Protests at Middlebury in which students shouted down eugenicist Charles Murray are emblematic of a coddled, leftist millennial political movement. Or that is what the media thinks at least… and not the conservative media either. The New York Times and the Washington Post wrote editorial pieces that ripped students for their lack of devotion to the principles of free speech. But, like all critiques of millennials, the media backlash against student protesters sacrifices nuance for the sake of a familiar narrative.
The stereotypical perspective paints millennial students as petulant children, hiding from speech they find offensive. Frank Bruni of The New York Times relied on this trope in his article “The Dangerous Safety of College.” As the title suggests, Bruni rips students for protesting dissent and states that colleges have a responsibility to promote conflicting opinions. A fundamental flaw of his reasoning is that students could not have been “intellectually impoverished” as he suggests, because they must have engaged with Murray’s beliefs at some point to know what they were protesting. Additionally, Bruni draws a false dichotomy between liberalism and conservatism. For him, preventing Murray from speaking follows a troubling college practice of a “smooth, validating passage across the ocean of ideas” as though all leftist perspectives are the same, as though the only dissenting perspectives are liberalism and conservatism, and as though Murray is the typical conservative.
Articles like this consistently focus on the language and tactics of students while almost entirely ignoring the people they protest. Major newspapers gloss over Murray’s beliefs. Protesters were not simply “screaming bloody murder” at “ideas they don’t like” as professor John McWhorter suggests in Bruni’s article; they were protesting a man who thinks white people are hereditarily smarter than Black people. While Murray’s later works on class conflict may be prescient, overlooking his essentialist racism is a remarkable privilege. It is rather ridiculous to imagine a crowd of Black and Brown folks respectfully listening and reasoning with a man who thinks they are inherently inferior to their white peers. The Washington Post and Time normalize Murray when they call him simply a “conservative author” or a “controversial speaker,” and this language conceals that he tried in his research to revive a type of racism that should exist only in the annals of history with other pseudoscientific research.
New conservatives have co-opted the language of “free speech” to espouse hateful ideologies without consequence. The poster children of such co-optation are Milo Yiannopoulos and his former publication Breitbart. By improperly citing scientific research (usually reverse causality) and promoting hateful speech couched in snarky eloquence, the alt-right has flipped “freedom of speech” to mean the validation of nasty speech. Aided by the mainstream media, these members of the alt-right go to colleges seemingly eager for the chance to be protested and look like a victim. Obviously, their definition of free speech refers to speaking freely without consequence instead of its legal definition of protection from the government. Through their own warped definition, practitioners of free speech infringe on the speech of others.
If silencing free speech includes pressuring people to be silent for fear of repercussions, these “controversial speakers” are the worst offenders. At University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Yiannopoulos ridiculed of a transgender student by name in front of an audience that included that student. She was paralyzed by fear for her life as her classmates laughed at Yiannopoulos’ jokes, which misgendered her and shamed her for looking too manly. The student dropped out because she felt that the university failed to adequately ensure her safety. Suddenly those free speech advocates went silent. Her freedom of speech was squashed because she feared the consequences of being recognized—let alone speaking freely. Similarly, how can Black and Brown students at Middlebury have total free speech if they know that their administration approves of a speaker who thinks Black and Brown people are genetically inferior?
Though it may be politically sexy to claim that conservative speech is suppressed at colleges, there is little more than anecdotal evidence for this assertion. Surely, these oppressive colleges do not include Louisiana State University where a political science professor (who still teaches there) called liberal students “fucktards” at a Yiannopoulos speech, and this is the same university where a flag burning protest was shut down because of an angry, conservative mob. At Wesleyan, supposedly a haven of coddled millennials, a conservative speaker came just a few weeks ago and spoke on the history of American conservatism and populism. A Republican state senator also visited campus and the audience listened respectfully, challenging him after he finished. There were no protests, and there was no violence. I suspect that all over the United States, even at firmly left-leaning colleges, conservative speakers are given a similar platform to express their ideas. Only in select examples do colleges erupt in anger at a speaker, and the anger is usually directly at people like Yiannopoulos and Murray who promote spurious science or even overt hatred.
The villains of conflict between “conservative” speakers and students should not be protesters. When speakers endorse ideas that are overtly oppressive, that must not be overlooked for the sake of asking whether protesters are using the proper tactics. Even if I do not always agree with their tactics, students—many of whom have only been on the earth for two decades—calling out hatred from any source is admirable and categorically good. When speakers endorse oppressive ideas with no social repercussions, that speech is inherently restrictive, not free.