By Shannon Gilreath
“What do you call a vegetarian at a dinner party?” my smiling grandmother once asked me. “What?” I replied. “A nuisance!” was the punch line. For grandmother, her opinions formed in an era where people felt less entitled to have their own way always, the idea that one would accept an invitation but send along a little note telling the hostess what she could and could not serve was unthinkable. I’ve often thought how much better off students might be if grandmother could teach a course in today’s university. It might be called: “Reality: How to Get Along in It.”
The products of the American Ph.D. industry are, however, teaching students something quite different. Too many students believe they can show up to a university and exercise control over what thoughts and opinions can be shared, what subjects can be taught, and, indeed, who is fit to teach. Thanks to social media, recent incidents at the University of California’s Berkeley campus and at Evergreen State College have been highly publicized. At Berkeley, some students and faculty objected to a student-sponsored lecture by right-wing writer Ann Coulter. Far from content with simply voicing their discontent or engaging Coulter with counter-speech, some students took a decidedly anti-intellectual approach: They rioted. The university administration had a duty to protect Coulter and the students who invited her from the heckler’s veto; instead, they capitulated.
At Evergreen State, things are even worse. Some students of color and their allies decided it would be a good idea if all “white” people (unlike with gender, no one on the left seems to ask about self-identification when it comes to race) were banished from campus for a day in order to create the ultimate “safe space.” In a political environment in which everything not considered pristinely liberal is labeled “fascist,” I’ve yet to see one liberal interrogate the real fascist implications of a policy of deporting an entire group of people because of their shared racial features. But I digress. My point here is about commitment to freedom of speech. When Evergreen professor Bret Weinstein wrote to object to the absurdity of deporting all white people from a campus where they are supposed to be teaching and learning, all hell broke loose. Professor Weinstein was harassed online and in-person. He and other white colleagues were subjected to hysterical gangs of students shouting about slavery and racial injuries. Apparently, to the Evergreen mob, every white person looks and thinks like Jefferson Davis. His classroom was invaded and disrupted by students asserting that the professor had no right to be there. Things deteriorated even more. Roving gangs of students armed with baseball bats intended to enforce the “safe space” advocated by Evergreen’s “activists” by searching parked cars for lingering whites. Neither counter-speech nor demonstration would be tolerated. It seems that the administration surrendered, effectively telling faculty to stand down and accede to mob demands. In my view, this is an unconscionable dereliction of the academic enterprise.
The John Locke Foundation recently produced a more fulsome report on anti-intellectual conduct on university campuses. Among those incidents discussed was one that involved me directly. In January, I wrote an article in the Washington Blade in which I presented a feminist and gay rights-based case for controls of immigration from Islamic countries. Naturally, as Islam is the liberal cause célèbre, despite it being an antithesis of progressive values, I expected particular interest and particular dissent from liberals who considered me a traitor. I got it.
Some students and faculty organized a protest or “speak out” on campus against the article. I thought that was entirely appropriate. When you disagree with a political viewpoint, you have every right to say so, hopefully with intelligent explanation, in an appropriate forum. Numerous articles and comments, some by faculty and staff, were published in the campus newspaper calling me variations of racist. I was not asked to comment. Again, I thought counter-speech was a reasonable response, even if I disagreed with some of the sillier pieces by faculty members who couldn’t tell the difference between race and religion. I’m used to irrational thinking in the academy, and it can be tolerated when one appreciates that counter-speech is crucial for democracy.
But this wasn’t enough for some dissenters on campus. At least two petitions were circulated demanding that I apologize and be fired. Even more incredibly, some students and faculty determined that reading something in a newspaper with which they disagree amounted to a hostile environment. I can only imagine the discomfort of the poor administrator who had to disabuse them of that one. At every turn, cognitive dissonance was apparent. One petition demanding I be fired complained that I defied the university’s mission of being tolerant of all points of view. Occasionally the snowflakes are good for a laugh. Their intent, however, was no laughing matter. The intent to silence a political view deemed disagreeable or not politically correct or whatever the categorization may be is antithetical to freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas that lies at the heart of the university’s mission. This problem has reached a crisis point.
Students often do not know what they don’t know, and they often don’t appreciate what they do know until much later. Faculty, on the other hand, ought to know better. A Georgetown University professor recently bragged in the Washington Post about confronting white supremacist Richard Spencer at a public gym. I’m sure she felt relatively safe doing so in an environment with plenty of people around. But something fundamental here is cracked. The professor’s admitted purpose was to harass Spencer to the point of making him so uncomfortable that he’d leave. Liberals who cheered this heroine of the face-to-face finger point are the same people to muster a positive lather of indignation when Spencer or his followers retaliate against her or others who oppose them. “It’s online bullying!” they cry. Do liberals really believe that harassment in person is superior to harassment online? The avowed British fascist Diana Mosley once said, “Of course we argued with communists at rallies and such, but if one met them at dinner one didn’t make a scene.” Well, if a fascist has a better grip on the fundamentals of civil political debate than you do, you may want to do some self-reflection.
Since liberal professors are touting this view in public, it’s no wonder it is the emerging ethos on too many university campuses, where even avowedly-progressive professors are targeted by students and colleagues for unorthodox politics. In my case, students told me that a couple professors were actively recruiting students to be outraged. These colleagues wanted my heresy — something they pronounced “Islamophobic,” in keeping with the new strategy of labeling any dissent “phobic” or discriminatory — silenced, and they enlisted students in hope of accomplishing this silence. Imagine it. Silence, not debate, was the goal. These are the people who should know better; yet their actions betrayed only the most superficial commitment to academic freedom.
Fortunately, I’ve never much cared if people dislike me. I have always believed a certain amount of indifference to public opinion is indispensable for any real public intellectual. In any event, I have tenure. In my circumstances, the antics of the “thought police” would have been sublimely amusing had they not reflected a serious problem in the academy at large, where liberal professors — and it must be said that most all professors are liberal, since you generally can’t get hired otherwise — attack other liberal professors for expressing unpopular ideas to the extent of trying to have them disciplined or fired. This is especially worrisome in the new model in which increasing numbers of teaching faculty are hired as contract employees only, without the fulsome protections tenure provides for the expression of dissenting views. And what of graduate assistants and faculty prospects in an increasingly competitive market? Are they to be passed over because they have, somewhere in their work, transgressed a phobia du jour? These are serious questions lying at the heart of faculty governance and retention.
Today, when “fascist” is an epithet hurled at virtually anyone not subscribing to a prescribed left platform, it is important to remember that it was not the Nazis who undertook the first book burnings in the last days of Weimar, but rather university students. At this critical juncture when our country is more politically polarized than ever, it is crucial that the American university rises above the fray. Without a critical number of informed, educated citizens, democracy cannot function. In this way, the university committed to free thought and debate is a necessary component in our future. Now more than ever it is imperative that faculty, administrators, and students reaffirm a commitment to the free exchange of ideas. In fact, real education cannot happen without this commitment unless this commitment is lived in the classroom and on campus, even — perhaps most especially — when we are made uncomfortable by its results. Freedom of thought cannot be subservient to academic fads or political taboos — and certainly not to bruised egos or a closed mind in the employ of political correctness. Another of grandmother’s lessons is salient: “If you think you know it all, you probably don’t.”
Shannon Gilreath is Professor of Law and Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He is a nationally recognized expert on constitutional law and is the author of several books, including Sexual Politics: The Gay Person in America Today and The End of Straight Supremacy: Realizing Gay Liberation (Cambridge University Press). He is widely published by and cited in the popular press.