It’s no secret that elite university campuses are hostile to a broad swathe of ideas and that many enrolled at them often reject with a zealous fanaticism any ideas that are even slightly to the right of those of Bernie “I Have Three Houses But You Need To Pay More In Taxes” Sanders. The latest victim of the now all-too-common displays of intolerance by campus progressives is Heather Mac Donald, a leading authority on race and policing. Mac Donald was slated to speak at both UCLA and Claremont McKenna College in the last several days about her recent book, The War on Cops, in which she carefully defends the thesis that “There is no government agency more dedicated to the proposition that black lives matter than the police.”
It’s critically important to note, partisan politics and ideologies aside, that it’s not at all obvious if that key contention of Mac Donald’s (or the many others she makes) is correct. No person can possibly conclude that she’s wrong by merely thinking about the matter in isolation—let alone by surrendering their critical thinking skills as the price of admission to join a wannabe jackbooted mob. To refute her requires evidence, logic, and open discussion to test out alternative theories. At minimum, it requires reading her book and listening to her talk.
But the students at these two elite colleges, bless them, were not in the mood to do either thing. No. They cared only to smear Mac Donald (wholly without argument) as a “notorious white supremacist fascist”—all in the name of “social justice.” What is needed in response to these lawless individuals’ dangerous foolishness is for consequences to be meted out so that universities, little by little, can be restored to their essential purpose: the pursuit of truth. But that appears very unlikely to happen, unfortunately.
By now, sadly, this is a familiar pattern. Right-leaning groups invite a speaker who may or may be situated on the political Right but who, the campus Left alleges, espouses some ostensibly “conservative” positions (read: positions intolerable to the political Left’s sensibilities); social justice activists (sometimes infiltrated by outside forces, sometimes not) do everything in their power to shut down the expression of those views; university administrations give mealy-mouthed defenses of what should be universally acknowledged as a sacrosanct commitment for a free society: free speech. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.
Because of this spinelessness on the part of college officials, there is another dangerous mindset on campuses that gets far too little attention but which is equally pernicious and which I have seen firsthand. Students don’t have to gather together in a mob and shout down or even physically assault those with whom they disagree—as some did in the Charles Murray/Allison Stanger case at Middlebury—for there to be a chilling effect on speech. Such a chilling occurs whenever there is an unwillingness to boldly and explicitly assert, at an institutional level, an ironclad commitment to free inquiry. The absence of this kind of affirmative declaration and commitment to free speech is just as detrimental—albeit in a more subtle way—to campus life and to students’ intellectual growth.
I attempted to rectify that glaring weakness at my own University of Michigan in recent days by putting forward a resolution to bolster our institutional commitment to free speech, at least at the student leadership-level. It was defeated by an embarrassingly wide margin when it was put before the Central Student Government.
I won’t spend significant space recapitulating the arguments I proffered in defense of free speech, other than to say, briefly, why it’s important to protect it. It’s necessary if we want to find out what is really true, actually understand the why of what we believe, protect ourselves against rigid and dangerous group-think, and have any hope at all of combating bad ideas. I want to now focus on the central question: Why are my peers are so resistant to affirming their commitment to free speech, a concept which protects all persons’ right to speak, engage, and learn from one another—a concept which ought to be non-partisan?
For a while I believed them to be too fragile—too delicate emotionally, psychologically, and maybe even physically—to handle hearing opposing viewpoints articulately stated. I was forced to abandon this view after I watched in horror as young adults at Berkeley rioted and destroyed property to prevent a scheduled speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, from sharing his message.
Even then I assumed the progressive students were simply unaware of the many powerful arguments in favor of free speech and were also unaware of why free speech is critical to the maintenance of a free society. Again, I was forced to rethink this view when I realized, at least in the case of Berkeley, that some were comfortable justifying the suppression of words with thuggish (in this case, anti-Milo) brutality in a series entitled “Violence as self-defense.”
I have concluded that what explains students’ reliable recourse to these quasi-fascist tactics (to be frank, there’s really no other way to describe these sorts of inexcusable behaviors) is simple. They refuse to be molded and to grow into mature citizens.
Harvey Mansfield, Professor of Government at Harvard University, has said, “Conservatism is more tolerant than liberalism.” Why? “Because conservatives don’t expect that liberalism is going to disappear; whereas liberals expect that conservatism will disappear.” I think this is exactly right. Progressives are so certain of their moral righteousness and of the unassailability of their intellectual postures that they feel supremely comfortable resorting to force to stamp out or suppress those who think differently from them. They do not feel compelled to articulate their worldview, and anyone who even just dares to question its premises is instantly branded a bigot and cast out of polite society. Theirs is simply the smug position that progress is inevitable, interspersed with nonsensical don’t-you-know-that-the-arc-of-History-bends-toward-justice-and-that-you’re-on-the-wrong-side-of-said-History-if-you-disagree-with-us-type platitudes. Those who see the world with different eyes are retrograde and backward. Shaking them up—even physically, if necessary—is viewed as a public service and a personal kindness. Better beaten and bloodied than to think cops are actually essential to a well-ordered and free society!
Deep down, they are convinced that if they just deny conservatives enough intellectual, moral, and social “oxygen”—that is, places to speak and disseminate their ideas—we will just disappear. We conservatives might have pity on them and their almost child-like naïveté, except they want to bash our heads in with rocks and light businesses on fire—visiting anarchy and dissolution upon our beloved Western civilization.
They fail to see or to comprehend what I believe is the most important pro-free speech argument: That, by continuously availing oneself of the marketplace of ideas, one learns to think for oneself and to be one’s own person—not merely the puppet of those with great wealth, authority, or influence. As William F. Buckley pithily noted: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” It is simply impossible to become a responsible and upright citizen if one categorically rejects the expression of any views that do not perfectly align with one’s own or deludes oneself into thinking that the pluralistic, wider world is an intellectual and moral monoculture in just the same way as one’s campus is.
Fascists are not people who have been duped into committing horrible atrocities; they are, instead, people who obstinately refuse to grow up and for that reason insist—with brutal violence if need be—that the world parrot back to them their own narrow prejudices and idiotic ideas. Our universities have to do better—for all our sakes.