It’s truly amazing to consider how quickly the culture on college campuses has changed over the last several years. Once staunch defenders of speech and academic freedom, modern universities are quickly turning into ideological echo chambers, indoctrinating students into a radical left-wing egalitarian worldview, while crushing dissenting opinion.
The disturbingly Orwellian trend to quell free expression on campuses can best be illustrated by an event that unfolded last year at James Madison University’s freshman orientation, when “student leaders” distributed a list of 35 things that incoming students should avoid saying, including phrases such as “you have a pretty face,” “love the sinner, hate the sin,” “we’re all part of the human race,” “I treat all people the same,” “people just need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps,” among other expressions.
You might find yourself laughing this off as nonsense, an isolated set of events perpetuated by a select group of fringe radicals. Unfortunately, I can assure you that this is not an isolated incident. In addition to the slew of protests that erupted at universities last year in response to conservative speakers being invited to campus, these kinds of events are indicative of a larger, and more pernicious attempt by the radical left to control the linguistic territory.
At universities across America, the campus left now demands that people accept certain preconditions for discussion. Not the kind of reasonable preconditions such as “treat people with respect,” or “don’t resort to personal attacks.” Rather, It is demanded that you accept a neo-Marxian worldview, rooted in the notion that the world is nothing more than a power struggle between two groups of people: those who oppress and those who are oppressed. They demand that people accept notions like white-male privilege as axiomatic – not to be debated – and force people to acknowledge how they've been privileged by the current socio-economic structure.
Refusing to accept these presuppositions not only bars someone from participating in the discussion. To challenge an idea, such as white privilege, is to reject the fact that racism and bigotry exist in our society. To challenge the notion that being white necessarily means you must be more privileged than a person of color is akin to blasphemy. To push against the idea that certain classes of people in America are ‘victims of systemic oppression’ is to deny the humanity and individual experiences of people of color, women, and other minority groups.
The campus left emphatically espouse the notion that “the personal is political.” Thus they believe, unequivocally, that the primary responsibility of the University should be to ensure students from “diverse cultural backgrounds” feel safe – and by safe they mean “not having their identities challenged;” and by identities they are referring to their belief systems – the lens by which they perceive the word.
From the perspective of a radical leftist, to participate in debate is not seen as merely engaging in criticism of some abstract idea. To challenge an idea is to challenge someone’s identity, and to challenge someone’s identity is to debate their humanity.
And that is one of the axiomatic rules of the campus Left – you cannot debate someone’s humanity.
Indeed, with more than a fifth of college undergrads now believing its okay to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes “offensive or hurtful statement,” the future of the First Amendment itself is currently uncertain.
What exactly is so dangerous about this movement?
For starters, the freedom of speech has wrongly been construed as just another value that we in the West hold in high regard. But it is more than a Right that we share as citizens of this nation. It is, ultimately, the mechanism by which keep our psyches and societies functioning.
See, most people just aren’t that good at thinking. I don't mean this as a sleight against anyone, but we’re all insufficient and we have limited awareness of most things because we just can’t know everything. We rely on communication with one another to facilitate the process of learning about things outside our realm of knowledge. Often we have to, first, stumble around like the blithering idiots we are, espousing our biased beliefs in a public forum, and subjecting our ideas to criticism before we can properly orient our thoughts.
When the open exchange of ideas is allowed, you get the opportunity for multiple people to put forward their biased oversimplifications and engage in debate that raises the resolution of the particular question and answer at hand. Ideas are hit with hammers, combed for contradictions, inadequacies and even falsehoods. On an individual level, this kind of scrutiny sharpens the schema you use to navigate the world because other people can tell you things you can’t know by yourself.
Maybe it’s an opinion espoused, or a behavior that manifests itself, or a misconception you hold- in any event, subjecting your beliefs to criticism is, in the short term sometimes painful because we often learn things about the world and ourselves that are uncomfortable; but, in the long term, it is the only way method we have for moving closer towards something that more closely resembles truth – and if not anything true, at least something less wrong. As a result, the lens by which you look at the world becomes clearer.
Further, it is also through a collective process of dialectic that we identify problems in our societies, formulate solutions, and come to some sort of consensus.
Thus the right to say what you believe should not just considered as "just another value." It's a conical value, without which all the other values we hold dear, that people have fought so hard, in such an unlikely manner, to preserve and produce all disappear.
Without it, there can be no progress. Without it, individuals abdicate their responsibility to engage in the sacred process of discovery and renewal. Without it, we can’t think. Without it, there can be no truth. Without it, there can be nothing but nihilistic psychopathology. The end result is a populist that is not only afraid to say what they think, but that doesn't even know what they think because they haven’t been allowed to stumble around in the dark to find some tiny fragment of light.
Therefore, when we consider placing restrictions on the freedom of speech we must do so with the most extreme caution. By setting ridiculous preconditions for discussion, the campus left not only makes the process by which we solve the problems with our society more difficult, but also, if taken to its extreme, it can lead to totalitarianism.
In the wake of dozens of campus protests last year, universities are now in a position where they have to choose between two incompatible values: truth or social justice. The former will lead us to a greater understanding, while the latter can only divide.