In recent years, right-wing student groups and publications have portrayed themselves as the sole bastions of free speech against barbarous hordes of social justice warriors. It is undeniable that there exists a dearth of meaningless discourse on liberal campuses. Yet the right-wing cause of free speech has been dangerous and hypocritical; conservative students have championed the right to polemicize demagogically and thoughtlessly rather than to engage in impactful discussion. Most troublingly, the campus Right across America has enabled and legitimized a terrifying alt-right in their impulsive and self-righteous pursuit of free speech. It is high time for the Left to recapture the cause of free speech.
It is first important to recognize that right-wing students have identified genuine freedom of speech issues on campuses. As the Sphere’s joint statement with The Stanford Review argued, our generation’s overriding obsession with politics of identity has stifled discussion through misconstruing disagreement ‘as a direct affront on the person ad their identity… Debate and disagreement ought to be recognized as crucial facets of the university experience, rather than forms of violence.’ The homogeneous politics on campuses such as Stanford harms the intellectual experience of students, liberal, left-wing and conservative alike. The Right deserves some praise for skilfully highlighting these issues.
The Right’s subsequent efforts to promote free speech, however, have been counter-productive at best, fascist-enabling at worst. The favoured tactic of conservative groups has been to invite controversial speakers to counter ideological homogeneity. At first glance, this appears ideal. And yet, instead of bringing thoughtful, insightful, and intellectual figures, the free speech warrior Right has too frequently invited thoughtless, anti-intellectual bullies and provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer. These figures are designed not to spark interesting discussion but instead solely to ‘trigger’ liberal students. The various events have been little more than free speech show trials, lacking any intellectual depth or substance. We must look no further than the recent Robert Spencer fracas at Stanford; a figure who doxxed several students online is entirely unfit to spark well-mannered debate. Free speech warriors have championed the right to spout nonsensical bile instead of promoting the crucial cause of thoughtful discussion and wide-ranging discourse.
A pathetic charade has thus repeated itself many times across American universities in the past few years; self-righteous right-wing students invite a controversial speaker to fire-up discourse only for self-righteous liberal students to shut down the event. This is a fruitless and damaging cycle.
And there has been only victor: the alt-right. Through inviting these provocateurs, conservative students have played a measurable role in enabling a dangerous, anti-intellectual, reactionary, far right wing. So much was recognized recently by a former Stanford Review writer. A speaking gig at an elite university such as Stanford or Berkeley gives the warped project of the alt-right a much needed cloak of intellectual respectability, not to mention national media attention.
More than this, the most significant repercussions of the free speech show-trials are felt not on campuses but on the national stage. Graphic images of left-wing protestors shutting down speakers such as Robert Spencer and Milo are broadcast on television and are disseminated widely on social media, and play an important role in persuading many Americans that intellectuals on liberal campuses are truly sensitive, PC-obsessed cry-babies. This must be seen within a broader shift against expert opinion and thought; a recent Pew Research Center studyfound that 58 percent of Republicans and right-leaning independents think colleges have a negative impact on the country. This trend has been far from limited to America. As the famous British scientist Brian Cox recently declared, ‘being anti-expert – that’s the way back to the cave,’ not to mention the way back to fascism. Free speech warriors on liberal campuses must be careful what they wish for.
There is little cause for optimism when it comes to the state of free speech on liberal campuses. On the one hand, liberal students have generally shown little inclination to engage in thoughtful discussion and disagreement. Free speech warrior conservatives on the other have impressively managed to associate the image of free speech with demagogues such as Milo and both Spencers. In doing so, they have made campus dialogue yet more polarized and stagnant.
Enter, Cardinal Conversations. This new speaker series will engage with those most difficult and troubling ideas which are too often only discussed in hushed tones on liberal campuses. And yet Cardinal Conversations will not revert to inviting Milos to provoke far-reaching discussion. Instead, the series will consist of discussions between thoughtful and influential right and left-wing figures. Tonight we kick off with a discussion between Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and Trump backer, and Reid Hoffman, the liberal co-founder of LinkedIn. Future highlights include Francis Fukuyama and Charles Murray on ‘Inequality and Populism,’ and ‘Anne Applebaum and Ted Koppel on “Real and Fake News.” Very exciting news about left-wing speakers is soon to be announced.
The Stanford Sphere supports Cardinal Conversations because it presents a pioneering approach to free speech activism. Cardinal Conversations is designed as an exhibition and celebration of disagreement and discussion, and should serve as an exemplar of what discourse must resemble on liberal campuses. Through its exchange of ideas, Cardinal Conversations should ideally set the foundations for the flourishing and evolution of ideas. It is time for meaningful debate and discussion to return to American university campuses.
Ravi Veriah Jacques