This past week, the Los Angeles Times was kind enough to run a revised version of an argument I had made here in the recent past – that Republican support of colleges and universities has collapsed, likely because of constant incidents on campus that create a widespread impression of anti-conservative bias, and that since our public universities are chartered and funded as non-partisan institutions, and because Republicans control enormous political power, our institutions are deeply threatened. I stand by that case.
I have gotten the usual grab bag of responses, most of them unmoored from specific principles about who should be able to say what on campus, and some of them directly contradictory with each other. As is typical, the number one rhetorical move has been to insist that student activists are only targeting the worst of the worst, Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer and the like. The idea is that people with mainstream views are entirely free to say whatever they want without issue because they don’t directly threaten marginalized people. That idea is factually incorrect, as anyone with the barest grasp on the facts should know.
- Student activists at Amherst University demanded that students who had criticized their protests be formally punished by the university and forced to attend sensitivity training.
- At Oberlin, students made a formal demand that specific professors and administrators be fired because the students did not like their politics.
- The Evergreen State College imbroglio involved students attempting to have a professor fired for criticizing one of their political actions.
- At Wesleyan, campus activists attempted to have the campus newspaper defunded for running a mainstream conservative editorial.
- A Dean at Claremont McKenna resigned following student backlash to an email she sent in response to complaints about the treatment of students of color.
- Students at Reed College attempted to shut down an appearance by Kimberly Peirce, the director of Boys Don’t Cry, removing posters advertising her talk and attempting to shout her down during her presentation.
- At Yale, students called for the resignation of Erika Christiakis for an email she wrote about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes and for the resignation of her husband Nicholas Christiakis for defending her.
- At the University of California Santa Barbara, the student government voted for mandatory trigger warnings, which would enable any student to skip class material that they decided was offensive.
- Laura Kipnis, a feminist professor at Northwestern, was the subject of a literal federal investigation because she published an essay students didn’t like.
- Mount Holyoke canceled the Vagina Monologues on campus under student pressure.
- American Sniper, a perfectly mainstream American blockbuster, was temporarily pushed off campus by student activists.
- Activists are Western Washington demanded the creation of a 15 person panel that would engage in surveillance of students, professors, and administrators in order to monitor everyone involved on campus for any expressions or actions that body deemed “racist, anti- black, transphobic, cissexist, misogynistic, ablest, homophobic, islamophobic, xenophobic, anti-semitism, and otherwise oppressive behavior.” That body would have the ability to discipline campus community members, including firing tenured faculty.
- A yoga class for disabled students at a Canadian university was canceled after students complained that yoga is a form of cultural appropriation.
There are more. You are free to support any or all of these student actions. But you are not free to pretend there is no trend here. Exactly how many of these incidents must pile up before people are willing to admit that many campus activists pursue censorship of ideas and expressions that they don’t like?
The obsession with Milo and Richard Spencer makes this conversation impossible in left circles. Those people are discussed endlessly because leftists believe that doing so makes it easy to argue – “what, you want Milo to be free to harass POC on campus?!?” But in fact because most conservatives on campus will simply be mainstream Republicans, this side conversation will be almost entirely pointless. What really matters is the way that perfectly mainstream positions are being run out of campus on a regular basis. And of course with a list like this we can be sure that there are many, many more cases that went unnoticed and unreported in the wider world.
You would think it would be easy for progressives and leftists simply to say “I support many actions that campus protesters take, but these censorship efforts are counterproductive and wrong.” But that almost never happens. That’s because in contemporary life, politics has almost nothing to do with principle, or even with political tactics. Instead it has to do with aligning yourself with the right broad social circles. To criticize specific actions of campus activists sounds to too many leftists like being “the wrong kind of person,” so they refuse to criticize students even when their actions are minimally helpful and maximally counterproductive. That in turn ensures that there’s no opportunity for the students to reflect, learn, and evolve.
There have, of course, been many leftist professors who have been the subject of censorship too. I have written about these cases and fought for those professors over and over again. They come not from student pressure but from administrative fecklessness, which is to be expected, as the administrators that sometimes accede to student censorship demands and those who silence leftist professors are working under the same philosophy: a corporate desire to avoid controversy and to protect the campus as a neoliberal institution. That students so often petition these same administrators to silence on their behalf speaks to the failure to truly grapple with the nature of administrative power.
Awhile back I laid out my frustrations with this conversation. In particular, almost no one who defends campus activist attempts to censor has ever articulated a coherent policy about who is and is not allowed to say what.
Whatever else, defenders of activists attempting to censor opinions they don’t like have to stop claiming that these censorship efforts only target the most extreme cases. Because that is simply, factually false. Stop obsessing about the most extreme cases and grapple with the clear and growing attempts to censor mainstream views on campus. It’s an important conversation to have. Or you can keep shouting “Milo!” over and over again because that’s easy and doesn’t force you into any difficult choices or conversations. That will ensure that we have no coherent defense against bias claims while the Republican party sets out to dismantle our institutions, brick by brick.