The War on Ideas

There is a double-standard in the level of scrutiny ideas receive these days. Depending on your political affiliation in America, academia’s conduct towards you will vary dramatically. While membership in one party accrues applauds, professing fealty to the other nets one opprobrium. It is a painful reality, but nevertheless an inescapable one. Remarkably, despite the institution’s raison d’etre being to serve as a marketplace of ideas, encouraging debate, discourse, and disagreement, it has categorically failed students: particularly those who identify right-of-centre.

Given that it is commencement address season, here is a sobering statistic which ought to lend some perspective to the vitality of the free exchange of ideas on campus. Greg Lukianoff, the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization committed to defending free speech regardless of political affiliation, asserted in 2014, “There’s no two ways about it, and it’s something that I consider myself politically liberal but it’s just a fact: you are more likely to withdraw your name or be successfully disinvited if you’re socially conservative or a member of the Bush administration.” Moreover, in an Intelligence Squared debate on “Are Liberals Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus?” Lukianoff reiterated such sentiments. Reminiscing about his early years dedicated to social justice, Lukianoff joined FIRE ostensibly to protect the most liberal freedom of all: speech. However, “It wasn’t long until I learnt this unfortunate truth: if you’re going to be censured on the modern college campus for your opinion chances are you are going to be censured by the left.” FIRE’s 2014 “Disinvitation Report” concluded among the trends it catalogued over the previous decade-and-a-half that, “Speakers are much more likely to be targeted for disinvitation for holding or expressing viewpoints perceived as conservative by faculty or students.” Nor were the hallowed halls of Ivy League universities impervious to such phenomena. In fact, Harvard and Columbia were respectively ranked the worst offenders of free speech according to FIRE.

Most Frequent Subjects Sparking Disinvitation Incidents (FIRE/2014 Disinvitation Report)
Most Frequent Subjects Sparking Disinvitation Incidents (FIRE/2014 Disinvitation Report)

Two political science professors, Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn, went on an expedition to search for the conservative academic presence on campus and the results are similarly disheartening. In the introduction of their book, Passing on the Right, Shields and Dunn contend, “The percentage of self-identified conservatives ranges between 5% and 17% in the social sciences and between 4% and 8% in the humanities.” Data from the University of California at Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), which surveys faculty members nationwide every three years, corroborates such frequencies. In the most recent survey from 2013/2014 the breakdown was as follows: 11% Far Left, 48.8% Liberal, 27.4% Middle of the Road, 12.1% Conservative, and 0.7% Far Right. Astonishingly, the representation between the number of Far Left and Conservative professors is near parity. The results are all the more ironic given the lofty rhetoric liberals on university campuses openly profess. Despite endless calls for a greater diversity of gender, race, and sexual orientation, remarkably opinion is emphatically absent; that is if your opinion is one not found to be agreeable. According to Jason Willick, a staff writer for The American Interest, “The most important contribution of this book [Passing on the Right] is its emphasis on the degree to which conservative scholars are numerically isolated. Despite (or perhaps because of) its almost religious reverence for racial and sexual diversity, the academy has allowed political diversity in certain quarters to wither to the point of vanishing.” I wonder were universities to be 70% male, or white, or Christian if there would not be an outpouring of vituperation? The silence is deafening and the double-standards unequivocal.

Another robust investigation of professors’ political affiliations conducted by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons reached a similar conclusion. While demonstrating there to be a sizeable, “and often ignored”, segment of centre/centre-left views within the professoriate, they maintained, “we would not contest the claim that professors are one of the most liberal occupational groups in American society,”

Ideological Positions of Faculty in American Colleges and Universities: 1989 – 2014. Data courtesy of the Higher Education Research Institute (Sam Abrams/Heterodox Academy).
Ideological Positions of Faculty in American Colleges and Universities: 1989 – 2014. Data courtesy of the Higher Education Research Institute (Sam Abrams/Heterodox Academy).

The lack of equal, or even a more equitable, political representation within the professoriate undermines the very foundation upon which the institution was built. From my personal experience, it is a startling, albeit unsurprising reality, that in my year of graduate studies I encountered more Marxists than conservatives. This is not a matter of critiquing left- or right-wing ideology, but merely an investigation into the pedagogical capacity of universities. Logically, the absence of a significant voice of the American electorate on university campuses undermines both the students’ comfort expressing dissenting opinions and their exposure to diverse views.

Whereas in the 1960s students fought for defending the freedom of speech from government intervention, today it is university students – themselves – who seek to censure one another and stifle The First Amendment. How did we go from the Berkeley Free Speech movement to ‘trigger-warnings’, ‘microaggressions’, and ‘safe-spaces’? According to a 2015 Pew Poll, 40% of Millennials (ages 18-34) believe that the government should be able to prevent people from saying things which are deemed offensive to minorities. Apart for the current hysteria over the definition of what constitutes ‘offence’, agreement with the statement is tantamount to accepting a severe limitation of the public’s free speech. Here are a few examples of offensive or harmful behaviour which may arouse such calls for silencing: the Harvard Law Faculty was approached in December 2014 and asked to refrain from teaching rape law lest it cause unease amongst students; free public yoga classes were cancelled at the University of Ottawa for fear of cultural insensitivity; and lastly, a list of micro-aggressions was presented to the University of California (UC) school system including the provocative statements, “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

It is hardly shocking, then, that mainstream comedians refrain from running the gauntlet of potentially triggering any delicate students these days. Reporting in 2015 for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan recounted the annual convention of the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) which drew more than 350 university representatives. Comics made the annual pilgrimage to audition here and tailor their material for prospective campuses. Flanagan described the process as follows: “[T]he students’ taste in entertainment was uniform…They wanted comedy so thoroughly scrubbed of barb and aggression that if the most hypersensitive weirdo on campus mistakenly wandered into a performance, the words he would hear would fall on him like soft rain,” Likewise, both Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, (neither incendiary nor controversial comedians) similarly expressed their unwillingness to play college shows any longer. Seinfeld, during a radio interview, testified that other comics had warned him not to “go near colleges – they’re so PC.”

Black Lives Matter activists physically intervene and verbally assault Breitbart commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at DePaul University (Josh Leff/The DePaulia)
Black Lives Matter activists physically intervene and verbally assault Breitbart commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at DePaul University (Josh Leff/The DePaulia)

Is it surprising that many comedians have lost faith in the current climate on college campuses? Here are a few more vignettes which ought to contextualize the prevailing sentiments of certain students. A recent debate at Brown University about campus sexual assault between two feminists – Jessica Valenti (founder of and Wendy McElroy (a libertarian feminist) – was met with deep unease among many students. Protesting the event, senior Katherine Byron created a competing “safe space” in the event the debate became too upsetting.  “The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies,” Furthermore, a professor at Brandeis University was found guilty of harassment after criticizing the use of the word “wetbacks”. Few wonder why Edward Schlosser took to Vox declaring, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me”. Schlosser confessed, “I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to ‘offensive’ texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik – and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either.” Fellow traveler Thaddeus Russell, a former History Professor at Barnard College, met similar opposition by defending a revisionist history of the United States. Russell argued that, “drunkards, laggards, prostitutes, and pirates pioneered many of the freedoms and pleasures we now cherish – including non-marital sex, interracial socializing, dancing, shopping, divorce, and the weekend”. Unfortunately, such revisions were controversial and unwarranted. In an op-ed penned in The Huffington Post in 2010, Russell confessed, “They [the tenure committee] said my ideas had no place in the academy and insisted that I be terminated. It was simply not okay for me to describe the ‘oppressed’ in terms used by their oppressors – ‘shiftless’, ‘sexually unrestrained’, ‘primitive’, ‘uncivilized’ – even though my argument transformed those epithets into tributes.” Despite protests from hundreds of students, the faculty and deans’ offices remained unswayed.

The litany of troubles continue: a Wall Street Journal survey of 800 college students found that 51% favoured implementing speech codes; at Wesleyan activists trashed a student-run newspaper pushing for its defunding “because they disagreed with an op-ed that criticized Black Lives Matter”; activists at Duke University demanded disciplinary sanctions for students who attended “culturally insensitive” parties and called for mandatory implicit-bias training for all professors; former Communications Professor Melissa Click of the University of Missouri called upon fellow students for “muscle” to remove a student journalist from a public space where their protest was occurring. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Communications Professor Melissa asking for 'muscle' at a campus protest. (Mark Schierbecker/YouTube)
Communications Professor Melissa asking for ‘muscle’ at a campus protest. (Mark Schierbecker/YouTube)

The intolerance of many students’ crusade for tolerance and acceptance on college campuses has converted many ideologically proximate commentators to become their most vocal critics. Among them include: Sam Harris, an outspoken atheist, one of the Four Horsemen, unwavering critic of Donald Trump and religious fanaticism; Dave Rubin, former Young Turks (YT) host, openly gay man, and self-declared progressive; even, John McWhorter, a Linguistics Professor at Columbia University, who openly identifies as a ‘radical-centrist’, supporter of Barack Obama and gay marriage. These are not the archetypes of conservatism, but the concerned commentators of the current state of modern-day campus culture.

The proliferation of political correctness coupled with the resistant nature of the professoriate to a diversity of opinions have only served to weaken students’ toolboxes for critical thinking. The popular buzzwords of today – oppressed, social justice, racism/sexism/transphobia, White privilege, Islamophobia, heteronormative values, cultural imperialism, the Police State, and rape culture – have become the cudgels wielded by certain campus liberals to bludgeon discourse. In a recent Intelligence Squared debate “Free Speech is Threatened on Campus”, John McWhorter raised the issue of Affirmative Action. Notwithstanding the substance of the issue itself, McWhorter identified that challenging the conventional wisdom that Affirmative Action is universally beneficial is likely to garner one the label ‘racist’. Likewise, despite ample evidence and economists’ consensus that the ‘wage gap’ is a myth, raising such concerns is tantamount to being a ‘sexist’. Likewise, similar denunciations will arise from objecting to the empirically incorrect proposition that 1/5 university women experience sexual assault. For this transgression you will likely receive the ‘sexist or ‘rape enabler’ labels. Even the mere whiff of uncertainty regarding transgender issues will get you ostracized as a “transphobe”.

For their troubles engaging in such polarized and emotional debate, particularly on Islamic extremism, Maajid Nawaz (an ex-fundamentalist), Sam Harris, and Dave Rubin have begun to popularize the term The Regressive Left to define such illiberal elements. The phenomenon is defined by a willingness to silence debate through labeling or misrepresenting one’s position. Bill Maher’s frequent jousting with panel guests and his audience over their unwillingness to acknowledge any link between terrorism and Islam epitomizes the prevailing attitude of many.

Regressive, unfortunately, is what they are. They stand for soundbites over statics; feelings over facts; and are willing to curb your speech to make their college experience more tolerant, accepting, and diverse. We ought to be reminded of the poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller condemning the cowardice of German intellectuals in the face of the rise of Nazism and the subsequent purges:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The movement to limit free speech and the open exchange of ideas regrettably is following a similar trajectory. It has become a self-cannibalizing movement turning ideological partners into pariahs. It has managed to unite self-identified progressives as Dave Rubin, libertarians like Joe Rogan, atheists as Sam Harris, and comedians like Chris Rock under a single banner to criticize this phenomenon. As Voltaire’s biographer, S. G. Tallentyre famously summed up the former’s views on freedom of speech, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So will you?

About the Author
Ari is a Masters of Global Affairs student at the University of Toronto's Munk School. Previously, he received an MA in History from Western University. As well, he blogs for The Jerusalem Post.
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