I had the pleasure last week of attending a seminar on the “Threats to Academic Freedom and Free Speech” in Washington DC. It was a lively exchange between professors and lawyers from some key free speech institutions (ACLU, FIRE and ALEC). During the exchange I brought up a point I would like to discuss because it reminds us about the importance of free speech.
My point begins like this. Until last year, when we talked about identity politics we would see that as a phenomenon from the left. But last year we saw individuals on the right play into the identity politics game. Just as progressives were able to influence individuals to vote for their candidates based on the social identity a person had, so too was candidate Trump able to mobilize the votes of whites in the heartland due to their perception of their racial identity. The result of this different type of identity politics was some of the support needed for candidate Trump to become President Trump.
So those on the right have learned to adopt a technique that has worked so well for progressives and thus were able to win political victories. This is to be expected since individuals from one political sector of our society will learn what works for their opponents and soon apply those lessons to maximize their chance for political victories. I have written before about identity politics and the problems it brings to us. I wish our political landscape would move away from the use of social identities to create political accomplishments. But if we are going to have it on the left, then it is inevitable that we will have it on the right as well.
So now we move towards looking at issues of free speech. I am a big advocate of free speech. That should not be surprising since I am an ideological deviant in my field, and ideological deviants have a vested interest in the protection of free speech. As such I am an opponent of efforts to shut down free speech through de-platforming, microaggressions, or differential treatment of speakers. For the most part, on college campuses, these efforts have come from the left in an attempt to silence conservative speakers or opinions. Thus, unfortunately the free speech debate has become quite partisan with those on the left less supportive of free speech than those on the right. Naturally there are notable exceptions to this trend such as the ACLU, which tends to be progressive, but has been fighting for free speech rights.
Those on the right have their own sources of hypocrisy. Outside of the college campus, those on the right are not always the champions of free speech. However, those on the left have done the most damage on college campuses and I believe that it is because they see an advantage in taking away the free speech of non-leftists. For example, if they can silence conservatives with accusations about microaggression, then this can allow them to push their own ideas without any real opposition. Given this potential benefit for progressive causes, it is not an accident that those on the left are less motivated to deal with issues of free speech than those on the right.
But a few years ago it was those on the left who were championing identity politics. After last year we heard complaints from those on the left about whites voting for their racial interest. The dynamics of identity politics has changed in a way to where it no longer just serves those on the left.
Likewise the dynamics of free speech issues can change as well. What would stop conservative students from not de-platforming someone like Van Jones? What would stop them from demanding that their own set of microaggressions are put into place and enforced? What would stop them from creating such a ruckus that the university cancels a progressive speaker or charges an extra fee for security to a progressive group? I do not believe that conservative students would withdraw from such efforts merely due to their ideological commitments. If they saw it politically advantageous to engage in such behavior, then I think they will do just that. The only thing that has stopped them to this point is that they do not yet have enough power on campus to make the claims that such actions are justified.But the day is coming when that will no longer be the case. Conservative students already can make reasonable claims that the campus is not a safe place for them. Data from a survey at University of Colorado shows that conservative students are more likely to feel intimidated and disrespected than their progressive counterparts. Heterodox Academy has also found that conservative students are more afraid to speak up in classes. Combined with other information indicating that conservative professors have a harder time getting hired, it is easy to make the case that conservative students need protection.
And that is basically the argument that is made when seeking to limit the free speech of conservative students. Certain marginalized groups (racial minorities, sexual minorities, women etc.) are seen as needing protection and thus they should be shielded from harmful speech. This rationale is used to justify keeping a speaker from campus or not allowing students to use certain terms that can be defined as hate speech.
So what happens when conservatives make the same demands? Will we see progressive students not able to express themselves or bring the speakers they want on campus with relative ease? Will we see conservative students protesting microaggressions or hate speech launched against them? Will everyone get to lose their free speech privileges?
I fear that this may be coming to a campus near you very soon. When that may occur is uncertain. However, it did not take long for conservatives to learn the value of identity politics and use it to secure the presidency. We should not be surprised if they soon learn how to use the claims to not be subject to hate speech to use that to silence progressive students. And if their parents start calling state legislatures and college presidents, we may soon see the effects of conservatives’ claims for the need of safe spaces.
In case it is not clear, I personally hope that conservative students do not turn to such methods. But then again I did not want to see conservatives use identity politics to elect Trump. I am merely looking at future possibilities and bringing those possibilities to light. If we do not take steps to insure the free speech rights of everyone today, then some who have enjoyed free speech rights up until now may soon find that they lose them.
I hope that my progressive friends understand that when we fight for free speech rights of those they do not like that we are fighting for their free speech rights as well. Americans tend to seek to be fair. If certain groups claim the right to be free from being exposed to troublesome ideas, then soon other groups will as for that same right – and it likely will be granted. I do not have to like the ideas of those who should have free speech on our college campuses. Indeed, free speech is most important for the ideas that are less likely to be currently accepted. But fight for those freedoms we must if we want to preserve those freedoms for ourselves.