By Jun Yoon
On March 21st, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at promoting free inquiry and combatting the suppression of speech on college campuses. The action came amidst growing public concern over the security of free speech in public universities, as incidents like campus riots and administrative “dis-invitations” of conservative speakers have become national stories. It drew both praise and criticism, and ignited some controversial and thought-provoking debates with one central question: is campus free speech even an issue?
As a nineteen year old college student, I can attest that the battle over free speech on college campuses is a legitimate one, and is one that is being waged in the hearts and minds of the students. This is an issue about campus culture, and while actions like Trump’s executive order are certainly victories, legislation that reaffirms existing mandates are largely symbolic.
At the end of the day, it is not up to administrators or political commentators or influential socialites, but to the character and values of my generation to determine the outcome. The student body is the prime mover in tilting the balance of college discourse. It has the power to put pressure on the administration regarding controversial speakers, unfair rules, or virtually any other decision that has to do with free speech. The issue is not that the institutions have been infiltrated by ill-willed, far-left professors and administrators that are seeking to turn the system upside down. While that may be part of the problem, the nature of the virus is bottom-up. Pressure from leftist student bodies, whether direct or indirect, has been the catalyst for more radical ideology and policies from college administrations. These students, whose voices somehow always seem to shriek the loudest in the public square, hold beliefs and practices that are seriously damaging to individual liberty as well as the social fabric.
Western values and notions about free speech are being systematically attacked and undermined by students whose ability to do so is enabled by the very same philosophies they seek to destroy. Imaginative corollary lines are being drawn, masochism masquerades as open-mindedness, and the merit of individuals is determined by their struggles rather than their successes. Look no further than events like the student shutdown of Evergreen State College in 2017 to see the manifestations of these principles. When a professor objected to a “day of absence” that encouraged white people to stay off the campus in order to raise racial awareness, the students engaged in a full-scale riot and demanded his resignation.
Speech that is at odds with certain opinions can now be labeled and dealt with as violence. Dissent from their ideology is cast as discrimination. An insatiable need to feel more ethically significant than people on the other side is beginning to dominate the discourse, leaving free speech to be sacrificed at the altar of false moral superiority. Linda Sarsour, a leftist organizer and Islamic activist, provided one of the best summaries of this philosophy: “We can disagree & still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression & denial of my humanity and right to exist.” These “social justice warriors” tether ideas to personhood and natural rights, arguing that once the disagreement crosses into an issue of identity, action is warranted to stop the opposing speech as it would then be discrimination, harassment, and violence.
So, no longer can one simply disagree with a transgender person’s conception of biology; a disagreement that may be purely intellectual or philosophical now has grounds to be interpreted as personal. And if the angle presents itself, more often than not, the angle will be taken. Now what may have started as an honest conversation has devolved into a vicious attack, with a perpetrator and a victim. Then come the safe spaces, the free speech zones, the protests, the riots, the student demands, the administrative capitulations, and the culture that outlaws discussion. After all that, comes the silence.
This is anathema to both academic and democratic discourse. In fact, this approach would mean the end of discourse on college campuses as we know it. Open discourse that prioritizes rationality over outrage, and good ideas over pure subjectivism, are the means by which minds grow. If we want our institutions of higher learning to produce strong and independent minds like they were created to, the channels of discussion must remain open. And this push has to come from people like me. College students have to speak both to each other and against bullies who want to shame dissenters into silent corners. Students have told me that there have been many times when they were afraid to speak or even ask questions in a classroom environment due to fear of the moral outrage that would ensue. This is a far cry from what education is supposed to accomplish.
Despite all of these issues, and despite what seems to be a losing battle, I have faith in the rationality of my peers. At the end of the day, the majority of college students are neither intellectually inept nor ideologically radical. If they are free to hear the arguments, the marketplace of ideas will take care of the rest. Many people that I have spoken to about this issue, including self-identified liberals, have expressed concern over and disagreement with the methods of the campus left. There is a silent majority of students across the country, and across the political spectrum, that are dissociated from progressive campus culture, finding the histrionics of leftist students illogical as well as tiresome. These students need organizations and leaders that can encourage them to speak out so that these debates can be held. The promotion of values and ideas that rid free persons of their fundamental human right to speak must not be tolerated. The time has come for the practice and the culture to be turned upside down by the same group it is blamed on: the students.