Mark Bauerlein’s lecture last week on “The Burden of Nonconformity,” an incoherent, babbling behemoth of nonsense that seemingly argued that the Trump campaign was a nonconformist movement, was an insignificant event on Wesleyan’s campus. And that’s exactly what makes it noteworthy.
In the past few years, “free speech” on college campuses has become one of the most polarizing topics across the country, spawning endless political punditry and media attention. Specifically, liberal college students’ actions toward conservative speakers with opposing political views have undergone the most scrutiny and have been treated as a paradigm for PC culture as a whole. In some cases, the number of which is often overblown, college students have taken the “no-platforming” approach and chosen to disrupt or entirely shut down the invited speakers from giving their lecture.
The political right, masquerading as free speech warriors, has of course labeled these protests as an assault on the first amendment and academic freedoms. This response is hardly worth awarding attention because of the blaring hypocrisies. Conservative commentators obsessed with free speech on college campuses didn’t seem to have any problem when Republicans, along with a smattering of Democrats, introduced a bill in Congress to criminalize support for BDS in July. When it comes to academic freedoms, the same commentators somehow overlook that the Koch brothers have funneled millions of dollars to economic departments around the country, peddling libertarian, laissez-faire infused curriculums. The right is highly selective when they want to believe in first amendment rights which only seems to be when it fits their narrative. However, the campus speakers debate has also elicited debate within the left, which merits some discussion.
Two schools of thought on the left have emerged. One being the no-platforming approach that deems aspects of the speaker’s beliefs to be under the category of hate speech, in most cases harmful to persons of color or other marginalized groups, and should not be intellectually validated by a University nor should they be considered worth “hearing out.” In this no-platforming interpretation, free speech isn’t on the line because the first amendment only refers to state interference to individuals’ ability to vocalize their ideas and the speakers can express their opinions elsewhere. This was the tactic driving protestors at Middlebury when Charles Murray was invited by a conservative club and also at UC Berkeley when both Anne Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak.
However, another approach exists on the left, which was born in response to the various college protests that have turned violent. This faction of the free speech debate calls to attention that while the views of these conservative speakers may be despicable, drawing an ideological circle around what is and isn’t acceptable speech has often been used against leftists throughout American history (like during the blacklist era). Thus, those who associate themselves with the left should be very careful about the censorship of any political views. In addition, this view sees contemporary American politics as a battle of ideas, between the left and right, which must be grappled with and won in order for the leftist vision to reclaim a hold on the American electorate. From this perspective, it’s deeply terrifying that white supremacy has been further normalized in mainstream discussions since the election of Donald Trump, which is exactly why the left has to counter these conservative speakers and expose the flaws in their ideologies. Stopping them from speaking only builds their appeal to their followers as well as apolitical factions of the American populace whose political beliefs are still malleable.
While perhaps not intentionally, this tactic was exactly the approach used on Wesleyan’s campus for the Mark Bauerlein talk. During Trump’s campaign, Bauerlein gained recognition for his perplexing combination of elitist academic English professor and outspoken support for Trump. A year or two ago, Bauerlein most likely would not have been able to start his first sentence before being shouted down. But students sat through his entire lecture, which fluctuated between being either completely banal or fruitless, signifying an evolving political tactic on college campuses.
Once Bauerlein opened up to questions, students and professors bombarded him with pointed, inquisitive criticisms and picked apart his argument, revealing its inconsistencies. On numerous occasions, Bauerlein couldn’t even answer the questions and had to admit that he’d need to think about it. No one would have left the Bauerlein talk convinced that if you value nonconformity, you should have voted for a candidate who represents a return to old guard traditional social values: the racist and misogynistic principles that progressive nonconformist thinking has sought to reform over the course of our history, as was pointed out on multiple occasions by students in the audience. One might even come out of it realizing that conservatism, especially the brand of Catholic conservatism that Bauerlein subscribes to, which espouses order and stability, achieved through traditions to inculcate newer generations, is actually predicated on conformity.
If we take this as an example to apply the two competing leftist arguments for handling college speakers, from a political efficacy standpoint, it would almost seem nonsensical not to take the approach that Wesleyan students did. While the no-platform approach ideologically has very valid concerns, it’s hard to argue that it has worked very well in practice for the left. Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Ann Coulter look like martyrs for a cause, the right gets to smear the left as anti-free speech, and the speaker’s ideologies remain intact.
For the remainder of the PAC lecture series, which will surely be filled with speakers as incoherent as Bauerlein, Wesleyan students should use the same approach, bringing attention to the flaws in the conservative worldview.
Luke Goldstein is a member of the class of 2020. Luke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.