American college campuses have become political battlegrounds, and students are taking up arms.
An annual UCLA survey shows that political engagement has reached numbers unparalleled since the study started in 1966 — the era of student protests against apartheid and the Vietnam War.
To many, it feels as if political hostilities in the face of the 2016 presidential election have permeated every aspect of life and made it difficult to converse about everyday issues without inadvertently inciting an argument. Students are tiptoeing around each other as national political headlines — each more scandalous than the one before — add fuel to a hungry fire, rendering the national climate at once tired, sensitive and dangerously mercurial. If one thing is certain, though, it is that Donald Trump’s presidency has transcended party politics and heightened tensions on American college campuses.
Ironically, the middle ground has become the most controversial place to tread.
Trump’s leadership has mobilized both opposition from the left, which argues his ascendancy validates conservative vitriol, and support from the right, which welcomes his blatant disregard for political correctness. In turn, discord over First Amendment rights has descended into violence as frustration escalates on both ends.
Ironically, the middle ground has become the most controversial place to tread. Student activists are demanding to see change on campus in the form of improved university policy and administration, but their demands often seek to limit freedom of expression rather than encourage it.
The inevitable consequence is that college students are fed up with talking about politics. And as acute political exhaustion mounts, intolerance for the exchange of ideas at American universities grows.
For progressives, the ugly truth about Trump’s presidency is that he stands for more than just the Republican party. A Suffolk Post survey revealed 76 percent of Democrats consider him a racist. In their eyes, he stands for racism, sexism and homophobia, for a multitude of -isms and for centuries of social and systemic oppression.
The idea of fighting over nuances as fleeting as a word or a look can feel insignificant when the safety, well-being and fundamental rights of many people are hanging in the balance. But frustration toward the prospect of censoring dialogue only provides further evidence for why minority groups advocate for it on campus…
In response to his election victory, student protesters have organized to demand their universities right what they deem historical wrongs — encompassing anything and everything from faculty diversity to public apologies. Their efforts have been fruitful, too. Last year, activists chased out the dean of students at the nearby Claremont McKenna College; the president and chancellor at the University of Missouri stepped down following the walkout of the football team; students have called for colleges to establish safe spaces and trigger warnings to avoid controversial discourse; micro-aggressions, subtle but offensive interactions targeting members of marginalized groups, are now highlighted in many university policies (including this University’s) as unacceptable behavior.
The idea of fighting over nuances as fleeting as a word or a look can feel insignificant when the safety, wellbeing and fundamental rights of many people are hanging in the balance. But frustration toward the prospect of censoring dialogue only provides further evidence for why minority groups advocate for it on campus: Members of marginalized groups constantly feel the need to censor themselves and adapt accordingly as not to fit into negative stereotypes. They are used to — and tired of — maneuvering to meet mainstream standards and escape stigma, and argue that it is time for other students to take on a similar responsibility of watching what they say.
Balance, of course, is inherent to equality. But, left-leaning student activists argue, seeking real balance starts with the recognition of current imbalances. The left is angrier and more vocal than ever before because it needs to be — because even a nudge from the right entails mass casualties for the left. Hate speech against already vulnerable minorities is likely to engender violence against them, too, and Trump’s presidency validates conservatives who always sought to snuff out certain movements.
Time journalist Jack Dickey spent time at Towson University speaking with students and faculty to feel out its political climate last year. There, sophomore Bria Johnson argued that college campuses reinforce students’ worldviews when the heavily African American cafeteria staff is juxtaposed against the virtually all-white faculty. There is evidence of injustice everywhere, and it demands attention. As reported by CNN’s Eliot McLaughlin, Lolade Oshin, a senior at Emory, is equally frustrated.
“As a black woman in America, I have no choice but to hear the other side. But because those individuals are privileged, they don’t have to hear my side,” Oshin said. “One side has grown up having to be sensitive and navigate a white man’s world.”
Equality in America, then, is not so much about rectifying differences as it is about the flourishing of minority groups in a place that stacked the odds against them. It is on this basis that the left wing of student activism wages its war.
It is its methods and not its mission that come into question. Disorganized and chaotic government has generally presented a greater threat than fascism, but to the fringe left, Trump has changed that. The antifascist movement — commonly known as antifa — has drawn in support from extreme leftists who believe the predicament goes beyond disagreeable politics and calls for outright revolution. The movement is anarchist in nature, seeking to solve problems with direct action, which offers an appealing alternative to those disillusioned by the fruitless process of waiting for Congress to make impossible changes. The left wing has in part taken on antifa’s confrontational methods, escalating disagreeable politics into a full-blown attack on authoritarianism. Antifa may be fighting in the name of a noble cause, but there is danger in its perceived legitimacy and the perceived illegitimacy of government. Contrary to the politicians they despise, antifa leaders cannot be voted out of their positions, and in advocating for the vulnerable they have taken on the responsibility of deciding which Americans can publicly assemble and which cannot — responsibility that rests on no democratic foundation.
Progress stems from discourse, not violence. But antifa and the left wing are acting out against centuries-old systemic discrimination, and they will not be silenced. The right wing must recognize the identities of marginalized groups and adapt to meet their needs for there to be peace.
The result of such a powerful clash is a politicized fight culture with a level of violence that has not graced college campuses since the 1960s. In February 2017, the cancellation of Milo Yiannopolous’ speech at UC Berkeley incited violent conservative protests in which Kyle Chapman, 41, hit an antifa activist in the head with a wooden post. The oldest rule in the book is not to fight fire with fire, but each side has resorted to explicit provocation, yielding campuses that are angry, divided and see little harmony.
But the most devastating consequence of heightened political tensions at American universities is not the material damage, but rather the ensuing silence.
But the most devastating consequence of heightened political tensions at American universities is not the material damage, but rather the ensuing silence. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, there have been more than 300 attempts to disinvite campus speakers since 2000. Which side initiated more is irrelevant — what matters is not who is spawning the pressure, but what is at stake because of it.
The fear of discussing controversial topics has stifled discourse at academic institutions and deprived students of exposure to a vast range of ideas. Disagreeable politics should call for counterarguments and stimulating debate, yet students are responding by organizing protests and breeding hostility toward free expression. Controversial speakers are supposed to incite both support and opposition and spark discussion, but instead, universities are avoiding them completely out of fear of overstepping boundaries. Universities should challenge students’ beliefs and prevent them from living inside a psychological bubble, no matter what is inside of it.
The point of higher education is to learn how to apply objective knowledge to a subjective world. Knowledge — whether it is later celebrated or condemned, independent of its source — belongs at academic institutions, where students can interpret it in the context of the real world.
Ultimately, institutions resort to silence and censorship over debate and critical thinking because everyone is sick and tired. Tired of politics, tired of fighting about politics, tired of seeing political propaganda on every screen — a widespread phenomenon called political exhaustion.
Marywood University professor of psychology David Palmiter argues that a lack of habituation exacerbates political fatigue. Habituation is our tendency to adapt to an idea — good or bad — after a period of processing, but that period is neglected because there is never enough time to digest one piece of information before the next surfaces. Consequently, people react with one tool at their disposal: emotion, which often manifests in anger.
You would think overwhelming politics increases politically engagement, but a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014 indicated that only 16 percent of Americans paid attention to the midterm elections. That figure highlights the divide: a vast apathetic and uninformed majority against a mobilized and passionate minority. On both ends, the election has permeated all aspects of life, and everyone is exhausted from walking on political thin ice so as not to slip and fall under.
Political exhaustion has undoubtedly transformed the atmosphere on college campuses. Over half of college students in the U.S. feel that the campus climate prevents people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. But creating a balance between the unencumbered exchange of ideas and censorship of offensive material feels impossible, and that’s because it is.
But creating a balance between the unencumbered exchange of ideas and censorship of offensive material feels impossible, and that is because it is.
Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University, has a pointed response to this challenge.
“History is full of very, very upsetting things,” Kehr told CNN in May. “Grow up. The world is a nasty place. If you want to confront it, change it, you have to understand the arguments of nasty people.”
Preventing controversial speakers from exercising their First Amendment Rights is a Band-Aid solution for a long-term problem. Ignoring speakers’ ideas will not make them disappear. If the ultimate goal is to rise above the opposition, it is necessary to understand the opposition. Modern political struggles deserve to be confronted by those who have the potential to change them. Although our minds tend to think unilaterally, the world is always multifaceted, and the ability to think critically about a plurality of ideas enables positive change.
Consider then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ speech at Liberty University in 2016. Founded by evangelists, Liberty University is a Christian institution whose student body tends to lean to the right. Although most students did not support Sanders, they welcomed his speech about the relationship between socialism and Christianity. He stimulated an engaging debate about class, and his arguments led some students to reconsider their role as Christians to alleviate poverty. Sanders adapted to his audience by recognizing their beliefs, and the student body in turn appreciated his. Integrating ideas from opposite ends of the spectrum led to a powerful level of discourse that made progress feel possible for both.
Political exhaustion and narrow-minded activism have slowed the flow of knowledge on American college campuses. But a world where ideas live is not the place for a battle of opinions. In light of heightened tensions, it is important to reorient our perception of what exactly free speech at American universities means — not to condone any potentially offensive content, but to enable the objective exchange of ideas that cultivates young minds and renders progress possible. Only when there is mutual recognition and debate in the place of bigotry and anger can there be peace.