The strange thing that hap­pened to Amer­ica

Uni­ver­si­ties failed when de­bate and ar­gu­ment suc­cumbed to pur­suit of ‘safe places’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

Amer­ica got lost on the way to the 21st cen­tury. Many Amer­i­cans lost pride in be­ing Amer­i­can, and no longer cher­ish the rig­ors of the First Amend­ment, which gives pride of place to free­dom of speech. This didn’t hap­pen in one gen­er­a­tion, though the baby boomers, born af­ter the sol­diers came march­ing home in tri­umph in 1945, grew up nursing griev­ance. This led to cru­cial changes in at­ti­tude, and suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions felt em­pow­ered by re­bel­lion.

Per­sonal re­bel­lion is a devel­op­men­tal stage en route to ma­tu­rity. Af­ter World War II, a fault line in the na­tion’s his­tory, gen­er­a­tional change co­in­cided with Amer­ica be­com­ing a world power. Re­bel­lion against daddy co­in­cided with re­bel­lion against Big Daddy.

The per­sonal be­came po­lit­i­cal. Pros­per­ity and priv­i­lege of­fered big­ger and bet­ter stages for op­po­si­tion all across the cul­ture. Per­cep­tions about the best way to bring about change be­came the sub­ject for de­bate. The rebels, who rarely see is­sues in shades of gray, dis­cov­ered the cam­pus as a per­fect en­vi­ron­ment to con­trol the de­bate on the is­sues that af­fect ev­ery­one.

The Berke­ley cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia es­tab­lished a new tone for re­bel­lion in 1964 and 1965 with its “free speech move­ment,” and it quickly spread to other cam­puses as the young, im­ma­ture and im­bued with a self-right­eous view of them­selves and the world, drank deeply of the in­tox­i­cat­ing power of protest. Their anger couldn’t al­ways be con­trolled, or even aimed in a right di­rec­tion, but there was gen­eral re­spect for the idea that it should chan­neled into de­bate, that the rules for free speech should ad­here.

A half-cen­tury on, Berke­ley strug­gles to main­tain that in­tel­lec­tual re­spect for free speech. Con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers in­vited to speak on cam­pus bring out the thugs of An­tifa, who don’t think any­one who dis­agrees with them should have ac­cess to podium or mi­cro­phone. The thugs were joined by Berke­ley Mayor Jesse Ar­reguin, who says he “ab­so­lutely be­lieves in free speech,” and to prove it urges the univer­sity to can­cel “Free Speech Week.”

One ray of hope is that the new chan­cel­lor of the univer­sity, Carol T. Christ (rhymes with “mist”), is no snowflake. She has an un­der­stand­ing of the First Amend­ment and its im­por­tance to univer­sity life. In the wake of the Char­lottesville riot, she makes a firm and un­equiv­o­cal de­fense of free speech to stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff of the univer­sity, rooted in the law.

“Pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions like UC Berke­ley must per­mit speak­ers in­vited in ac­cor­dance with cam­pus poli­cies to speak, with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion in re­gard to point of view,” she told them. “The United States has the strong­est free speech pro­tec­tions of any lib­eral democ­racy; the First Amend­ment pro­tects even speech that most of us would find hate­ful, ab­hor­rent and odi­ous, and the courts have con­sis­tently up­held th­ese pro­tec­tions.”

She un­der­stands the value of speech that goes beyond le­gal pro­tec­tion, fun­da­men­tal “both to our democ­racy and to our mis­sion as a univer­sity. ” The proper re­sponse to hate speech is more speech, not by shut­ting down speech. She doesn’t name the snowflakes, but tells them they could ben­e­fit by cul­ti­vat­ing cor­rec­tive ar­gu­ments and de­vel­op­ing an in­ner re­silience, “which is the surest form of safe space.”

The cam­pus, his­tor­i­cally, pro­vides the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for de­bate. In the 1960s the Viet­nam War was the gal­va­niz­ing is­sue. Then the civil rights and women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ments forced sig­nif­i­cant changes and the cam­pus be­came a mi­cro­cosm for how to make the changes work. But as in many suc­cess­ful re­bel­lions, those who in­her­ited the good didn’t al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate how the good was brought about. On the cam­pus “Know thy­self,” by which the Greeks meant self-ex­am­i­na­tion in the broad­est philo­soph­i­cal sense was re­crafted to “know thy iden­tity” through a nar­row so­cial lens.

Lib­er­a­tion of the sexes gave in­creased au­ton­omy to young men and women, but many col­leges aban­doned pro­tec­tive rules and reg­u­la­tions, and this in­evitably made inse­cure stu­dents afraid of their in­de­pen­dence and un­will­ing to face up to the chal­lenges, whether in lit­er­a­ture or so­cial re­la­tion­ships, that are cru­cial to gain­ing an ed­u­ca­tion and grow­ing up. They de­manded “trig­ger warn­ings” for ex­po­sure to ideas that chal­lenge and in­vite in­tel­lec­tual con­fronta­tion.

Life in the academy changed, and changed ut­terly. Stu­dents who were taught to cher­ish open minds and op­por­tu­ni­ties to chal­lenge ideas through de­bate, be­gan to seek se­cu­rity be­hind moral preen­ing and po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. Truth was sac­ri­ficed on the al­tar of mere feel­ing, both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal. Self-right­eous­ness re­placed self-ex­am­i­na­tion.

Carol Christ cred­its John Stu­art Mill’s es­say “On Lib­erty” as the pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment for free­dom of speech, for re­as­sur­ance that truth has such power that it will ul­ti­mately pre­vail. Mill’s ar­gu­ment car­ries another truth to the rebels: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows lit­tle of that.” Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.


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