How Campus Censorship is Becoming the Norm— And Why We're All at Fault
A disturbing number of college commencement speakers have been driven away from the podium this year, and students are leading the charge.
The mainstream media and academic communities alike have largely criticized students for their actions, and many place blame on the professors who incited them. But the reality is that the commencement speaker debacle is only a piece of much larger trend that is consuming college campuses, and it’s being driven not only by professors but by the progressive left as a whole.
This spring, attacks from students and faculty precluded the attendance of distinguished individuals at several notable institutions, among them Haverford, Smith, Brandeis, and Rutgers. Christine Lagarde, the first female head of the IMF, was disinvited for leading an organization that doesn’t stand for “equality for all women,” while former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was condemned for her role in the Iraq war. Feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited due to statements not specified, but likely related to her criticism of Islam.
The controversy with the commencement speakers made headlines, but student efforts to limit open dialogue on campus run much deeper in campus culture than the mainstream media is willing to admit.
For example, student government candidates at UCLA were recently asked to sign a pledge agreeing to decline any trips to the Middle East that were sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, or Hasbara Fellowships. In February, the American Studies Association (ASA) elected to participate in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
The efforts of the progressive left to preclude students from engaging in learning opportunities demonstrate its preference for obstructing information and inhibiting debate rather than challenging opposing viewpoints directly and participating in open discussion.
Progressives are now carrying these efforts into the classroom as well. In March, UC Santa Barbara’s student Senate called for mandatory “trigger warnings” to be listed on course syllabi. The idea is similarly gaining traction at Oberlin, where the administration has attempted to codify the vast array of topics that could “trigger” emotional distress in students.
There, professors are asked to point out any assigned texts that deal with issues of “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” Moreover, they are encouraged to make such works optional for their students. Significant literary works ranging from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop are given as examples of triggering publications.
Oftentimes the most educational discussions are also the most uncomfortable. For discourse to be productive, it can’t be whitewashed or avoided. Some topics are, and should be, upsetting, but those are often the ones that most need to be addressed.
While attempts to ensure the emotional peace of university students may be well-intentioned for some, they represent a larger, more subversive movement among progressives to prevent challenging ideas from entering our classrooms and minds. This is not how learning takes place, but college students seem to have taken on the mindset that society has accepted an agreed-upon moral code, one that aligns with our concepts of political correctness, and that it is better to silence conflicting ideas than to entertain, discuss, or debate them.
But this idea didn’t start with students. Our universities, the professional world, and the media have been suggesting this for as long as we’ve known. In 2006, Duke University’s administration was quick to accuse its own students of a crime they did not commit, because it was more important to make a politically correct statement than one that was fair, accurate, and grounded in truth.
Repeatedly, progressives have seen to it that those who do not conform are silenced. Politically, we’ve come of age seeing everybody from Paula Dean to Brendan Eich to Bill Maher ousted for politically incorrect statements. And while these may have been appropriate choices for the organizations that employ them, we would be foolish to believe that dismissing these individuals accomplished much in the way of swaying opinion.
From here, it is logical to infer that the goal is not to try to resolve differences of opinion on these issues, but simply to censor those that don’t comply with the progressives’ accepted system of values.
Nothing demonstrated this concept quite like the firing of Juan Williams from NPR in 2010. His statement, that he becomes fearful when individuals in traditional Muslim garb board a plane, was followed by his admission that his feelings were wrong and misguided, but nevertheless there.
His intention was to contribute to a discussion on the issue, because even an individual as objective, fair, and honorable as Juan Williams has feelings that he recognizes are wrong. Discussing the issue seems like the natural course for resolving such cognitive dissonance and achieving a more open-minded viewpoint. But ironically, Mr. Williams was instead dismissed from NPR, sending the message that it is worse to express a politically incorrect thought than it is to simply continue to have it and be silent.
It’s easy to recognize the absurdity of what happened with the commencement speakers this year. But the progressive movement has intimidated universities, companies, and the media alike into reinforcing their assertion that there is one correct value system for society and that it is more important to silence those who challenge it than it is to engage them in discussion or debate.
To the public at large, so shocked and appalled by the lack of academic freedom being promoted on campus: don’t point the finger at the students. They learned it from you.
This isn’t a campus problem, or a young people problem, or a crazy professor problem; it’s a societal problem. It affects everybody, and we all contribute to it. Students need to be vocal about their support for academic freedom, professors should encourage students to challenge themselves, and administrators need to be relentless and bold in their commitment to fostering ideological diversity on campus. But everybody else has a role to play, too.
While the trend on campus is disturbing, we need to take a step back and realize that the same tendencies prevail across American culture. If we want the campus mindset to change, it’s time to start demonstrating to students that truth and debate are more crucial to a healthy society than political correctness and censorship.
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