WASHINGTON, May 18, 2014 – Condoleezza Rice’s planned commencement speech at Rutgers University prompted protests by students and faculty outraged by her involvement with Bush Administration policy in Iraq. Rather than turn the commencement into a circus focused on her, Rice gracefully bowed out.
Christine Lagarde, the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund, likewise gracefully bowed out after her invitation to address graduates at Smith College resulted in protests. She said that she wished “to preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day.” Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor at UC Berkeley, withdrew from commencement at Haverford College after students there protested his involvement with stopping student protests at Berkeley in 2011.
Less gracefully, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali feminist, was banned from addressing students at Brandeis. The Brandeis community found that her “record of anti-Islam statements” – she once called Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” – violated their “core values.” A survivor of misogynistic Islamic repression of women, Ali might have been more warmly received if she had managed to blame her repression on Roman Catholicism. A representative of Boko Haram might make a better commencement speaker for Brandeis; the Islamic kidnappers of 300 Nigerian girls might better mirror the school’s core values.
On a more positive note, Dustin Lance Black, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, was invited to address students at Pasadena City College’s commencement, disinvited after nude pictures of him and an ex-boyfriend hit the internet, and re-invited after the replacement speaker was forced to withdraw for homophobic comments.
The annual college-commencement silly season is upon us.
Perhaps that’s too glib. The simple view of these events is that they are driven by campus political correctness run amok. Political correctness on college campuses is indeed a problem, but that’s not the fault of the students. College kids and their enthusiasms are easy to mock, but that’s not fair or helpful. The problem here isn’t that kids are prone to groupthink and moral certainty, but that colleges have failed so badly to open their minds, and that administrations are so weak to defend the mission of the university.
The term “politically correct” arose in Communist Party circles, when Party ideologues would have the “correct” answer to any political question. The term was appropriated by liberals, then by conservatives to denounce liberal “identity politics.” Conservatives identify “political correctness” as the suppression of ideas and speech offensive to members of protected classes: women, gays, and racial minorities.
Let’s call it what it is: the suppression of thought.
It is unlikely that Hirsi Ali would ever take a position offensive to feminists or gays – that she could ever be politically incorrect with regard to traditional protected groups – but as a female victim of Islamic repression, she’s offended a group that can’t distinguish Muslims from Islam, and so her ideas should be suppressed.
University administrations and students have the right to invite and disinvite anyone to speak on campus for any reason. No one has a right to a speaking platform, whether at a college or a newspaper. The issue in these examples isn’t that academic communities are selective about whom to invite, though, but that they move actively to prevent some ideas from being presented on campus.
Universities are supposed to be places where students can be exposed to a variety of points of view, a marketplace of ideas where students learn to think critically and then test the ideas they’ve heard to see whether they have any value. These recent speaking fiascos show that universities have failed at their primary task: They haven’t opened minds, but closed them.
The desire for ideological purity is a lot like religious fundamentalism; it doesn’t come from strength, but from fear that you might be wrong. It comes from fear that others will reject your ideas and make fun of them. It comes from a complete lack of confidence in your own ideas and your ability to defend them.
Colleges should be teaching kids to present and defend their ideas with confidence. Instead of teaching them to defeat noxious ideas with better logic and with better ideas, colleges have taught them simply to shout down competing ideas. Far from being hotbeds of subversive new ideas, universities have become hotbeds of stifling public conformity.
It’s unfortunate that college students and their profs can’t handle opposing points of view. If they can’t handle a Rice, Birgeneau or Ali, they should just ask people without opinions and without history to speak to them. Get Snookie as your commencement speaker if you want to avoid offense; as far as we can tell, Snookie has no ideas, and has done nothing more offensive than vomit on her friends’ shoes. Rather than articulate a thoughtful response to those we find offensive, it is much easier just to shout them down.
Political correctness is bad enough in other walks of life, but campuses aren’t supposed to be like the Internet, where you can just go to sites that support your biases and create your own niche news feed that only tells you what you want to hear. Your beliefs and biases should take a beating on campus, not be coddled and protected.
If a campus group invites a speaker that other students find offensive, those who take offense should stay away, or hold their own event, or publicly advertise their distaste; they shouldn’t have the right to veto the selection.
In a similar vein, a California judge ruled that schools could ban American flags and symbols on Cinco de Mayo in order to avoid offending Hispanic students. Supporters of that decision expressed fear of violence – not from students who sport American flags, but from those who are offended.
The threat of violence should never suffice as a veto. Neither should the fear of offense. Life is full of offense, and full of people who disagree with you. What better place to learn to deal with that fact than in school?
After denying the platform to the likes of Ann Coulter and Condi Rice, university communities have moved on to deny it to people on the left who are insufficiently pure – feminists like Ali, or bona fide liberals like Birgeneau. Political correctness on campus hasn’t gone too far now that it’s turned on the liberal left; it had gone too far before it didn’t allow conservatives, communists and other unsavories to speak. Its very existence is a step too far.