The need for open inquiry and intellectual diversity on America’s campuses is becoming increasingly evident to folks on all sides of the political spectrum. A number of recent articles and essays have recently been published that touch on this theme.
First, The Forward has an interesting article by Zev Hurwitz on the difficulties of being a conservative on campus. Hurwitz perceives these difficulties despite not being a conservative himself, and he worries that our political culture suffers when we are unable to see our ideological opponents as reasonable and moral people who happen to have differing views. He writes,
We seem to be allergic to the idea of considering someone else’s beliefs valid if they don’t line up with our own. As progressives, we tend to call discussing someone else’s beliefs “normalization.” Understandably, we feel normalizing another person’s views by engaging with them is unacceptable….
But, herein lies the problem: we say we want encourage pluralism and diversity, which should include engaging with those who disagree with us. But often we just want to convince others to agree with us instead of actually wanting to listen. We don’t allow our own minds to be opened.
Hurwitz worries that the desire to make campuses “safe spaces” for minority students have had the unfortunate side effect of making campuses “unsafe” for conservative students to discuss their political opinions openly.
That conservative students are uncomfortable on many campuses is exemplified by a recent article dealing with the political climate at the College of Charleston. In the aftermath of the presidential election, political passions have been running high among both faculty and students. Many conservative students have reported feeling as though they cannot reveal their political opinions in their classes, for fear that they will be treated differently by their professors. For example,
Zalirah Robinson, a 20-year-old junior, believes most students and professors aren’t even willing to engage with conservative opinions. One of her history professors last semester, she said, spoke openly about voting for Hillary Clinton, called Trump a rapist and encouraged students to go to Planned Parenthood for birth control. Robinson didn’t feel comfortable. But speaking out, she feared, would lead to “complete isolation.”
“I feel like if the class has anything to do with (politics), then we should be allowed to openly discuss politics, but in a safe environment where everyone can freely express their opinions without someone hurling insults at them,” Robinson said. “We all have to respect each other.”
This student’s words about needing a “safe environment” to discuss her right-leaning political opinions is exactly in line with the worries of progressives like Hurwitz.
Finally, an article by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid for the Pakistani version of The Nation further explains why progressives and liberals of all stripes should embrace free speech: the alternative is illiberal and authoritarian. He writes,
The only way people can exercise ‘freedom’ of speech to never offend anyone is if everyone thought identically and agreed with the same ideas. That, in turn, is only possible if thinking itself is a centripetal process, regulated by a unitary authority.
Even so, unlike land, homelessness, life, death and equality, ‘offend’ is a subjective word – although some might say the same about equality, in the increasingly Orwellian world that we live in.
This is why the definition of ‘offensive’… outlines the limits to free speech. And any totalitarian attempts at the definition are usually coupled with ‘glory of X’, ‘in the best interests of Y’ or ‘sentiments of Z’.
Together, these articles show us that free inquiry and intellectual diversity are goods that people of all political opinions may and do cherish. The distance between political opponents may be great, but the principles of free speech may be a cross-cutting commitment that folks on all sides can support.