​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

More From Sarah Ruger
Related Articles

#10: Become an intellectual explorer | Top 10 2019

The countdown is on for our top 10 videos of the year! Want to be smarter than you were yesterday? This video will teach you to have better conversations using 3 key design principles.

Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Big Think's #10 most popular video of 2019 will teach you how to expand your intellect through the art of insightful conversation. First up: What is a great conversation? They are the ones that leave us feeling smarter or more curious, with a sense that we have discovered something, understood something about another person, or have been challenged.
  • Emily Chamlee-Wright, president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies, details the 3 design principles that lead to great conversations: humility, critical thinking, and sympathetic listening.
  • Critical thinking is the celebrated cornerstone of liberalism, but next time you're in a challenging and rewarding conversation, try to engage sympathetic listening too. Understanding why another intelligent person holds ideas that are at odds with your own is often more enlightening than merely hunting for logic errors.
Keep reading

8 logical fallacies that are hard to spot

From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.

Photo: Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
  • There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
  • A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Keep reading

Think you're right? How to test yourself in the battle of ideas.

Our opponents' objections to our ideas often contain insight as to how we can better refine them.

Videos
  • When we're convinced in the truth of our ideas, we often believe if we just explain it to others that others will immediately come onboard with them. However, what we see in practice is that we need some resistance from others to help refine those ideas. In doing so, we make them more marketable in the marketplace of ideas.
  • When we have debates, we have to not censor our opponents. We have to be confident enough to have discussions with them aimed at getting at the truth.
  • When we prohibit the expression of ideas, we lose the chance to prove our ideas right — we lose the chance to advance their legitimacy in the court of public opinion.
Keep reading