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​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.

Illustration showing George Washington in the midst of fighting during the French and Indian War, a conflict between the British and the French, aided by their respective Native American allies, 1754.

(Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
  • 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.

Sarah Ruger is the director of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute and the vice president of free expression at Stand Together. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @SarahRuger.

Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America

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It was definitely an odd story Rosario García González told in the summer of 2010.

González is an elder of the indigenous Cucapah community in Baja, California/Mexico. He and his wife were in their trailer in Paso Inferior, about 20 kilometers south-southwest of Mexicali when they heard and felt the distinct, powerful rumble of earthquake moving across their valley. Looking outside, they watched as a cloud of light-colored dust was thrown up into the air along a path going in the opposite direction, as if a truck was retracing the earthquake's path. Except there was no truck.

It's not that scientists didn't believe González's story — they just couldn't figure out what he saw. Could an earthquake possible boomerang? The answer appears to be yes. A new study of seismic data has found clear evidence of another boomerang earthquake — technically a "back-propagating supershear rupture" — that shot back and forth deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean in 2016.

Boom and back

Reconstruction of Romanche fracture zone

Credit: Hicks et al., published in Nature Geoscience / © Imperial College London

The research was conducted by scientists from the University of Southampton and Imperial College, London in the U.K. First author Stephen Hicks of Imperial College says, "Whilst scientists have found that such a reversing rupture mechanism is possible from theoretical models, our new study provides some of the clearest evidence for this enigmatic mechanism occurring in a real fault."

The 2016 magnitude 7.1 quake occurred along along the Romanche fracture zone — this is a 900 kilometer-long fault line near the Atlantic equator, about 650 miles west of the coast of Liberia.

Speaking to National Geographic, Hicks recalled the discovery of what at first seemed like a pair of pulses that closer examination indicated might actually be two phases of the same quake. IF so, the quake zipped eastward, and then west. "This was a weird sort of configuration to see," he says. Confirmation of the boomerang was provided by Ryo Okuwaki of Japan's University of Tsukuba via the identification of seismic echoes from the distant event.

"Even though the fault structure seems simple, the way the earthquake grew was not, and this was completely opposite to how we expected the earthquake to look before we started to analyse the data," admits Hicks.

When modeled, the data collected by 39 seismometers arrayed along the bottom of the ocean-floor gash depicted a temblor that moved rapidly in one direction before suddenly turning around and going back in the other at a blistering 11,000 miles per hour. This likely caused seismic waves to pile up similarly to what happens with air-pressure waves triggering a sonic boom, significantly magnifying the quake's power.

Land boomerangs

Rosario García González points to where the earthquake doubled back.

Image source: CISESE/USGS

While it's logistically simpler to record and study earthquakes on land thanks to the ready availability of seismometer networks, land-based temblors tend to track complex fault systems, with geological slips occurring in a series like falling dominoes. Sea-bottom quakes appear to be simpler, making it easier to discern their underlying mechanisms and travels.

Only a few boomerang quakes have ever been recorded, and examples of them on land are virtually nonexistent, making accounts such as González's that much more valuable. Clearly, quakes that double back on themselves stand to do considerably more damage than one-way shakers, allowing more outward propagation of destructive seismic waves in the direction of travel, an amount that would be doubled in a boomerang. Seismologist Kasey Aderhold tells National Geographic, "Studies like this help us understand how past earthquakes ruptured, how future earthquakes may rupture, and how that relates to the potential impact for faults near populated areas."

Scientists developing computer models aimed at predicting seismic events haven't thus far been able to create worthily simulations of boomerang quakes, so the details provided the U.K. researchers provide some of the best information yet collected on these geologic oddities.

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