As a self-identifying leftist who is convinced Bernie Sanders is her soulmate, coming to Uni and finally socialising with like-minded people who feel the same and live the same ideology as myself seemed a dream come true. But in light of the campus speech crisis this dream of a liberal, left-wing dreamland has acquired a bitter taste.
Some time ago, Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosopher and professor at the American Enterprise Institute, was invited to speak about her take on feminism at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. where she was interrupted by protesters, outraged by her opinion and at the university giving her a platform to share her views.
Sommers has been criticised for her views on contemporary feminism. Her book “Who Stole Feminism?” (1994) sparked a debate about her division between “equity feminism” and “gender feminism” in which she accused the latter to have made false claims especially about domestic violence.
The Sommers incident doesn’t stand alone; just recently The University of California, Berkley spend around 600,000 dollars on protection for the speech of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who has been condemned on social media for his outspoken and controversial comments on several topics.
This has led to a debate about the “campus speech crisis” in the US, although people seem to be unsure how big of a deal it actually is (or in some cases, if it even exists).
It concerns incidents like the ones described on American college campuses, where mostly conservative speakers are met with protests by the left wing.
Admittedly, I would be the first person to bash a right wing conservative in a pub debate, convinced of being the virtuous one. My worldview left little space for genuine concerns over “fear of refugees”, claims that feminists are “anti-men” or any doubts over gay marriage and abortion affecting society for the worse.
While the social climate at Uni has strengthened this left wing ideology, academic work means exposing oneself to different perspectives and critically engaging with them.
Events happening in America like Sommers and Shapiro’s boycotting, riots, protests and no-platforming demands are there to stifle rather than promote free speech. The discrediting and outright vilification of alternative viewpoints seems a trifle inconsistent with a ‘liberal’ left, wouldn’t you say?
I oppose certain views some conservatives share, and oftentimes facts get twisted, so my first instinct would be not to give people a platform that fuels emotive outbursts, but instead depends upon objective fact.
We rarely expose ourselves to opposing views. Our friend circles, our twitter and Facebook feeds often share content that reinforces the dogma we do.
That way, any thought, any statement out of our comfort zone or belief system can then be considered radical. And too often, our first reaction -disgust, shock, frustration - guides our reaction to such.
This has become apparent with an essay published in the New York Times by liberal writer Bari Weiss. In her recent piece she takes on the “Intellectual Dark Web” of people banished from the mainstream. The essay sparked a huge backlash, especially from the left, mocking her opinions and accusing her of defending evil people.
While I’m sure I share some of the same beliefs as some of her critics, reading the twitter feedback to her piece felt somewhat ironic. Weiss talks about the people who have been attacked and silenced by the mainstream for their radical views, but shows how - without necessarily sharing the same standpoint - they have found an outlet to speak their mind.
And now she gets attacked for the exact same reason. It seems to be an endless, vicious circle. Many of the criticisms on twitter seemed shallow in simply attacking her conclusion or her person, but overlooking the calm, rational argumentation in so doing. But why?
In the era of twitter, Facebook and YouTube, people should know that one way or other, people will voice their opinion, whether you like it or not. So is shutting people with different beliefs down or mocking/attacking them really the right way?
I don’t think so. Whether I can agree or even imagine why some of them make the claims they do is not the point. The issues they raise are supported by many people, whose stereotypes of the “evil left” shutting down any critics are confirmed as soon as they go on twitter. The issues raised represent real beliefs, real views, real fears and the people who voice them deserve the same respect as our peers.
Truly following liberal value means, respecting the opponent and regardless of personal differences hearing them out. And while engaging with them and having an open argument will be challenging, it is a more effective way of bridging this divide.
Respectful debates and confrontation uncovers the beliefs underlying many claims. Many arguments can be boiled down to different assumptions, different ideologies and beliefs. When we talk about these social issues, it is important to be aware of the differences between facts and beliefs. Facts and numbers should strengthen our argument but often there is no real right besides our outlook and wrong by an opposing worldview and belief structure.
A public debate could offer a stage to expose questionable facts or sources on either sides and lead to a more informed discussion. Leaving conservatives to their own channels and indirectly making social media the mouthpiece of the left seems to be much more dangerous, because that way, both sides can voice their opinion with little or to no filter nor opposition.
We should advocate for an open, respectful debate held in the mainstream and stop marginalizing people based on their potentially twisted world views.
Either way, the campus free speech debate is real and should concern all of us. It is important to consider other people’s views and opinions and treat them as equals, no matter how outrageous their views might be to you.
So, am I still left? Ideologically my views have not changed, but this debate has led me not only to overthink my own ways of engaging (or better: not engaging) with my ideological opponents, but
how much I can truly identify with a movement that disrespects other people like that and is so unwilling to expose themselves to other views.