columns have been written about free speech on campus. Uyehara does not endorse the kinds of repressive actions that these columns decry (no-platforming is “a terrible technique,” she concedes), but instead focuses on the disproportionate coverage. “The number of publications and prominent journalists willing to cover [these episodes] is quite high,” she complains. “Andrew Sullivan has written in New York magazine about a half-dozen articles, warning that ‘the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy.’ His colleague Jonathan Chait has written another dozen on PC culture … In The New York Times, Bret Stephens regurgitated a speech as an article called ‘Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort,’” and so on.

This is not the first column to argue along these lines. Jamie Piltch (“Free speech isn’t under attack on campuses”), Chris Ladd (“There Is No Free Speech Crisis on Campus”), Rich Smith (“There’s No Free Speech Crisis on Campus, So Please Shut Up About It”), Jeffrey Sachs (“The ‘campus free speech crisis’ is a myth. Here are the facts”), Matthew Yglesias (“Everything we think about the political correctness debate is wrong”), Hamilton Nolan (“Get Over College Kids”), Sophia McClennen, Leah Finnegan, Andrew Hartman, Clio Chang, Clio Chang again, and David Masciotra, to name just a few, have all hammered home essentially the same argument.

The goal of these columns, as Chris Ladd happily writes for Forbes, is to portray the PC crisis on college campuses as a “phony crisis manufactured by the same people who fuel the engines of climate denial.” To steal language from the campus left, they are attempting to “other” anyone who believes that the First Amendment is sacrosanct and must be defended vociferously.

But they are also desperate to defend liberalism’s excesses. College campuses provide much of the energy behind today’s progressive left. To call out their tilt toward illiberalism, in the form of shutting down civil liberties, creates cognitive dissonance. How can the grassroots of the party simultaneously be more progressive than ever, but also more regressive?

It’s a question that the left would rather not grapple with. As Jonathan Chait writes, “the impulse to close ranks against the larger political enemy encourages overlooking unhealthy habits on one’s own side.”

But the impacts of those unhealthy habits will be felt for decades. Colleges are grooming the next generation of leaders. Without being exposed to different viewpoints where will those leaders lead us?