Permission to Speak Freely

A new crusade aims to protect conservative students from left-wing professors. But the real victim is robust debate?on campus, and beyond.

Illustration: Mark Matcho

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NOT SATISFIED TO CONTROL the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the rest of the federal courts, most governorships and state legislatures, not to mention the most powerful amalgamation of capital and military force in the history of the world, not to mention Fox News, Clear Channel, etc., some of the right’s culture warriors are in an uproar about those redoubts of left-wing authority…the colleges.

Welcome back to the political-correctness wars. This time around, the prime charge seems to be that left-wing faculty corral, conscript, and bludgeon their captive audiences of unwilling and innocent students. Conservative students claim to have been ridiculed, graded down, subjected to rigged reading lists, and dragooned into their professors’ pet causes. A letter to the Indiana Legislature by Sara Dogan, director of a group called Students for Academic Freedom, cites the case of a Ball State University senior named Brett Mock, who claimed that, to get full credit in a peace studies course he had taken, “You have to devote a semester to PeaceWorkers events; you must meditate at the Peace Studies center…or you must attend Interfaith Fellowship meetings during the semester.” Ball State’s provost investigated and disagreed with Dogan’s account, but never mind. Left-wing professors, according to Dogan, are involved in an “indoctrination effort…to recruit students to their radical agendas, which include sympathy for the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11.”

Such is the tenor of a campaign launched by ex-leftist David Horowitz, himself more than 40 years out of school but the founder of Students for Academic Freedom, to convince state legislatures to protect “academic diversity” by passing an “academic bill of rights” that sounds noble (“Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should [provide] students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate”), but in fact would put the government in the business of enforcing pluralism. There’s an echo here of Ronald Reagan’s accusations that University of California professors instigated the student uprisings of the 1960s. Crying, “Emergency! Police the professors!” Horowitz has adopted a distinctly retro, vindictive approach to an actual problem: the muffling of serious argument on campus.

Is there a left-liberal-multicultural atmosphere at elite institutions? Undoubtedly, though the surveys on which conservatives rely probably misconstrue its pervasiveness. Academics do flock together and sometimes abuse their power. The even more intractable problem is that conformity, both the faculty’s and the students’, is self-fulfilling, lending itself to the enshrinement of the smug, the snug, and the narrow. Much of the muffling, as always, is the product of peer pressure, which is as real at liberal arts colleges as at military academies. When fundamentals go unquestioned and dissenters are intimidated, those who prevail get lazier and dumber.

How deep is the silence? Hard to know. Much cited in conservative columns is a 2002 survey by the student newspaper at Wesleyan University, according to which a full 32 percent of the students felt “uncomfortable speaking their opinion” on the famously liberal campus.

Whatever that means exactly, the pop-psych language is telling. Since when is higher education supposed to make you feel comfortable, anyway? In a largely unexamined triumph of marketplace values, college has come to be seen as a consumable product. Parents invest through the nose hoping for practical payoff. What follows is grade inflation, epidemic cheating, scorn for a common curriculum, and an all-around supermarket attitude. Consumer choice—embrace whatever turns you on, avoid what- ever turns you off—is elevated to a matter of high principle. But weren’t conservatives supposed to be fixing our minds on higher values?

Here’s the contradiction inherent in this right-wing crusade. In their sudden sensitivity to the comfort of minorities—ideological ones, in this case—the advocates of legislative intervention on campus speech discard one of the virtues that conservatives have long embraced: the insistence on standing strong. They tend to cast students as frail, helpless victims of “abuse” who need institutional muscle to defend them against forces of evil they dare not confront on their own.

Censorship is inexcusable; instructors ought not use classrooms as recruiting stations, and any serious institution must guarantee appeals against arbitrary punishment. But Horowitz’s academic bill of rights invites legislatures to rush in where conservative students fear to tread. Do the crusaders realize how patronizing they sound—and how reckless? Should lawmakers who bean-count the political loyalties of the faculty really serve as proper judges of intellectual integrity? Whatever happened to small government?

Suddenly gone is the creed of personal responsibility. Vanished is the insistence on measuring people, as Martin Luther King Jr. urged and conservative academic Shelby Steele seconded, by “the content of their character.” If you withhold your views of affirmative action or the war in Iraq, whether in class or a dorm bull session, the thought police are to blame. Erased is the conservative allergy to “defining deviancy down,” as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably put it, against the West Side Story premise that if you’re depraved it’s only because you’re deprived. Banished is the belief that moral virtue (and vice) belong to the person—not to some diffuse alibi called “the environment,” not to peer pressure or other symbols of dependency, but to the irreducible, staunch, stubborn insistence (or failure) of the individual conscience saying, with Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Vital debate always needs sustenance. Some conservative students sincerely fear retribution. But there’s something deeper at work when the selfsame agitators who, a decade ago, were irate at calls for “hate speech” bans and sexual-conduct rules now portray student victims of Big Leftie Brother as needing special protections. That this turnabout is hypocritical goes without saying. But it also requires an explanation.

Beneath the conservative outrage and bravado I detect a whiff of fear—and the thrill of it. For the cultural right’s moment of political triumph in Washington is tinged by its relish for persecution. Martyrdom stirs them, as in the gospel according to Mel Gibson. Fear is their catnip. To stay energized, they lash themselves into insurgency. Like the Trotskyists who welcomed the Permanent Revolution, they can’t win for losing (and some of them are not like Trotskyists, they are the Trotskyists of the ’60s, a few decades later). Their strategic hope is to convert fear into bravado, just as George W. Bush parlayed fear of militant Islamists into a justification for the war in Iraq. This is the psychological maneuver that Bush pursued in converting a sub-mediocre presidency into a reason for reelection: First, be afraid; second, trust me.

But why should right-wingers tremble in the age of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Tom DeLay? The crusade against campus ideologues harnesses an overblown political fear to a more sweeping American fear of controversy itself. For all that the media cultivate a bullying nastiness that passes for debate, we are still awfully muffled in our everyday talk. Division is, well, divisive, a breach of etiquette. Let sleeping contentions lie. In the unofficial civility that prevails where most Americans live, niceness trumps freedom of thought. Friction causes pain, and pain is taboo. To be isolated in opinion invites banishment—or so the minority fear, which induces their silence. To argue politics or religion, in many parts of the country, suggests bad manners. At a time when shouting passes for debate, many people prefer to clam up entirely. Thus does the retreat from politics—and from vigorous conversation altogether—coexist with the polarization of politics.

Timidity about political expression betrays a collective infantilization unworthy of Enlightenment principle. In a mature society, people know not only their minds but each other’s—surely a prerequisite for democracy. That’s why it is especially worrisome that the fear of open debate has gripped even the campuses, where it ought to be scarcest. To school younger generations in the necessary work of deliberation, not to mention self-government, we can’t afford to water down the standards for full-bodied speech. While it may not follow that revitalization on campus will automatically animate the rest of society, it is surely true that a withered life of the mind on campus deprives the world of intellectual energies it sorely needs.

As conservatives say, it is indeed the instructor’s obligation to see that unpopular views can be expressed—not simply prated, but sharpened and defended. It is out-of- bounds to ram home one’s conclusions and grade them accordingly. A teacher must establish an atmosphere in which students try out unpopular views. But it’s still the students’—and the citizens’—obligation to try them out. That’s where character comes in. You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.


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