Not a False Alarm

Partisan politics prevents those on the political left from seeing threats to campus free expression, argue Jeffrey Aaron Snyder and Amna Khalid.

January 23, 2019
 
 
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From Donald Trump’s original campaign announcement to today’s government shutdown, conservative media have aggressively embraced a shameful, scorched-earth strategy of fear-mongering on the topic of immigration. The left appropriately rejects this sky-is-falling news reporting as intellectually and morally bankrupt.

Our habit of dismissing the doomsday messages broadcast by right-wing media, however, has prevented those of us on the left from getting an accurate read on the state of campus free expression.

Consider this eye-catching headline: “There’s No Free Speech Crisis on Campus, So Please Shut Up About It.” It is emblematic of an emerging genre of commentaries from the left that claim “the free speech crisis is an ideological myth” perpetrated by right-wing media and organizations.

As professors on the left ourselves, we are deeply disappointed by the fact that so many liberals and social progressives are so hostile to the possibility that campus free expression may be threatened. We are not, alas, terribly surprised. The free speech debate, as with so many other “culture war” controversies, has become ensnared in the George W. Bush you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us trap. For too many of our left-of-center friends, if the right is ringing the alarm bell on free speech, then it must be a false alarm.

We have good reason to be skeptical when more conservative voices proclaim “the death of free speech on campus.” For years now, right-wing news organizations have aggressively embraced the following technique of persuasion: zoom in on an extreme incident, magnify its importance and extrapolate to make wild, unfounded claims. (Left-wing media do this, too, of course, but right-wing news organizations have turned it into a high art.)

Consider the recent news coverage of the “migrant caravan.” It’s a “foreign invasion,” according to Rush Limbaugh. The migrants, said one guest on the Laura Ingraham show, are “storm troopers” who are “pushing for the destruction of American society.” “If we overwhelm our country with even more millions of Latin Americans,” Ann Coulter declared, “eventually we just become another failed Latin American state.”

In response to the conservative media frenzy about campus free speech in free fall, dozens of commentators on the left have breezily dismissed their concerns as much ado about nothing. Campus speaker disinvitations and shout-downs, Andrew Hartman wrote in The Washington Post, are nothing more than “a few high-profile instances” where conservative speakers “have been denied the opportunity to air their views.” “Outrage about threats to free speech is overblown,” he concludes. For others, the campus free speech debate is variously “a distraction,” a diversion or a “sleight of hand.”

Some left-wing observers see a conspiracy afoot. “Today’s conservative ‘free speech’ campaign doesn’t want you to know” that “free speech and open inquiry are alive and well on campus,” Jim Sleeper asserted in The New York Times. This campaign’s true purpose, according to Sleeper, is to dress down “politically correct” students and to stand up for “free markets.” As Chris Ladd opined in Forbes, the free speech debate is “a phony crisis manufactured by the same people who fuel the engines of climate denial.” Or as Clio Chang emphatically argued in Splinter: “Right Wing Donors Are the Ones Threatening Campus Free Speech, You Idiots.”

In today’s hyperpartisan political environment -- where ideological purity is at a premium -- we automatically reject the concerns of our political “opponents” as fabrications, hoaxes and myths. Indeed, we must confess that we cringe a little every time President Trump, former attorney general Jeff Sessions or Secretary of Education Betsy Devos assert that “freedom of speech and thought” are under attack on campus. The message is discounted because we cannot abide the messenger.

The tempest-in-a-teapot crowd gets two things right: first, right-wing politicians, organizations and media have exploited campus free speech controversies to attack “political correctness” and “identity politics” -- and to score political points by assailing colleges and universities as propaganda machines devoted to liberal groupthink. Second, in pursuit of the first, the right has grossly exaggerated the extent to which campus free expression is threatened.

The hypochondriac right looks at the state of free expression on college campuses and sees a patient suffering from the most virulent strain of influenza. We see, in contrast, a patient with just a nasty, lingering cold. (There is cause for concern, but we aren’t making funeral arrangements yet.)

All that said, beyond the high-profile, hand-wringing incidents -- think Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley, and Charles Murray at Middlebury College -- there is ample evidence that campus free expression is threatened on a daily basis at colleges and universities across the country. These threats take the form of the heckler’s veto, speech codes, bias response teams, trigger warnings and censorship by committees, deans and presidents. Self-censorship is pervasive as well, whether that’s a professor quietly dropping a “controversial” topic from a course syllabus or a student staying quiet to avoid censure from her peers.

Chilly campus climates constrain the intellectual freedom of people of all political persuasions, all demographic backgrounds and every conceivable constellation of intersecting identities. The impetus to avoid or censor “dangerous” ideas, voices and content -- as reflected in debates about affirmative action and works of art that critique the corruption of the Trump administration -- dumbs us down and makes us prisoners of our own perspectives.

Partisan politics are fracturing the country, but we shouldn’t let them erode our critical faculties. The left’s reluctance to acknowledge the challenges facing campus free expression reflects a partisanship so profound that we cannot even imagine the right might be on to something. Yes, the right’s anxiety about this issue is massively disproportionate. But we are reminded of Joseph Heller’s famous line from Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Threats to free expression at colleges and universities are much more than right-wing fever dreams. The left needs to wake up and look at them squarely.

Bio

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is associate professor in the educational studies department at Carleton College, and Amna Khalid is associate professor in the history department at the college. They frequently give public talks on academic freedom, free expression and campus politics.

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