Free speech on campus

Of the latest in a long line of sad examples of colleges dis-inviting conservative speakers, Charles C. W. Cooke writes:

As it happens, I suspect that the decision-makers at Scripps would be sincerely astounded to learn how fanatical they appear from the outside, for their disinvitation is likely to be less the product of intellectual insecurity and more the end result of a genuine divergence between Left and Right. As a rule, conservatives believe that the matter of free expression is extremely simple: First, you let everybody speak on equal terms, whatever they choose to say; then, you permit anybody so moved to respond; and then, possessed of a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, you let the chips fall where they may, all the while accepting that life isn’t fair and that man is fallen. The academic and cultural Left, by contrast, seems increasingly to maintain that the question of speech is a convoluted and sticky one, and that the Right’s seemingly straightforward appeals to diversity of thought and free expression are hopelessly complicated in reality by Foucauldian power dynamics, by the existence of qualitatively different types of speech (“hate” speech, “propaganda,” “corporate speech,” voices that “must be heard,” etc.), and by the disquieting potential for listeners to be in some way damaged or set off (or “triggered”) by the experience. One really cannot overstate the incompatibility of these positions. For modern conservatives, an absolute defense of free expression is a cut and dried principle — the hallmark of civilization and human liberty. But for many modern progressives — especially those in academia — unfettered speech represents just one item within a busy hierarchy of competing values; an important idea, certainly, but not an unalienable one. This, I think, explains a great deal. If you believe — as many of his critics suggested at the time — that George Will did not merely write a criticism of the alleged campus rape epidemic but that, in some way, he actually did “violence” to women, it seems clear that you wouldn’t want him on campus.

The salient question, then, has to be this: Does Scripps know that, by ensuring that its campus will remain a parochial and intellectually cramped sort of place, it is doing its students a genuine disservice? Honestly, I doubt that it does. As politically and culturally useful as it might be for critics of the college racket to imagine otherwise, the authorities almost certainly did not disinvite Will in order to prevent the free-thinking among their charges from getting the “wrong” ideas about the United States. Instead, they will have convinced themselves that they were merely curating information in a manner that most effectively benefits the whole student body. Such attitudes, alas, are no longer relegated to the fringes, but have instead made inroads into businesses, charities, and even the U.S. government. Consider how often we see spokesmen say with a straight face that their organization is “too tolerant” to tolerate eccentrics, “too diverse” to allow outliers, and “too open” to permit free debate.

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