From the American heartland to the nation’s elite universities, a new wave of student activism is sweeping across college campuses. Calls for racial and social justice have swept up many of the country’s institutions of higher learning. Alleged racial incidents at Yale and the University of Missouri this year and instances of blatant racism at Oklahoma University last year have set in motion the movement for social justice at a fever pitch. And who could disagree with the stated objectives? The desire to create a more just and balanced environment in our learning institutions is something that we can all rally around. Young college-aged liberals in particular have embraced the movement to create socially hypersensitive utopias on college campuses.
At Mizzou, the movement was successful in forcing the resignation of the university president and became notorious for attempting to deny a journalist access to a public space. Yale students harassed and bullied professors who believe that adults should be able to wear whatever Halloween costumes they want, and Princeton protestors occupied the office of the university president and demanded that President Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from buildings. In all cases, the demand for restrictions to be placed on free speech was a centerpiece of the protests. At Yale, the vehement reaction broke out after a professor very respectfully questioned whether the university should really be setting guidelines for what adult university students should wear for Halloween costumes. The anger was largely directed at the professor and her husband’s disregard for creating a “safe space” on campus where fragile university students are protected from the smallest of slights lest they undergo searing trauma. At Princeton, the students who occupied the university president’s office demanded, amongst a whole host of other measures, “a public conversation…on the true role of freedom of speech and freedom of intellectual thought in a way that does not reinforce anti-Blackness and xenophobia,” as well as a specially designated site at the university for African Americans. Even at SMU, the movement has produced a list of demands for changes to be made to the curriculum and for the percentage of minority students and faculty to be greatly increased.
A major grievance from the social justice movement is against “microaggressions,” which are alleged racial or other types of slights made, whether consciously or subconsciously, against a person from a marginalized group. Depending on the speaker, an otherwise innocuous comment can be considered a “microaggression.” All white Americans must necessarily self-flagellate for the sins of their ancestors, and certain groups of people cannot say certain things just because of their racial background. The movement for social justice on college campuses has much appeal, especially amongst the more liberal members of the student body. This is laughably ironic. Liberalism is about universal rights that all human beings are entitled to, not the low, illiberal tribalism that has gripped the social justice left in America. In this version of “liberalism,” or as Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz have aptly named it, the “regressive left,” rights are determined by group identity. Identity politics are all important, and rights are a zero sum game. Only through the denial of the majority’s freedom of speech and other rights can minorities hope to seek equality. This deadly and corrosive ideology flies in the face of American values and the Enlightenment ideals that have directed our nation toward creating a more perfect union. The scourge of identity politics has failed in its efforts to create a more just society. The social justice movement has succeeded in using guilt to gain “allies,” but at the same time it has alienated many others.
Amongst a host of other issues, one of the tenets of this movement is the desire to defend fragile minority communities against “cultural appropriation.” This is what the two professors at Yale ran afoul of when they questioned the university’s place in setting guidelines for adult Halloween costumes. Cultural appropriation represents the idea that it is inappropriate for people from different groups to integrate or experiment with cultural modes or features with which they did not grow up. Never mind the fact that some level of cultural exchange is inevitable in a pluralistic society. This desire to prevent any sort of cultural exchange amounts to a desire for a kind of cultural apartheid. The absurd principle categorizes people into boxes and places barriers within which they can live. It strives to make us separate but equal, where the accident of birth limits people’s freedoms and assimilation is evil. Depending on the racial or other distinguishing features of a speaker, he or she must self-censor. Even if speakers choose not to censor their speech, their argument, due to the accident of their birth, will be rendered invalid.
I have witnessed the absurdity of this firsthand on the SMU campus at an event called “Community Conversations: A Dialogue About Racial Insensitivity,” in which African American students and others came together to discuss problems affecting the community. Many of the complaints were very true and valid. One of the issues raised was the low level of black enrollment at the university. A Hispanic American student stood up to address the problem, telling those gathered that there just aren’t enough qualified minority students. That is true. Underrepresented minorities, specifically African and Hispanic Americans, are often confined in poorer neighborhoods and trapped in a cycle of poverty due to a history of discriminatory policies over decades. The poverty and the resulting poor schools create a vicious cycle that has made it difficult to churn out high caliber minority students and lift minorities out of the lower classes. This does not mean that Hispanic and African Americans are less capable than others, but it does mean that poverty and inadequate resources have prevented many minorities from achieving their full potential. Instead of recognizing this fact, one of the event organizers dismissed the speaker, saying, “we CAN learn,” insinuating that the speaker had suggested that Black Americans are incapable of the same level of intellectual achievement as others. The speaker’s only crime was that he failed to point out the history of discriminatory policies and stated only the present picture we see today—that the lack of resources means that too many talented minority students fall through the cracks and that there is a dearth of competitive Hispanic and African Americans as a result. But what he said sounded remotely critical, and so his very valid point was considered unacceptable. This kind of hypersensitivity brought us no closer to addressing root problems, but left us complaining about issues that the university cannot control.
The assault on free speech on college campuses, which is driven largely by corrosive identity politics and the authoritarian desire to impose infantilizing restrictions on adults, is illiberal to its core. Free speech and rational discourse are how our America has made substantial progress, not by attempts to limit human freedom and chastise those with controversial opinions. Designating rights based on the accident of birth seeks to recreate the idea of separate but equal, which leaves a lot of room for abuse. And just as separate but equal was not right after the Civil War, it will not be right again. Both liberal and conservative Americans alike must reclaim American values and universal rights. Only when we are able to respect the freedoms of all Americans and engage in rational discourse will we succeed in our goal of creating an ever more perfect union.
This article was written by Fairooz Adams. Click here to see more of Fairooz’s work.