Shut Up. No YOU Shut Up.

Is it really that simple? Do our current campus “free-speech” debates boil down to a simple shouting match? As we’ve seen, conservatives and progressives have both fought to defend speech they agree with. And both sides have a history of threats and intimidation against speech they don’t. In spite of these similarities, I can’t help but think the two sides are very different. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, conservative activists have lately pushed a spate of campus free-speech laws. They hope to force colleges to allow controversial conservative speakers and ideas.

middlebury protesters

Shutting down Charles Murray at Middlebury

Some conservatives think that progressive activists have clamped down on free speech. They cite cases such as the recent hounding of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or the smack-down of Charles Murray on Middlebury’s campus.

We can’t forget, though, that conservative activists have also clamped down on progressive campus speech. Most recently, we see threats and attacks on John Eric Williams at Trinity (Connecticut) and Dana Cloud at Syracuse. Professor Williams had shared a provocative article about the recent shooting at a Congressional baseball practice. Cloud had called for more counter-protests against anti-Sharia protesters.

Sarah Bond twitter

…a different sort of thing.

They aren’t alone. Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa was harassed after she pointed out that most classical statues weren’t originally white. Tommy Curry of Texas A&M was attacked for talking about the history of anti-white violence.

We could go on:

In each case, conservatives attacked progressives for using racist, threatening, or violent speech. In each case, activists conducted campaigns to publicize, demonize, and criminalize professors’ speech.

So, in some ways, we’ve come to the old school-yard standoff. Both sides insist on free speech for their own views and both sides use violence and intimidation to shut off speech by their opponents.

We can take it even further. Both sides seem untroubled by the actual content of their opponents’ speech. At Middlebury, for example, progressive protesters seemed unaware of Charles Murray’s actual topic. And in Iowa, conservative protesters did not bother to read Professor Bond’s argument about historical whiteness.

Does that mean that the two sides are roughly equal? I don’t think so.

I might be confused by my own sympathies, but to my mind the two sides are very different. On one hand, we have student protesters on campuses shouting down speakers they find dangerous. At Middlebury, it descended into thuggery and violence. On the other hand, we have conservative legislators and online commentators hoping to earn points by publicizing the things progressive professors say.

Time after time, we see the same political blocs lining up: Progressive protesters pull from student ranks and shout down conservative speakers. They make their campuses unwelcome zones for conservative pundits. Conservative protesters line up lawmakers and online networks to fire professors, charge them with crimes, and threaten their physical safety, wherever they might be.

Those aren’t the same.

The political power—yes, including the potential of vigilante violence—of conservatives seems far higher. In short, I would rather be Professor Weinstein facing an angry crowd of unreasonable students than Professor Williams walking alone at night. Anonymous threats online against progressive professors scare me. Student protesters at an announced speech don’t.

I understand I’m biased. I sympathize with my fellow progressive professors and our activist students. Not that I think we are always right or free of dangerous tendencies, but the worst-case scenario of left-wing student violence seems far less dangerous than its opposite number.

From the other side, I’m swayed and intimidated by the enormous political power of conservative educational activists, both legally and outside the law. As I wrote in my recent book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, the vigilante violence in school controversies has always been dominated by conservative activists. From the Ku Klux Klan to the American Legion to Kanawha County’s extremists, the use of political violence has been most often the tool of the right.

From that perspective, it seems to me to be unfair to lump all anti-free-speech protests together. Yes, both sides are prone to frightening excesses. And yes, both sides seem willing to defend free speech only when they agree with it. But that doesn’t make them the same.


I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Doncha just love that new-week smell? There was a lot going on this week that SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed. Here are some of the stories we gathered to keep you up to speed:

Was he or wasn’t he? Creationists often insist that Darwinism leads to racism. Historian Ted Davis takes a careful look at Darwin and racism at BioLogos.

READING woman apple

Words, words, words…

Evergreen State professor Bret Weinstein advised to stay off campus for his own safety. He had protested against mandatory protests. Scott Jaschik gives the latest at IHE.

Closing the circle: Progressive school dreams result in conservative schools. Paul Ryan harts Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies.

Deeper than ever: Charles Lipson makes the case that our current political climate is more vicious and divided than it’s ever been. HT: MM

Is New York’s plan catching on? Boston announces new free-college-tuition plan.

Another picnic in No Man’s Land: A new Catholic association for religious scientists.

A conservative’s commencement speech without politics: Peggy Noonan tells Catholic University graduates to read books.

What can Betsy DeVos do to salvage her tenure? Free-marketeer Michael Petrilli collects advice from five education wonks.

Will the Trump administration allow a birth-control waiver for religious institutions? Leaked memo says they will.

Thanks to all who sent in stories and tips.

Does “Blasphemy” Help?

How are we to understand them? Some of the recent college blow-ups seem to defy traditional common sense. Most recently, for example, students at Evergreen State College have taken to attacking biology professor Bret Weinstein. As in earlier cases, the violence of the reaction doesn’t seem to match the alleged offense.

Over at Heterodox Academy, Jonathan Haidt calls this a kind of “witch hunt,” a modern efflorescence of blasphemy trials, a type of “fundamentalist religion.” Does that kind of parallel help us make sense of these campus controversies?

Here’s what we know: In cases from Yale to Claremont McKenna to Middlebury to Berkeley, protesters have exploded—sometimes violently—in order to demonstrate their disagreement with certain forms of speech.

In some cases, the protesters have insisted that harboring hurtful language does harm to the campus community. At Middlebury, for example, students protested the presence of Charles Murray. Murray was accused of perpetuating racist ideas.

And, in some cases, the ferocity of the student reaction seems out of proportion to the alleged crimes. At Claremont McKenna College, for example, an administrator inadvertently implied that there existed a racial norm at the school. At Yale, an instructor downplayed the seriousness of offensive Halloween costumes. In each case, the student response was enormous and militant.

How are we to understand the violence of these student reactions?

I’ve tried a few explanations myself. Recently, I suggested that we look not at the “college” part of these protests, but at the “elite” part of them. A while back, I suggested that we should celebrate this kind of student activism. I even suggested a better way for protesters to accomplish their stated goals.

Jonathan Haidt writes that we need to take a different perspective. The vitriol and intensity of recent campus flare-ups, Haidt argues, is best understood as a kind of religious impulse, a witch-hunt, an anti-blasphemy campaign.

There are some parallels. First, many of today’s campus protesters feel that merely allowing certain forms of speech constitutes grave harm. Like many sorts of religious speech, merely encountering certain words is perceived as harmful. Second, there is a definite in-group feel to recent campus demonstrations. Many participants seem to want primarily to demonstrate their position on certain issues. The main goal does not seem to be humdrum policy change, but rather a literal demonstration of morality. Plus, the language of recent protests is often starkly black and white. Anything besides total agreement is seen as an utter betrayal.

What do you think? Does it help you understand the Evergreen State protests if you think of them as a kind of blasphemy trial? If you take it out of the realm of secular policy deliberation and into the realm of good vs. evil?

Or is that just a way for us to downplay the seriousness of the protests? Calling something a “witch-hunt,” after all, is yet another way to cut off dialogue.