Free Speech on College Campuses: More Really is More
By Aidan Coyne
It has been quite a month at universities nationwide, as prominent speakers, intellectuals, and public figures have seen their campus visits draw fierce protests. Examples include the commencement speeches of Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice, and Robert J. Birgeneau at Smith College, Rutgers University, and Haverford College respectively; other incidents involve Brandeis University’s reversal on the decision to grant Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree and Azusa Pacific’s sudden cancellation of the visit of controversial conservative scholar Charles Murray.
Are these simply instances of truly contemptuous individuals receiving their just deserts? Or has political correctness run amok?
Here at UC Davis, our campus recently was home to a protest over an organization’s stereotype-ridden Cinco de Mayo party.
Before any heads start exploding, let me state that I abhor the crude racism and mocking cultural appropriation exhibited by the UC Davis CoHo employees, and celebrate the right of my fellow students to protest. At the same time, when I heard that protesters were using the slogan “UC Davis is unsafe,” my ears immediately perked up.
Let’s digress for a moment: Can words make people feel unsafe? Can they be used as weapons, designed to hurt and destroy? The answer is unequivocally yes. Racial and homophobic slurs, personal insults and threats of violence can all result in a legitimate feeling of fear for one’s safety. But more and more, claims of “feeling unsafe” are simply thrown out to any speech or action that a group disagrees with or dislikes.
Not all acts of speech are the same. A well-reasoned argument or claim, no matter how distasteful or specious it may be, is not the same as a threat or slur. What we are increasingly witnessing in America is a reversal of the censorship pattern, where once a silent majority imposed a constraining environment of taboos, now an insurgent and vocal few attempt to silence certain views through protest and boycott.
Neither type of censorship is beneficial for America, because the United States is a liberal democracy. And all types of censorship, either from the left or the right, strike directly at the heart of what makes liberal democracies work.
One must be careful of conflating the terms “liberal” and “left-wing.” The term liberal applies to a certain attitude of “live and let live,” and promotes tolerance and diversity. Left-wing on the other hand refers primarily to someone who holds an economic view that tends toward state control, as typified by socialism, communism, etc. Not every leftist group or individual is committed to the ideals of liberality; we can see this both today and historically, through the actions of the likes of the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks. An unwavering belief in the rightness of one’s cause is dangerous waters for any political ideology, and self-righteousness is a bad look on everyone.
If students find the views of visiting speakers repulsive and deceiving, they should look for the appropriate avenues to challenge these views rather than attempt to dismissively silence them. Maybe one way to do this is through a Q-and-A session; perhaps another way is to reach out to a campus publication like this one. College is also part of the maturing process, and part of adult life is having to deal with people and opinions we simply don’t like.
Ultimately we live in a world animated by the marketplace of ideas. If Charles Murray or someone of his ilk makes a claim, the responsibility lies on the other side to logically and factually make their case in response, not to shout him down.
The way that the political process will progress is through dialogue — sometimes in life, more really is more: more dialogue, more progress.