Diversity of thought and an open exchange of ideas are supposed to be hallmarks of the college experience. With Rutgers students on the firing line of the free speech debate raging across the country, it’s worth asking whether those concepts are thriving here.
My first exposure to the dystopian college speech environment occurred during my Rutgers orientation, where at one point I sat through an hour-long training course that explained the concept of “microaggressions,” the idea that everyday slights can communicate negative messages to marginalized groups. I quickly learned that the students leading the discussion had no understanding of the First Amendment or how human beings actually interact. In fact, according to some social science research, the supposed benefits of this hypersensitivity have been debunked. During the school year itself, I’ve been with met incredible hostility for offering a differing viewpoint when it comes to microaggressions and other speech issues.
I would argue that it is specifically in the interest of the Jewish community to advocate for free speech and pluralism.
It’s also worth remembering that conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was launched to fame at Rutgers in 2016 when students interrupted his speech by putting fake blood on themselves. While some might claim that the issues of free speech and intellectual diversity are trivial, the bulk of evidence shows that conformity of thought on college campuses is as real as it is dangerous to academic integrity. In fact, I would argue that it is specifically in the interest of the Jewish community to advocate for free speech and pluralism; not only for the sake of Israel, but in order to enable students to have a chance at real intellectual discourse.
In fact, this past year alone, conservative speakers have been met with violence, or in many cases, an unprecedented security cost to counteract potential violence. According to a 2017 survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, cited in InsideHigherEd.com, 12 percent of students admitted to being prepared to sabotage a speaking event in some way, and 69 percent feel speakers should be disinvited for “racist remarks.” Further, a recent Pew study has found that 40 percent of millennials are OK with legally limiting offensive speech.
How is this relevant to the Jewish community? Well, limiting speech that is “offensive” will be detrimental to pro-Israel activists on campus for one simple reason: The college mindset dictates that if one group is perceived to be oppressed, then there must be oppressors. Given that the public is inundated with media images of bloody Palestinian children and wrecked Palestinian cities, it’s no wonder that Israel is seen as the oppressor, and the Palestinians as the oppressed. To many college students, there’s no middle ground, no nuance, and the plight of Palestinians cannot be blamed — even partially — on Palestinian leadership. Further, once impressionable college students learn about an oppressed class, they’re met with insurmountable peer pressure to fight back in the name of “social justice.”
This is not to say that Palestinian groups should be censored — quite the opposite. What we need is a fair playing field; more Alan Dershowitzes to counteract the Noam Chomskys of academic life. That can only be achieved through more speech.
Apart from Israel, free speech should be an end in itself for Jews. The concept of Modern Orthodoxy, for instance, is built on the idea of Torah Umadda, or balancing two different types of thought — the religious and the secular. Left-leaning secular Jews should aspire to live up to the names of Jack Weinberg, Jackie Goldberg and the many other Jews who led the original free speech movement at Berkeley in the 1960s.
In terms of diversity of thought, it’s no secret that college is dominated by left-leaning academics. This helps explain why a disproportionate number of professors support BDS, a trend that has grown in the last several decades, according to studies. In fact, this trend of increasing bias grew almost in lockstep with increased support for the Palestinian cause among millennials, the latter of which was recently documented by Pew.
We should all agree that college, and especially public universities, should be places to challenge ideas.
Coincidence? Probably not. As NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, without individuals available to challenge preconceived ideas, academic research is useless since it simply validates what researchers want to be true, and not what is true. Even professors who claim to be “open-minded” will inevitably influence students who have not been exposed to different viewpoints.
We can disagree about issues relating to gender or race or class. We can even disagree about Israel. However, we should all agree that college, and especially public universities, should be places to challenge ideas. This should be a priority for the Jewish community since the presence of black-and-white narratives has led to a decrease in support for Israel among younger people. The dictum that “children must be taught how to think, not what to think” might just be the solution to our problems. ‘
To read more about the Rutgers Speech Wars, click here.
Jacob A. Miller is a freshman at Rutgers University.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.