Earlier this year, Jonathan Chait, a liberal, caused a stir when he argued that “political correctness,” a “system of left-wing ideological repression” has made a comeback among students and intellectuals after a long lull. Among his cases in point was Omar Mahmoud, a University of Michigan student who was fired from the student newspaper, and whose apartment was vandalized, over a column he wrote mocking campus identity politics. Chait’s article had its champions, but it was also criticized for relying on a few anecdotes to spin a “wild fantasy” about the chilling of speech on campus. Last Tuesday, under the sponsorship of Intelligence Squared, panelists debated the resolution “Liberals are Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus.”
Affirming the resolution were Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and Kirsten Powers, a columnist, Fox News contributor, and author of the forthcoming The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. Opposing the resolution were Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism at the City University of New York, and Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University and co-author of Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities. The debate is worth watching.
Lukianoff and Powers won handily. When polled before the debate, the audience favored the resolution, 31% to 21%. By the end of the debate many of the undecideds, and some of those who had started out in opposition, had come to favor the resolution; the final tally was 59% to 32%.
The opposition was not without powerful arguments, in particular that restrictions on speech on campus have much to do with hyper-cautious administrators, who seek to protect students from the danger of having their views vigorously challenged. But I think that Lukianoff and Powers won because they stuck to an argument that is hard to refute. As no one in the debate denied, college campuses veer left. For example, Mayer acknowledges that his own research shows that 61% of professors identify as left or liberal, dwarfing the number of professors who identify as either middle of the road or conservative. But, as Powers argues, the left today is different than the left of yesteryear: “liberals in the past actually supported free speech . . . . The liberals that we’re talking about today are enacting very hostile policies against free speech.”
As Richard Rorty, who defended political correctness, explained in Achieving Our Country (1998), the post-sixties left moved from economic to cultural issues and, in particular sought to protect “people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status.” This left particularly seeks to change a “mindset” and a “system” that manifest themselves even in “the vocabulary of liberal politics.” The “cultural left,” which gave rise to women’s, ethnic, and gay studies, devotes itself to “the rectification of names,” the way in which oppression is wired even into the way we use language. Today’s students of “microaggression” are this left’s direct descendants.
Is it any wonder, then, that administrators, themselves overwhelmingly left-leaning (as the affirming team asserted and no one denied) tend to clamp down on speech that threatens this project of the cultural left? Is it any wonder, as Lukianoff says, “if you’re going to be censored on the modern college campus for your opinion, chances are you’re going to be censored by the Left”?