In addition to reason, reflection, and contemplation, we have been blessed with the ability to deliberate through language. Conversations form friendships, settle disputes, and from them the liberal arts spring to life. Hillsdale College students are benefactors of an academic environment that champions intellectual liberty to pursue truth both within and beyond the classroom. Our campus rightly affirms that freedom of speech and academic freedom are inextricably wed.
Unlike Hillsdale College, other institutions are plagued by an insidious doctrine of political correctness that curtails robust conversation. In an environment rife with trigger warnings and safe spaces, our peers find themselves corralled into ideological submission. Rather than be exposed to intellectual challenge, they are coddled in their own beliefs, steeped in dogma, and unwilling to entertain other perspectives.
Just last year, the Guardian reported that Yale University students started a petition to abolish a core course requirement that showcased canonical writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare. Petitioners submitted that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors.” Beyond the freedom of students to explore the work of other authors on their own time, the petition exacerbated the already popular notion that academic freedom ends where our feelings begin.
The petition, among an array of speaker protests across America, finds its justification in language. Certain words — racist, homophobe, sexist, hater, among others — carry connotations that rally protesters in ways mere name-calling never could. Because such terms rightfully apply to only a sliver of America’s population, their identification with conservative organizations is both misdirected and slanderous.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a progressive legal group, routinely employs this strategy to indict reputable institutions such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a socially conservative legal organization with more than 50 victories in the United States Supreme Court.
ADF’s triumphs include the landmark Trinity Lutheran case in which the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that it is unconstitutional for any state to cite religious affiliation for denial of funds to a charter school. Branding ADF as a “hate group” is a convenient way for the SPLC to tarnish the organization’s reputation without addressing its arguments for religious freedom. Modern language is used as a scythe against political dissention rather than as a medium for productive debate.
A similar phenomenon is described by George Orwell in “1984.” Orwell described a fictional world governed by “newspeak,” a language devised by the English Socialist, or “Ingsoc,” Party, which predisposed its speakers to the party’s ideology. In the book’s “Appendix on Newspeak,” Orwell explained that “the purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc but to make all other modes of thought impossible…a thought diverging from the principles of Newspeak should be unthinkable.” Partisan activists have adopted this exact thesis in the real world under the guise of political correctness, a doctrine that exhorts thinkers to operate from supposedly unquestionable political premises such as “white privilege.”
The lesson? He who masters language also masters politics. As a facilitator of cordial deliberation, rhetoric is a blessing; when employed to quash dissention, however, it becomes a curse. While language will not be recaptured overnight, free speech advocates should be cognizant of the political strategy that drives the censorship they condemn.
Winning the battle for free speech requires more than popular petitions and articulate conservative speakers on college campuses. Conservatives across America must tackle not only their opponents’ rhetorical claims but also challenge the warrants upon which such claims rely.
I am proud to say that, at Hillsdale College, one need not look beyond dormitories and common areas to see that this refreshing method of reasoning is alive and well. We should be grateful for the freedom to explore the liberal arts in pursuit of truth, unfettered by political correctness.
Freedom to engage disparate views contributes to a holistic academic experience where concepts learned in the classroom are fortified, debated, and mastered. Informed discussions are laboratories of learning that merit our participation. Next time you visit the college’s dining hall, introduce yourself and politely ask to join a table. The conversation might be more rewarding than you think.