Sanctimony, Intimidation and Gratuitous Violence: The New Face of Campus Activism

In a simpler time, America’s college campuses were known to be inviolable bastions of free speech and the robust exchange of ideas. Irrespective of whatever happened to constitute “fashionable opinion” at a given moment, universities relentlessly challenged students to think independently and critically—a proud tradition cultivated through respectful, intellectual debate. Unfortunately on today’s campuses, this is but a distant memory, an almost quaint relic of a bygone era. Gone are free speech crusaders in the mold of Mario Savio and Jack Weinberg who dominated the campus scene throughout the sixties, laying the foundation for an eclectic amalgam of ideas to be thoughtfully discussed and litigated over the next five decades. In their place, we find a bitter and sanctimonious cabal of left-wing agitators whose raison d’être appears to be the stifling of any speech (almost invariably conservative) with which they disagree.

To even the most casual observer, then, it comes as no surprise that the University of California-Berkeley moved earlier this summer to cancel a scheduled appearance by the conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter after local police ascertained intelligence suggesting mass violence might ensue. This most recent cancellation comes on the heels of several similar episodes at the Bay Area institution: who could forget the riots, looting, and arson that took hold in February when alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to address the Berkeley College Republicans? Or the dismissal of conservative David Horowitz earlier this month? Even Coulter herself has been a target in the past, with pies hurled at her and lewd profanities shouted from the audience.

Regardless of the particular event or speaker, however, there is a troubling pattern here—and if left unremedied, it will only continue to fester. The series of events unfailingly follows a familiar course: a conservative campus group invites a public figure somewhere to the right of John Maynard Keynes to address its membership, easily-aggrieved campus activists take it upon themselves to deem this person “unfit” to speak and subsequently threaten anarchical, Robespierre-esque violence. Then, aloof administrators capitulate to the angry mob, to be followed shortly by the issuance of some glib statement assuring that “student safety” may be at risk should the person dare make an appearance.

This approach has become exceedingly commonplace, but in point of fact does nothing to “protect students” or further their interests. On the contrary, it merely stands as a reminder to the anti-speech crowd that all it must to do in order to see its demands met is up the ante and become more savage in its comportment. The objective here is not that all right-wing speech be mindlessly sanctified; indeed, many of Yiannopoulos and others’ ideas are veritably revolting. Rather, it is to uphold a civil-academic order that responds to odious rhetoric not with brute force but with penetrative, cogent ideas. Such disobedience, sadly, is the inevitable by-product of a culture within academia that nurtures faux-outrage, perpetual victimization, and the gross assumption that goals ought not to be pursued through discourse, but through intimidation.

Consider recent efforts on campuses throughout the West to purge historical figures deemed unacceptably racist, sexist, imperialistic, and so on by certain shrill minorities. In the United Kingdom and South Africa, students have threatened to topple statues of philanthropist Cecil Rhodes if universities do not do so themselves with sufficient alacrity.  Here in the United States, lawless subversives have stormed the offices of university deans, occupying private administrative spaces until their stipulations are accommodated (most recently, the erasure of Woodrow Wilson from Princeton). Even at the University of Virginia, which consistently ranks among the most “speech-friendly” institutions in the country, certain indignation-hungry students have ordered school officials to renounce in full the legacy of Thomas Jefferson — the founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence - who, incidentally, also happened to found the school. In light of this month’s tragic, pugnacious attack by white nationalists and their myriad acolytes, it would be heartening to see these activists recalibrate their energies on defeating such truly ignoble malefactors, as opposed to a patriot whose indelible legacy has shone the light of liberty upon millions.

The posthumous defamation of these historical titans is nothing short of tragic, but in a victim culture, anything goes. Students who luxuriate daily in the liberties guaranteed by men like Jefferson cavalierly dismiss any positive aspect of his — or others’ — legacy, so as to manipulate it to fit their desired agenda. As the columnist David Brooks opined recently in the New York Times, many in the “millennial” set have been reared to assume “that Western civilization is a history of oppression.” As they concomitantly drift further and further astray from the principles upon which the West has operated since the Enlightenment, it suddenly becomes permissible to engage in the sorts of thuggery exhibited of late on college campuses. To a contemporary collegian, it would not be an aberration that a violent revolutionary like Karl Marx might be held in higher esteem than, say, John Stuart Mill, the famed promoter of speech and individuality. To this student, then, there is neither expectation nor precedent for free speech — presumably, it is spurned out of hand as some fanciful invention of the white male hegemony.

If today’s students are so easily-offended that they cannot bear to encounter an innocuous effigy on their way to class, concededly I do suppose it follows that an actual, live speaker should immediately be adjudged as persona non grata. For this reason, the recent Coulter maelstrom at Berkeley will surely not be the last of its kind. But those who value intellectualism, scholarly debate, and the free exchange of ideas can no longer afford to sit idly by. If more speakers are barred, if more ideas are quashed, and if entire ideologies continue to be branded off-limits, this country and its democratic traditions will suffer dearly.

As opposed to the occasional schoolmarm lecture about “civility,” perhaps universities like Berkeley could take substantive action — ideally beginning with the immediate expulsion of any student who so much as floats the notion of violence against a speaker. Further, instead of the usual tutorials in “micro-aggressions” and professional victimhood, Berkeley and others might alternatively consider instilling values of thoughtfulness, reasoned dialogue, and gracious disagreement in freshman introductory seminars. Because this deviant conduct has been granted free range for the better part of a decade now, we cannot not expect what is tantamount to a wild west of collegiate hooliganism to be tamed overnight. Rather, the restoration of time-honed values governing speech —both on and off campus— will require the resolute commitment of all parties involved, including, yes, the wayward radicals who sought to deny Ann Coulter her constitutional rights.