Free speech on campus holds the cure to America's growing polarization
Outrage culture is causing provocative issues to be pushed out of public discourse and important artworks to be literally white-washed. Teaching civil discourse at universities is key to sustaining the American experiment.
- In July 2019, a California school board voted unanimously to paint over an 83-year-old, 1,600-square-foot mural chronicling the life of George Washington – in part depicting dead Native Americans and laboring slaves – over concerns that the painting presented traumatic content.
- The mural, by Stanford University art professor Victor Arnautoff, was created as a pointed critique of Washington, a slave owner, and a society built on land that belonged to Native Americans.
- The reaction to Arnautoff's deliberately disturbing artwork is characteristic of America's growing outrage culture, which removes the opportunity for people to practice the skills they require to have difficult conversations.
In early July, a California school board voted unanimously to paint over an 83-year-old, 1,600-square-foot mural chronicling the life of George Washington that hangs over a staircase in George Washington High School in San Francisco. The reason: Concerns the images of minorities, including white colonists stepping over a dead Native-American and slaves laboring at Washington's Mount Vernon estate, will traumatize students.
In his historic painting, Russian-American artist and self-described communist Victor Arnautoff, a Stanford University art professor who specialized in social realism, was pointedly critiquing Washington, a slave owner, and a society built on land that belonged to Native Americans. Eliciting reactions from students is the point. It's an invitation to learn about this history that is often swept under the rug, and it makes a pointed assertion about the importance of countering the prejudice it reveals. Censorship often harms the very people it's intended to protect – in this case, it would strip students of an important opportunity to grapple with racism in our past and deprive them of an opportunity to discuss solutions to the problems that history has created in the present.
The vote to destroy a "significant monument of anti-racism," reads an open letter signed by more than 500 academics across the country, "is a gross violation of logic and sense." It is. But that's not all. The school board's reaction to Arnautoff's deliberately disturbing artwork is characteristic of broader cultural trends.
"[W]e're seeing the symptoms of growing outrage culture—an environment in which controversial or offensive ideas aren't met with challenge but calls to push them out of public discourse altogether."
With social media facilitating our tribal instincts to gang up on the 'other,' universities grappling with pressure to remove faculty who work on provocative issues, and iconic works of art being literally whitewashed, we're seeing the symptoms of growing outrage culture—an environment in which controversial or offensive ideas aren't met with challenge but calls to push them out of public discourse altogether.
Research confirms the trend too. A new Pew study found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are "not confident that others can hold civil conversations with people who have different views." Even more alarming, a recent academic paper found many people in each political party don't only disagree with the other, they believe members of the opposing party are "downright evil." And the latest Gallup/Knight campus expression study found that students today (61 percent) are more likely than they were in 2016 (54 percent) to think the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind because others might take offense.
The student findings are notable when viewed as one symptom of this trend. They point to the fact that challenges facing campus speech aren't unique to the academy. This is a cultural problem, and we're seeing its reverberations across sectors of society – including higher education.
If it's a cultural issue and not a sector-specific one, it changes how we approach the solution. In fact, by zooming out, universities come into focus as uniquely positioned to help America address our growing divisiveness. Consider the environment that campuses traditionally provide for conversation and deliberation. They invite students to understand diverse views in their intellectual complexity while practicing the skills for having these important and difficult conversations.
"These academic entrepreneurs are asking tough questions, conceiving new classes, and promoting a culture in which generally enlightening, often-discomfiting, ideologically-impartial programs are seen for what they truly are – an opportunity to learn."
Policy change can play a role in aiding that ideal. Though the past few years have seen a number of gross overreaches from state houses – bills to dictate what classes can be taught, establish partisan litmus tests for staff hires, and mandate minimum punishments for students – there's a role for principled, targeted policies in shoring up legal protections for free expression on college campuses. In a recent essay Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), pointed out that the percentage of colleges that maintain severely restrictive speech policies declined from 74.2 percent in 2009 to 28.5 percent in 2018, while at the same time a number of problematic Department of Education regulations have been repealed or revised. That is, in part, attributable to policies tailored to addressing those barriers.
While legal protections of free expression alone don't foster an open environment, they help clear the way for civil discourse, open inquiry, and peaceful pluralism in general. And in that space, we're seeing a largely untold story unfolding through the efforts of innovative, path-breaking scholars who are expanding opportunities to come together in productive and scientific exploration. Courageous crusaders like those at Interfaith Youth Core who are gathering students, faculty, and staff from different cultures and backgrounds to build the will, skill, and knowledge to respectfully engage deep difference. Leaders at the newly growing HBCU Debate League who are giving students a platform to grapple with myriad ideas. And countless others tailoring opportunities to their own campuses at schools across the country.
These academic entrepreneurs are asking tough questions, conceiving new classes, and promoting a culture in which generally enlightening, often-discomfiting, ideologically-impartial programs are seen for what they truly are – an opportunity to learn.
These projects stand to equip individuals to overcome the challenges of the present moment. And we have reason for hope. The American experiment – distinct from every country before it – is built not just on tolerance of difference but the invitation of it. Our diverse, dynamic society, with its rich mix of religious, cultural, ideological, and other differences, is made possible by civil liberties and a culture that values them. And higher education is at its best a microcosm of that.
Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America
Going from a solitary teenage protester in front of the Swedish parliament to a global icon in little more than a year certainly merits the distinction.
- Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, has been named Time's Person of the Year.
- The award is given to "the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse."
- Considering the magnitude of directly inspired protest movements and real-world impacts she has had, the award seems to be merited, although not everybody is pleased about this.
The internet has given us the opportunity to stay informed better than ever. It's also given us the ability to misinform ourselves — delude ourselves — beyond belief.
- The internet has allowed fringe groups founded on paranoid thinking to merge in ways we've never seen before.
- Part of modern political polarization in American is that we're becoming a people who believes in different realities, some of which are based on fears rather than facts. Many of these conspiracy theories are targeted on groups that we believe are plotting against us.
- There is a romanticization that we're going to somehow solve all of life's unknowns, Da Vinci Code-style. However, this ironically may put us at a disadvantage in terms of breaking puzzles — we look for the familiar in vague stimuli, a pheonmenon known as pareidolia, which only further confounds us.
Paying a fee for greenhouse gas emissions may spur a revolution, in terms of corporate behavior, amid the climate crisis.
- When it comes to politically addressing the climate crisis, we need politicians from both sides of the aisle to work together to create policies that bring about a more sustainable tomorrow.
- If we enact policies that require companies to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions, we would see an immediate change of behavior from them, in regard to how much they contribute to climate change.
- There's growing agreement that the climate crisis is real among both Republicans and Democrats. The main concern, however, among those who are still critical of its significance is whether it will limit people's choices or slow the economy.
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