Commentary Magazine

The Courage to Confront Campus Radicalism

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

When conservatives and conscience-addled liberals fret about the rising influence of censorious students on college campuses, the overwhelming response they get from skeptics is “who cares?” Those who do not outright defend creeping radicalism on campus are prone to minimize the threat of violence and fanaticism. While obtuse, this approach does have some immediate political utility. Dismissing events on campus as the antics of a few misguided kids casts those who care about such affairs as obsessive cranks who fixate on matters of no objective consequences. It goes without saying that not everyone is sincere who wonders aloud about the relevance of maximalist rhetoric, racial intolerance, and even violence on campus, but some are. They deserve an answer. Why should we care about rigidly enforced intellectual cloistering on campuses?

Those who contend that conservatives, in particular, overstate the threat on campus make several claims. These are the works of only a handful of misguided “college kids,” they contend. The few instances of extreme behavior on campus are not suggestive of any broader societal trend and don’t merit much attention. In fact, the limited scope of the problem, therefore, suggests that that conservative indignation is false–a convenient way to avoid confronting anti-social behavior among their ideological compatriots. All of this is fallacious.

First, to focus on the number of college students (not “kids,” almost all are of majority age) engaged in the aggressive censorship primarily of conservative speakers is to miss the point. Whole books have been written on the radicalization of American college students. This is not a limited phenomenon, but trying to quantify its appeal is an effort to counter an argument no one is making. Those who recognize the peril of this terrible new fad are focused more on the ideas expressed than the precise number of individuals expressing them.

Last night, for example, a group of students at Brown University was refreshingly forthright about those ideas when they called for the cancelation of a planned speech by TownHall editor and Fox News contributor Guy Benson. In a statement, the students railed against anyone who would advocate the “freedom” of “any person to make hateful, oppressive, or damaging remarks.”  They added, “There is a wealth of writing on the inextricable connection between Benson’s ideologies—fiscal conservatism and free market ideology—and real, tangible, state violence against marginalized communities.” That is to say, the Bill of Rights and laissez-faire economics beget violence and racism—threats to life and liberty that legitimize virtually any reaction. It’s practically self-defense.

Confusing speech with violence and violence with speech is not merely the invention of these misguided Brown students. This bewildering delusion long ago migrated into the real world, where thought leaders and policymakers have embraced it. It is, however, fair to say that the intellectual foundations for this view of speech were set on American campuses and it is there that they are being used to justify proactivity and preemption.

“When someone calls a black person the ‘n’ word out of hatred, he or she is not expressing a new idea or outlining a valuable thought,” read a 2012 editorial in the Harvard Crimson. “They are committing an act of violence.” In 2017, a Wellesley College op-ed took this thought to its logical conclusion: “[I]f people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted.” A violent demonstration at Middlebury College for which five dozen students were disciplined after a professor was injured following a near-riot in response to author Charles Murray is the rare exception to the rule. Most anti-speech demonstrations on and off campus are peaceful; at least, for now. But the logic of coercive force to silence offensive speech is inescapable, and it has far broader purchase than these students’ defenders are willing to admit.

2015 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that nearly 71 percent of freshmen believed that colleges should “prohibit racist/sexist speech.” At 43 percent, a strong plurality of surveyed freshmen agreed colleges should “have the right to ban extreme speakers” from campus. These ideas didn’t spring up ex nihilo; they were taught. The institute’s 2010-11 survey of college administrators, professors, and staff found that nearly 70 percent of female college faculty and almost half of their male counterparts believed that colleges should “prohibit” speech deemed racist or sexist.

Occasionally, sotto voce censorship finds a full-throated advocate like New York University vice Provost Ulrich Baer. In an April 2017 New York Times op-ed, he heaped praise on the “snowflakes,” as he approvingly called them, who use aggressive tactics to compel educational institutions to deny conservative speakers a platform. He justified this by contending that these students are only seeking to “no-platform” overtly racist speakers and limit the exposure of minority students to environments in which they feel threatened. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these faculty members chose not to define what constitutes dangerous speech because they appreciate the overly broad definitions to which their students adhere. Prospective speakers like Ben Shapiro, Condoleezza Rice, Jason Riley, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali were not forced off campus because they countenance the views of the noxious alt-right.

Radicalization never occurs in a vacuum, and militancy and extremism is not exclusive to left-leaning students. This kind of uncompromising behavior results in reciprocal reactions from college Republicans, who are increasingly convinced that civility in the face of these affronts amounts to unilateral disarmament. This mentality begets a dangerous cycle best exemplified by the willingness of college Republican groups to invite poisonous speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos to address students not because he has anything of value to say but because it inspires their counterparts on the left to set their campus on fire.

In an open letter published in the Weekly Standard, UCLA professor Gabriel Rossman ably contended that this new conservative infatuation with provocation for its own sake is a byproduct of their orphanage on campus. “[T]he ideological skew of academia is that the dearth of conservative faculty means a lack of mentorship for conservative students,” he contended. A 2016 study of faculty voter registration in departments like economics, history, journalism, law, and psychology found Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a staggering 11.5 to 1. This disparity leads professors to feel comfortable misstating conservative ideas and reveling in divisive identity politics. It also leads students who are offended by those remarks to harass those professors into hiding.

None of this is healthy, and it does students no favors when conservatives who notice this suboptimal state of affairs are mocked for their concern. This has been years in the making. It is an outgrowth of the infantile “safe space” movement, opposition to which has cost faculty their jobs. It is a byproduct of the appeal of segregation based on racial, political, gender, and sexual identity. After all, exposure to people of distinct backgrounds and views amounts to what Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro called “uncomfortable learning.” It is imprudent, even reckless, to gamble that students who embrace extremism in college will outgrow it in the real world, particularly when it is being nurtured in them by their elders.

Observers on both sides of the political divide who have spoken out against radicalism on campus are not engaged in projection or dissociation. Quite the opposite, in fact; they are choosing not to look away. It is neither noble nor enlightened to witness thuggish authoritarianism and react with sarcasm for the benefit of the viewing audience on social media. There’s no risk in criticizing the contestants in the arena from the bleachers. History won’t look kindly on such cowardice, particularly if the toxic ideologies gestating in America’s collegiate hothouses survive in their hosts when they leave campus.

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