Provocateurs on Campus Distract From Real Free Speech Problems

Provocateurs on Campus Distract From Real Free Speech Problems

This spring, as the last of the college commencements come to a close, let’s recall what these colorful pageants are ostensibly celebrating: the graduates’ completed experience of free inquiry, scientific exploration, reasoned discourse, and challenging instruction.

Yet, on far too many campuses, the occasional invited speaker may provide the only opportunity for students to hear an adult unapologetically and intellectually take on prevailing campus orthodoxy. Given the dearth of viewpoint diversity among faculty and the reluctance of conservative faculty to ruffle the feathers of their colleagues, guest speakers may be the one chance students have to hear an authoritative rebuttal of familiar assumptions or comfortable groupthink.

And students need that exposure, as many of their classmates have become hesitant to speak up. A recent survey reported that 54 percent of students stop themselves from sharing an idea during their college years — and 30 percent of students have “censored themselves” in class — because they feared their ideas would be frowned upon by classmates.

This all leads to a timely question, one that merits a bit of reflection during this summer’s respite from the campus free speech wars: What is the point of free speech on campus? After all, it was never intended to promote the utterance of naughty phrases or merely to shock bourgeois sensibilities. It was meant to protect free inquiry, searching discussions, and challenging instruction.
This purpose has gotten lost amid a muddle of sophomoric provocation, defensive posturing by campus officials, and protests by leftist student mobs seeking to suppress uncomfortable ideas. It has also been undermined by conservative groups and campus Republicans themselves who, frustrated by their status as outcasts, have helped make professional provocateurs the face of the campus free speech debates by inviting controversial speakers whose primary function is to rattle progressives and stick a thumb in the eye of campus administrators. Such speakers have lent credibility to apologists who insist that concerns about free speech are overblown, while distracting from efforts to call out and talk seriously about the left’s campus hegemony.

Provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, talking heads like Anne Coulter, and white nationalist Richard Spencer have sadly become the face of the fight for free speech on college campuses. To be fair — and contrary to popular belief — Spencer was never invited to speak by conservative groups. Still, rather than sparking informed debate, conservative students too often invite caricature, giving the left fodder for sophomoric slogans like “the facts have a liberal bias.

While such claims may be ludicrous, they have gained traction on university campuses and in the mainstream media — places where the Left has enjoyed disturbing success in stifling competing views by labeling them “hateful” or “anti-science.” When conservative students opt to invite provocateurs and entertainers to campus, they play into this charade and blow an opportunity to expose it for the hollow hustle that it is.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves; experience teaches that the campus Left will hurl invective at, and not infrequently try to silence, most any conservative who has the temerity to show up on campus. They’ve shown they will reflexively attack even the likes of Ben Shapiro and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, if that’s who happens to be coming to town. But it’s a whole lot easier to call out such tactics for the thought suppression they are when the speakers can’t readily be bundled into a clown car alongside the noxious and nasty.

Conflating the real problem of campus groupthink with a defense of provocateurs and entertainers distracts from the more prosaic damage that intellectual uniformity does to higher education. Campus groupthink denies students the chance to sharpen their own thinking and challenge comfortable assumptions. It permits students at many prestigious institutions to graduate without being able to understand or engage the views of half of their countrymen. It hinders research and teaching, because even thoughtful and well-meaning scholars can fall prey to confirmation bias, embracing information that reinforces their preexisting views while doubting evidence that points the other way.

As social psychologist Jose Duarte and his colleagues have observed, a lack of ideological diversity 

can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the imbedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives.

Since lines of inquiry, analysis of data, and interpretation of results are inevitably affected by a scholar’s views, values, and experiences, ideologically uniform faculties will tend to produce suspect, tilted scholarship on the most sensitive and value-laden questions, despite their best efforts not to do so.

Clowns and controversy can make for an entertaining spectacle, and are amusingly effective when it comes to discomfiting self-impressed campus leaders. But conservative students shouldn’t take the bait. Instead, they should seek out speakers and guests who can speak unflinchingly and intellectually to the questions of the hour — even amidst the Left’s comfortable campus digs.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sofia Gallo is a research assistant at AEI.

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