The Deepening Divide on College Campuses, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our initial roundup of blog commentary on Wednesday is here. Since then, Conor responded at length to criticism from Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker:

[Cobb] writes as if unaware that millions of Americans believe the defense of free speech and the fight against racism to be complementary causes, and not at odds with each other. The false premises underpinning his analysis exacerbate a persistent, counterproductive gulf between the majority of those struggling against racism in the United States, who believe that First Amendment protections, rigorous public discourse, and efforts to educate empowered, resilient young people are the surest ways to a more just future, and a much smaller group that subscribes to a strain of thought most popular on college campuses.

Conor concludes, “Defenders of the First Amendment aren’t distracting from attention from racism—they’re preserving the tools necessary to struggle against it.” Then Sally Kohn wrote a piece for us diametrically opposed to that view:

[W]hat students from Yale to the University of Missouri and beyond are protesting is a pervasively one-sided definition of offensive behavior that these colleges and society in general still propagate. To this point, as [Cobb noted], “the student’s reaction elicited consternation in certain quarters where the precipitating incident did not.”

Consider, for instance, those in the chattering class who have readily bought into the idea that police feel under attack (as the result of the Black Lives Movement) and at the same time express deep skepticism—if not outright mockery—of people of color who feel under attack by police and by society. This divergent tendency isn’t about evidentiary standards. It’s about race—and the inclination to believe in the righteousness and inherent goodness of white people while perpetually doubting and demeaning people of color. As Roxane Gay wrote for The New Republic:

We cannot ignore what is truly being said by both groups of protesters: That not all students experience Yale equally, and not all students experience Mizzou equally. These conversations were happening well before these protests, and they will continue to happen until students are guaranteed equality of experience. They are still being forced, however, to first prove that it is worth opening a conversation about either.  

Greg Lukianoff, who co-authored our cover story on campus PC and coincidentally found himself at the center of the uproar at Yale, takes stock of the tumultuous week. Greg is heartened that most Yale students “have answered speech with more speech”:

There’s been a lot of discussion about how the issues at Yale are much bigger than Erika and Nicholas Christakis, and that’s certainly the opinion of many students. Earlier this week, Yale students refocused the narrative and engaged in a thoughtful, powerful demonstration of student activism through a “March of Resilience” to express solidarity for students of color, and a forum to discuss race and diversity on campus. [...] On Tuesday, Yale’s president and the dean of Yale College issued a welcome reaffirmation of the necessity of freedom of expression at the institution. Now, the institution must make clear that Yale supports Erika and Nicholas Christakis and they will not face punishment or termination for their role in starting a national conversation about the importance of free speech on campus.  

Absorbing the events at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere, Nicholas Kristof, the liberal New York Times columnist, worries about the state of the political left right now:

We’ve also seen Wesleyan students debate cutting funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. At Mount Holyoke, students canceled a production of “The Vagina Monologues” because they felt it excluded transgender women. Protests led to the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde at Smith.

This is sensitivity but also intolerance, and it is disproportionately an instinct on the left.

I’m a pro-choice liberal who has been invited to infect evangelical Christian universities with progressive thoughts, and to address Catholic universities where I’ve praised condoms and birth control programs. I’m sure I discomfited many students on these conservative campuses, but it’s a tribute to them that they were willing to be challenged. In the same spirit, liberal universities should seek out pro-life social conservatives to speak.

More broadly, academia — especially the social sciences — undermines itself by a tilt to the left. We should cherish all kinds of diversity, including the presence of conservatives to infuriate us liberals and make us uncomfortable.

Mark Salter, the former chief of staff to John McCain, sides with Kristof:

Some conservatives select the kinds of news they wish to receive, preferring media outlets that echo their opinions. They mock and revile contrary opinions, but they don’t typically forbid their utterance in their presence, as was the case recently at Mizzou and Yale and other universities. The growing intolerance of the left deserves more media attention than it has received ...

Salter then illustrates the illiberal natural of safe spaces in public places by recalling the death of a close friend:

Reporters were waiting outside the church where his funeral was held. They tried to be tactful, but they were intruding in a space where a lot people were suffering a lot of pain. A few of the mourners resented it. But most, including his immediate family, accepted the intrusion graciously. They might have wished the reporters had covered other stories that day, but they didn’t argue they had no business being there. They understood the requirements of good journalism and good manners aren’t always compatible.  

Another such example comes from Jamie Kirchick, a Yale alum who attended a controversial and contentious talk by poet Amiri Baraka in 2003:

Baraka’s assertions of Israeli complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, which he reiterated after reading the poem with vague citations to Arab newspapers, were met with applause and a standing ovation from the assembled Yale students. When he noticed my skeptical expression from the back of the room, he diagnosed me as suffering from “constipation of the face” and being in need of “a brain enema,” to the uproarious laughter of my classmates. [...]

I did not insist upon the establishment of a “safe space” to sulk in my humiliation. Instead, I retired to my dorm and wrote about the event, in my capacity as a budding columnist for the Yale Daily News. Baraka’s speech, and, more importantly, the rapturous response, I wrote, “was one of the most disturbing events in my entire life.” That this trial by fire was provoked not by the white skinheads or Muslim anti-Zionists I had naively assumed were the only purveyors of anti-Semitic hatred, but by blacks, who, because of our shared history of oppression, I had been brought up to believe, were supposed to be my allies, made it all the more distressing.

Today, I look back on the entire incident as a formative event in my evolution from teenager to adult. My experience at Yale of confronting painful ideas, emotionally vexing situations, and learning how to cope with them, informs my opinion about the events roiling the campus today.

Freddie deBoer, the socialist academic at Purdue, appeals to pragmatism as much as principle when addressing the activist left on campus:

[U]nfortunately, there is in fact a strain of the academic left that does see freedom of speech as an outdated artifact of white supremacy, which I have encountered in both my academic and political life. I recognize why student protesters might feel moved to adopt an anti-free speech stance. [ … But] in order to effectively fight racism, these passionate student protesters will have to win over converts to their cause. That’s not an invocation of an abstract political principle; it’s a simple statement of the practicality of power. Because the white majority controls most of this country’s institutions, anti-racist activists must rally masses to their cause, to utilize people power. They must gain the support of those who are not already convinced of their message, whether or not that expectation is fair.

The final word in this round of commentary goes to college students themselves, namely an editorial from the Claremont Independent, a campus newspaper at Claremont McKenna led by editor-in-chief Hannah Oh:

We are ashamed of you [the student activists at this rally] for trying to end someone’s career over a poorly worded email. This is not a political statement––this is a person’s livelihood that you so carelessly sought to destroy. We are disappointed that you chose to scream and swear at your administrators. That is not how adults solve problems, and your behavior reflects poorly on all of us here in Claremont. This is not who we are and this is not how we conduct ourselves, but this is the image of us that has now reached the national stage.

We are disappointed in your demands. If you want to take a class in “ethnic, racial, and sexuality theory,” feel free to take one, but don’t force such an ideologically driven course on all CMC students. If the dearth of such courses at CMC bothers you, maybe you should have chosen a different school. If students chose to attend Caltech and then complained about the lack of literature classes, that’s on them. [...]

We are disappointed that you’ve used phrases like “silence is violence” to not only demonize those who oppose you, but all who are not actively supporting you. We are most disappointed, however, in the rhetoric surrounding “safe spaces.” College is the last place that should be a safe space. We come here to learn about views that differ from our own, and if we aren’t made to feel uncomfortable by these ideas, then perhaps we aren’t venturing far enough outside of our comfort zone. We would be doing ourselves a disservice to ignore viewpoints solely on the grounds that they may make us uncomfortable, and we would not be preparing ourselves to cope well with adversity in the future. [...] The hypocrisy of advocating for “safe spaces” while creating an incredibly unsafe space for President Chodosh, former Dean Spellman, the student who was “derailing,” and the news media representatives who were verbally abused unfortunately seemed to soar over many of your heads.

Lastly, we are disappointed in students like ourselves, who were scared into silence. We are not racist for having different opinions. We are not immoral because we don’t buy the flawed rhetoric of a spiteful movement. We are not evil because we don’t want this movement to tear across our campuses completely unchecked. We are no longer afraid to be voices of dissent.

As always, if you have any dissenting views of your own, email and I’ll post the strongest, most persuasive ones.