Commentary Magazine

The Kids Aren’t Alright, and the Adults Are the Problem

AP Photo/Lisa Rathke

A study conducted by the Knight Foundation and Gallup examining matriculated students’ views on free speech was broadcast across mainstream media outlets with an unmistakably triumphant tone. The debate over whether college students are becoming more hostile toward free expression, it seemed, had been settled.

The study’s headline was reassuring. For the vast majority of surveyed students—nearly 90 percent—protections on free speech were “very” or “extremely” important. Nearly 80 percent said that it was just as important for society to promote inclusivity and diversity. Yet when asked to choose among these ideals, the results were mixed. A bare majority of students (53 percent) said promoting a diverse and inclusive society was more important than protections on free speech (46 percent), though these results varied wildly across demographic groups.  These results aren’t troubling because they reflect declining support for free-speech absolutism, but because students were made to choose at all. This is a false choice and a dangerous premise, and it is being imposed on students by their elders.

There is no conflict between free-speech rights and inclusivity and diversity; a maximalist view of the right to free expression necessarily promotes inclusivity and diversity, by definition. The view that these two conditions are contradictory is the foundation upon which the “no-platforming” movement is built. This is an odious new trend that maintains students have the moral obligation to deny certain speakers access to the “platform” of the college campus—almost invariably, those speakers are conservative. This wasn’t an idea that sprang from these unformed minds ex nihilo. It was cultivated in them by their professors and advisors.

In a 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, New York University Vice Provost and Professor Ulrich Baer came out as a champion of the “no-platforming” movement. It was a mini-manifesto that expounded on the notion that free speech is a commodity with a zero-sum nature; if one person has it, someone else does not.

In his piece, Baer suggested “defining freedom of expression” not as “guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges” but as “the asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.” He explicitly claimed that students—particularly minorities—suffer from a power disequilibrium when confronted by conservative speakers, just as Jews would suffer a terrible imposition if they were confronted with supporters of the Holocaust. Baer’s Marxian view of class-based disparities demanding that authority figures intervene in academic debates isn’t an uncommon view among college faculty. A 2010-2011 survey of college administrators, staffers, and professors for the University of California, Los Angeles found 63 percent of respondents agreed that colleges should “prohibit” sexist or racist speech. “Freedom of expression,” Baer wrote, “is not an unchanging absolute.”

Baer has a point, albeit one that is articulated in a deliberately obtuse manner. Arbiters of public discourse—newspaper editors, university provosts, and the like—do have the responsibility to discourage the adoption of dangerous ideas. Eugenics, racial superiority, and the conception of the purely rational man have all led to unintended and bloody consequences in their application. That does not mean these ideas should not be explored. Indeed, they must be confronted, and without the “trigger warnings” that the parental professorate appends onto lesson plans to soften the discomfort they stimulate. The academician’s assumption that his young charges are fragile flowers in need of protection from the outside world is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Baer’s overly broad definition of what constitutes an idea deserving of the “no-platforming” treatment is deliberate. He’s well aware that his prescription has been applied to Milo Yiannopoulos just as it has been to Ben Shapiro, Condoleezza Rice, Jason Riley, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Indeed, it was recently applied to Christina Hoff Sommers ahead of a scheduled speech at Lewis & Clark Law School. A critic of modern feminism, Sommers was deemed by a variety of groups on campus to be a “known fascist.” Times columnist Bari Weiss has showed that these groups have utterly failed to support this claim. Instead, they’ve offered an ad hominem-laced anti-intellectual tantrum that they thought sufficed for a denunciation of Sommers.

The target of their outrage never finished her speech. Sommers was confronted by a group of students who shouted her down—a tactic that had the support of nearly 40 percent of the students that the Knight Foundation surveyed. Janet Steverson, the school’s dean of diversity and inclusion, cut Sommers off halfway through her speech in a display of surrender to the thoughtless but vocal minority who wanted her silenced.

If conservatives weren’t summarily dismissed by those who think their criticisms of intellectual culture in Western colleges are overblown, their critics might not have such a distorted understanding of the conservative position. Those who promoted this survey because it supposedly demonstrated that the kids are alright couldn’t see that they were promoting their own indictment. This survey is just the latest exhibit in a mounting case that suggests students have been presented with a warped view of the tradeoffs associated with unfettered free expression. Inclusivity is not in conflict with free speech. Whoever taught these students that these two phenomena were contradictory did them and the nation a terrible disservice.

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