College Students vs. Free Speech

Protesters during a Patriots Day Free Speech Rally in Berkeley, Calif. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)
A new survey shows the results of our solipsistic culture.

The First Amendment is in serious trouble.

According to a new poll from Brookings Institution, nearly one in five college students support the use of violence against speakers who say “offensive and hurtful things”; more than half agree that shouting down such speakers is appropriate. That isn’t a shock considering what students are taught on college campuses: that group identity and politics are inextricably intertwined, and that an attack on politics means an attack on identity. But the penetration of that message has obviously reached catastrophic levels — and bears serious ramifications for the country far beyond college campuses.

What the hell happened? A loss of purpose and meaning.

Two generations ago, Americans were convinced that they could achieve whatever they had the skill and will to achieve. Today, Americans are convinced that they can be whomever they want to be.

There is a serious difference. The first statement presupposes a free society in which we take responsibility for our actions; it presupposes that others aren’t actively seeking to impede our progress. The only barrier to success is our own inability to achieve success, not a malevolent universe out to thwart us.  

But today’s Americans have abandoned that image of America. Instead, they’ve substituted a vicious America, a Howard Zinn caricature in which hordes of evil bigots stand between individuals and success. We are supposedly a society plagued with the terrifying and unalterable specters of institutional racism and sexism, of bigotry and brutality. None of this is curable.

And so we have been taught to find meaning within. True freedom doesn’t exist in the outside world, with its soft, unspeakable tyrannies. True freedom exists only in our own self-definition, our subjective sense of ourselves. Solipsism becomes an animating motive.

The institutions of our society have altered to humor this perverse perspective. Even the most communally oriented institutions in American life moved toward focus on self-definition as key to life satisfaction. In 2001, for example, the Army altered their slogan to “Army of One” after two decades with the iconic “Be All You Can Be.” At the time, the Army cited research showing that “young people view[ed] military life as dehumanizing.” The Secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera, explained, “you’ve got to let them know that even though it is about selfless service, they are still individuals.”

The problem was far worse on college campuses, of course. There, students were taught that their self-definition was crucial to their future success and happiness. College was no longer a place for training for a job or even for life; it became a place to “find yourself,” to “explore your horizons.” That rationale justified a massive increase in college enrollment, but it also reinforced the belief among administrators and college students than any inhibitors to that goal — such as reality — were too threatening to be allowed. “Safe spaces” had to be built. “Microaggressions” that might threaten self-definition had to be fought.

It’s not enough merely for same-sex couples to be satisfied with their lives; religious bakers must be forced to cater their weddings.

This move on college campuses was part and parcel of a broader societal problem in politics: In a pluralistic democracy, we don’t merely develop our own existences and satisfy ourselves in such self-definition. All too often, we demand that others accede to those self-definitions. And we conflate our politics with our self-definition. The world must bend to our view of ourselves. It’s not enough merely for same-sex couples to be satisfied with their lives; religious bakers must be forced to cater their weddings. It’s not enough for transgendered people to think of themselves as members of the opposite sex; everyone else must use the pronoun they decide upon. It’s not enough for impoverished people to think themselves deserving of something better; those who oppose redistributionism must agree to their program, or threaten their identities.

The result of all of this: We become atomized, while at the same time demanding that everyone else bow to our will. We become our own suns around which the planets – everyone else — must revolve. And if others step out of line, they must be destroyed for our own self-preservation. Self-defense moves from the physical realm to the realm of identity.

And so politics dies, on campus and elsewhere. Until young Americans are taught that the world owes them no honor for their own subjective self-definition, they will continue to lash out at others. The Golden Rule, the categorical imperative — all of these moral notions will fall by the wayside. In their place, the idol of self will rule all, until nothing of our society is left but atomized individuals, self-righteously seeking to destroy everyone who gets in their way.


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