I recently attended a lecture on the rise of global extremism at the University of Utah. That campus has been a scene for white nationalist recruiting and hate flyering, so the topic was not just of a “global concern” but a local one.
The talk was in the form of a moderated panel and included a state representative (a Democrat), the executive director of the state’s ACLU, a social worker, some history professors, and Dillon Clark, the student who, this past January, chartered the campus’ Young Americans for Freedom student group, which then brought Ben Shapiro, formerly of Breitbart, to campus. His presence there was, I think, unwarranted: his story was likely quite interesting, but as an object of study, as he didn’t have the scholarly knowledge to make a real contribution to the conversation, and he wasn’t self-reflective enough to share much insight into his own story. But I still learned something from him.
When Clark was asked why he had chartered the YAF on campus in January, immediately after the swearing-in of Donald Trump, he said he had three reasons: first, because conservative speakers were often not brought to campus; second, because Shapiro is an outstanding conservative thinker, and third, because Clark knew it would be a major leadership coup for himself.
I actually found this to be the most interesting moment of the evening (which was full of interesting information). It suggests to me a few things:
First, that Clark and the conservative students he buy into the idea that they are a persecuted group on college campuses. When he says that it’s hard to get a conservative speaker on campus, he’s adopting the narrative that universities are liberal, which is only the case if you ignore schools of business, law schools, many history departments, virtually all criminology programs, and significant pockets of anthropology–and, of course, private colleges and universities, plus community colleges, where faculty members are much more likely identify as politically conservative. Oh, and university administrations, which are overwhelmingly conservative.
But maybe the reason why we don’t see many high-profile conservative speakers on campus is that the conservative movement isn’t developing very smart thinkers right now. After all, this poor student is convinced that Shapiro is a “leading intellectual” in the conservative movement. Even better-credentialed conservatives aren’t putting forward compelling, innovative, insightful, data-driven, or otherwise smart arguments. Academia, at its best, promotes good thinking, wherever it lands us, and conservatives just aren’t doing it very well right now. Charles Murray is stupider than you might expect, even if you’ve read his thoroughly discredited The Bell Curve, and Heather MacDonald continues to make arguments so ill-informed that having her on campus is simply a waste of taxpayer money. It’s not so much that their ideas are bad as that they are badly formed, and since higher ed is about teaching people ways of thinking, we don’t really need to invite them to campus, any more than we need to invite Flat Earthers are Holocaust deniers.
(Oh, wait. Holocaust deniers are coming to campuses, and universities are shamefully pretending they can do nothing.)
These two things–that Clark feels like conservatives are a persecuted minority and that he can’t tell careful thinking from sloppy thinking–aren’t particularly surprising.
Above, a flyer promoting a demonstration against Ben Shapiro at the University of Utah. I‘ve argued elsewhere that figures like Shapiro shouldn’t be welcomed at universities or granted university resources, including rental space, because such speakers do not contribute to the purpose of higher education, which is to advance knowledge and support students as they learn to discern between smart and stupid ways of thinking. Shapiro is a stupid thinker, and universities are not required to lend space or credibility to stupid thinkers.
But his third comment really struck me: He founded a group, then led an effort to bring a hateful speaker whose presence does nothing to advance the mission of the university, at an expense of $25,000 in security fees to the public, because he wanted the “leadership opportunity.”
He’s not alone: male members in Congress disproportionately say that they ran because they wanted to be in Congress. Women, in contrast, say they want to serve others. And, like Clark, they don’t seem to recognize that this isn’t something you say. Clark said it right in front of an audience of people whose lives are devalued in the world Shapiro argues for. He looked right at his peers and said in effect, without any shame, “I did this because it would make me famous.”
The end logic of this is that the more controversial the thing you fight for, the more divisive or hurtful or outrageous your argument, the bigger the expense to the university, and the more common sense you have to overcome, the more you of a “leader” you are.
Justice Alito made a similar critique in his dissent in Snyder v. Phelps, the case brought against members of Westboro Baptist Church by a father of a fallen Marine whose funeral was picketed. Justice Roberts in the decision argued that
Westboro’s statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric.
But Alito counters (and let it go down in history that I once agreed with Justice Samuel Alito!) that this means that this logic would only encourage more extreme speech. WBC does not see its speech as hyperbole; they fully believe that Matthew Snyder was born to go to hell and that, as Catholics, his parents “raised him for the devil.” To outsiders, that’s hyperbole, but to church members, that’s sound Bible doctrine.
The problem that Alito identifies–and the error I think we commit when we invite racists to campus–is that we can’t really can’t decide what is hyperbole or not right now. We’re hearing people on campus say things that are so outrageous that we reduce them to “mere” rhetoric so we can deny the racism of our own young people. And the speakers are quick to add a “Just joking!” to comments that are not jokes at all–or, worse, they say threatening things and then point to the worried response of those they targeted and call them “snowflakes” who imagine threats around every corner. We hear those things as hyperbole, even when the speakers are deadly serious, because hearing them as the honest desires of so many people is frightening.
All so Dillon Clark can feel important.
PS. If folks haven’t read Nathan J. Robinson’s critique of Charles Murray in Current Affairs, they should do so. It’s gold.