Politics & Policy

An Army of Straw Men Keeps Campus Intolerance Alive

(Photo Illustration: NRO; images; Dreamstime)
Progressives drive religious conservatives off campus — all in the name of fighting ‘extremism.’

If there is one constant in the battles over free speech on campus, it’s this: Apologists for intolerance can rarely justify censorship without making stuff up. Confronted with the difficulty of justifying the actual facts of actual disruptions (and sometimes violence), they resort to defending the academy from enemies it doesn’t have, upholding standards that aren’t under attack, and creating new standards they have no intention of using to benefit anyone but their friends.

I witnessed this countless times during my legal work defending the free-association rights of Christian college students. More than 100 universities in the United States have either thrown Christian groups off campus or attempted to toss groups from campus on the grounds that it is impermissible “discrimination” for Christian groups to reserve leadership positions for Christians. But rather than justify the actual facts of the actual case in front of them, campus officials would assert that if they don’t uphold the campus nondiscrimination policy, then the university couldn’t defend its students against . . . the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, at Vanderbilt University, administrators directly compared Christian students seeking Christian leadership to segregationists from the Jim Crow South.

Yes, in the name of protecting students from hordes of sheet-clad night riders, the university was ejecting from campus student groups known mainly for playing lots of guitar, volunteering disproportionately at urban homeless shelters, and avoiding the binge-drinking hookup culture that was and is causing its own set of campus problems.

This misdirection was especially pronounced in the aftermath of the Middlebury College affair, in which gangs of students and “outsiders” disrupted Charles Murray’s speech, chased him out to his car, physically attacked him, gave a Middlebury professor a concussion as she tried to defend him, and then tried to block Murray’s car as he left.

But to read some commentators, one would think the protesters’ main problem was that they gave “intolerance” a bad name. Writing “in praise of intolerance” at Slate, author and James Madison University professor Alan Levinovitz, argues that “the subsequent violent protests were wrong not because they were intolerant, but because they were an ineffective and immoral form of intolerance, especially in a civic space dedicated to reason and evidence.”

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And what are the “effective” and “moral” forms of intolerance? Well, here come the straw men. He speaks of creationists and anti-vaxxers — two groups that are most definitely not trying to gain access to campus biology departments — and then moves on to a direct and misguided attack on religious conservatism, condemning (of all people) C. S. Lewis for advocating that “all economists and statesmen should be Christian” and rank-and-file Christians who believe that God wants men to serve as the head of the household.

But here’s the problem — Levinovitz doesn’t point to a single example where those kinds of Christian beliefs are at issue in any modern campus controversy. Even Christian professors who believe in “male headship” (a misunderstood belief that has exactly no relevance to campus politics) don’t import that belief into their English or chemistry or mathematics lectures. One gets the feeling that to weed out or block alleged “extremism” that isn’t a problem on campus, defenders of the status quo are happy limiting mainstream conservatives, especially mainstream religious conservatives.

Indeed, some writers are so entirely within their own ideological bubbles, it seems that they actually believe that the choice is a binary between the progressive monoculture and an extremist dystopia. Writing at The Ringer, a new and already-influential sports and pop-culture website, staff writer Kate Knibbs claims to have figured out what “ideological diversity” really means:

The phrase “ideological diversity” is a Trojan horse designed to help bring disparaged thought onto campuses, to the media, and into vogue. It is code for granting fringe right-wing thought more credence in communities that typically reject it, and nothing more.

This sentiment would be laughable if it weren’t so common. There’s reasonable, responsible progressivism — and then there is the howling mob of extremists. But again, where is the serious effort at grappling with genuine censorship or with the plight of the actual people campus that progressives are trying to toss from campus?

There’s reasonable, responsible progressivism — and then there is the howling mob of extremists.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education maintains an active and expanding list of all known attempts to disinvite speakers from college campuses. Read it carefully. Yes, there are a few alt-right extremists on the list (there’s a heavy concentration of recent attempts to block Milo Yiannopolous from speaking), but the overwhelming majority of the disinvited are not only thoroughly mainstream, many of them are even on the mainstream Left. Is Madeline Albright too triggering for today’s students? How about Janet Napolitano?

Indeed, the very length and breadth of the list reveals the underlying intellectual bankruptcy of real-world attempts at virtuous intolerance. There is no limiting principle other than the subjective desires and (more importantly) the political power of the people making the demands. At the end of the day, it’s not about justice or standards or tolerance at all, it’s about who runs the place.

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This weekend, I watched a fascinating twelve-minute documentary on the 2015 free-speech crisis at Yale. You’ll remember it as the controversy in which students melted down because a professor had the audacity to write a polite e-mail declaring that adult students should have the liberty to choose their own Halloween costumes based on their own moral judgments. The documentary features students and even administrators using an interesting word to describe their university. They called it a “home.”

But whose home is it? It’s becoming increasingly clear that the university is the place the Left calls home. And it’s not just the university. Progressive students can now leave one home in academia and immediately enter a new home in progressive corporate America. Conservatives (to the extent they exist) are the invited guests, expected to live by the host’s rules. Break those rules, and you’ll be asked to leave. And they’ll justify your eviction — no matter how kind, how intelligent, or how deferential you are — as a sad necessity. We can’t have those Christians on campus. The Klan might be next.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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