Perhaps the most eloquent explanation of free speech is the famous line attributed to the enlightenment thinker Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Roll over in your grave Voltaire, and tell Jefferson the news: free speech is dying in this supposedly enlightened future of ours.
Each month brings increasingly preposterous news about some group of college students forcing a speaker from campus in the name of diversity, or inclusion, or multiculturalism, or some other liberal notion that they’re proving they either don’t understand or don’t honestly value.
Earlier this month Williams College cancelled a speech by conservative author Suzanne Venker after students became absolutely unhinged and flooded the sponsoring group’s Facebook page.
“When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side,’” read one particularly tedious comment, “You are not only causing actual mental, social, psychological and physical harm to students, but you are also — paying — for the continued dispersal of violent ideologies that kill our black and brown (trans) femme sisters … you are dipping your hands in their blood.”
Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, the cancelled speech was part of a campus series titled “Uncomfortable Learning.”
With all the fuss, one would think these students are protesting visits by brutal dictators or holocaust deniers. Not exactly. Actually, many recently banned speakers shared something in common with Venker — they’re women. Due to strident prattling from the chronically aggrieved, Rutgers University disinvited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from a commencement ceremony, Brandeis University canceled plans to honor women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Georgetown University’s campus was decorated with panic-stricken appeals to cancel a talk by feminist writer Christina Hoff Sommers.
I suppose that liberal women – and perhaps men pretending to be women – are the only women allowed to speak on college campuses these days.
So how did we arrive at this sad state of affairs? Simple: the inmates are running the asylum.
Administrators – either bullied into submission or in tacit agreement – are allowing a few very loud students to determine what’s fit for everyone else to hear. This runs counter to the very definition of a liberal arts education and attacks the basic point of an education at all, which is to learn something new and form a mind capable of critical thinking, not insulated offense-taking.
Administrators aren’t protecting their students from controversial speakers as much as they’re denying them opportunities to expand their minds.
“Unless you have freedom of discussion over a whole society, you’ll soon cease to have any new ideas,” Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said. “Don’t you find that new ideas develop when you can talk about them to other people? If you can’t discuss them freely – because there is a correct view – then you soon cease to have new ideas.”
It’s not only the fault of inexperienced and immature students. The creation of “free speech zones” on college campuses by administrators can also be blamed. These ridiculous bubbles foster the idea that some information isn’t fit to be seen or heard in the normal course of a student’s day. So the offending speech is quarantined, safely away from anyone it might offend, or educate.
When colleges ban speech, should we be surprised when students do the same?
What’s even sadder is that these students seem unaware of how exceedingly rare and precious freedom of speech is, even in the West. Best-selling author Neil Gaiman expressed this last year when accepting an award for battling censorship. He spoke about his early years writing under Great Britain’s restrictive publication laws, and then coming to the United States and discovering something wonderful.
“Instead, you had this magical, wonderful, pristine, glorious, glittering thing called the First Amendment,” Gaiman said. “You actually had the right to freedom of speech, the right to write down what you thought, to utter it, to comment, and write, and talk about the opinions of other people, and I thought this was magic.”
It’s sad: more Americans are eagerly trading away that magic for a pseudointellectual sleight of hand that promises diversity of thought, but only delivers a cheap illusion of enlightenment that’s actually polished ignorance.
(First published on AL.com)