We’re often told that, with a very few exceptions, college campuses are lost causes to conservative thought. We’re told that with good reason. Surveys show faculties with vanishingly small numbers of political conservatives. Those few say they routinely self-censor and all who dare to criticize the woke mantra risk the destruction of their reputations and even their livelihoods. It seems that a week doesn’t pass without a new head being brought in upon the woke platter.
And of course it’s not just the faculty who show up at midnight with pitchforks and torches; students do too. Who can forget the mobbing of Evergreen State president George Bridges or the assault on Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis or the censorious indignation leveled at Warren Farrell and Heather MacDonald? Yes, the students are very much in the forefront of cancel culture.
But do those students pulling fire alarms, threatening professors and pretending to be terrorized by the very prospect of hearing unfamiliar ideas accurately reflect student bodies generally? Or are they just a loud, but tiny minority? In the culture generally, how widely believed is the woke narrative and how resilient is it? Stated another way, isn’t the Great Silent Majority actually less swayed by the intellectual breezes that so disturb educational, political and pop culture elites? Will those elites continue leading the way toward the dystopian future for which they seem to long? Or will they be blown off course by the headwind of popular opinion that fails to see itself as irredeemably racist or the U.S. as eternally oppressive? What does the future hold?
I can’t pretend to answer those questions, but, if forced, I’d bet on the silent majority. I think conservatives and liberals alike underestimate both the power of the majority and the fickleness of elites. Who knows what silver spoon may be the next to drive those elites to madness?
Small and insignificant as it is, the experience of Duke ethics professor John Rose encourages me. As detailed here, Rose decided to conduct a remarkable and possibly dangerous experiment in – gasp! - free speech, a free exchange of ideas. How he’s so far escaped the pillory, I can’t guess.
In an anonymous survey of my 110 students this spring, 68% told me they self-censor on certain political topics even around good friends. That includes self-described conservative students, but also half of the liberals. “As a Duke student, it is difficult to be both a liberal and a Zionist,” one wrote. Another remarked, “Although I support most BLM ideas, I do not feel that I can have any conversation that even slightly criticizes the movement.”
In short, the students knew the lay of the intellectual land at Duke. They had a strong sense of what could and couldn’t be said, and tailored their words and interactions accordingly. In the process, a lot didn’t get said, a lot of students didn’t know the truth about their classmates and the current dogma went unchallenged.
So Rose took the bit in his teeth.
To get students to stop self-censoring, a few agreed-on classroom principles are necessary. On the first day, I tell students that no one will be canceled, meaning no social or professional penalties for students resulting from things they say inside the class. If you believe in policing your fellow students, I say, you’re in the wrong room. I insist that goodwill should always be assumed, and that all opinions can be voiced, provided they are offered in the spirit of humility and charity. I give students a chance to talk about the fact that they can no longer talk. I let them share their anxieties about being socially or professionally penalized for dissenting. What students discover is that they are not alone in their misgivings.
That alone is salutary. Imagine feeling yourself to be the lone opponent of woke culture when in fact there are plenty of likeminded students who, like you, don’t speak out because they know the dire consequences of doing so. It’s hard to build a counter movement, or even a sensible narrative, when every opponent believes him/herself to be an island unto themselves. And that – the balkanization of the opposition - is one of the main goals of cancel culture, to shut down debate so that those opposed believe themselves to be not who they are – a robust majority – but just a few outliers.
So what happened in Rose’s classes?
Having now run the experiment with 300 undergraduates, I no longer wonder what would happen if students felt safe enough to come out of their shells. They flourish. In one class, my students had a serious but respectful discussion of critical race theory. Some thought it harmfully implied that blacks can’t get ahead on their own. Others pushed back.
My students had an honest conversation about race, but only because they had earned each other’s trust by making themselves vulnerable. On a different day, they spoke up for all positions on abortion. When a liberal student mentioned this to a friend outside class, she was met with disbelief: “Let me get this straight, real Duke students in an actual class were discussing abortion and some of them actually admitted to being pro-life?” For my student’s part, she was no longer shocked the conversation had taken place, nor scandalized at the views of her classmates.
That’s called free speech at work, the very thing the woke so loathe and fear. If wokeism had confidence in its own tenets, it would have no reason to bend heaven and earth to silence counter arguments. After all, when ideas flow freely, many people change their minds, some develop a greater depth of intellectual rigor and still others reject ideas based on ignorance and hatred. Wokeism is dogma and therefore opposed to any concept, regardless of how sensible and fact-based, that contradicts it.
On the last day of class this term, several of my students thanked their counterparts for the gift of civil disagreement. Students told me of unlikely new friendships made. Some existing friendships, previously strained by political differences, were mended. All of this should give hope to those worried that polarization has made dialogue impossible in the classroom. Not only is it possible, it’s what students pine for.
That last is the core of the matter. Most students pine for real intellectual engagement, not lessons in blind intolerance. Hatred and condemnation aren’t for them. Neither is an intellectual catechism that’s to be learned and repeated ad nauseum. Kudos to John Rose for revealing those healthy facts about his students and for having the courage to do so.