Many colleges and universities now suppress free speech. This is an alarming trend since American institutions of higher learning were once havens for free speech. Frank, open and spirited debate that occurred in classes, dorms and public spaces once helped produce generation after generation of young adults who could think for themselves. It was a thoroughly American phenomenon.
Ideas are important. As societies evolve, new ideas are needed. Having ideas compete with one another is a good way to have good ideas spread and bad ideas fade. Those who think their ideas cannot withstand open scrutiny therefore, try to suppress the competition of ideas. Such suppression is un-American.
The Constitution still guarantees free speech, but free speech is not solely affected by the law. Even if by law you are free to say “X,” for example, the threat of being fired or being expelled from school will curtail your willingness to express yourself. And even if neither government, nor your employer, nor your school punishes you for saying “X,” you might still pay a high social price for saying “X.”
With the increasing influence of social media on our culture, the social cost is becoming ever more influential on the decision to speak freely. Increasingly, our young people are careful to avoid conflict and are reluctant to be bold and provocative.
Not long ago, it was possible for people with dramatically different views to talk to each other about what they believed and why they believed it. They were not afraid to speak their minds. And even when debate did not lead to agreement, the very act of discussion led them to connect to that person, to view him or her as an individual and not an objectified silhouette from the tribe of “them.”
Anyone over the age of 55 cannot imagine any leftist hippie in the 1960s or ’70s tolerating any censoring of another person’s speech. But today an increasing number of young people intimidate each other into silence so often that it is becoming a habit. Without realizing it, students are increasingly self-censoring to avoid being shunned. This is making them paranoid and miserable. Worst of all, they are getting used to it. That is a very dangerous thing for a free society. To say it is Orwellian is an understatement because it is occurring at a cultural level.
Much of this is rooted in identity politics: Certain things must be said — or not said — if you are to remain a member of the group in good standing. This takes political tribalism to a whole new level, a level that is not consistent with a stable democracy.
No constitutional amendment, new law or new policy can fix this. Such things, in a true democracy, are reflections of changes in culture. What we are witnessing are the long-term effects of a slow shift in moral beliefs that began around 1900. This shift was promoted by intellectuals who believed that it was required to make it politically feasible to significantly increase government’s ability to regulate economic activity and redistribute income and wealth. This led to a growing number of winners and losers from government action depending on who got elected. This is a prescription for tribalism and hate.
In a free society that possesses a freedom-loving culture, everyone needs to be aware that disagreeing with another’s speech is very different from bullying that person into silence or, even worse, forcing him or her to parrot the party line. We need to be more tolerant of each other.
How do we reverse this trend? It is time that colleges and universities go beyond insisting they are not against free speech and start proactively reviving it. This is completely within their core mission because teaching, intellectualism and science all depend heavily on free speech. And this is hardly far-fetched. It is what we had on college campuses less than a generation ago. The problem was that we took it for granted. We can no longer afford to do so.
David C. Rose is a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of the new book, “Why Culture Matters Most.” He serves on the Missouri advisory committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.