I’m not going to tackle the entire myriad of controversies surrounding free speech at American college and universities. Nor am I going to offer a defense of Emma Camp, a “liberal” senior at the University of Virginia, who wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times decrying how unorthodox, particularly conservative, ideas are treated on campus. So far, her essay has inspired much more mockery than debate, which is kind of her main point but also a tautological defense for saying she has the right to believe stupid things without paying a price.
Being criticized — even strongly — during a difficult discussion does not trouble me. We need more classrooms full of energetic debate, not fewer. But when criticism transforms into a public shaming, it stifles learning.
I was a little taken aback by the response I saw from University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns & Money. He really hit on two points that highlight what has happened to conservatives on college campuses. In the first instance, Campos insists, “Right wing ideas about the world generally don’t flourish at universities not set up specifically as safe havens for right wing ideas because these ideas tend to be demonstrably false.”
I think this is an unfortunately simplistic, and telling, formulation. Some conservative ideas run into problems in a college setting precisely because they’re not demonstrably false. A faith-based belief system which includes many core ideas that are not falsifiable is not amendable to debate. To flourish in an academic setting, you can’t argue from authority. Galileo said the Earth moves and you can’t continue to insist that it doesn’t.
Similarly, if you cannot take in contrary evidence on your denial of anthropomorphic climate change, for example, then you won’t be taken seriously on campus. But the latter problem, when it isn’t the result of a bought opinion, is rooted in the habits of mind nurtured by the former one. When you’re taught that believing things without evidence is one of the highest virtues, then it’s hard to employ the intellectual rigor required for higher studies in secular fields. There are, indeed, some Republican ideas that are demonstrably false, but there are more important ones that have no proof but cannot be disproven.
The second part of Campos’ response that deserves scrutiny pertains more directly to cancel culture.
I would love to ask the author of this emetic whinge — seriously, read this story and then tell me about your oppression — about whether she thinks it’s wrong for, say, authoritarian ethno-nationalists to feel uncomfortable about expressing their ideas in a social setting where the vast majority of people aren’t authoritarian ethno-nationalists. And if it is wrong, what exactly is the solution to this deeply troubling situation? Affirmative action for authoritarian ethno-nationalists? Sensitivity training for people like me, who make authoritarian ethno-nationalists uncomfortable by describing their beliefs accurately?
We’re reading Eichmann in Jerusalem in my seminar on criminal punishment his week, which is about one historical example of authoritarian ethno-nationalism and the consequences it had for the concept of criminal punishment, among other things. Hey Emma, what if a student in that class should express support for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which is obviously a view held fervently by tens of millions of authoritarian ethno-nationalists in Russia, and their authoritarian ethno-nationalist supporters in America, Rio de Janeiro, etc? Is it my job to make sure that student feels “comfortable” about expressing that opinion, without having some terrible thing happen to them, like — checks notes on Camp again — having people say mean things about them on Twitter?
Note that the trick here is always to make statements at an extremely high level of generality — everyone should feel welcome to express any idea in a college classroom — without ever discussing specific cases, since discussing specific cases would instantly reveal how inherently idiotic and indeed oxymoronic that statement really is.
A related trick — speaking of censorship — is that authoritarian ethno-nationalism has to be tarted up with respectable sounding words like “conservative” and “Republican,” because surely you’re not saying that conservative and Republican students should be made to feel uncomfortable in a college classroom! What about “intellectual diversity” you hypocritical liberal? Well what about it? Am I supposed to pretend that being a Republican in the USA in 2022 means you’re not a member of an authoritarian ethno-nationalist party? Because that’s apparently what “protecting intellectual diversity in the college classroom” now means.
This is a really key point. It’s unfair of Campos to simplify the unwelcoming environment conservatives find of college campuses down to a righteous response to Naziism. There are many conservative ideas that predate the GOP’s full-throated embrace of authoritarian ethno-nationalism. But there comes a point where a party becomes so odious that anyone still on the bus is going to face ostracism.
Emma Camp isn’t a Republican but she uses some examples to demonstrate that she also experiences this ostracism. She feels it’s difficult to defend Thomas Jefferson. She discovered it’s unpopular for a non-Indian women to “criticize suttee, a historical practice of ritual suicide by Indian widows.” I’d feel comfortable taking both of those positions along with any slings and arrows brought my way as a result. But I’ve had the experience of holding opinions I keep to myself since they don’t seem worth the blowback. I navigate these things on a case-by-case basis and would never ask a college administration to make it less painful for me to say unpopular things.
But Campos is arguing something else. He’s saying we have the right to judge some things as outside the realm of legitimate debate. Ironically, this is the same type of argument conservatives make on a host of issues, whether it’s belief in the literal truth of holy scriptures, proper gender roles, or the sanctity of the 2nd Amendment. Still, we ought to be able to call Naziism wrong without fussing about it. And, certainly, if a student wants to defend Naziism, they shouldn’t expect someone to step in and protect them from suffering social consequences.
There are a variety of issues about which Americans ought to agree and which educators ought to be able to advocate. I’m thinking about the evil of slavery and the importance of the right to vote and the value of separation of powers. These are close to sacrosanct American ideas, or they should be, and a self-confident country promotes and inculcates its best values. But the GOP is no longer obviously on board with these ideas. Trump wouldn’t allow a coin depicting Harriet Tubman, and he attempted a coup to stay in power despite the will of the people, the Courts, and Congress.
The problem is that the GOP left the reservation, and we can’t accommodate them.
Now, if we become so obsessed with the historic wrong of slavery that we can’t acknowledge our debt to Thomas Jefferson, then we’re creating a similar, if less immediately threatening, problem from the left. I can definitely agree with conservatives when they see the cancellation of people like Jefferson as a direct blow to what collectively binds Americans together.
But that seems like a quaint debate now. We have a fascist party to contend with, and students have to choose which side they’re on. That doesn’t cancel every conservative idea. In fact, it demands we insist on some (traditionally) conservative ideas.
I think the key here is not that “right wing ideas…tend to be demonstrably false” but that too many of them have become morally wrong. College campuses are trying to enforce a creed now, and that’s the opposite of moral relativism.