The divide of cultural thinking in America is becoming more and more apparent with every passing day of the dystopian Trump administration. On one side, we have the so-called backwards’ thinking red-necks keeping Kid Rock clocking in the millions and on the other, we have high-minded intellectuals who will take down anything even approaching the shade of intolerance in the comments’ section of their Facebook newsfeed. A few months back, we discussed this latter conglomerate in relation to Clint Eastwood’s denouncement of the millennial generation. Today, we will delve into that ever-relevant subject in the context of the student body and protests at universities; not for any particular instance but because in this new environment, liberals (whose ideas such as health care are widely more popular with the public) must realize that not every little thing is worth losing their minds over.
Colleges should be bastions of free speech and open-mindedness. Third-level education is about exploring new ideas which not only intrigue but challenge you. You do not necessarily have to agree with someone’s line of thought (even the professor’s) but you should be exposed to it because intellectual thought gains credence when it is tested and critical thinking, as we have also discussed before, is pertinent to keeping power and established notions in check.
So how come in many cases, colleges have come to exhibit the exact opposite philosophy?
Well, let’s take a look first at how many students’ intolerance of perceived intolerance has manifested:
- In 2014, Condoleeza Rice (US Secretary of State under Bush II) was supposed to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey but was protested over her administration’s handling of the Iraq War. Although the university’s president Robert L. Barchi defended their choice of speaker on the grounds of her being ‘one of the most influential intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years’, she decided to drop out, stating that the occasion should be a ‘joyous’ one and that her involvement might prove a distraction.
- Later on that same year, comedian and political pundit Bill Maher was opposed by the students of Berkeley for criticizing Islam. In a viral debate with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck, he contested that as a set of ideas, Islam was a tough one to tackle because of the connotations associated with attacking a religion. In a change.org petition, signed by nearly 6,000 people, the student body objected to his ‘blatant [bigotry] and [racism]’, furthering that Maher’s kind of beliefs only served to conflate the ideas of extremists with the greater Islamic population. Maher went on to deliver the commencement address anyways but not before commenting that ‘liberals should own the First Amendment the way conservatives own the second’.
- Women’s rights’ activist Ayaan Hiris Ali, meanwhile, was scheduled to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University until the throngs came out against her. The offer was rescinded owing to the fact that past statements of hers against Islam were not compatible with the ‘core values’ of the university. Her activism, of course, can be attributed to a more controversial nature than Bill Maher’s but the student body’s disavowal of her, in light of the other causes she has promoted, spoke volumes for the culture in which we live.
Richard Dawkins, the famed biologist and atheist, has posited that political correctness has been replaced by an ‘unofficial’ Orwellian Thought Police. With instances such as the ones mentioned above, he believes that we have seen a ‘betrayal’ of the free speech movement which grew out of Berkeley. This philosophy, for many, undermines the values of a true democracy and lends gravity to the arguments of conservatives who conjecture that the left are out of touch with the common man.
Not all liberals are ‘regressive leftists’ however (to borrow a phrase popularised by Sam Harris.) Many, like former President Obama, have espoused the need for students to balance their ideals with an open-mind. Militant political correctness, he stated in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopolous, serves as nothing more than a ‘recipe for dogmatism’. Even the leadership of the Civil Rights’ movement, he furthered, ‘sought to understand the views… of the other side,’ no matter how appalling. Students have become ‘coddled’ in today’s world, he asserted; a view shared by the likes of Robert L. Shibley, the vice-president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (a non-profit organisation), who stated: ‘Colleges and universities are teaching students to think like censors… [fueled by] overboard harassment policies, free speech zones that render most of campus a censorship zone, and a focus on civility and comfort at the expense of lively debate’.
On the flip-side to be fair, one can argue political correctness has been born out of necessity. After all, hateful or embittered rhetoric can be influential- just look at the effect it had in driving anti-semetic practice in the 1930s. Plus, the need for racism or any alternative forms of exclusiveness is about on-par with the need for two more season’s of The Big Bang Theory. (Seriously, cancel the f*#$ing thing already… not to make light of this…) Let’s face it however; universities err on the side of caution a stretch too far. It may be because they have always been havens of progressive thought; it may be because the media thrives off sensationalist stories; it may be the power of a group mentality; and it may be because even the slightest association of a racist, homophobic, or sexist thought is enough to ruin one’s social standing today, but such thinking does not always precipitate action.
Free speech is ‘indivisible’ for Mick Hume, the author of Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? When one makes it a ‘privilege’ and not a right, ‘who are you going to trust to make the decision about where to draw the line through [it]?’ That does not mean we should allow bigotry, sexism, or any other forms of discrimination to thrive but if their preachers or their ideas have gained enough momentum, why not give them a forum from which to be challenged? Why not ask Condoleeza Rice, herself, about Iraq? Because her answer will offend you? It’s high time we ditched the emotional baggage of our PC culture and adopt an idea so foreign to America today, that you would swear its visa had been suspended- reason.