The strange thing that happened to America
Universities failed when debate and argument succumbed to pursuit of ‘safe places’
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.