Open discourse on campus

Open discourse on campus

Much of the political discourse on university campuses can be written off as harmless, but efforts to silence speakers, like those at commencement ceremonies, are ugly and dangerous.

The University of Illinois' 143rd Commencement was a big success, thanks to good weather, a good speaker and general good spirits.

If ever a commencement speaker was the perfect choice, UI graduate, former Fighting Illini football captain and astronaut Mike Hopkins was it. He's the kind of guy who makes one proud to be an American, let alone a member of the smaller tribe of Fighting Illini. Hopkins was an inspired choice.

But the general delight surrounding the choice of Hopkins here was offset by a disturbing trend at other campuses across the country with regard to their commencement speakers. Brandeis, Rutgers, Haverford and Smith joined the disgraced pantheon of institutions of higher education to suffer the embarrassment of losing scheduled commencement speakers because of campus protests.

Brandeis withdrew its invitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who's been a victim of Islamic violence, after protesters expressed outrage at Ali's legitimate criticism of Islam. Condoleezza Rice, a former U.S. secretary of state and a longtime administrator at Stanford, opted not to speak at Rutgers rather than take a chance on protesters disrupting graduation ceremonies.

Critics are certainly free to express their opinions, but bowing to what amounts to a heckler's veto is a disturbing trend.

What's even more disturbing is that college campuses — once thought to be citadels of free thought, free inquiry and free speech — are showing signs of degenerating into islands of intolerance.

Nothing could be worse for higher education, or the country for that matter, than subjecting speakers to ideological litmus tests, with only those who pass receiving a cordial reception and a fair hearing.

This, of course, is not the first time that the nation's campuses have been the site of disputes over inviting controversial speakers and allowing them to be heard. Decades ago, it was the political right wing who attempted to determine who was an acceptable campus speaker, usually targeting political leftists or outright communists. Their heavy-handed tactics ultimately were discredited.

These days, it's the left wing, sometimes operating under the strictures of a repulsive political correctness, who want to decide what other people are allowed to see and hear. This kind of authoritarian mind set is intolerable, not solely because individual speakers will be disinvited or choose not to visit but because of the dangerous precedent it sets.

People are certainly free to object to any or all commencement speakers for whatever reasons they choose. It's the university administrators who need to push back, making it clear that they will not be intimidated by the objections of a noisy minority and that their campuses will be open to all ideas. That way, everyone can be heard, and people can make up their own minds about what they think.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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Nice Davis wrote on May 22, 2014 at 11:05 am

Sounds like a good argument for keeping James Kilgore around

Tom Napier wrote on May 22, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Sounds like a good arguement for keeping Chief Illiniwek around.


thinks wrote on May 24, 2014 at 9:05 pm

On this campus and many others, administrators, humanists, and social scientists are, for the most part, left leaning and expect their students and colleagues to be the same. This intolerance of true diversity -- accompanied by politics of exclusion and suppression of freedom of expression in various ways (many of them not overt) -- has been around for some time. The infighting within the left (lately, those who support Palestine over those who support Israel, or in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali whether third-world women's rights should trump broad cultural tolerance for Islam) in the Academy can be as ugly as the conflict between left and right.

I have worked all over campus, in addition to having earned a doctorate in the humanities, so I am not speaking as an outsider, but as an insider. I am also not a conversative, but on many issues, a social progressive. This is why the enforcement of this political bias is so disturbing to me.

When I left for university as a first-generation college student, I was hungry to learn about different kinds of cultures, ideas, people, communities. I benefited enormously from the international cosmopolitanism on my undergraduate and graduate campuses. I felt that I was transformed as a human being by these contacts and conflicts. I want this for my colleagues, for our staff, and for our current and future students.

I can remember teaching on this campus as a graduate instructor a gen ed class required of freshmen. It was commonplace for other graduate instructors to come back to the office to complain of students writing with conservative views (pro-life, pro-military action, etc.). The point of the class was for students to learn to be tolerant (at least in the minds of many instructors). Those instructors who complained did not have the least bit of insight into their own intolerance. My own view was that they should be teaching students not a set of opinions, but a means of expressing, better forming, and better grounding their own opinions.

The very worst forms of government in the history of the world -- the most violent, those responsible for the greatest suffering and the most deaths -- have been those that have been strongly ideologically driven to place an enforced sense of common good over individual liberty and quality of life. When the rights of the individual are honored as foremost in a society, when each individual matters and is valued, granted broad liberty, trusted as a vital political and community agent, then we have the most potential for a just society. This should form the basis for collective action -- not the other way around.

Those of my colleagues who embrace a strong ideological centricism are on the wrong side of history. We will look back on this period in the West as another time when those who were certain they were right, had a utopian scheme for society that could not fail, and sought to enforce their views overtly and implicity perpetuated in the present the same injustices of which they have accused others in the past. At their least extreme, we get the kind of suppression and judgmentalism we find on campus. At their most extreme? Pogroms. Witch hunts. Kangaroo courts.

Social injustice was rampant in the first world in the past, and it has not been perfectly realized in the here and now. But many cultural critics and social advocates have overcorrected to the extent that we now have created an intolerant culture where identity groups conflict with who is to have the largest share of public attention and many advocates for social justice are trigger happy -- not with guns but with extreme sensitivities and harsh words. They surveil, police, and critique the political, cultural, and social landscape. They create a choking atsmophere of divisive acrimony. They are now so concerned about what they have wrought that trigger statements on campus are now being broadly considered, advocated, and required.

A civil society, a just society, is a broadly tolerant society. That means giving each person the right to speak, to be educated, to be employed, to live peacefully, to participate democratically even when others -- educated and learned though they may be -- find their views offensive. That means having a thick skin, a hesitant tongue, a generous spirit, and a listening ear. These are difficult things for human beings to acquire, and difficult for them to maintain. But they are also our individual responsibility -- the one that accompanies our individual right -- our shared, basic human right -- to live in a free and genuinely diverse society.