It cannot be understated how important the health of free speech is to the function of a university. Unfortunately, in recent years, there has been a sudden and widespread erosion of both the culture and the rules which undergird free speech in America.
Discourse is increasingly marked by the desire for victory rather than truth, and there is a distinct lack of grace for those perceived to be in the wrong, especially by the majority. Employees are fired for voicing their opinions (Gina Carano, James Damore, Erika and Nicholas Christakis to name a few), forgoing the precedent of putting politics aside and agreeing to disagree.
Students are ostracized on the accusation of any myriad of so-called “phobias” (homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, etc.), terms that likely began from places of good will but in practice are used to bludgeon opposition into not only submission but acceptance and celebration.
Author and former chief rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks, wrote in his book, “Morality,” on the purpose of university and the problem we face, “… mob rule is taking the place of what was once the sacred mission of the university: namely, the collaborative pursuit of truth” (9). When this collaborative pursuit is stifled, everyone suffers; the students first, followed by the society which receives them as graduates.
Discourse on campus today for most folks right-of-center (or even the moderate left) is characterized by walking on eggshells for fear of causing offense and becoming a victim of social excommunication. The recent episode with the Letters of Lament and Exhortation is a good example of this. The Letter of Lament was mass emailed around campus, shared on social media, and promoted by faculty. Its rival was blind carbon copied to individuals whom the sender believed would be gracious and perhaps sympathetic. If our university is a place for open debate, a place where a student can encounter new, challenging ideas and grow from the experience, why the secrecy?
I was a signee of the Letter of Exhortation, so I know it was kept under the radar out of fear of social and academic backlash. It was not because the intended audience was the Board and not the campus, as previous articles have suggested. Our vindictive, woke culture, combined with extremely broad policies like bias incident reporting, creates a clear disincentive to speaking your mind.
True ideologues are those true believers willing to sacrifice people’s livelihoods on the altar of social justice, inclusivity, or whatever higher purpose they purportedly follow. Fortunately, they are rare, albeit loud and becoming more common. Despite their rarity, they wield a surprising amount of social power, as drawing the ire of one can spark the spiral of online rage into cancellation and rejection from polite society. Unfortunately, this offense-driven attitude bleeds to their peers and is at times encouraged by faculty. Furthermore, a large part of the issue is those who follow the ideologues are much more common, whether they do so out of support or fear.
However, there is hope to be found in reality that at this moment, most of us likely wish to get along and become better students, left and right. Personally, I have found several friends and professors with whom I have stark disagreements and still enjoy the fruits of their fellowship. But I fear the culture is shifting to one that hinders students from finding those friends, both through suppression and because it does not inculcate empathy for those who disagree.
The way forward, the way to revitalize the culture of free speech on campus, comes from some element of grace and courage on both sides of the equation; grace in the presumption of good will extended both ways, courage in speaking up for yourself and for opposing viewpoints, and courage that hearing another point of view will not harm you unless you let it.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” (Prov. 27:17, NIV).