For the past few years, outsiders have criticized college campuses in the United States for being in the midst of a kind of moral panic, related to free speech. Historically liberal, college campuses are accused of being increasingly hostile to any speaker who could be thought of as far-right—with implications of intolerance for even mildly politically right-leaning speakers. For example, when far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos attempted to speak at UC Berkeley, he was met with so many anti-fascist protestors, it was almost impossible to hear his words. When tamer right-wing personality Ben Shapiro attempted to speak there, the campus was willing to shell out $600,000 for additional security to prevent the possibility of violence.
There’s also the appearance of Charles Murray at Middlebury College to consider. Murray, the author of academic works that suggest intelligence is genetic and may be inherently different in different races, is often accused of being racist and classist, and promoting dangerous ideas. When he was, perhaps inevitably, protested, he wasn’t met with hard, thought-provoking questions; he was shouted over, his spokespeople were assaulted, and when he attempted to leave, his car was beaten and rocked back and forth by an angry mob.
On top of this, accusations of racism and sexism are rampant—to the point where some professors are afraid to say anything even remotely controversial. Those who believe a moral panic is taking place argue that we now have a culture where anyone politically right of center is unable to voice their opinion, which ultimately causes an even wider divide among our culture. Those who believe this is nonsense insist that college campuses have always been left-leaning, and most of these instances are ultimately harmless protests of what are truly dangerous ideas.
So what’s the truth? Are college campuses truly in a moral panic?
A Long History of Campus Controversy
Some argue that controversial protests on college campuses have always existed. For example, take the history of campus protests against the Vietnam War, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Four students were killed at Kent State University at the hands of the National Guard, and students had burned down an ROTC building at Washington University. Nevertheless, Vietnam veterans were still able to find a place on campus with respect and encouragement from students and professors alike. Similarly, while Ben Shapiro or Charles Murray might be met with angry mobs, less provocative conservative speakers are likely met with respect on a daily basis across the nation.
Perspectives From Professors
Perhaps the best gauge for whether the atmosphere in a college environment has changed is the perspectives of professors themselves. Several professors—even liberal ones—have anonymously come forward, suggesting that things have changed dramatically over the past decade, becoming hyper-protective and intolerant of dissenting opinions. People who disagree with this argue that this is the natural byproduct of the era in which we live—where dangerous opinions already have too much of a platform, and where students need to feel safe if they’re going to learn and grow as people.
The Danger of Shutting Down Ideas
If we are in a moral panic, what’s the worst-case scenario? The danger lies in the complete intolerance of other ideas—even if they are dangerous ones. College campuses are meant to be a place for learning, discussion, debate, and engagement. When you prevent someone from speaking, violently or through sheer overwhelming voices, you prevent their opinion from being heard. Compare that to letting them speak, but asking them hard questions, or voicing your dissent peacefully, in rebuttal; you still allow them to voice their opinion, but you have the chance to refute their key points, and allow your audience to hear a more sensible side of things. Ideas shouldn’t be considered threats the same way physical attacks are; anti-threat measures for aircraft involve proactive elimination, but this approach doesn’t work for ideas.
Dangerous ideas are like diseases. If your immune system is exposed to a disease in a safe environment, or in a low dose, you can build up resistance to it on your own. But if your environment is wholly sterilized, your immune system will crumble, and you’ll be even more vulnerable to illness. On college campuses, a moral panic (if we’re in one) would have a similar effect; students would no longer develop the logical arguments, debate tactics, or even the critical thinking skills necessary to engage with and dismantle problematic ideas. Instead, their only response would be to defend themselves against someone they perceive to be an enemy. And in a country with deepening political polarization, that defensiveness has the potential to tear us apart.
Of course, there’s no single answer here. Even if we could all agree on what constitutes a “moral panic,” the debate on whether this culture fits those criteria would rage indefinitely. It’s unquestionable that some ideas truly are dangerous, and that students have every right to peaceably protest a speaker they disagree with. But we have to keep the debate open to keep our ideological defenses high, and to ensure we’re engaging in conversation with one another—and not just a never-ending screaming match.