Student activism on university campuses during the 1960s contributed to some of the most profound changes in American Civil society in the twentieth century, reflecting the frustrations of the youth with the status quo and a desire to rebel against it. That spirit embodied various socio-political movements seeking to challenge traditional gender roles, the war in Vietnam, and racial discrimination, marking an exceptional period of civic engagement and disobedience in American politics.
This coming of age political awakening is best exemplified in the Freedom of Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California (UC) at Berkley in 1964, where student activists, inspired by the Anti-War and Civil Rights Movement, demanded the university lift restrictions on student participation in political activities on-campus. Students saw this policy as an infringement on their freedom of speech and staged massive demonstrations in opposition to the ban, culminating in the largest mass arrest in California history. Under intense pressure, the university eventually gave in to student demands and overturned campus policy prohibiting political advocacy in a landmark victory over the limitations of free speech.
The FSM sought to free students from university intrusion into their personal lives and assert their right to speak freely, rejecting the notion that the university be a “safe space” void of political debate and affiliation. Fifty years later, freedom of speech on campus is again under duress, this time not by campus administrators, but by the students themselves. Today, students now seek to limit freedom of speech instead of promote it.
Recent protests at UC Berkley over the invitation of Conservative speakers Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopolous, and the university’s decision to cancel their events have drawn both sharp criticism and praise from both sides of the political spectrum pushing freedom of speech back to the forefront of the national debate. Protesters assert the university should not support individuals who promote “hate speech”, while supporters argue their right to free speech is being trammeled simply by having a different point of view. This age old philosophical clash between conservatives and liberals is no longer treated as differences among friends, but an ideological war between bitter enemies. Debate has been replaced with slander aimed at attacking credibility rather than the argument, and honest dialogue has given way to dogmatism, preconceptions and suspicion.
The ideological conflict has begun to alienate even those who share similar political leanings, by ostrasizing anyone who objects to the more extreme positions held by the group, regardless of how uncompromising it is. For example, earlier this year Evergreen College, a liberal arts school in Washington State, descended into chaos after student protesters shut down school campus, and effectively held the president of the university hostage over accusations of systemic racism. The catalyst stems from the college’s “Day of Absence,” a tradition where students of color would leave campus to demonstrate what school would be like without them. This year, organizers suggested that this tradition happen in the reverse, requesting that white students and faculty leave campus while nonwhites stayed. In an email sent to faculty, Professor Bret Weinstein, who is white, challenged this suggestion, stating that he supported anyone voluntarily leaving campus, but rejected any demands that forced people to do so. He was met with student protestors who interrupted his lecture, accused him of racism and prevented him from continuing his class, eventually forcing him to flee from campus amidst threats of violence.
Psychology Professor John Haidt of the Heterodox Academy attributes this new phenomenon partly to political polarization on the national level, but mainly to the dearth of intellectual diversity on college campuses, which over the past 30 years has become increasingly more one-sided. He notes that liberal professors overall outnumber conservatives 17:1, and even more for disciplines in the social sciences, leading to considerable bias in academia. The imbalance is not necessarily seen as a bad thing, but the lack of political diversity across all departments removes any challenge that normally would exist as a check-and-balance to ideas promulgated in the classroom. As a consequence, students may not be exposed to other perspectives that differ from their own, leading to ideological entrenchment and reactionary outbursts when they finally do. Haidt believes this is why we are seeing a rise in campus turmoil, stating:
What’s happening on campus is clearly linked to what’s happening nationally, but at least nationally there are two sides and on campus there is often only one side, and so you can get much more extreme ideas. For example, one that I’m hearing a lot just in the last year is that words are violence, the idea that speech that is offensive to me and my group is actual violence, not metaphorically, and this is an extremely dangerous idea because it’s not all hurtful speech that’s violence, it’s just your speech that’s violence, the speech on my side can be as hateful as we want, but we are entitled to it because we’re just defending ourselves. This idea is implicated in the rise of actual physical violence on college campuses.
Haidt predicts this current trend will continue as college’s wrestle with how to strike a balance between defending the right to free speech and placating student outrage over views they find “offensive”.
The rise of groups like the Alt-Right, supporters of far-right ideologies, and Antifa, supporters of far-left ideologies, demonstrate the dramatic extent to which polarization has deepened in our society. The breakdown in dialogue and curtailment of speech, either voluntarily or coerced, has emboldened extremist elements on both ends, forcing those in the middle to gravitate towards the fringe instead of the other way around. This political tribalism appears to worsen when moderate voices are drowned out by the louder, more dogmatic ones creating further division in perpetuum mobile.
Jordan Peterson, psychology professor at the University of Toronto, who came under fire for his opposition to compelled speech outlined in Canada’s Bill C-16 mandating proper gender pronoun use, had this to say about free speech:
You have to let people talk. They don’t even know what they think until they talk. You think you think and then you talk, it’s like, no you don’t. Most people can’t think at all, and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense, it’s very very difficult to learn to think, because to think you have to hold an argument between two opposing positions in your own head, you have to delineate both positions and you have to do that alone, but to expect anybody other than an unbelievably well trained mind to even step into that territory is naïve beyond belief. Almost everybody thinks by talking. They don’t even know what they think until they speak and so often if you let people speak they’ll become aware of some internal contradictions or maybe they shock themselves, that happens a lot, it’s like “oh I can’t believe I said that” and they reveal them self to them self. That right there is often enough to change them, but even if it isn’t, let’s say they are particularly intransigent, you want that out in the air, so that people can hear it. You want to drive the people who hate underground? We know what happens psychologically when you do that. It’s a very bad idea. Anything you drive underground thrives, it thrives, and it partly thrives because it’s not even allowed to express itself, and then it festers and turns into hatred that far exceeds the original. And the idea that you make society safe by not letting horrible people say terrible things is not a good proposition. You want those people out in the open where they can say what they have to say. First of all, so they can see what they are like, and second of all, they can see how people respond, because you don’t even know what you should think, in some sense, until you watch how people respond. Free speech is not a value, like mercy or justice: it’s the fundamental problem-solving mechanism of humanity.
Peterson argues that the process by which people think is not fully formulated until it is articulated in speech. The very act of voicing an opinion can often change after it is expressed, because it becomes a tangible idea subject to scrutiny even by the person making the original claim. In this way, the ability to speak freely is more constructive then simply shutting it down, because you allow people the freedom to think and modify their position voluntarily. Therefore, we should allow people to articulate their thoughts, right or wrong, and initiate a conversation where those ideas can be debated and negotiated.
The students of the free speech movement had it right, at least conceptually; now we must decide if we are willing to uphold their legacy, in spite of our differences, otherwise we risk fracturing the very system that allows us to resolve them in the first place.