A recently-published Vox article claims a radical counter-narrative to one of the most contentious subjects on college campuses across the U.S. According to the news outlet’s co-founder, Matthew Yglesias, “support for free speech” is actually on the rise among liberal college students.
In his article, Yglesias calls out reporters at The New York Times and Reason for “bombastically” exaggerating university “politically correct” culture. The recent protest of Christina Hoff Sommers’s lecture at Lewis & Clark College, along with the controversy over NYT’s Bari Weiss’s op-ed “We’re All Fascists Now,” aren’t only unrepresentative of free speech decline — they’re distracting from larger trends. In fact, according to nearly five decades of questionnaires by the U.S. General Social Survey, the US is increasingly supportive of communist, militarist, anti-theist and homosexual speakers. This acceptance of “controversial” viewpoints, Yglesias argues, suggests free speech is less of a contentious issue than conservatives would have us believe.
Yet several problems prevail with Yglesias’s argument, the most obvious being the categories themselves. After all, when was the last time you went to hear a “communist” or “militarist” speak, whether in on campus or otherwise? What about an “anti-theist?” Not only are these labels outdated, but equating the social environment of 1972 (when the study began) with today ignores the dramatic historical changes that have normalized such views (the fall of the Soviet Union, for one). What’s more, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has logged 371 speakers as “disinvited” from public, private and religious universities between 2000 and 2018, the majority of whom were identified as “conservative.”
Yet another inconsistency in Yglesias’s argument lies in the assumption that supporting the expression of certain ideological paradigms is the same as supporting free speech. Imagine you were asked whether you’d be willing to listen to a well-known feminist speaker. Then imagine that someone asked you whether you’d be willing to listen to someone dispute the gender pay gap. Do you see the problem? The reason self-dubbed “factual feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers is controversial isn’t her label, but her unwillingness to toe an ideological line. As she argues in a video for Prager University, “(feminist) activists make claims … to support their views” that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Yet rather than subjecting her and other “controversial” speakers to similar treatment, students reject their ideas as acceptable or unacceptable, good or bad. Rather than objective information, facts have become political territories waiting to be staked by whichever party they are interpreted to support.
It’s easy to let the partisan brain take over at this point. After all, aren’t certain groups just twisting facts to support their political agendas? Christina Hoff Sommers, as one Salon article puts it, is nothing but a “bigot who makes a living propping up misogynist myths.” What’s the point of having such a speaker on campus anyway?
In yet another Vox article, ironically titled “Science is already political. So scientists might as well march.” David Roberts argues that science is made up of two aspects: scientific theory (“science-t”) and scientific practice (“science-p”). Science-t is pre-interpretive fact — the raw data produced by replicable research. Roberts notes that since science informs rather than proves, it must rely on consistency before it can be considered a fact. Science-p, however, is science taken to its logical end in supporting, not supporting or complicating a hypothesis. Thus, while we need science-t to determine trends, we need science-p to decide what that those trends mean — a process Roberts labels as inherently political.
Humans need interpretation — it’s how we make sense of being bombarded daily with data. But we also need to constantly check our interpretations for bias. As Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, notes, “obfuscation is a litmus test of an ideologue.” If we, as college students, truly want to support free speech, our allegiance must lie with facts, not ideologies, and reasoned belief rather than acceptable dogma. Likewise, if we truly hold to certain political opinions, welcoming alternative views should be part of maintaining our credibility.
Regardless of whether you find someone like Christina Hoff Sommers convincing, at least consider this: Her message begs a counter-narrative, not a walkout. Judging people on a categorical basis ignores the nuance of individual belief, and listening to speakers who’ve refused to align with neat politically-correct paradigms may be about challenging our views, not bashing theirs. If we can agree that the only message poisoned by facts is a poisonous message, we should also agree on this: Current trends in campus free speech are hardly antidotal.
Anna Horton is an LSA senior