I am the product of a liberal education. I attended a Quaker school, in an extremely diverse neighborhood (both racially and socio-economically), that fostered tolerance, open-mindedness and a whole slew of other progressive platforms. My university years were spent at American institutions known for being “liberal,” where students were encouraged to express their opinions, their frustration, their disappointment, and even their rage. I believe in freedom of speech and the right to speak up and out about wrongs that need to be addressed.
All that being said, it has become painfully clear that some of those same liberal institutions, several of which I attended and most (but not all!) of which are located on the American coasts (East and West), have recently, in the name of defending the concept of freedom of speech, allowed healthy expression to segue toward incitement, giving a generous hand to both hatred and violence. While engaging other students in healthy debate is completely legitimate, racist, anti-Semitic and sexist diatribes (to name only a few) and physical acts of rage, are most definitely not.
The recent spate of “protests turned vitriolic” flourishing on certain US college campuses, characterized more usually than not by physically accosting students, barraging them with hateful insults, desecrating items with national significance, and spraying swastikas and hanging nooses in an attempt to scare specific ethnic groups, suggests that providing an arena for freedom of expression has gone terribly awry. Safe spaces, and that is precisely what university campuses are supposed to provide, have given way to festering pools of hatred where students feel anything but safe.
This isn’t about BDS, the perfect example of a campaign that, originally intended to voice a concern, has completely spiraled out of control, segueing into anti-Semitism and becoming the “platform of choice” for anyone with a gripe. No, my intention here is to go well beyond BDS, as it’s really only one example, and to address an overall phenomenon; to explore why campuses known for being especially open-minded, characterized by intelligent students and world-renown faculty, have become bastions of negativity and, in some cases, terror, while those fostering a specifically ecumenical mission, those located in neighborhoods that are a bit less progressive politically, have managed to enable free speech and the expression of concern while maintaining a safe and secure atmosphere for their students. These latter have made it a priority to maintain respect for the student body as a whole, something many of America’s more illustrious institutions have not.
Having one child at an Ivy League University and another at a Jesuit one, I have much to compare. While the former has consistently permitted “the few” to scare, harass and threaten “the many,” the latter maintains a close grip on what’s happening on campus, ensuring that other students are not being threatened. That does not mean that the latter does not allow protests of dissent but rather that they send a clear message that such protests must consider the feelings of “the whole.” The facts speak for themselves: Not every campus in the United States lends a hand, even a fingertip, to the kind of “crazy verging on vicious” that’s been cropping up lately at some of America’s finest institutions.
University administrations are scrambling to respond to each act of violence, as though they’re individual incidents that need quelling. Instead, they would better invest their time considering the manner in which the atmosphere they’re providing enables such acts and the extent of their own culpability. They need to set clearer boundaries and actually take a stand on issues they don’t want to support or tolerate. It’s all very well to allow the completely unfettered freedom of expression, but not without assuming responsibility for providing that essential safe space for students. Continuing to nod their head, assenting to platforms they find distasteful merely for the sake of maintaining their reputation as institutions where students are permitted to speak out, implicates them in the damage they wreck.
There’s an enormous difference between permitting and encouraging but in this day and age, when tempers are flaring ever higher, the line has gotten very thin. We are not living in a moderate age, but instead, one fueled by anger and hatred. Accordingly, university administrations must do more. They need to step out of their comfort zone, the one that has enabled them to sit back and accept all forms of expression for so long, and begin to take account of what they are, basically, condoning. In order to restore an atmosphere of openness and acceptance, precisely that for which such fine institutions have always been known, they must drop their stance of neutrality, make clear what won’t be tolerated and take a stand against incitement.
In the end, accountability is not suppression, but rather, responsibility.