“Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.” – Alfred Whitney Griswold, Essays on Education
There is a crisis of confidence happening on today’s college campuses. Some social commentators describe it as an outburst of political correctness taken to the extreme. This explanation feels as if it stops halfway. It’s not that protesters and students are demanding uniformity of thought, at least not yet, it’s that they demand “safe spaces,” and warn against “micro-aggressions,” apparently fearful that campuses will be overrun by illiberal ideas and discourse will turn aggressive. I can only attempt to explain that fear by imputing a lack of confidence in their ideas.
But what have they to be afraid of?
At UCLA, students clashed over a fraternity’s decision to have a “Kanye Western” theme party where students wore costumes that parodied Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Some student objected, saying that wearing baggy jeans was “cultural appropriation” that was “highly offensive to Black students.” Others claimed the party celebrated a party of history that “demoralized, mocked and dehumanized African Americans.” The frat, seeing the harm, apologized and said they were “grateful for the dialogue.” Nevertheless, the university likely took the unconstitutional step of suspending the fraternity and the student newspaper called for the school to preemptively clear all party themes.
At Wesleyan, sophomore Bryan Stascavage – a 30-year-old Iraq veteran – wrote a column for the student newspaper criticizing the tactics and questioning the outcomes of the Black Lives Matter movement. Notably, Stascavage didn’t disagree with the group’s premise, he simply questioned whether of the denigration of police writ large could spark unnecessary violence. In response, the paper apologized and promised to make the paper “a safe space for the student of color community.” It wasn’t enough. The student government voted unanimously to halve funding for the paper and redistribute it to other campus publications.
At Yale, the Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email urging students to “consider their costumes” and refrain from any “cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation.” Erika Christakis, a lecturer and associate master of Yale’s Silliman College, gave a thoughtful response, arguing that she doesn’t wish to “trivialize genuine concerns,” but wondered whether there is any “room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative, or, yes, offensive.” Her main argument was whether this represented the “exercise of implied control over college students” and questioned whether students should accept this “shift from individual to institutional agency.” In response, dozens of angry student surrounded her husband on campus to demand an apology. One particularly vocal student shouted, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.” A subsequent op-ed in the Yale Herald argued, “[Christakis] doesn’t get it. And I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
At the University of Missouri, the chancellor, Tim Wolfe, was deposed amid complaints that he failed to adequately respond to either the Ferguson shooting or a series of ugly, alleged racially-tinged acts occurred on campus. Wolfe later met with protesters and apologized, admitting that racism is a “long-standing, systemic problem which daily affects our family of students.” But it wasn’t enough to meet protesters demands, which included “a handwritten apology” that required him to acknowledge “his white male privilege” and submit his resignation. The protest movement hit a low point when they blocked journalists from covering a campus demonstration. When a reporter refused to leave, citing his First Amendment rights, a professor (of mass media journalism no less asked for assistance, saying “I need some muscle over here.”
And at Smith College, activists barred the news media from covering a sit-in at the Campus Center unless they agreed to write in support of the movement. “We are asking that any journalists or press that cover our story participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color,” one of the sit-in’s organizers told MassLive. “By taking a neutral stance, journalists and media are being complacent in our fight.”
In each of these cases there was a debate to be had. In most cases the students were likely to have furthered the social goals they sought if only they were willing to engage in a public debate. In some cases the offenders actually welcomed a dialogue and the results that flowed from it. But partial victory was not enough. Instead, these groups espoused a variant of Ricky Bobby’s nonsensical driving mantra: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Translated into this context: If not everyone agrees, then we’ve lost.
In that sense, the students did not want earnest dialogue, for to engage in it is to assume that there is legitimacy to the other side of the argument. They definitely did not want the accused to attempt to justify their response, or defend their intentions, which, in the mind of the PC squad only confirms the offender’s ignorance and guilt. Instead, the students wanted a total confession and an explicit validation of their feelings.
That’s unacceptable because many of these were subjective arguments, with at least a colorable case to be made on both sides. But even if there wasn’t. Even if there was a clear wrong and a clear right, the rationale wouldn’t change. As philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
And that is perhaps the most frustrating thing in all of this. These students, by requiring total capitulation as a precondition to dialogue, are depriving not only themselves, but society, from “exchanging error for truth.” They’re spending so much time and effort delegitimizing dissent that there is no energy left to actually discredit it on the merits.
Perhaps the greater question is why. I have no doubt that if the question was posed to them students would simply say that they represent the cause of anti-racism, or anti-sexism, or anti-bigotry, which cloaks them with an aura of justice that negates the need for debate. They are just so obviously right, that there can be no wrong.
In many cases, they’re correct (though that’s nothing more than this author’s subjective estimation). Why then why do they appear to be so afraid? Why do they need safe spaces and trigger-warnings and protections from uncomfortable ideas? After all, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, wrote, “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.” Of course he also said that it is the “hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
That’s the path it appears we’re on. Authoritarianism, if only on college campuses. Our one-time bastions of hope have become markets of despair. Our institutions of higher learning are apparently content to allow their quest for diversity to extend to everything but thought.
Fortunately, some cling to hope. As Jonathan Chait wrote in an oft-castigated article in New York Magazine:
That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.
It’s sad that liberalism has decided to eat its own. It’s tragic that America’s greatest theaters for thought provoking debate have become anything but. But it’s imminently fixable, if only young adults would develop enough confidence in their ideas so as to withstand a bit of disagreement now and again.