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.

Inside the Belly of the Beast

Why would they do it?

Why would a group of college students physically attack a professor in order to show their disapproval of an invited speaker?

Why would students demand the resignation of a professor because his wife told them to relax about the politics of Halloween costumes?

These reactions seem extreme and mind-boggling. If we want to make sense of the new wave of repressive student activism on college campuses, we need to start with two not-so-obvious facts:

  1. Only a few college students actually behave this way—and there’s a pattern to it.
  2. There’s a long history to this sort of thing.

So, first, who are the students who are staging these sorts of shut-down-speaker protests? As usual, Jonathan Zimmerman hit the nail on the head the other day. Students at elite schools like his tend to be more aggressively united in their leftism. What seems normal at Penn and Yale, though, isn’t normal at most schools.

He’s exactly right. Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias of the Brookings Institution crunched some numbers and came to the same conclusion. As they put it,

the schools where students have attempted to disinvite speakers are substantially wealthier and more expensive than average. . . . The average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.

The wonks at The Economist agree. “Colleges with richer, high-achieving students are likelier to see protests calling for controversial speakers to be disinvited,” they concluded recently. They even plotted an attractive three-color chart to prove it:bicker warning

So it seems safe to say that richer students at fancier schools tend to be more likely to stage this sort of shut-up protest than college students in general. Of course, we don’t know for sure in every case, but the tendency is clear.

So what?

It adds a moral dimension to these protests that needs more attention. We’ve been down this road before.

In the 1970s, a group of elite college students broke off from Students for a Democratic Society to form the violent militant group Weather Underground. They didn’t do much, but they wanted to. By the 1970s, the FBI was after them.


Okay, but did they contribute to the alumni fund?

They weren’t just run-of-the-mill college students. Bill Ayers’ father, for example, was CEO of Commonwealth Edison. Ayers the Elder even has a college named after him at my alma mater. That’s not something most Americans have experienced.

Bernardine Dohrn grew up in the tony Milwaukee suburb Whitefish Bay. (When I taught high school in Milwaukee, the kids jokingly referred to it as “White Folks’ Bay.” Ha.) She graduated from the super-elite University of Chicago. Clark also attended the University of Chicago. Boudin’s father was a high-powered New York lawyer and she went to Bryn Mawr College.

Their elite backgrounds and college experiences mattered. Weather rhetoric was flush with talk about their privileged status and the need for white elites to act violently.

In 1970, for example, Dohrn issued the Weather Underground’s first “communication,” a “DECLARATION OF A STATE OF WAR.” Rich white kids, Dohrn explained, had a “strategic position behind enemy lines.” They had a chance to strike from inside the belly of the beast. And they had a moral duty to act violently in support of world-wide anti-American revolutionary movements. It was time, Dohrn wrote, for rich white kids to prove that they were not part of the problem, they were part of the violent solution. As she put it,

The parents of “privileged” kids have been saying for years that the revolution was a game for us. But the war and the racism of this society show that it is too fucked-up. We will never live peaceably under this system.

Again…so what? What does this prove?

It helps us understand college protests that don’t seem to make common sense. Why would a group of college students assault a professor to protest against racism? Why would they react so ferociously to a seemingly innocuous comment about Halloween costumes?

Because—at least in large part—students from wealthy families at elite colleges are in a peculiar pickle. If they are at all interested in moral questions, they find themselves in a tremendously compromised moral position. They are the beneficiaries of The System. They are the ones who profit from America’s imbalanced racial and economic hierarchy. They enjoy their cushy lifestyles and glittering future prospects only because they were given an enormously unfair head start in life.

If you care at all about social justice, that’s a heavy burden to bear. One way to handle the strain is to go to extreme lengths to signal your rejection of The System. Though protests at fancy colleges may seem strange to the rest of us, they make sense if we see them as demonstrations of rejection, as proof of position. In other words, some students at elite colleges—at least the ones who do the reading—are desperate to demonstrate that they are not happy with racism, sexism, and class privilege. They need to show everyone that they are not lapdogs of the exploiters. Their protests are not only about changing policies, but about proving something about themselves. And those sorts of protests will necessarily swing toward extreme actions.

In the end, we will only scratch our heads if we try to figure out why liberal students insist on illiberal policies in terms of day-to-day political strategy. Instead, we need to see these protests as shouts of separation, desperate and ultimately ill-starred attempts to prove that students from the 1% are standing with the rest of us.

Charles Murray, Extremist?

No one doubts that scholar Charles Murray is controversial.  Best known for his book The Bell Curve, Murray ruffled feathers by asserting that some sorts of people are naturally less intelligent than others.  Though he denies every accusation of racism, Murray’s reputation has caused the administration of Asuza Pacific University to abruptly cancel Murray’s upcoming campus talk.

Has Murray’s reputation as a racist caused him to be seen as too extreme even by administrators at conservative Christian colleges?  The leaders of APU, for example, worried that Murray’s talk might be hurtful to “our faculty and students of color.”

Scholar?  Or Racist?  Can He Be Both?

Scholar? Or Racist? Can He Be Both?

After all, Murray has been labeled as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Murray, the SPCL charged, uses

racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.

For his part, Murray accuses Asuza Pacific of pusillanimity and closed-mindedness.  In an open letter to APU’s students, Murray challenged them to think for themselves.  Murray invited students to explore his website and read some of his publications.  The more you know about me, Murray suggested, the harder it will be for you to take these accusations of extremism seriously.  “The task of the scholar,” Murray told APU students,

is to present a case for his or her position based on evidence and logic. Another task of the scholar is to do so in a way that invites everybody into the discussion rather than demonize those who disagree. Try to find anything under my name that is not written in that spirit. Try to find even a paragraph that is written in anger, takes a cheap shot, or attacks women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, or anyone else.

There is no reason, Murray concludes, why students should not listen to talks by “earnest and nerdy old guys” like Murray.

This cancellation of Murray’s talk raises key questions.

First of all, does the goal of intellectual diversity on college campuses include the inclusion of unpopular conservative ideas?  We’ve seen recently examples of speakers protested against at Montana Tech for their support of creationism, pro-life student groups at Yale being refused fellowship in a social-justice club, and Steven Hayward’s lonely life as a token conservative campus intellectual at Colorado.

Second, what does it mean that this cancellation comes from a relatively “conservative” campus?  APU is one of the oldest evangelical universities in the country.  No one could safely accuse the leadership of APU of pandering to the traditional secularist campus leftism run amok.  Yet this school’s leadership saw fit to cancel Murray’s speaking appointment due to worries about Murray’s reputation.

Finally, who decides which ideas are extreme?  By any measure, Charles Murray’s work has been part of recent mainstream American conversations about race, class, and society.  His 2012 book, Coming Apart, for example, was prominently reviewed by such leading publications as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Review of Books.  It does not make sense to suggest that Murray has only some sort of fringe status as a scholar.  Yet in this case, even a conservative Christian school saw Murray as too controversial to speak on campus.



MR or MRS Degree? Ask Jesus!

Looking for more than just an education?  For those who hope to find a life partner as part of their college experience, it seems like a Christian college might be the way to go.

In Religion News Service, Katherine Burgess reports on a recent Facebook survey.  According to those findings, of the top 25 colleges where men are likely to meet their spouse, all are Christian.  For women, sixty-four percent of the top 25 husband-finding schools are Christian.

Twelve of the schools that appear on both lists of top-25 are Christian:

  1. Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary,      Ankeny, Iowa
  2. Harding University, Searcy, Ark.
  3. Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn.
  4. Bob Jones University, Greenville, S.C.
  5. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
  6. Freed-Hardeman University, Henderson, Tenn.
  7. Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Watertown, Wis.
  8. Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa
  9. Baptist Bible College, Springfield, Mo.
  10. Oklahoma Christian University, Edmond, Okla.
  11. Kentucky Christian University, Grayson, Ky.
  12. Johnson University, Knoxville, Tenn.

This makes sense.

College, after all, is about much more than academics.  Where people go to school—especially when that school is strongly associated with a certain cultural identity—says a lot about who they are as people.

It also fits long-standing stereotypes about Christian schools.  As Jeff Schone, vice president for student life at Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota, told Burgess, “There’s a Lutheran boy for every Lutheran girl.”

Marlena Graves reflected on this syndrome recently in the pages of Christianity Today.  As a counselor at Cedarville University, Graves lamented the fact that so many young women seem to neglect their own personal growth in their race for a spouse.  “I can’t even count,” Graves wrote,

the number of times I’ve heard, “My mom and dad told me that if I don’t find a husband now when there are so many to choose from, then chances are slim that I’ll find one after college.”

This isn’t just true for Christians, of course.  As Charles Murray argued controversially in his recent book Coming Apart, those who attend elite schools tend to marry other people from those same elite schools.

In her Christianity Today piece, Graves quoted a letter to the Daily Princetonian by Susan Patton.  Patton gave Princeton women the same advice heard by so many young Christian collegians:

Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal….there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

Higher education, for many non-Christians as well as many Christians, seems to be seen as the place to find suitable life partners.  My hunch is that this trend is exaggerated at schools that attract students from self-identified subcultural or countercultural backgrounds.

This marriage tendency can help us understand the durability of cultural notions.  Why are so many Americans creationist, for instance?  It helps when creationist kids go to creationist colleges, marry other creationist kids and start creationist families of their own.