In recent years the idea of a “Cancel Culture” has permeated political discussions, with people trying to make sense of the unwitting embroilment of reality tv show hosts, movie stars and newspaper editors in contentious political battles. Conflicts which earned figures in these fields, among others, less than charitable responses for their divergences from faddish orthodoxies. A phenomenon which has not only impacted their reputations among certain groups but also their personal lives and livelihoods. College campuses have not been immune to the harsh enforcement of these new purity standards either. A majority of schools have adopted speech codes to pre-emptively outlaw a variety of ideas and beliefs, tacking on harsh punishments for those who question the status quo. The issues deemed unquestionable by school administrators I will not mention out of a fear of mistakenly transgressing some of these new found left-wing dogmas. Even more directly, people like Princenton Professor Joshua Katz have lost their livelihood in the midst of ideological frenzy simply for advocating for a more calm and open discourse on campus. Exemplifying the contemporary dilemma of having to choose truth and decency or genuflection and career stability. Which makes one question, how did the left (which ascended to power on the university campus on the basis of academic freedom) come to oppose such a belief?
For most people I think this shift of campus politics has been almost entirely forgotten. We take it as a given that educational institutions are bastions of left-wing politics. However, for most of America’s history these institutions were generally conservative. The first appeals to academic freedom in this country arose from a Stanford professor who, around the turn of the last century, upset the school’s administration with his advocacy for populist economic policy. Later on in the 20th century William F. Buckley, the paradigmatic conservative of the era, made attacks on academic freedom a hobby horse of his. Notably using the issue to make his foray into the political world in the now classic book “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom.” A book in which Buckley called academic freedom a “hoax.” Buckley later put guests of his show Firing Line through his trademark subtle inquisition over the soundness of academic freedom and the impact of the free speech movement at U.C Berkeley. Now, some decades later it seems that Buckley was a sort of campus prophet. The same people who gained their place on college campuses through appeals to openness and liberality got into power and now refuse to provide those same freedoms to their political opponents, in effect they used academic freedom as a means to overturn control of the power structure at Universities… exactly as Buckley predicted.
Do things have to be this way though? Are the precepts of liberalism incompatible with reality? Must there always be a cancel culture? Many in today’s political world say yes. Those on the left that affirm this position have taken up the idea that such restrictions are needed to protect the common good, a traditionally conservative argument. While this thinking may be enticing in that it results in the total domination of one’s proclivities, it may not be so under more all encompassing evaluations of the situation and its consequences. Beyond the fact that prohibiting the truth is detrimental to the advancement of public knowledge, creating a zero-sum game of practical politics seems like it might reasonably result in an intensification of disputes over differences. A reality we all seem to bemoan in our discussions of our political culture. Returning us to my initial question, is this just the unavoidable reality of having a diverse political culture?
Schools like the University of Chicago prove otherwise. With the University’s forging of a campus speech code now known as the Chicago Principles, UChicago has successfully maintained both a prosperous learning environment and a culture of diverse and conflicting viewpoints. These principles are not a pseudo-commitment to openness, given up on when any truly disruptive idea is put forward, but an uncompromising commitment to free expression. Proving that the shifting of respectful discourse from a manner of debate into the adherence to substantive dogmas is not a practical interest that benefits the common interest, but an ideological interest that benefits particular political proclivities.
With this in mind, I think it is clear that those in positions of power at Universities should embrace the Chicago Principles, reject the degradation of their institutions of higher learning into centers for ideological indoctrination and return to the unrestrained pursuit of truth. Beyond this hard to reach elite, everyone can reject these divisive modern blasphemy codes by refusing to buy into the idea of respectful discourse being based on deference to particularist substantive interests. By taking on a spirit of humility which presupposes that the truth is not something any party or organization can claim a monopoly on through the use of hard and soft social power. More simply, by being open to all perspectives and ideas with confidence that the truth, if defended, will win.
Cooper is an assistant editor of the common ground section and a sophomore. He studies political science and classics and wants to work in journalism after school. When he is not thinking about politics and writing he enjoys fishing, golfing, and reading. Cooper’s literary influences include Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway.