What Conservatives Get Wrong about the Campus Wars

Campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A message from a young person who’s on your side

Much of the debate about campus culture would have you believe that the average college student is hellbent on tearing down the patriarchy. One wakes up in the morning, wallows in grievance, and proceeds to spend the day railing against the evils of privilege.

I attend Harvard University, one of the places most associated with such snowflakery. I also happen to be a brown British student who wears colorful Hawaiian shirts, dances to techno, acts in undergraduate theater, and listens to jazz. I say this not to brandish my victimhood credentials, nor to make any claims to artistic ability — I say it because these facts get me invited into liberal social circles that, unfortunately, most conservative commentators do not.

So, is the description accurate? In my experience, not particularly. I’d say it describes roughly 5 percent of the undergraduate population — a few hundred or so social-justice warriors who consider their mere survival on Harvard’s campus to be a form of triumphalist activism. These woke icons are overwhelmingly middle class, incredibly entitled, and extraordinarily outspoken. They respond to any virtue signal with finger snaps and use the word “problematic” in every other sentence. They see themselves as engaged in a perpetual war against a white, male, neoliberal blob — wrong opinions must be canceled, and insufficiently woke speakers ruined. Trump supporters are too far gone to bother persuading.

But most students do not subscribe to the madness. Contrarian conservatives repudiate it and find sanctuary in the Republican Club. Others are too focused on studying and partying to care. The majority stay silent and air their concerns in private, so that they won’t be forced to bear the inevitable social cost.

What cost? When I wrote a column in the Harvard Crimson criticizing modern-day student activism, 30 students vocalized their disapproval on Facebook. A few unfriended me, and one shared my column alongside a paragraph portraying me as a bad ally with a lack of respect for minorities. I responded courteously and offered to talk face to face but was told that I didn’t have a right to speak about people of different backgrounds from my own.

Every criticism was aired under the bright lights of social media, and this created the illusion that I had been turned into a campus outsider overnight. I had close friends asking me how I was coping with the aftermath, worried that I wouldn’t be able to show my face in public. And to some extent, their concerns were merited: I’d definitely no longer be able to run for the student council, and I wouldn’t be making it to the top of a cultural organization anytime soon. But little did they know that I had also received well over a hundred notes from students thanking me for writing the article. Some found their way to my Facebook inbox; others were delivered in person — not a single one was shared in public.

I came away from the experience more intent upon continuing to write, encouraged by the response and eager to facilitate conversation. But not everyone is so lucky. When a close friend told her roommates that she believed in biological differences between the sexes, she was forced to change dorms because she had created an uncomfortable environment for one of the students. For some, even the bonds of friendship aren’t enough to counter the ideological venom.

This venom is made of a toxic form of identity politics, aided and abetted by critical race and gender theory. Certain groups ruled the halls of campus life for years, and their privilege is apparently written into the walls of every university building. The college must be a “safe space,” for every marginalized student, where the validity of one’s opinion is entirely determined by one’s position in an interlocking hierarchy of oppressive forces. Needless to say, this attitude is nothing but totalitarian. A person’s individual experience and inner intentions are rendered subordinate to his or her possession of various immutable characteristics. There is no objective truth – only a collection of feelings. There is no free speech – only masks for hidden power. Honest academics are turned into Nazis, and ivy-league students are turned into victims. The tenets of liberal democracy are nothing but an excuse for closeted white supremacy.

The problem on campus is not a generation of inept, incapable students, but a small number of coddled ideologues who set the limits for campus debate. One might liken this to the actual prevalence of white supremacy across the country: Snowflakery and supremacy exist, but both are pushed by a small number of fundamentalists. When Ezra Klein of Vox argues that “the panic over campus activism” is “suffused with bad-faith efforts to nationalize isolated examples of college kids behaving badly in order to discredit serious critiques of social injustice,” he has a point. But the college kids who eat up their potential allies aren’t exactly contributing to social justice, either, and Klein goes significantly wrong in claiming that the campus problem is mostly a figment of the imagination.

These campus wars are not a tyranny of the majority, but a tyranny of a troubled, misguided minority. It does not take many charges of racism to produce a climate of fear. That climate may not be equivalent to white supremacy, but its long-term negative consequences reach far beyond the university. On Monday, Antifa activists in Portland, Ore., bloodied another journalist, and numerous mainstream-media platforms refused to condemn the violence. We are beginning to see the manifestations of another generation’s being taught to view half of their country’s population as enemies. Conservatives can either make a real effort to improve the situation or choose to smack a teenage-shaped piñata with the latest campus stupidity. Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro too frequently choose the latter.

Most of the students they criticize genuinely believe they are in the midst of a civil-rights movement — if a white conservative criticizes them, they wear it as a badge of honor. Rather than playing into their narrative and fueling their cause, conservatives could be helping to reduce the outsized authority of their voices. That will be achieved by focusing on two targets: college administrations that abide by the minority’s instructions, and the 90 percent of students who would currently rather stay silent than speak up.

On the administrative level, responsibility begins with professors. Harvard’s social-studies department has long been known for its Marxist bent. Needless to say, I am no Marxist, and I did not expect to spend my four years in the department. But when I entered my Social Studies 10 seminar in the fall of 2018, my tutor set the tone for the semester: We were going to debate facts, not feelings — any perspective was fair game, so long as it was accompanied by evidence. The course examines the development of social theory, from Hobbes and Locke through Marx, Fanon, and Foucault. And while we paid Marx and Foucault their due, we did not spend the class lamenting the ubiquitous nature of power structures. Instead, we talked about the difficult questions — Du Bois’ struggle to reconcile cultural pluralism with black identity; Weber’s battle between religious faith and disenchantment; Tocqueville’s guide to overcoming the ills of modern democracy; Smith’s account of capitalism’s invisible hand.

Our class ranged across six nationalities, four races, and multiple genders. We spoke about our experiences but only insofar as they informed our arguments. I frequently found myself holding the minority viewpoint — I had to defend the existence of a welfare state (as opposed to all-out socialism) and prisons (as opposed to abolition), for example. But university campuses have always been bastions of leftism. The problem is not that young people lean liberal, but that freedom of speech is being sacrificed in favor of whining, foolish petulance. The problem is not a commitment to social justice, but an approach to social justice that places common humanity below dysfunctional tribalism.

If enough professors are willing to set a similar tone, more classrooms will return to being venues for good-faith debate. That begins with the individual teacher but extends to the college administration: First, as Greg Lukianoff argues in a recent piece on the homepage, university leaders should abandon restrictive speech codes, protect academic freedom, and mandate classes about the importance of free speech. As he notes, there has already been significant progress on this front, but far more needs to be done. Second, conservatives should be calling for the presence of greater intellectual diversity across college faculties. It is impossible to prevent an academic’s intellectual bias from framing classroom conversation. Therefore, if students are to challenge their own viewpoints and learn to engage in productive disagreement, it is essential that they be exposed to professors of different ideological stripes. Heterodox Academy has been leading this effort, and several student-led organizations have followed its lead.

But the fight doesn’t stop there. I had the pleasure of attending Heterodox Academy’s annual conference a few weeks ago, and I sat in on a panel discussing the prevalence of censorship on campus. The guests were excellent and the conversation intriguing. And yet I couldn’t help but feel slightly troubled by the fact that I was one of three undergraduates in the audience. One of the panelists cited years of polling that asked students whether they were more committed to the First Amendment or minority rights. It’s an interesting question, but it also misses the point — that students are often more persuaded by their social interests than their political values.

It was a group of 50 students who initiated the campaign to get Harvard dean Ronald Sullivan fired after he chose to represent Harvey Weinstein in court. I spoke to countless students who were troubled by the call, but only a few announced their skepticism — mainly because they were scared that they’d be labelled supporters of sexual assault. This is ridiculous, of course — every accused criminal needs a legal defense. But it was this same mentality — alongside a set of conveniently timed issues — that led Harvard’s administration to fire him.

Once I had published my first controversial opinion on the Crimson’s op-ed page, I felt remarkably free — I might have lost some friends, but at least I knew who my real ones were; I might risk being wrong in public, but at least I could think out loud. But many students are too afraid to take that initial leap. College is an intimidating place, and quality friendships can be difficult to come by. Many don’t want to risk a tarnished reputation for the opportunity to speak their minds.

But that should not mislead us into thinking that most students simply ascribe to the mob’s views. Putting aside my own experience, the data simply don’t support the proposition. Seventy-nine percent of Americans under the age of 24 believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” Fifty-six percent of 18- to 34-year-olds support the right of the racist to give a speech, versus 60 percent of the overall population. Even the Crimson has an equal number of liberal and conservative columnists, and the most read article of the year was a critique of the double standards regarding racism. Why don’t these facts enter into the campus debate? Perhaps because they present a far more complex picture than our polarized discussion permits — perhaps because they force us to treat students as individuals, not ideologues.

Fortunately, the woke brigade do not have a military on their side. It would not take a great amount of dissent to put an end to their policing. The more students speak up, the more justification college administrations have to defend them — rather than simply caving in to those who scream the loudest. This is a real problem with real consequences, and conservatives have a right to be angered by it. But they do not help their cause when they engage in the same cherry-picking as the actors responsible for its existence.

Freedom of speech should not be a partisan issue; self-censorship and ideological uniformity are greater risks to liberty than a few kids protesting a provocateur. The campus wars will be won by advocates taking the higher road — encouraging dissidents and committed professors, not simply tearing down easy targets. You combat woke-ism in the same manner that you combat any -ism; not by lending airtime to the minority, but by mobilizing an alienated majority. Not all Millennials are politically correct snowflakes; not all activists are social-justice warriors. As with basically every other issue breaking politics apart at the moment, the Twittersphere is not an accurate representation of reality.

So, here is a message from a young person who’s on your side: Write to college administrators. Highlight student bravery in the op-ed pages. Publicize initiatives that are promoting open discourse. Don’t just criticize woke culture — constitute something that will take its place. There are plenty of kids ready to take part.

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