Tolerance on Campus: The Problem or Solution?

Benjamin Disraeli optimistically said that “A university should be a place of light, of liberty and of learning”. He was not wrong – where better to exchange ideas than the freedom of a university campus? However, in recent years, universities seem to have become places of censorship, silencing and de-platforming. Such environments diminish not only students’ learning experience but also the quality of public discourse. How have our educational institutions drifted away from light, liberty, and learning? And what paths are open to those who still believe that campuses should be marketplaces of ideas?

Although there are multiple contributing factors to this upheaval of campus culture, the shifting definitions and boundaries of what constitutes ‘(in)tolerance’ are partially to blame.  But what exactly do we mean by tolerance or the lack of it? One analogy is that tolerance is like taking the jam-packed Central line at rush hour and the gross invasion of personal space that this entails. You tolerate the inconvenience of the situation. It is also what the left-wing professor might feel when their student espouses Capitalist ideals. Therefore, in common parlance, we use the word tolerance to describe something that we don’t like and might not fully understand yet can still live with.

This use of the term has evolved from the notion of tolerance espoused by the 17th-century philosopher John Locke in  “A Letter on Toleration”. In his essay, Locke countered the view that toleration was “a form of moral cowardice”. Instead, he positioned tolerance as means of constraining political (state) interference in the inner workings of the individual. Hence, one should ‘put up with’ matters of the “heart and head”, in Locke’s case, religious beliefs, to which one was opposed.

However, in this era of rising illiberalism, ‘tolerance’ has undergone an Orwellian shift. On many campuses today, students no longer have to ‘put up with’ opposing views but instead seek to shut off and close down those that do not express opinions in line with their own. It, therefore, appears that campus culture has abandoned Locke’s more liberal definition of tolerance and morphed it into something more akin to closed-mindedness.

The high-profile case of Professor Kathleen Stock, who came under fire for her views on gender identity, demonstrates this new close-mindedness.  For her views, she was harassed and ultimately resigned.

The significance of this case lies not simply with Stock’s views, and whether they are appropriate or not, but with the alarming lack of dialogue and discourse prior to her cancellation. I cannot help but wonder how many students went to Professor Stock’s office hours to discuss their concerns, or if the desire to cancel her occurred as soon as she was found to hold views antithetical to their own? This example displays that campus illiberalism suffocates debate. Yet, it is also clear that Lockean tolerance can also fail to create an environment where we talk about those things that we find objectionable. It, too, undervalues civil discourse and conversation.

So, where can we go from here? Firstly, it must be stressed that Lockean tolerance is no bad thing; it provides the foundations for the restoration of lively campus discussion. However, we can and must do better. Where Locke’s idea of tolerance does little to prevent the ‘othering’ of individuals with which you disagree (that is to say it maintains an invisible boundary between the two people), genuine empathy for others could create an equal playing field. Once there is empathy between two parties, it is not about who is right and wrong. The conversation shifts from a value judgement to how two people can learn from each other. In this framework, freedom of speech can flourish.

The sceptic may view this as mere literary semantics; I would argue that there is a practical implication. Take my previous example of a delayed delivery. One who respects others might acknowledge the delivery driver had to collect their child from school and got stuck in traffic. That is why the package was late. Similarly, if the left-wing professor gives the student a platform to express reason and thought, mutual respect will ensue. Suddenly the narrative changes; it is more holistic, more empathetic, and more nuanced.

The protection of free speech on campus remains a complex and multi-faceted issue. At the same time, there is something that everyone can do to improve the situation. As students, we should all invest time and effort to understand our fellow students and our professors. This can help dismantle otherness, ensure that tolerance becomes a bulwark against ignorance, and reinstate the university as a sanctuary of debate and dialogue. Yet, tolerance is not a silver bullet, and it must be combined with empathy and curiosity. Only then can our educational institutions fulfil their role as places of light, liberty and learning.

About the Author
Avishai is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank that facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.