Statistics from Georgetown University’s Free Speech Tracker, show a disturbing trend in the realm of liberal arts academia. Tolerance for opposing opinions at liberal arts colleges has fallen substantially in the past decade. Liberal arts colleges and universities are becoming less and less intellectually tolerant of opposing viewpoints, to the point when fervent disagreement reaches a level that amounts to an absolute refusal to allow political opponents to speak.
The current moment often draws a sad contrast to the student free speech movement of the 1960s. At a time when the intellectual establishment fell prey to the same paranoia that gripped the public in a Red Scare. Bold students activists, a certain group which some historians have termed the “Free Speech radicals” took a diametrically opposed stance and began to argue against the attempt of the political elite to silence dissent, and manufacture consent for the Vietnam war, which grew increasingly unpopular as the costs to the nation’s economic and social became apparent later in the decade. This group did not stand up against the red scare because free thinkers agreed with communists. The opposite is in fact true. The radical defense of free speech, can and often will, stem from the exact opposite ideological school of thought at the party being defended.
I have found this to be one the least understood and dubiously applied phenonoment in American politics. Before I began writing opinion pieces, my developing career began as a student reporter on two liberal arts college campuses. I have spent an indeterminable number of hours talking to both right wingers and those on the left, at Guilford College, Northwestern University, and every community I spent substantial time in.
What I learned from my personal experience, I find, is backed up by the most rigorous, perhaps an oddly unanimous body of research from the social sciences.
When people feel their opinions are shut out without even a consideration, they will only become more solidified, determined, and dogmatic in their views.
American media intellectuals tend to equate populism as resorting to extremes, which bury nuance. Historically speaking there is a great deal of evidence to support this view. However, this framework of thinking actually misses the mark on what the intrinsic quality of populism, actually consists of.
There are three types of populism in American politics, and their commonalities and differences are independent of any inherent connection to positioning on the political spectrum. The populism of distortion, which uses obtuse jargon, narratives taken out of context, and pseudo-sociological or economic data to justify disturbed policies that may sound credible, but ultimately lack in substance. I would like to term this vein of thinking “fragility politics” as it assumes there is a dangerous pitfall in having a more nuanced discussion. Preachers of fragility politics would rather use obtuse jargon such as warning against the “normalization” of “problematic” ideologies, rather than countering unethical viewpoints on a case by case basis.
The real irony of this pseudo-sociology lies in the fact that if an ideology is truly problematic, it should be easy to counter. By shutting down the opportunity to hear an opposing view, progressive activists, ironically, lend credibility to the speaker since an unmade argument cannot be seen as problematic. The mystery surrounding banned speakers lends them the appeal of mystery.
At the diametric opposite of this vein are the Nuance-Romanticizers who assume that the truth must inherently lie between the extremes of the corners of the political compass. This breed of populism tends to assume that no vein of thought can exist which is not defined by the four dimensions of the political compass, a useful, yet oversimplifying model for political scientists to turn abstract ideas about social control, political economy and the rule of law into something of a more quantifiable format.
This worldview can also be misleading however, because it sanctifies the established academic trend as something that feels paramount. Hence, was born is an ideology which completely usurps the spirit of both the negative populism and the mistaken intellectuals who created it. Next Revolution Host, Steve Hilton coined the term “Positive Populism”, with the titling of his first published book, “Positive Populism, Revolutionary ideals to rebuild economic
The question poised in the book’s mission statement beckons an intrigue that seems near prophetic in its accuracy, yet harrowingly alone in its sentiment. Hilton invites us to ponder.
The elites still can't believe Donald Trump won or that Britain voted for Brexit. But what’s next for the populist revolution and for the people who believe in it?
By falling for the “nuance-romanticization fallacy”, commentators from left, right, center and any or every extant viewpoint completely underestimated the appeal Trump would have to so much of the electorate; the swing states that voted for Obama out of hope, and then went to Trump out of fear.
I believe this mistake is related to the intellectual climate in elite academia. In a widely reported, but now largely forgotten do to more pressing matters, incident at the acclaimed Medill School of Journalism. In what was intended by man to be an opportunity for reasoned discussion, certain members of student activist groups decided to drown out visiting speaker Jeff Sessions by banging loudly on the doors and walls of the auditorium where his speech took place. The same individuals then demanded that Northwestern’s The Daily take down coverage of the event. The Daily Editorial Board not only redacted the coverage, but issued a humiliating admission of defeat in the form of an editorial board piece which received an almost unanimous condemnation from the entirety of the professional press. If we are going to continue to serve as the fourth estate and successfully highlight the real issues facing American without feeding America’s toxic polarization, we must ask ourselves the question.
Why has America’s political thinking become this convoluted?
The reason that this style of argumentation is accepted as logical relates to a widely known cognitive phenomenon known as confirmation bias. We are perfectly willing to accept the assumption that outsider viewpoints will do nothing but spread propaganda, yet this has backfired tragically. With the panic induced by the global pandemic, fake news bots and conspiracy theorists see a climate ripe for the takeover of paranoia. I see a true sense of despair among my friends within and outside of media fields alike. Nobody knows how we got to this moment. I do not pretend to have nearly enough experience or information to answer this question, but I believe that we must move forward with a new lens. Let this time remind us of the responsibility we as journalists have to maintain a free society, and how to do so.