Thinking Differently About the Cancel Wars on Campus
Why are universities facing so many tensions related to speech? I have long argued that these tensions should not be blamed on overly sensitive students (or their parents) and will not be resolved by declarations and statements (let alone restrictive laws). Rather, the way we talk to one another has evolved with technological and political changes, and the campus has become a central space for renegotiating the boundaries and norms of what can be said.
The current cancel wars are struggles over who gets to be a part of the conversation, and what views should be voiced and discussed. The attempts to silence or reject some views — and people — are attempts to claim evolving norms of public conversation. As I explore in my new book, Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy, it is a difficult process, and it is hard to do it well while everyone is watching. An important part of this discussion is taking place on college campuses, and it informs and reflects the broader changes in democratic norms.
Democratic norms deserve our attention: Democracies are sustained not only by good laws and institutions but also by a democracy culture, and the attitudes, commitments, and habits of its members. Norms around knowledge and belonging animate the shared and public components of a democratic culture, and the current state of polarization reflects an erosion of these aspects of democracy.
Whatever the main causes of polarization are — economic inequality, political practices (such as districting practices or primaries processes), or other reasons — its effects do not remain within the political domain. Polarization affects where we get our information, whom we believe, and what information ecosystems (or echo chambers) we join, and in this way it sends us spiraling into divergent views of reality.
Polarization seeps into our personal relationships too, enhancing our ideological contempt toward those whose ideology is different than ours. Increasingly we refuse to associate with people who have different views: We don’t befriend them, share a meal or a dorm room with them, or simply see them as people who may have different views from ours. These developments affect our vision of who belongs in our public sphere and our view of the reality to which policies need to respond. Schools and universities — places where community is made, membership in it is established, and the boundaries of our knowledge are expanded — are caught up in this fight.
In my new book I focus on tensions that arise both about and within those institutions over the boundaries of acceptable expression, or “free speech.” In the past few years, while working with many colleges and universities to develop and implement policy that addresses these tensions, I had a front-row seat to observing how the struggles over these issues entrench and deepen social rifts. In my new book I situate these struggles within the broader democratic context of polarization, truth decay, and democratic erosion.
I claim that while colleges and universities are caught up in this rising tide, they are also well situated to turn it. To do so, they need to proactively and openly engage with the effort to revitalize democracy and incorporate it into their practice. They have to take the lead as a sector and as individual institutions rather than only responding locally when they are directly impacted.
What can institutions do to address these challenges that affect both education and democracy? As an eternal optimist I see schools and colleges not only as grounds where these struggles are taking place but also as mission-driven institutions that can contribute to reversing these current trends. While some matters of policy are beyond our reach, as is evident in the way institutions now wait with bated breath for the Supreme Court to decide if we can consider race in admitting new members into our community, we still have a lot of autonomy in our work to prepare students for their civic roles.
As many colleges and universities recognize, much can be done in classrooms, clubs, and dorms. Many colleges devote time and thought to encouraging constructive dialogue across our many differences. New research suggests that with some attention to detail, it can work. In my book I offer guidance for steps the diverse members of a campus community can take as they work to negotiate this challenging democratic era.
Students can take part in this effort through thoughtful activism and through engagement in their classes and activities to learn about and connect with others, and build coalitions. Faculty have a key role in class through effective teaching practices and discussion tools. Other campus members — faculty, administrators, board members, and staff — can all take steps that together will contribute to bridging differences, to broadening the American mind, and to renewing democracy.
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