Disinvitation Season 2014

Universities have not only failed to stand up to those who limit debate, they have played a part in encouraging them.” —Ruth R. Wisse

As American colleges and universities go through the 2014 commencement season, a recent series of ugly incidents show illiberal attitudes do not vanish by graduation. The civil liberties organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is keeping a detailed record of the current “disinvitation season” where an increasing number of high-profile speakers have been prevented from speaking at commencement due to the agitating of grievance groups.

  • Women’s rights advocate and prominent Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali had her honorary degree and invitation to speak at Brandeis University rescinded after successful petitioning from Muslim activists upset by her record of “hate speech” and “Islamophobia.”
  • Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out as Rutgers University’s commencement speaker after strident protests from students and faculty over her involvement in the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s waterboarding controversies.
  • Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), withdrew as commencement speaker at Smith College after nearly 500 people signed a petition demanding she be “reconsidered.” Largarde’s crime? Presiding over an institution allegedly responsible for the “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
  • Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, bowed out of speaking at Haverford College’s commencement after student and faculty objections regarding his leadership during a 2011 incident when UC police used force to break up an Occupy protest over rising tuition costs.

According to FIRE, these disheartening events have become more common in recent years. Between 1987 and 2008, there were 48 protests of planned speeches that led to 21 incidents where the invited guest was prevented from speaking. Since 2009, there have been 95 protests which resulted in 39 cancellations. Based on this trend, these numbers are likely to rise in coming years.

Even the New York Times is disturbed by this recent wave of radicalism:

Campus activists on the left have long objected to appearances by more conservative figures like Ms. Rice, though usually the events proceeded despite the protests. What is far more unusual is to see them block appearances by figures like Ms. Lagarde, a trailblazing woman usually seen as a centrist, who faced criticism over I.M.F. policies toward poor nations that predated her tenure; or Mr. Birgeneau, who was known for liberal policies toward students who were gay or not authorized to be in the country.

In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, “The Closing of the Collegiate Mind,” Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse recounts a personal story that illustrates the depth of intolerance and close-mindedness of supposed “liberals” in academia:

This year I was asked by a student group to participate in a debate on modern feminism. Though I am not hotly engaged in the subject, I agreed and waited for confirmation, thinking it might be fun to consider a women’s movement that has never graduated from sisterhood to motherhood. There followed several emails apologizing for the delay and finally a message acknowledging that no one could be found to take the pro-feminist side. Evidently, one of those asked had responded: “What is there to debate?” No wonder those who admit no legitimate opposition to their ideas feel duty-bound to shut down unwelcome speakers.

These illiberal attitudes are unfortunately the norm on many campuses. Too many people these days have come to believe it is acceptable to punish those who stand for or express controversial views that they disagree with. In name of “academic justice,” ideas allegedly promoting or justifying “oppression” must be suppressed. We have already seen the too-frequent use of the heckler’s veto by these illiberal groups to prevent views they dislike from being heard.

In a hilarious satirical piece on Bloomberg News titled “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me,” Yale Law professor Stephen Carter delivers the following message for these wannabe Red Guards:

Given your generation’s penchant for shutting down speakers with whom you disagree, I am assuming that you have no intention of playing any serious adult role in mediating those conflicts. And that’s fine. We should leave the task of mediation to those unsophisticated enough to be sensitive to the concerns of both sides.

Besides, you will face more important problems. Once you depart the campus, the world will make unjust demands on you. You will have to work for a living. You will have to put up with people whose views you despise. Fortunately, as long as you don’t waste precious time reflecting in a serious way on the issues of the day — or, worse, contemplating the possibility that you might be mistaken on a question or two — you should have plenty of hours for Twitter and Google Hangout and the nonstop party that every truly just society was meant to be.

All of these reported incidents are just part of the overall trend of a troubling phenomenon within higher education which FIRE president Greg Lukianoff describes as “unlearning liberty.” In his new excellent new book with the same title (see my review here), Lukianoff elaborates on how the failure of academia to cultivate critical thinking and challenge groupthink among students would go on to have grave consequences for the functioning of a free society. The zeal of ideologically driven hounding and browbeating of whoever has been dubbed the current Emmanuel Goldstein is akin to the atmosphere of McCarthyism and the Cultural Revolution. Such attitudes and behavior do not belong in a free society that values pluralism and tolerance.

Aaron Tao is the former Assistant Editor of the Independent Institute's blog, The Beacon.
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