On university campuses across the country, from Missouri to right here at Goucher, two noble forces are combating one another. One is a concern for minority or marginalized students and faculty members who are often left feeling like outsiders in ways that damage everyone’s education. The problem is not just racists who use epithets, but also administrators who seem to acquiesce. That’s why Mizzou students—especially football players—used their clout to oust the university system’s president. They showed leadership in trying to rectify a failure of leadership. But, moral voices can also become sanctimonious bullies.
During a demonstration, Mizzou protesters yelled and jostled a student photographer, Tim Tai, who was trying to document the protests unfolding in a public space. Melissa Click, an assistant journalism professor who joined the protests, is heard on a video calling for “muscle” to oust another student journalist (she later apologized). Tai represented the other noble force in these upheavals—free expression. He tried to make the point, telling the crowd, “The First Amendment protects your right to be here—and mine.”
Human rights author and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notes: “We like to caricature great moral debates as right confronting wrong. But often, to some degree, it’s right colliding with right. Yes, universities should work harder to be inclusive. And, yes, campuses must assure free expression, which means protecting dissonant and unwelcome voices that sometimes leave other people feeling aggrieved or wounded. On both counts we fall far short.”
We’ve seen Wesleyan students debate over cutting funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. At Mount Holyoke, students canceled a production of “The Vagina Monologues” because they felt it excluded transgender women. Here on campus, TALQ-BIG attempted to shut down Gopher Israel’s screening of a film ,“Mom and Dad: I Have Something to Tell You,” with accusations of pinkwashing. I am not criticizing TALQ-BIG; the fight against pinkwashing is a noble one. These are all examples of both sensitivity and intolerance.
At the end of October, I wrote an article for The Quindecim entitled, “Why Does the GOP Hate Women?” Shortly thereafter, Mark McDonald of the Goucher Republicans invited me to personally debate and apologize to the club (I declined). I’m sure my comments discomfited many of Goucher’s conservative students, but it’s a tribute to them that they were willing to be challenged. For that, I respect and admire them.
In the same spirit, liberal universities and clubs should seek out pro-life conservatives to speak and engage with. The protesters at Mizzou and Yale and elsewhere make a legitimate point: universities should work harder to make all students feel that they are safe and that they belong. Members of minorities—whether black or transgender or evangelical conservatives—should be able to feel a part of campus and not feel mocked in their own community. The problems at Mizzou were underscored when there were death threats against black students. What’s unfolding at universities is not just about free expression, but also about a safe and nurturing environment.
The late philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin argued that there is a deep human yearning to find the One Great Truth. This yearning, he said, is a dead end: Our fate is to struggle with a “plurality of values,” with competing truths, with trying to reconcile what may well be irreconcilable. That’s unsatisfying. It’s complicated. It’s also life.