By Matthew Ormseth
Americans have dug in along partisan lines, and the American university is no different. Higher education has long been seen as a bastion of liberalism, where the leftist majority of professors espouse Marxism and encourage students to silence, deride and defame their conservative peers, and any guests or speakers whose political views fall to the right of their own. In some ways, it’s true. Students regularly protest guest lectures from conservative speakers and often manage to shut them down.
Just last month, the student political union at my own school, Cornell, invited former Tea Party leader Michael Johns for a guest lecture.
The campus police, fearing the sort of violent protests that wracked UC Berkeley during a visit from firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos, told the student group they would have to pay several thousand dollars for additional security, or close the event to the public. The student group made the event private, but even still, protesters showed up outside the lecture hall and voiced their displeasure — loudly — at Johns’ visit.
In a bizarre twist, a member of the student government showed up and filmed the protestors, telling them the footage would be used against them for disciplinary purposes.
The incident captured the back-and-forth attempts at stamping out the debate that has come to characterize the modern American university.
The protesters didn’t want Johns’ voice heard, and the student government rep didn’t want the protestors’ voices heard, either. The American university has grown as polarized as the American polity; both sides would prefer to retreat to their respective echo chambers, and from the safety of those ideological sanctuaries launch vitriolic, self-assured campaigns of misinformation against the other side.
The historic liberalism of America’s universities has bred a reactionary generation of conservative students — political upstarts like Stephen Miller, one of the president’s senior advisers — whose coming of age in the political minority fashioned a dangerous, me-against-the world ideology.
Miller, an alum of Duke University, was described by the school’s former senior vp of public affairs as “incredibly intolerant.”
“He seemed to be absolutely sure of his own views and the correctness of them and seemed to assume that if you were in disagreement with him, there was something malevolent or stupid about your thinking,” the former administrator, John Burness, told the News and Observer.
Rob Montz, a filmmaker who recently debuted his short documentary “Silence U: Is the University Killing Free Speech and Open Debate?” told the New York Times, “An easy way to develop a reputation is to be super far-right. And they’re allowed to sit in their largely undercooked beliefs because they aren’t getting really serious pushback, they’re just getting garbage protest hysterics.”
“Garbage protest hysterics” sums up nicely what’s been going on at many American universities. Muzzling conservatives — even those who espouse openly racist, misogynistic and all-around bigoted views — only makes them dig in deeper.
Protests like the tantrum at UC Berkeley do nothing to challenge bigoted points of view; they only validate their holders’ beliefs that the other side is made up of milk-fed, overgrown infants incapable of dialogue.
Those kind of protests let bigots off the hook, too. They aren’t forced to defend their beliefs, aren’t forced to provide proof for their delusional exclusionist arguments.
When protests shut down a speech, the speaker wins — no matter what he or she was planning to say. The speaker’s supporters are righteously enraged, their opponents — hollowly triumphant — ridiculed as emotionally immature, or worse, totalitarian in their suppression of dissent.
The mark of a liberal education in the classical sense of the word is the ability to weigh differing points of view, to approach them seriously and assume that the people who hold those beliefs arrived at them after no less a rigorous thought process than your own.
With that being said, hate speech shouldn’t be tolerated. But rather than shutting it down and forcing it into hiding, we should drag it out into the open for all to see.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.